Organizational Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

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In concentrations of greater than 100 ppm carbon monoxide is a lethal, odourless, silent killer! Because it emits no odour or sound, it consumes its’ victims before they even realize the deadly trajectory life is headed. Organizational carbon monoxide poisoning functions in exactly the same way. The pervasive, murderous predator is a collective code of silence. The silence is deafening, suffocating the very life breath out of well meaning and good organizations. Ironically, those who lead these organizations don’t realize the deadly trajectory of their organizational life, oftentimes enabling and encouraging its deadly mission. So why is that? What causes so many well-meaning, good-intentioned people to embrace the code of silence, poisoning the organizational life which left devoid of a courageous shattering of the silence will kill it?

Anxiety and Fear are the Dominant Core Values

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A collective code of silence thrives in an organizational culture where anxiety and fear are the dominant core values. They’re never articulated in the formal corporate core values but for all intents and purposes, they are the dominant core values which most influence the organizational culture. If this describes your organizational culture you quickly learn that life is much simpler if you keep your head down and your mouth shut. You’ve seen what happens to the “stupid” ones who risk shattering the code of silence with a healthy dose of truth serum. They get marginalized, bullied, and labelled. They’re the “trouble-makers”. Eventually they leave.

I wonder, when your carbon monoxide detector shatters the silence of your peaceful sleep is your immediate response, “That stupid detector!!!!”? I doubt it. Probably you’re thinking to yourself, “that’s the best investment I’ve ever made!” Why is it that when the organizational carbon monoxide detector shatters the code of silence those within the organization immediately start cursing the carbon monoxide detector rather than paying attention to the warning?

Organizational Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Starts from the Head Down

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In the movie “A Few Good Men” the character played by Jack Nicholson is asked a very pointed question while being grilled on the witness stand. Nicholson’s retort is “You want answers, I’ll give you answers!” The attorney grilling Nicholson says, “I just want the truth” to which Nicholson fires back, “You can’t handle the truth!” That describes so many executive leaders of organizations be they for profit businesses or nonprofit organizations. The code of silence, the organizational carbon monoxide poisoning is firmly entrenched in the executive office! Because they can’t handle the truth they suppress it by bullying, marginalizing, or removing those who would dare shatter the silence with a healthy dose of verbal truth serum which could ultimately benefit the entire organization.

You and Your Organization

No matter where you find yourself in your organizational hierarchy, you can make a difference! You can be a voice of truth providing your organization the opportunity to move towards greater health. It requires great courage and persistence but it is possible. It is truly about the power of one!

If you’re the CEO or Executive Team Leader, you set the tone and shape the culture of your organization. You do it by passively enabling the code of silence or actively reinforcing it by your refusal to not only solicit honest feedback and input but more importantly not taking that feedback seriously, even if and when it hurts! You can become the catalyst for positive culture change by functioning as the organizational carbon monoxide detector that breaks the code of silence signalling danger and waking the organization up to a new life-giving trajectory before the poisonous carbon monoxide gas kill your organization.

In my next blog I’m going to focus on some of the symptoms of organizational carbon monoxide poisoning and outline some of the ways in which an organization can break the code of silence in a way that breathes life back into the organizational culture.


Ken Thiessen is a certified Gravitas Impact Premium Coach International. Using Four DecisionsTM Planning Framework he works with executive leadership teams of nonprofit organizations to help them achieve strategic alignment and maximize their positive social impact. To find out how Ken can help your organization maximize its strategic alignment visit the website at or contact him at 306.531.4020 or

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