Toxic Peace



  1. Freedom from disturbance by avoiding issues that undermine the self-view that ‘everything is great’
  2. A means of maintaining the status quo by dismissing contrary information.
  3. A desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings.

Our environment can shape our behaviour in minutes. We subconsciously work out the rules and how we fit in. We work out the answer to the question, “how do things work around here” and find out ways to work in that system. Organisations with a culture of toxic peace, on initial examination look great. As a new employee it will feel great. People will be friendly but slowly the realisation will creep in that things are not all that they seem. Everything feels great because there is an unwritten rule to maintain that illusion and dismiss other messages as not relevant (e.g. they are from difficult people, a one off etc.)

This is a surprisingly common phenomenon both in teams and sometimes within organisations. It stems from a fear or feeling uncomfortable and therefore we don’t learn the skills to safely have conversations about issues that really matter. The purpose of this kind of behaviour is to achieve the basic need of safety and conversely has the effect of making the situation less safe.

The impact of this kind of culture is widespread and over time corrosive. Healthy conflict is like the grit in an oyster shell, it enables the growth of the new and the innovative. It causes us to think and reflect and ultimately is a means of learning as it helps us consider other points of view and from there a new type of thinking emerges.

Avoiding all conflict is unhealthy and peace at any cost is damaging and ultimately toxic to an organisation.  It leads organisations to have an ever-widening gap between their perception of themselves and reality and ultimately feeds a false narrative. Therefore, the risk increases of organisational failure, because when the organisational is at last forced to confront its true situation, it hasn’t developed the skills necessary to learn and therefore move forward. Toxic Peace impairs the ability to change.

The ultimate driver of toxic peace is the desire to avoid all conflict and specifically the desire to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions. The route of the word emotion is from the Latin ‘emoveo’ meaning to move. Emotions are important as a compelling force of change. From an evolutionary point of view, uncomfortable feelings compel us to want to move away from difficult situations to something better. It is hard to regulate emotions; to not feel them. When we hide from them or try to deny them, it activates an even greater emotional response and suppressed emotions eventually spill over or even explode. Toxic Peace provides the tinder.

Hiding from emotions doesn’t mean that the emotions aren’t there, it just means that it they are unexamined. When we ignore or suppress our emotions, the opportunity for learning is missed. Emotions are a key part of our information processing system and when we are very young, before we acquire language, they are the only way we can sort and store memories and thoughts. How we feel is a barometer for not just how we are but a means of testing how our external worlds is too. Good decision making is based on a combination of both logic and emotion (combines the dlPFC and VmPFC parts of the brain[1]). Therefore, we need to access the full range of them (both the feel good and the feel bad) to make the best decisions.   In addition, avoiding conflict by maintain the illusion of peace is toxic for the system. It’s toxic for both the individual system and the organisational system.  Avoiding conflict is enormously stressful and stressed people make bad decisions marinated in emotion.  Again remember, denial of feelings doesn’t mean there are no feelings; it just means that those feelings are not listened to or heard sometimes this is by both the individual and the organisation.  The feeling of not being heard or listened to is chronically stressful which lead to a number of physical and mental health issues (inflammatory disease, lowering of immune systems, less efficacy of vaccinations etc.) and another form of poor decision making – it reduces creativity and innovation, leading us to make the same poor decision over and over again, hoping for a different result[2].

In addition, a culture of toxic peace, leads to disconnection of relationships. Organisations that have a chronic culture of conflict (and toxic peace is one form, with the conflict unspoken) have less connected relationships as people retreat into smaller units where they feel psychologically safe.  This makes the organisation even more risky as loyalty is to a small group of colleagues rather than the wider organisations and information and intelligence is shared only at a small group level.

All these aspects make an organisation prone to failure. Failure in organisations with a culture of toxic peace is often sudden and surprising, to those working within it and it is often followed by confusion and a feeling of it being unjust, after all if everything is ok around here, how did this happen? The reality is, that this organisational failure has been slow and long term. It is like having a lifestyle induced c health condition, where symptoms go unnoticed until they become chronic and harder to treat and recover from and possibly cause long lasting damage. In organisations, this can be seen in talented people leaving and the skill set diminishing even further (and the potential for gaining insight through challenge).

However, there is hope. We know that given the right conditions, brains change and therefore people can change and as organisations are filled with people this means organisations can change. It’s all about creating the conditions for that to happen.

Changing this kind of culture is about changing the narrative to change both mindsets and behaviour. It takes time, because this is about moving from a culture where it is risky to talk about reality. Turning things around, in the first instance here will be about senior people owning mistakes and making it culturally ok to talk about what isn’t working. This is needs to be about surfacing the reality as people see and experience it. It is important here that the organisation and most especially the senior leaders demonstrate that they can sit and listen and be comfortable with the uncomfortableness. Only from here, will re-connection and trust happen. It’s this that will allow organisational intelligence to build and answers to emerge from conversations. This needs to be about cultural change and not about fixing problems. A rush to fix problems will only confirm the desire to return to the status quo to make everything appear ok. It will be a rush back to pseudo safety (which isn’t safe at all) , to that form of ‘toxic peace’  and a desire to avoid the everyday reality of  life; sometimes it needs to get a bit uncomfortable in order to grow.


Ventromedial Pre Frontal Cortex (vmPFC) is about using the intelligence of emotions in decision making. If this is impaired people have a hard time deciding on issues that have a social/emotional impact – they understand the options, can advise someone else, but the closer to home and the more emotional the scenario is for them the harder the time they have deciding and can be overly detached.


Both emotion and cognition are intertwined in good decision make

[2] Sustained Stress impairs working memory (increase in glucocorticoids) and weakens frontal functioning  and over activates the amygdala (related to fear). The frontal cortex has less control over the amygdala and therefore executive decisions making. In other words, we can’t think clearly or reflect and therefore make the same mistakes over and over again, which strengthens those neural pathways, which makes it even more likely we’ll make the same kind of decision. In addition it reduces our ability to be empathetic and social and even more likely to stop listening.

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