Managing the Toxic Team Member

One of the comments I received after my last post was that I was waxing too philosophical.Guilty as charged, and I was unabashedly so. But I don’t want this blog to drift into spongy platitudes, so I’m going to shift gears and address a problem virtually every manager has dealt with at one time or another. If you have a toxic team member, you should do everything in your power to get rid of them as quickly as possible. Terminate, move or transfer him or her. Anything else is potentially self-destructive.

There – I told the end of the story first. If you don’t have time to read the rest, you’ve gotten the point. But let me back up and provide some context.

What is a toxic team member? I consider a toxic team member as anyone on your management team who is not aligned with the burning imperative of the group, who is unwilling to act according to the values or strategies of the team, or who undermines your position or role in the organization. Toxic team members do not have to be psychopaths or out of control. They can be snide, overly sarcastic, negative or pessimistic, or passive-aggressive. They can be disloyal. Or they can simply be uninvolved, not participating in team meetings or not following through on actions or commitments. Do NOT confuse toxic team members with people who disagree, have their own points of view, or think differently from you. Those individuals are enormously valuable.  Toxic team members are people who create obstacles to success through active or passive behavior. A couple of examples:

  • The team-avoider who refuses or is unable to attend team meetings more than twice;
  • The eternal pessimist who consistently focuses on what resources he/she doesn’t have, and does not identify solutions to problems;
  • The Eddie Haskel type who agrees and cooperates in public, and then derails initiatives by refusing to commit resources or effort in private;
  • The Competent Jerk who delivers business results, but is verbally abusive or dismissive of everyone else, including you.

How do they impact you and your team? Toxic team members can have a variety of negative effects. They always undermine your authority, and make you less effective as a leader both within your team and across the organization. They can get you sidetracked on irrelevant or insignificant issues, or on them. Toxic team members can create a lack of clarity through their sarcasm and cynicism. They can cause other people in your organization to question your people judgment and your decision-making, one of the most important qualities in effective leaders.

How do you remove them? This can be as easy as providing feedback, setting expectations, and terminating the person when those expectations aren’t met. Move quickly if you can – the longer you wait, the more chaos and disruption you will experience. And as Sun Tzu advised, quick and decisive action on one individual can convey a critical lesson to the rest of the team. But it can be more difficult. Make sure that they know what your expectations are, and what your concerns are. Find out if they are unhappy in their role, and would prefer a different position in the company. Document their problematic behavior in writing as well as verbally. Involve your manager, and your HR partner.

What about the untouchables? There are people in every organization who are invulnerable. They may be friends of the CEO, provide a unique service, or have a critical relationship that the company is dependent on. In these cases, your moves have to be more subtle. Marginalizing the individual or putting them in a role that is valuable but takes them out of a team leadership position can be reasonable options. Being passive-aggressive can sometimes be useful. Direct confrontation is rarely effective, but may be useful if their special status is tenuous.

In the end, your goal is to ensure that your team is working with you to achieve results, and your peers see you as strong and effective. One of the greatest threats to this is the toxic team member. Action in this case is essential, and inaction can be destructive to everyone involved.
 

Bill Berman, Ph.D.

Managing Principal, Berman & Associates

Partner, PrimeGenesis

Director, APT, Inc.

 

Comments

  1. Bob Cornet says:

    Bill, this is a great topic (and I love it when you are philosophical, too). If I were to sum it up for someone else, would it be accurate to say the toxic person is someone who diminishes the team and any/all persons in it, rather than enlarges and enriches them? And wouldn’t that be the case for all team members, not just the leader? I was also wondering if another option for handling the toxic member who is a CEO favorite is just to leave. If the CEO has a favorite who is toxic, then it seems to me the culture is liable to be so fouled that you’d have to exit the room to get a clean breath.

  2. wberman says:

    Bob –

    We have all encountered team members who disrupt the work and make it difficult to achieve our goals. As a peer, however, you can do little other than find ways to circumvent the toxic team member. And if this person is an “untouchable,” you have two choices. If you can achieve your work without them, then you take care of your own world and keep your distance from the team. If you can’t, then you should leave before you get blamed for the lack of success.

    Bill

  3. GeorgeB says:

    of course

  4. Quincy Boga says:

    Hey, such a great experience its been visiting this blog. So I thought I would make a post. It was suggested to me by a work collegue so I thought I’d ‘trot on over’ & check it over and yes, my friend was right… terrific effort. It is a shame but there are so many blogs out there which are just plain boring so it’s refreshing to see someone shooting from the hip, keep it up.

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