Good Question: My Team Is Toxic, But Do I Have To Fire Someone?
Q: “My team is falling apart. Many of them come to me with their complaints: So-and-so isn’t carrying their weight, this person is taking credit for my ideas, that person is talking about leaving and bringing others down with them, etc. I’ve been dealing with each complaint as it comes, and trying to lead in the face of declining productivity, but the work environment is becoming toxic (absenteeism is way up this year). Do I have to fire someone, and if so, who? The high-producing bully, or the victim who has potential? I hate firing people, but it’s killing me and not good for the business.”
Vice-President Global Solutions & Team Effectiveness, Knightsbridge
Liane is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, You First, explains how you can deal with toxic teams.
I don’t envy the situation you’re in: leading a team that is stuck in truly unproductive conflict. It sounds like you’ve been using some smart tactics to address bad behaviour when it occurs, but to no avail. Before I get to worst-case scenarios (such as firing people), let me just do a quick rundown on some proactive strategies you can try.
1.) Talk it Out
First, call the team together and be direct: although the team is getting lots done, it’s taking a much higher toll than it needs to. Lead a conversation about why the team exists and focus on what the organization is counting on you to deliver. You’d be surprised
how often poor alignment is the source of team dysfunction. Test for role clarity and pay particular attention to clarifying overlapping responsibilities.
2.) Agreeing on Solutions
Once the mandate of the team and the roles of individuals are clear, ask team members what it will take to deliver. How will each
of you need to show up to make the team successful? Look to your team members to set their own guidelines. Keep the conversation
focused on the future and listen for what you can learn about what isn’t working. Where you think they’re missing something,
direct them only with questions. For example: “How are we going to handle it when there is a disagreement among two or more of
you?” or “What will we do if we disagree with a decision after it’s been made?”
3.) Turn those Words into Actions
Next, relentlessly apply the team’s rules. You’ll find that, particularly in the case of passive-aggressive behaviour, shining the
light on bad behaviour tends to stop it. For example, if someone comes to you to complain about a teammate, turn the heat on them.
“How should I interpret you coming to me to complain when we agreed issues would be addressed directly with one another?”
“Playing the Victim” versus “Being a Bully”
If it doesn’t get better, someone will probably have to leave the team. I would make it crystal clear to both the bully and the victim
in your scenario that their behaviour is not acceptable and initiate a formal performance improvement plan with both of them. Be
prepared to remove one or both, but you will likely need to remove only one to fundamentally alter the team dynamic. My experience
is that the bully is more likely to change their behaviour than the victim. It’s possible the victim could find another happy home in the organization, but you would need to feel confident that you weren’t just passing the problem to someone else.
Leading a team that’s mired in dysfunction is exhausting and exasperating. You will need all your resilience to lead them through
some uncomfortable conversations. Once you’ve done your part, put the onus on your team members to change the team for the better.
If you get evidence that someone is unable or unwilling to make or sustain those changes, it will be better for all of you to part company with those who can’t make a positive contribution to the team.
Click here to read Liane’s advice on how to network authentically.
Senior Board Executive
Judi is a strategic business executive with operational leadership experience in both public and private sectors.
It sounds like you need to take a multi-pronged approach to stem the loss in productivity, increasing absenteeism and an array of team conflict within your small group. You should look at short term as well as longer-term solutions and approaches, and frame everything as a growth opportunity for the team.
Your questions and concerns expressed might be an indicator that you aren’t getting the straight goods on what is going on with the team. I would recommend that you bring in a third party to interview each of the team members, without attribution, and table the results at a team meeting. You should use the meeting to express your clear expectations around team norms and behaviours that are acceptable and be clear about the value system you think is important. Discuss the fact that declining productivity and high absenteeism is not acceptable.
The results of the third-party review might also bring forward other important information about workload, clarity of roles, responsibilities and deliverables, as well as accountabilities. Is there an issue with workload and with clarity of responsibilities among team members?
Do What’s Best for the Team
If there is clearly a “bad person,” you must be prepared to let them go. As a leader you need to do what’s right for the business, right for the team and right for yourself as the leader in the organization. It is very important for people to understand that you doesn’t treat these matters lightly and will take all steps necessary to straighten things out. If you choose not to take action when an employee is a clear problem, this can demotivate the other members of the team, lower productivity even further, and cause a rise in absenteeism. Ultimately this will reflect poorly on you as a leader and you will be assessed accordingly by your own boss.
Consider having a 360 review yourself, which might bring additional facts to the table about your leadership style and other important feedback from team members. Based on the 360, develop your own plan.
Get Employee Feedback
Lastly, going forward consider doing regular employee surveys, which would serve as an early warning system before another crisis emerges. Regular team meetings should also be held and all team members should be encouraged and feel comfortable to express their concerns and accomplishments.
Women of Influence HR Consultant
Sari is a Human Resources Consultant and Career Coach who specializes in offering sophisticated high-quality HR support and guidance.
Interpersonal communication at work is one of the most crucial components of career satisfaction. It is understandable, that as a leader, you are feeling the strain of a group that lacks cohesiveness. It is unfortunate and not surprising, considering the described level of toxicity, that employees are disengaged and showing it via absenteeism. In terms of the toxic work environment, there are a few steps you can take to improve it:
No room for toxic people
There is no place for a toxic person in a high performing and professional team. The negative person could be someone who is a bully, in which case the “victim” may be contributing to the negative work environment. Best to take action by parting ways with the bully or instigator. Even if the offending person is your top performer, if he or she isn’t responding to coaching or performance management of their interpersonal skills, then they need to be removed from the organization. Their removal from the organization will likely result in a swift elevation in employee satisfaction.
If the problem is with the group, then implement the solution as a group
The one-off coaching you have been doing is a good approach, but if the problems are widespread and deeply rooted, then it may not be an effective place to begin. It sounds like everyone needs to understand what is expected of them and how to interact as a group in order to achieve the collective results—which includes a positive culture.
Phases of group development
In terms of getting everyone on the same page, you can start that process by having a session led by a facilitator on improving group dynamics. It is likely that a session like this will take you through a theorist named Bruce Tuckman’s phases of group development—forming, storming, norming and performing. Consider improving the group dynamics first by establishing these shared expectations and norms; then you can follow up with individual coaching.
Build it into your new culture
Reinforce the learnings from the group development sessions and make sure you build them into your culture. Reinforce it in meetings, internal awards, coaching sessions and ensure that it is embodied by the existing team. When you hire new team members, make sure the “healthy culture norms” are part of their orientation. It takes effort and mindfulness to make sure the norms are effective, but it is a worthwhile process and you will enjoy playing the new role as culture champion rather than referee.