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Debunking the myth of solely internal change

By Eve Vlemincx.

The belief that change can solely originate from within is a deeply ingrained notion. While advocating the principle of "be the change you want to see in the world" and leading by example is commendable, that in itself falls short when transforming toxic cultures. Toxic cultures possess a unique set of characteristics that pose a formidable obstacle to those striving to drive change while being a part of them simultaneously.

The Myth

The concept that change is solely an internal process stems from the idea that individuals have the power to independently modify their behavior and attitudes. While personal responsibility remains integral, this belief overlooks the intricate relationship between individuals and their environments, especially within toxic cultures.

Toxic cultures are typified by deeply entrenched patterns of behavior, beliefs, and norms that sustain negativity and inefficiency. Toxic cultures exist of a set of rules. In such environments, the capacity for effecting change through self-contained efforts is severely restricted.

Like playing a tennis match

To illustrate consider a tennis match as a metaphor. One cannot simultaneously participate in the game and change the rules while playing. Attempting to change the game's rules while being an active player is akin to tilting at windmills. Toxic cultures, much like tennis matches, adhere to established rules, power dynamics, and systemic issues that vehemently resist change. Endeavoring to transform these cultures internally, without external guidance and support, amounts to a herculean task.

The Need for external guidance

It is imperative to acknowledge the necessity of external intervention—someone who assumes the roles of an observer, coach, and consultant. Here are key reasons why this external perspective is indispensable:

  1. Objectivity: An impartial observer can evaluate the toxic culture from an unbiased standpoint, pinpointing problematic areas and necessary behavior changes. Maintaining objectivity can be a formidable challenge for those entrenched in the culture.

  2. Guidance: The observer can provide valuable guidance and a roadmap for individuals within the toxic culture to follow. They can set clear expectations for behavior changes and propose concrete strategies for improvement.

  3. Accountability: External guidance can hold individuals accountable for their actions, ensuring they follow through with the required changes. In toxic cultures, personal accountability is frequently overlooked.

  4. Awareness: An external perspective can elevate collective awareness within the toxic culture, underscoring the urgency of change and motivating individuals to engage in the transformation process.

  5. Encouraging collaboration: Toxic cultures often foster isolation and distrust. The presence of an external party can foster a sense of teamwork as they collaborate with individuals to drive change collectively.


The myth that change can occur solely from within is a fallacy, particularly when addressing toxic cultures. It is akin to attempting to change the rules of a tennis match while actively participating in the game.

The intricate dynamics of such environments necessitate external intervention to simultaneously guide and coach those on the field. This third-party perspective is vital for maintaining objectivity, providing guidance, enforcing accountability and raising awareness. By recognizing the need for external guidance assistance, one can create an environment where positive change is actually achieved.


About the Author Eve Vlemincx is a strategic advisor with expertise in a wide array of areas including legal digital transformation, innovation and leadership. She serves as an advisory council member for Harvard Business Review and is a Course Facilitator at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Eve is highly sought after as a keynote speaker and guest lecturer in various professional settings. Notably, she has been honored as a five-time recipient of the Stanford GSB LEAD Award.

Operating at the dynamic intersection of legal and business, Eve holds certifications from esteemed institutions such as Oxford, Harvard, Kellogg and Stanford Graduate School of Business. Additionally, she brings substantial experience as a seasoned lawyer specializing in corporate law and restructurings.

Eve's guiding philosophy is centered on working smarter, not harder, as she helps individuals and organizations navigate the complexities of today's rapidly evolving landscape.

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