Good Question: My team is toxic, but do I have to fire someone? Liane Davey has the answer.
“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.”
Co-founder & Principal, 3COze Inc.
Liane Davey is a psychologist, author, public speaker, and business strategist. Known as the “teamwork doctor,” Liane Davey knows how to create high performing teams. Having worked with organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, from across the globe helping teams from the frontlines to the boardroom, she has developed a unique perspective on the challenges that teams face — and how to solve them. Her mission is to transform the way people communicate, connect, and contribute, and, using her expertise in strategy and group dynamics, she delivers the perfect combination of education and entertainment that leaders and teams need to make an immediate impact on their organizations.
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.