10 Strategies for Dealing with a Toxic Teammate
You’re stuck with a toxic team member. You wish they were gone but you don’t have the power to eject them. Now what?
10 strategies for dealing with toxic teammates you can’t eject:
- Respect their power to destroy. A toxic person can obstruct progress, hinder careers, pollute teams, and sabotage projects. Stay close to them. Befriend them.
- Move them to the sidelines as much as possible. Keep toxic people “busy” doing things that won’t damage others. Don’t put toxic people on teams or assign them to projects that really matter.
- Corral toxic people. If you have several toxic people that you can’t expel, cage their toxicity by putting them all on the same team. Don’t spread them around. Bad is stronger than good. One toxic person has more power to do damage than several healthy people have to do good.
- Reassign toxic people to roles where they might make significant contribution.
- Team them up with someone who compensates for their weakness.
- Ignore them and tell everyone else to do the same. (Show good manners but minimize their negative impact.)
- Listen to their input but don’t give them decision-making power, except on insignificant matters.
- Confront them. Try one-on-one first. If one-on-one confrontation doesn’t work, try a group intervention.
- Don’t fear them. Keep delivering great results. Don’t let toxic people be the reason you hold back.
- Spend most of your time with teammates who are engaged and committed.
Bonus: Fill power-positions with people who have high levels of buy-in and who understand the danger and damage of toxic team mates.
You may not have the power to eject a toxic team member, but you have the power to do something.
How can leaders deal with toxic team members that they can’t get rid of?
**The Dictionary for Leaders series starts again on Monday with “E’s” for leaders. Add yours here.
Timely post Dan!
#8 is very good and not done enough. Or the 1st step is by-passed and group intervention is done first. Group intervention can be considered bullying and ganging up if there hasn’t been any forewarning whatsoever. (can blindside someone who may be ‘unconsciously’ toxic)
The other side of the problem is when you can’t get a decent group together for a fair intervention when it’s needed. When people are caught up in enabling, afraid of conflict, and worried about things getting messy.
The alternative is more of the same and in many cases, things just get progressively worse if not dealt with.
Even more problematic when the toxic member is already part of leadership.
Thanks Samantha. As I read your comment, I started thinking about the problem of tolerating toxic people. Teams bear some responsibility for not speaking up. But, the courage to speak up can be lacking, even in good people.
How ‘good’ can we be if we allow evil to flourish? If we give it permission to thrive? (and I don’t necessarily mean to refer to the actual PERSON as evil…focus is on the behavior)
I believe we all must come face to face with that question eventually. If we are allowing ‘bad’ things to happen, we’re giving it permission to happen. We need to find the courage.
#1 caught my attention again. I didn’t catch this the first time through! That last part reminded me of that saying, ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’
Where’s the integrity in that though? That’s my hang up with methods like that. It’s not honest. I don’t want to have to ‘pretend’ with anyone. (That’s right…I’d probably fail as a CIA agent! grins)
Here’s my thinking. While the toxicity is damaging, there’s also a reason why people learn how to be toxic. They learned it. Just like we ALL have learned some ‘dysfunctional’ ways of coping in life. Being raised in dysfunctional systems to varying degrees (some have endured more toxic environments then others), there’s going to be varying degrees of learned toxic behaviors (coping behaviors) that are carried into the work place.
Since TRUST is the big issue for most if not all of us. Even though a person may be toxic, if they can’t TRUST you because you are pretending to be their friend, you will eventually not be able to influence them in a positive way at all.
I don’t really have the answer on this…it just seems that sincerity is always the better way to go with people.
Great response Samantha.
I walked away from a toxic environment because no one confronted the issue. Most were promoted into powerful positions to solve the problem. I started to become stressed from doing the job of others, angry and bitter. I knew the problem wouldn’t be resolved so I did what was best for my health.
I am not upset about the experience. I learned more from the toxic environment than healthy environments. I learned what I don’t want to be and to confront issues at the onset before they get out of control. I also learned how to deal with passive and unethical leadership.
It can really be damaging when employees have the mentality that poor performance or bad behavior is the way to get promoted.
Promoting toxic people into powerful positions in order to solve the problem? Wow! Who came up with that brilliant solution!? : )
It IS stressful to deal with toxic environments that aren’t being dealt with. And easy to become angry and bitter, especially if you are the kind of person that likes to address things head on. Most people (myself included) have a tendency to let it go on for too long. Multiple reasons for this…. i.e. compassion/empathy factor, wanting to believe the best in people, another person commented, I think it was Karin (letsgrowleaders) brought up a good one…something we think ‘maybe it’s just ME’ and so we take on too much of the responsibility instead of accepting the reality of what is really happening. Other times it’s due to flat out fear and not wanting to deal with conflict resolution.
I agree, it is very damaging when employees, (or anyone for that matter) have the mentality that poor performance or bad behavior is the way to get promoted. Unfortunately, there’s many people who do just that to ‘teach’ people it’s an acceptable way to move up through the ranks.
Thanks for the reply SI. : )
Samantha, great expansion on what I believe is the all around most effective way to deal with toxicity. And definitely echo that last point. Tough place to be in when the toxic party IS a positioned leader.
Thanks Dave. : )
Something my Dad once suggested, keep a look out for jobs for them outside the company and get them headhunted out.
Thanks Sherry. Yes… get them headhunted out can be based on the belief that a person who may not fit one organization will work out great in another.
I had one of those jobs where I didn’t fit. They can work our great elsewhere. If you don’t fit on day one, don’t let day two happen. Nobody will hire you, but that misses the point. Get out before they finish your intake paperwork. Then, they didn’t happen.
I have never met your dad and already I love him! Thanks Sherry!
Whoa, some of those “solutions” would have our HR folks breathing down your neck. Isolate! Tell others to ignore them! I like the philosophy, but HR sure wouldn’t. Typically, I just challenge those types with assignments, allowing them to either contribute or giving me reason to take corrective action that HR will support.
Thanks Norman. I’m glad you jumped in on this. The strategies you mention admittedly address the issue from the side rather than head on. Some depends on your role in the organization. I”ll stand by the advice when you are in a situation where you don’t have authority to remove or bring correction.
Having said that, I don’t think minimizing the impact of a toxic person by giving them assignments that keep them away from others is an issue. It seems perfectly legitimate.
Thx Dan. I don’t disagree with your list. I am in a government position and governments process these situations differently from private, for profit, enterprises. Keep up you excellent posts.
Exactly Norman. I was in government. You cannot say isolate. That’s a complaint ready to be filed and will make the person increase in toxicity. In government, you have to tread lightly. The system needs to be overhauled. I think if it really operated off performance and rate honestly (not passively), it would be better. Too many poor performers receive positive ratings and are promoted out to get rid of them. They keep being moved around rather than corrected/coached/removed. We are seeing the lack of dealing with issues play out in the news often. It appears that one organization after another is breaking down. I think that it’s a good thing. It gives an opportunity for growth and change for the better.
I have received much coaching from a mentor this year than ever before because I wanted to understand how to use my bad experience to my benefit before returning to government. I am more okay with a probation period than ever before because it gives me an opportunity to walk away, too. In coaching sessions, I asked for help with work/life balance and saying “no” to taking on the work of poor performers. When my peers didn’t perform and their lack of performance impeded my work, I always stepped up. I always stayed on top of things. I couldn’t allow my team to fail because of others. I found myself doing absolutely too much. I was always accessible – even after hours/weekends/holidays.
Unfortunately, when you are an outstanding performer and make things happen all the time, you may end up doing the work of others. Reminds me of a yourecard that I saw recently. It said, “Thank you for all your hard work. We are going to reward you by giving you other people’s work to finish.”
I am grateful for all my work experiences – good and bad. I have learned much and am the wiser because of each. BTW Norman, private sector has its issues just as government. It’s just easier to get rid of an employee in the private sector.
Don’t have an HR department to begin with. I’ve met some pretty incompetent HR people. As a contractor, I had to sign a non-compete. I even warned HR, but they didn’t listen. Hello, IRS. They already had non-competes with my employer.
Thanks David. I went to a Great Place to Work conference in LA last year. While there, one CEO of a large organization talked about how they did away with HR. Wow!
I worked in one of those Great Places, but as soon as the designation was awarded it became clear that we were all about to be laid off.
Toxic emotional negativity is the emotional and spiritual equivalent of cigarette smoke in the workplace – it is contagious and it is malignant. It is a core duty of leadership to protect workers from toxic abuse by peers and managers.
Take care of this responsibility before you hire the person, or before you make them toxic.
Thanks Joy. Absolutely. If there is a place where leadership matters more than others it dealing with negativity in the workplace.
a very pertinent issue for me just now. i’m dealing with a very strong persuasive senior team member who thinks he knows it all and has seriously destabilised our ‘leadership team’. i have tried one to one’s to raise the issue . We are now trying external support on 360 appraisal and team building but first the person concerned needs to recognise their flaws. we have failed on that one so far! despite this everyone now feels this person is working completely to his own agenda.
Thanks James. One of the hardest people to see is ME. Best wishes on the journey.
Excellent list. For me, what’s hardest but most important, is recognizing toxicity. It’s easy to think there’s something wrong with us… toxic people make us feel that way. If someones truly toxic, it’s not you, it’s them, and it’s time to move on.
But, what if the company itself is toxic.
Thanks Karin. It’s true. Good people might be too eager to take responsibility for this one. Hadn’t thought of that.
#10 hits right on the 80/20 rule! Water the plants that will grow.
Thanks Moele…. YEs, Pareto’s principle is like a law of the universe.
This is an awesome list Dan and very practical. That’s the thing with toxic people. Rather than focus on some deep ways to deal with them, it is probably best to just keep it simple.
Toxic people are always going to weave their way in and out of our professional and personal lives. We can’t allow them to have power over us and need to deal with them assertively. If possible, I usually try to work around them and focus on surrounding myself with positive people.
Thanks Dan! Great post!
Thanks Terri. Yes. Surround yourself with positive people. Sadly, as you indicate, we can’t always do that. In some ways we have to become toxic to toxicity.
Thanks for the article Dan. I received it via SmartBrief. There’s definitely a segment of our leadership society that needs your coaching.
Thanks SI. Leaders have a deep responsibility to deal with toxicity and not just turn a blind eye. Best wishes and thanks to SmartBrief. They rock.
I’m a bit puzzled here – these steps assume you have the authority to assign work, but not to hold them accountable or to discipline them? One way or another, it seems to me that what’s missing from the list is holding them accountable – either for results or/and for their impacts on others in the work group. Too often there is way too much tolerance before accountability consequences. “I’ll give you to three to stop that…one…two…two and a half…two and three-quarters…”
Thanks Bill. I see your puzzlement. This post is the result of someone who asked about dealing with a toxic person on the team that they don’t have authority to fire or discipline.
Glad you brought accountability to the conversation. How we deal with violations of organizational values says a lot about leadership. I concur. It’s better to deal quickly than to wait and hope things will work out.
I just don’t know of any cases where a person in a team would have the authority to assign work (or isolate someone) but not hold the person accountable for relationship and results behaviors.
Thanks for the follow up. You might think of volunteer organizations, nonprofits, education where there are tenured instructors.
Bill – I work in a matrix management environment, where I may manage a project with 10 people, but only 1 of those people is my direct report while the other 9 report to other managers / supervisors. While I have authorization to assign work within the team, I need to work through a team member’s supervisor to correct issues outside of the team. If there is a toxic-employee, I can isolate their work w/in the team, but I don’t have the authorization to mete corrective measures beyond the project scope. That being said, I’m senior enough on the contract that I have no qualms going directly to a team member’s direct supervisor and stating that while X is done well, issues A, B and D need to be corrected and why. Likewise, I appreciate it when my peers don’t rose-tint every status-update on my direct reports who work on their projects.
Dan et al – And, I think this may have been mentioned in the comments above, but what if a management figure in your organization (Contract Manager, Client, EVP, etc.) is the abusive / abrasive one? As a direct report or team member to one higher in the heirarchy, how does one go about trying to correct that issue? Or, is it up to the team member to either wear armor every day to work or start looking for alternatives that are outside the current structure?
SmartBrief on Leadership link brought me to the discussion. Thanks for the list and comments!!
Good one to remove the blockage while managing a team. Sooner, or later, you will get one personality of this kind in your team. Good to learn these then effecting self reputation and performance. Good practical list. Nice work Dan.
Thanks Pro. Any of us who have been around very long have encountered this issue. It’s always a struggle. I sure wish there was a magic wand. But until we get one, we’re going to have to deal with this stuff.
This one troubles me. To my way of thinking, the toxic team member must be either graduated to another team or converted to become a productive member of your team. Relationships enhance or diminish team productivity and, therefore, must be dealt with. If nothing else, toxic behavior is a work habit and therefore subject to coaching and discipline. If the team leader does not have management support, after providing proper documentation, there are much bigger organizational issues at hand. In my experience, team leaders who put off dealing with such behavior run into larger problems later. This must be dealt with sooner rather than later so I think Tip #8 needs to be number one.
Thanks Rick. I see in your comment a strength-based approach to leadership. One that I share. We may disagree that there is a small number of people who are toxic for whatever reason.
Regarding #8. We also agree that sooner is better than later on these issues. A confrontation may be a conversation about where they best fit in and how to best utilize their strengths — while at the same time pointing out what isn’t working. Sometimes you learn that the “toxic” person is also frustrated.
Each of the points made here clearly have their unique merits, since they come from people with various experiences with toxic and difficult people.
In my own experience toxic people rise to opportunities precisely because there is a vacuum in leadership or as the case may be even when staff stay silent.
Senior staff are said to be derelict in observation of their working environment and incapable of delegating responsibilities to people who are qualified. This should not onlybe based on merits but equally on their disposition and how they get along with others.
External social audits can help in assessing performance and how to build staff capacity. Training could be envisaged, and should be encouraged.
Otherwise, polite people try to move along, hopefully trying to avoid conflict but can this be deemed as a positive measure if it affects productivity and sap team morale in the long run?
Those who find it difficult to find interesting jobs often put up with routine and mundane jobs with disatisfaction and bitterness as they have to make ends meet. It is a difficult situation altogether.
However, sometimes the situation can be changed. Those who have few skills may be at an disadvantage. It would be nice to get support to enhance skills. Skills can be learned and they will help advance those with conviction, ambition, hardwork, consistency and merit. How else does one cultivate company loyalty, responsibility, and positive imput?
Personality that verges on bullying is not smart and it is a habit that needs to be condoned. Internal politics is inevitable but regular monitoring should make staff accountable for their output. After all when it comes to disciplining, firing or promoting staff, records have to be maintained showing how their staff were assessed and incidents reported. This would also keep the company in line. Too many abuses will signal the local authority on its excesses. Often senior staff are too busy trying to appear effective and overload the junior staff to meet deadlines. Clearly this situation is untenable and staff turnover will suffer. The best way to steer clear of such toxic people is to let them decide which jobs or projects take priority and let them take the responsibility for that decision that a junior staff ought to complete in a set time. That puts most toxic people on edge. Even so, the junior staff to climb the job ladder will accumulate more solid experience if they retain instructions with calmness and cope with a senior staff member who is out of control and is plainly ignorant of their inconsistent social attitude. How much one can take is open to conjecture.
Effective independent social audits take in consideration these state of matters and look into behavioural change management. Solutions come in many forms. Being positive is the first step to getting out of a rut. Thank you for reading!
Thanks Oriatta. I’m glad you shared your insights.
One thing that really stood out to me was let toxic people choose where they want to take responsibility and then hold them to it. This approach puts the ball in their court. You might even ask them how they prefer to make reports and/or be held accountable for their performance.
Sadly, performance is often not the issue. Toxicity is often about the way they treat others. And, when a leader doesn’t have official authority to fire or bring consequences, the situation is very difficult. thanks again.
When you have cancer you cut it out, you burn it up, you get rid of it! In my experience the damage a toxic person does and can do to an organization far out weighs the good they could do. Better to save the hand and lose a finger!!
Thanks Jay. “Better to save the hand and lose a finger!” — I get the point.
Your suggestion of isolating an individual with non-contributory or interactive activities would be illegal in Australia – you would fall foul of anti-bullying legislation.
Thanks Ross. Would it be ok to minimize their involvement?
There are people we spend more time with and people we don’t. Is it ok to spend less time with those who drain organizations?
Good article…..now how do you defang a venemous surpervisor or team leader?
Thanks Dave. Very carefully! But, seriously, if you don’t have support of those who have authority, it’s pretty dangerous.
You never defined toxic. Reading through the comments it’s obvious that “toxic” has many different meanings. We do this a lot. we name a cluster of behaviors, and go off to solve the problem before actually understanding it. It’s simple thinking, list making, and a bit sloppy, don’t you think? Anyway when teams have significant problems, it’s everyone’s responsibility to solve it. Everyone is involved in it. Everyone has a story about it. And everyone has some role in supporting the problem. Usually it’s the reason we have the problem in the first place. Kurt Lewin’s quote could help to get to what’s going on. No action without research. No research without action.” Toxic would seem to be our problem collectively. We do need to define it together. Also – group issues never resolve on their own. They need to be surfaced and discussed.
I guess I am a bit of a hardcase on this one. I believe you confront it one on one. If that doesnt work you then terminate. I don’t really like terminating someone but I believe that allowing it to continue condones the behavior. I belive true leadership requires it. Employees see direct action and they appreciate the fact you stayed true to providing a positive work environment.
If you have authority, maybe assigning them the least liked tasks or menial work will motivate them to leave. If you have repoire with their manager bring it up casually as if you’re describing some of the challenges you are currently facing. If you have no authority and leadership is turning a blind eye, it’s best that you leave. Try to have a reason to go elsewhere or find an elsewhere to go to before you do, if you can.
Never let anyone fester such a negative impact on you or the team. Even if it’s a manager or higher up, there are ways to handle such people. How do I know? I was able to correct a situation caused by a high level manager that had gone on for too many years and affected everyone, sometimes criminally or offensively.
It’s your choice to fight or flight. Just make sure you cover yourself no matter what choice you make and always be aware of your surroundings and allies or foes or those who are neutral.
The one that can’t be overstated is the tactic of confronting them. Conflict is so easy to sweep under the rug and ignore but just like any significant substance that is swept under the rug, bacteria forms and the problem grows over time into a more disgusting version of the original issue. It takes boldness and relational diplomacy to confront toxic people with grace but practice makes perfect. Seek out someone wise for council on how it approach each unique situation.
Thanks for the list dan. Love your writings.
What is your suggestion for supervisors who have tried to terminate a toxic employee, but management overrides you? I have a toxic employee who has been allowed to act this way for about 15 years. No Kidding!! Staff have consistently complained, she has over 10 serious infractions in her file, from making weird noises on the floor, bullying people, and including a write-up. She verbally insults me as her supervisor and baits me when I’m addressing issues with her. I am to the point of physical and mental depletion. No supervisor will take this employee, as she has exhausted everyone. Any ideas would be appreciated.
Thanks Rae. It’s time to give up trying to fix the situation. Minimize the bad egg as much as possible and focus your energy on what’s working and the better players on the team. You have my best for the journey.