How to spot that toxic member of the team fast


I am all for bringing your own, whole, unique self to the workplace. In fact I champion authenticity and diversity. Yet sometimes you find that someone in your team that is actually harming your performance. Toxic even. This has nothing to do with their appearance, sexual preferences or ethnicity. It has everything to do with values, beliefs and behaviours.

When I work with a team I always come from the view that every team can become cohesive. That essentially means that if every member of the team, particularly the leader, is invested in the team and it's behaviours, then they can choose cohesiveness. This looks like working to enhance the team and business performance, not detracting from it. It looks like, putting aside your own personal agenda and ego for the good of the team. It means taking feedback and acting on it so that you don't harm the team.

Everyone can change their behaviours if they choose. This takes trust in one another that making the changes will be recognised and rewarded. But if someone refuses to change, even after coaching, training and conversations, then moving them out of the team maybe the best possible route.

Yes they maybe an expert in their field. Yes they maybe doing a good functional job, but if their actions mean that the team as whole suffer then everyone is effected.

6 signals that your team member is toxic

  1. They gossip and try and gain influence by putting others down
  2. They are not accountable. There is always a reason, blame or deflection as to why they didn't do what they said they would do.
  3. They intimidate. Sometimes this looks like belittling or ridicule. Sometimes it can feel like physical acts such as pointing or even shouting. Essentially it feels like bullying.
  4. They block changes and ideas. They like to be in control and make the changes. They don't like others making the decisions for them. They might say they are on board, but outside the meeting you will see passive aggressive blocking.
  5. They have brown noses. Essentially they butter up the key influencers and flatter leaders to get what they want. Often subtle, but we can all see it's happening.
  6. They will throw you under the bus. The two faced, talk behind your back, false flattery leading to blame means that they only really have their own best intentions in mind.

In reality

Steven was physically and behaviourally dominant. At 6 foot 4 tall, confident and direct, you knew when he was in the room and he used it to his advantage. At first he was charming and polite and almost played teachers pet. He sat by my side and was full of praise and smiles. During the five behaviours of a cohesive team programme I soon saw how he liked to lead and dominate the conversations. The quieter members of the team simply didn't want to speak up or challenge him. When he felt uncomfortable he withdrew and became agitated, signalling to others that it was time to move on.

Pretending to do feedback

When we worked on accountability and feedback as a team, it was clear to see that Steven found receiving feedback really hard. He was confident telling stories about his past successes, previous roles and daring deeds that he had done in his private life. Yet when he was faced with some uncomfortable truths about how his behaviour detracted from team performance I could see he was not happy. He became defensive and tried to deflect or justify his behaviour. He did not acknowledge or even make commitments to change. He also volunteered his weaknesses early on saying, 'I am blunt and direct because I believe that's the best way to be.' It was as though he was marking his territory early on and pretending he was vulnerable and honest.

When he realised that I was an impartial facilitator and I would not succumb to his flattery, I soon became his target. He challenged everything I said and tried to mock me. He was trying to assert power over me. His tried and tested methods of survival were simply not working anymore and he was feeling unbalanced.

I fed back to the Leader that Steven would be the weakest link in this team. I explained that if the Leader was committed to mastering the 5 behaviours, then others will either get on board or they won't. Those that won't often self elect to leave the team by getting another role. Sometimes they need to be managed out and this is always tough.

The impact

3 months later I joined the team for their quarterly progress meeting and was greeted with the news that Steven had resigned and exited the business the previous week. Now before me appeared a completely different team. There was laughter, ease, and lots of conversation. The more introverted members of the team were throwing ideas in and speaking freely. It was astonishing.

One person on your team can be so out of place that you may not realise the tension and dysfunctional behaviours that they create. They are diminishers. Notice and act.

The five behaviours of a cohesive team programme is a great place to start

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