Dealing with Toxic Team Members

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In workshop discussions concerning conflict management, inevitably the subject of dealing with “toxic” individuals comes up. I maintain that if you have toxic individuals on your team, you normally don’t have a conflict problem, you have a values problem. We’ve talked about workplace culture before but, in my experience, few things destroy attempts to build a positive culture more than allowing toxic behavior to go unchecked. That old adage my father used to tell me, “A bad apple spoils the barrel” seems to be true for teams as well.

“Toxic” individuals generally either lack commitment to one or more of the organization’s core values or for various reasons are unable to live up to them. They may intellectually understand that the core values are a “good thing”, but fail to internalize and practice them.

A leadership dilemma arises when a team member exhibits some, but not all, of the behaviors associated with the core values. For instance, the person may be a first-rate technician who is a customer-oriented hard worker but who also exhibits a complete lack of respect for co-workers!  Leadership may be inclined to tolerate these “talented but quirky” individuals and, unfortunately, celebrate them as top-performers. This often results in a feedback loop in which the individuals develop a “you can’t touch me, I’m too valuable” attitude. This, in turn, reinforces the toxic individual who rapidly becomes the go-to worker and the cycle of rewarded toxic behavior continues.

The cost of doing nothing

Morale typically suffers among team members forced to work with these toxic individuals. This in turn tends to result in their disengaging from their work.

Perhaps you’ve experienced this in your workplace. What was it like to work with individuals who disrespect you or act poorly? Perhaps they allowed their anger to get out of hand or talked down to those who may not have their skills? How motivated did you feel to do your best when these individuals seemed to be able to get away with murder?

Diagnosis

So, what’s a leader to do? Ask yourself:

  1. Do I know my organization’s core values?
  2. Does my team know the organization’s core values?
  3. Do my team’s actions align with those core values?

If you answer “no” to any of these, stop and figure out how to make that answer a “Yes!”

Next, ask yourself:

  1. Do I know what practicing our values looks like? In other words, do you know what behaviors would be observed in individuals living those values?
  2. Do my team members know what is expected of them?

Develop the Cure

If you can’t answer “yes” to all of the above, it’s time for action. Team involvement is recommended here. Facilitate a team discussion to decide as a group what those values will look like on YOUR team.

For example, Respect is an almost universally held core value. But what does it mean? A list of associated behaviors could include items like:

  • Doesn’t interrupt during meetings
  • Fosters a collaborative environment in which all opinions are valued
  • Treats others with dignity
  • Values cultural differences

At the end of the discussion ensure consensus that the group will strive to live by these values and will hold each other accountable to them.

Take Action

That’s the “easy” part. Now here’s the difficult part. Ask yourself:

  1. Am I, as the leader, consistently acting in accordance with our team’s values?
  2. Is every single team member acting in accordance with the unit’s values?

If you discover that you are granting exceptions, you are making a classic leadership mistake.  You are part of the problem by failing to enforce the standards of conduct expected on your team. Exceptions for “special people” will render your list of values as worthless as the paper they are printed on. To avoid that, you must develop the skills necessary to hold “special people” accountable for the team’s values. Make the tough calls if, despite your best efforts, individuals can’t or won’t align their behavior with the team’s expectations of conduct.  It may be they are just not a good fit for your team.

Courage is a commonly held trait of a good leader. Time to practice it! Remember: in the end, lost productivity from disengaged team members in the vicinity of toxic team members normally outweighs any gains in productivity achieved by tolerating toxic behavior. Don’t let that “bad apple” spoil the barrel.

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