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Toxic Teams: Four Steps to Transforming Dysfunctional Teams

By Paul Glen and Maria McManus
Chances are, if you are reading this, you suspect you have a toxic team on your hands, and are probably feeling pretty bad. You go home at the end of the day feeling wiped out and defeated. You wake up in the middle of the night thinking about something that happened at work and what you should have said. You get up in the morning dreading the thought of going to work. Even worse, as a leader on this team, you know that you should be doing something, but are at a loss to know what that might be.


We have written this paper because we know firsthand how trying this experience can be, how much it can tax your patience, how it rattles your confidence and how it contributes to a sense of failure. Leaders of troubled teams often feel completely alone and at sea. So we’d like to assure you that:

-You are not alone. Toxic teams are sadly common experiences.

-There is hope. Teams can be turned around.

-You are not helpless. There are concrete ways of addressing such problems.

So how do you handle a toxic team? First, here’s what not to do:

Don't do nothing. The worst thing you can do is curl up in a fetal position and hope it will all go away. It won't. Without decisive action, toxic teams only get worse and spread their dysfunction to others in the organization.

Don't rush into it. While a sense of urgency is a good thing, it’s easy to inadvertently make things worse if you haven’t really thought things through

Instead, we encourage you to consider this adaptable approach to dealing with toxic teams. It is designed to greatly increase your chance of success. Before getting into what to do, it’s important that you understand these two essential concepts that underlie the approach.

-How teams become toxic

-Why you need to rethink blame

Then, you’ll be ready to follow the four-step process for intervening in toxic teams. We’ll walk you through the how and why of each step.

1. Find the toxic behaviors and their impact

2. Claim and assign responsibility

3. Choose your interventions

4. Implement and monitor

What if you're not in a leadership role?

If you are not in a leadership position, formal or informal, you have regrettably limited options. You can leave, and this may well be your best option. If you stay too long, it can permanently damage your self-esteem and your career.

But before you run for the hills, there are a couple of things you can try.

You can encourage your leaders to make changes. But this is a tricky business. Too often leaders stuck in a toxic cycle mistake suggestions for criticism and respond defensively rather than positively.

Or you struggle on and hope it gets better, which we don’t recommend unless you believe that your leaders are likely to make major changes. Your life is too short and your talents too valuable to wallow in a toxic environment. You need to protect yourself.

But even if there is not much you can personally do to fix the problems of your current team, it’s worth your time to read on. One way to avoid suffering unnecessarily is to better understand the problems around you. And chances are that someday, you’ll be in a leadership position and have to deal with these problems when it is your responsibility to fix them.

Two Essentials

How teams become toxic

Very few teams start out toxic. They devolve into that state over time. And in order to turn them around, it’s important for you to understand how they transform from positive and productive to toxic and dysfunctional.

It always starts with a behavior. And it’s not necessarily bad behavior. It’s just that someone on the team behaves in a manner inconsistent with the rest of the team's expectations of how things should happen. The triggering behavior may be blatant and enraging or subtle and pass nearly unnoticed.

Perhaps a meeting resulted in raised voices and the loudest one won the point. Or the developers were left out of the decision-making process and were forced to cut quality corners. Maybe someone on the team was shamed in public. Or maybe the project manager always shows up 10 minutes late to meetings.

The important thing about this behavior is that everyone sees it. It is objectively verifiable and observable. These behaviors then trigger negative emotional responses in the rest of the team. Although most people on technical teams, being geeks, don’t express these emotions, they are there nonetheless. They seethe with anger at injustice or recoil with shame.

Witnesses to bad behavior come to their own conclusions about what that behavior means. Sometimes these conclusions are merely harsh personal judgments, such as “That guy is an idiot!” Sometimes, more insidiously, these judgments solidify into assumptions about the very nature of the team and the organization. When one person develops negative assumptions, it’s a problem for that person. But when they spread to the rest of the team and beyond, they become virulently toxic. Here are some examples of assumptions commonly held on toxic teams:

-It’s not okay to be wrong. Mistakes are unacceptable.

-Avoid blame at all costs.

-Excellence is not rewarded. Mediocrity is safer.

-Sharing ideas gets me punished. All management wants is compliance.

-I’m only responsible for technology. People aren’t my problem.

-We serve at the whims of ignorant dictators.

-Management doesn’t look out for our interests, so we need take care of ourselves.

-You win here by tearing others down rather than doing good work.

-Users are the enemy.

-My work doesn’t matter

These toxic assumptions become deeply entrenched and validated when negative behaviors are tolerated and seemingly rewarded. People give Bob what he wants just to make him stop whining. The screaming manager gets promoted. The guy who hides his technical information survives the layoffs when better team players are let go.

What happens next is that the people who were at the receiving end of the behavior respond in kind. They behave in ways consistent with their new negative beliefs. And that prompts others on the project to reinforce their negative feelings and assumptions and ultimately generate more.

This is how teams become toxic. They transform bad experiences into toxic assumptions through a cycle of negativity. The behavior is the trigger that gets the cycle going. The emotion is the fuel that propels a negative event into an escalating cycle and the negative assumptions are the toxic vector that spreads throughout the team. Ultimately, these negative assumptions are at the core of what makes a team toxic.

So now we can be a bit more precise about exactly what a toxic team is. Teams with one bad apple are not toxic. Most teams that fail to deliver are not toxic either. And most unpleasant groups are just unpleasant.

            A toxic team is one that is trapped in an intensifying cycle of negative behavior, beliefs and emotions.

The reason that toxic teams are so dangerous is that they infect other teams. Of course, it’s a problem if they fail to deliver on their own project goals. But the real danger is in the damage they can do to the organization as a whole. They enlist others in their battles. They share their negative assumptions. And others see the negative behavior being rewarded or tolerated. This is why you need to act. Toxic teams don’t get better by themselves. It’s like ignoring an outbreak of Ebola. It starts small, but grows fast and is unlikely to stop spreading without thoughtfully targeted interventions.

Rethink Blame

As social animals, we seem to be innately wired to want things to be fair and just. It’s part of what allows us to trust each other, to band together and collaborate rather than compete. So instinctively, whenever anything bad happens, our first questions are:

    -Who's to blame?

    -How to punish them

And while blame and punishment can be effective in maintaining social order, they are not effective in focusing the creative energy of a technical team. It may be instinctively rewarding to mete out blame and punishment when a team goes off the rails, but it doesn’t unleash the potential of the team. Here’s why:

  1. Blame focuses attention on the negative past rather than the hopeful future. It engages the team’s minds in thinking about the past. They invest their emotional energy in replaying the past, justifying their own behavior or being outraged by others’ behavior.
  2. Blame encourages maladaptive behavior. When people see that being blamed for something is bad, they go out of their way to avoid accepting it in the future. They position themselves, not for the greatest achievement, but to avoid being blamed for failure. They become risk averse and defensive.
  3. Blame fails to account for the systemic nature of toxic teams. As we will see in more detail later, often the most apparent negative behaviors represent only a fraction of the actual toxic dynamic. Teams don’t become toxic by the presence of one bad person.
  4. Blame is particularly painful for geeks. As a group, we geeks see the world through rather binary lenses. You’re either good or bad, and we avoid being bad at all costs. Being blamed for something is akin to being labeled a bad human being and quite painful.

To fix a toxic team, instead of assigning blame, you need to focus on accepting and assigning responsibility for behavior and its results.

What’s the difference? Responsibility is less about judgment and more about recognizing agency and acknowledging who behaves in ways that need to change. The purpose of acknowledging responsibility is to chart a path to a better future, to find the behaviors that need to be changed.

Keep this in mind as we discuss what to do about your toxic team.

Blame is particularly painful for geeks.4 Steps for Dealing with a Toxic Team

So once you realize that you may have a toxic team, what do you do? This simple four-step process will get you going in the right direction. These steps are:

    1. Find the toxic behaviors and their impact

    2. Claim and assign responsibility

    3. Choose your interventions

    4. Implement and monitor

Our aim in this paper is not to saddle you with mindless, formulaic steps to follow, but to help you think about your course of action in more detail, to make sure that your interventions target the real toxicity, not just the presenting symptoms. If you follow these steps you will find that the energy you put into fully understanding the underpinnings of your team’s toxicity will greatly increase your chances of turning things around.

Step 1: Find the toxic behaviors and their impact

Make a list of behaviors.

Start by listing the behaviors you consider most troubling. Don’t try to analyze them out yet. Just make a list. It doesn’t need to be exhaustive. In our experience, the things that are top of mind are there for a reason. The stuff that keeps people up at night tends to be the things that are most important. To generate a good list, ask yourself or others involved with the team these questions:

    - What bothers you most?

    - What do people complain about the most?

    - What are the excuses people use most?

We recommend that you spend approximately thirty minutes brainstorming a list.

Capture these behaviors in a chart, because later you will be analyzing and prioritizing them.

Analyze the meaning of these behaviors Once you’ve assembled a quick list, it’s time to analyze it a bit more by asking these questions:

    -How does this behavior impact your operations?

    -What emotional responses do team members have to this behavior?

    -What assumptions arise from this behavior?

Operational Impact: Here you’re looking for the direct impact that a particular behavior has on the team. These are the relatively obvious downstream task effects of a behavior that you would see in a project Gantt chart. Here are some examples:

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