High standards vs toxic environment

Vincent Chu
3 min readJan 30, 2021

Canadians who have been watching the news in recent months learnt that there are allegations that our Governor General (the official Canadian representative of the Queen) has created a toxic climate for her office. While the allegations are still being reviewed, some of her staff defended her saying that the Governor General merely has high standards. I can definitely see that she has a very high standard for herself — after all she’s an astronaut with an engineering degree and speaks six languages….

“Vincent sets incredibly high standards for himself and ambitious goals for the team. “

As some of you know, I received a medal from the Governor General for my academic achievement in 2006. Granted it was a different Governor General then, but the news about our Governor General got me thinking — what constitutes high standards, and what are the things managers need to watch out for to avoid creating a toxic environment?

High standards

First, perhaps we should look at what having high standards in the software industry means.

Setting high standards starts with the manager. According to Andy Grove’s High Output Management, three of the most important activities a manager can do that affect productivity are:

  1. Identifying the limiting step that slows people down
  2. Identifying and addressing issues at the “lowest value stage” (i.e. not after the new feature has already been released) possible
  3. Using leading indicators to measure and predict

Part of having high standards means everyone in the organization participates in these three activities, not just the managers.

Now that we have some ideas what upholding high standards might mean, how then to avoid accidentally generating a toxic culture in the process?

Tolerance for Failure but No Tolerance for Incompetence

HBR published an excellent article on how to nurture innovative cultures. The article describes the need to distinguish between failures and incompetence. There are two kinds of failures — failures that are productive because they generate learnings and the learnings can be applied in the future, and there are failures that are…

Vincent Chu

I'm an engineering leader in a SAS company with more than 15 years of software industry experience.