Dealing with Toxic Teams

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 18th February 2016

Do you have a team member that inspires negativity, apathy, or defiance in others? Then it sounds like you might have a toxic team on your hands.

What are toxic teams?

A toxic team is one that has been ‘poisoned’ by one or more toxic team members. It’s a team that is dysfunctional and exhibits poor morale, usually coupled with poor behavior and performance. This can be a tough challenge for a leader. Unless you work very closely with the team or have excellent intelligence sources, chances are you won’t see the signs of toxicity until they are quite well established. Recognising toxic team members is, in a way, a similar skill to spotting genuinely talented ones.


What kinds of people contribute to toxic teams?

Let’s explore five typical toxic personas, and how to work with each to bring them back into line with team objectives. There is a huge contrast between these and the personality types that are essential to an effective team.

1. Disengaged Derek – the disaffected drag

His problem may have several possible causes. He may feel thwarted, undermined or undervalued, he may be hurt by a perceived rejection, his job may have changed, or he may have lost a supportive colleague relationship.

Your job, as his leader, is to spot the signs and help him to recover. You may need to enrich his role, rebuild his self-esteem, move him to a different team, engage him in a project, or simply counsel and coach him. Take a look at our recent webinar on engaging and enthusing team members.

2. Negative Norma – the naysaying neutralizer

The glass is half empty. And there’s a chip in it. And I cut my lip on it and it’s probably going to get infected. Most of us have experienced this type of team member.

Sometimes it’s just in their nature, but often it has a root-cause in some past negative event that has taught them to believe the worst will happen.

While this is hard to fix, regular one-to-one discussions can help, in which you support them to recognise the positive actions they have taken, and the impact these have had. Pushing them to be thankful for good things and helpful colleagues can be useful too. Shawn Achor has some interesting things to say about this in his TED talk on happiness.

If you can’t fix Norma, you’ll need to isolate her from the team to prevent her from infecting others. Give her discrete responsibilities or a standalone project, but get her away from the core of the team.

3. Stirrer Sam – the mischief maker

Sam’s the one that enjoys stirring things up, causing a bit of trouble and being mildly wicked. This often stems from boredom or doing a job that’s well below their capabilities, and can be rectified by keeping them very busy doing something (apparently) significant.

It can be useful to help them to think about the impact of their actions, as a stirrer can often just see the amusement value without seeing the longer term consequences. Stirring can be a weak signal… a ‘waving of the flag’ to seek attention and support from the leader. Watch our webinar recording on how to motivate team members towards objectives.

4. Political Percy– the playmaking panjandrum

Percy knows how to play the game. Percy knows where and when to have a little word and when to act, but always in his own interests. This type of team member is often a clever one, and capable of doing much good, but only if it suits them.

They only care about their own ends and not for the team or their leader, but can be enlisted if the smart leader can align the team’s best interests with Percy’s. People like this tend to love power, so can be won over by a key role in an important project, especially if paired with a strong team player. One thing is certain: you need them to be onside, as they will be a dangerous adversary.

The key is to find the common ground for both your benefits.

5. Useless Una – the unhelpful undoer

Una probably means well. She just gets everything wrong. The more she tries, the more it all goes pear shaped and the more frustrating it is for everyone else. She can turn the simplest job into a drama, and an easy win into an epic fail.

The question is: why? Is it lack of skill? Lack of practice? Lack of commitment? Lack of confidence? Or is it a lack of support from you? You need to decide and take action, ideally having moved Una out of harm’s way into work with fewer ramifications and less impact on others.

You may recognise some of these types of toxic team member. If you have them all, congratulations; you lead a completely toxic team. But even if there is only a whiff of the toxic, act now.

Whatever the root-causes of toxicity in your team, the fact remains that it is the leader’s job to diagnose the problem and take decisive action. Toxicity may seem trivial at first, and even funny. But it won’t be funny for long. It can damage morale, ruin performance, and cost you your best people. So sort it out while you can.

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