Here’s How You Should Deal With Toxic Teammates

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Aug 24, 2015

If you can’t get rid of a toxic team member, isolate them.” – Dan Rockwell, blogger at Leadership Freak

Few things kill productivity faster than a toxic teammate — someone so awful they poison the workplace environment.

You can work around or repair a lack of resources, poor training, terrible leadership, an uncertain future, shoddy work processes, even micromanaging; however, toxic workers destroy from the inside out. Like a cancer, their dissatisfaction and distrust eventually metastasize to others, leading to a sick team that nothing short of radical surgery can save.

A bad attitude is contagious and spreads quickly.

Unfortunately, team-wreckers aren’t always obvious. Gossips, saboteurs, and unhappy loudmouths usually make themselves known quickly, so leadership can deal with them directly before things go too far. But the disengaged — those who don’t care about their jobs — clog up the workflow process because they miss deadlines, miss work often, arrive late, and refuse to pitch in during crunch periods.

Managers won’t always address toxic behavior

I call them TOXICS. Toxic team members can cause cracks in the foundation of the team work ethic.

If not repaired, the cracks can spread, until the whole structure teeters on the brink of collapse. After all, if Bob the Toxic doesn’t care about his job, or Andrea the Toxic regularly takes two-hour lunches, why should anyone else try so hard or take their work seriously?

You can try to just ignore their behavior and continue to do a great job and not let them rub off on you. But what if their poor performance impacts your work?

Leaders should catch and correct toxic behavior. But at least for a while, you may find yourself stuck with a “Quiet Toxic” you can’t get rid of.

Possibly your manager just doesn’t notice the problem. Could be the quiet toxic is related to the owner, belongs to a powerful family or union, or the manager is a friend. Possibly, your team simply feels it should police itself before turning to higher authority for help. In such cases, team members can confront the toxic team member themselves.

Clearing the air

Are you the only one who has a problem with “The Toxic?” Has anyone else mentioned frustration? Have several people called out The Toxic in a recent staff meeting? If not, it might be YOU. Could you change your attitude and see what happens?

But if you know you’re not the only one, you can’t be afraid to step up because you think you might anger The Toxic. Many people don’t say anything, because they are worried about rocking the boat or causing trouble.

Believe me, the short-term pain of confrontation is worth the long-term peace and sanity.

Invite The Toxic to lunch and discuss the situation. Make it clear things have to change if you continue to work together, or you’ll never get anything worthwhile accomplished.

Meet in a public venue to limit the likelihood of them causing a scene, and keep your voice low and reasonable as you explain the problem. Ask why they feel dissatisfied, and offer to help if you can. The Toxic may not realize their disengagement has damaged the team.

Once you bring it up, The Toxic may promise to shape up and engage with the rest of the team. On the other hand, you might be told in no uncertain terms to buzz off. If so, well, at least you tried.

The next level of escalation involves a meeting with other members of your team who are having problems with The Toxic — again, ideally offsite, just in case the person goes off on a rant. Think of it as an intervention, like family members might perform with an addict or someone with dangerous depression. If the entire team goes in determined to help, you may just pull off a miracle, and you may get agreement.

Final options

If that doesn’t work, volunteer to serve as a spokesman to your manager and/or HR and take it to the next level. But, what if you discover at this point The Toxic is untouchable?

If that’s the case, work around the person. Discuss ways to limit the damage with your other team members and take care of things yourselves. You can still get your work done — perhaps not as efficiently as before — but better than not. (Basically, you’ll be like a lame horse in a thoroughbred race, doomed to straggle in at the back of the pack, but hey, you’ll finish.)

Hopefully The Toxic will get the point and notice he/she is being left out.

Ultimately, however, I believe it’s always less painful and faster to lance a boil rather than let it fester, so to speak. You can simply refuse to work with The Toxic. Be aware that this last resort can backfire, depending on the toxic person’s untouchability. But if The Toxic is so unbearably awful, leaving the team might prove beneficial to you.

Have you ever had a Toxic on your team and how did you handle it? If you have a workable secret without betraying confidences, we would love to hear it!

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.