By Nicole Bendaly
When you belong to a toxic team, you can almost feel it in the air the moment you step off the elevator and onto your floor. It’s immediately draining. Instead of starting the day with anticipation for the great work ahead, team members put on their coats of armor and enter survival mode, either retreating internally or preparing for battle. Neither is conducive to a team’s ability to deliver results — or to team members’ physical and mental well-being.
Whenever I coach a leader whose team is in crisis — and I don’t use that term lightly; if your team is toxic, it’s a crisis! — I hear a combination of frustration and anxiety: “I have no idea how to handle this,” and “What if nothing ever changes?” The good news is that it’s possible to replace that sense of paralysis with one of empowerment, first by understanding the root causes of the team’s toxicity and then by developing a plan to address the issues at play. So, let’s start by looking at five of the most common drivers of a toxic team environment.
Lack of accountability to team values. When was the last time you and your team talked about the team’s values and the best practices that must show up consistently? When was the last time you gave informal or formal feedback to a team member about a specific behavior or contribution, whether positive or constructive? (Hint: The answer I’m looking for is “yesterday.”) I ask these questions because there’s no such thing as a void. If a leader and his or her team members ignore toxic behaviors and don’t actively feed the culture with behaviors and attitudes that drive a healthy climate, the void will be filled with unproductive behaviors and attitudes that stymie, disrupt and create dangerous flaws in the fabric of the team.
Fear. Fear destroys team culture, eating away at it faster than anything else. Conversely, fear does not exist in a thriving team. In a thriving team, mistakes aren’t to be feared; rather, team members and their leader actively share errors so that the group as a whole can grow and learn from them. In a thriving team, members are encouraged to speak up, ask questions, voice concerns and “rock the boat” if it serves the purpose of helping the team to be better, reach higher and achieve their common goal. In a thriving team, people feel safe to be themselves and to let their voices be heard.
Lack of trust. Fear and lack of trust go hand in hand, and trust is the cornerstone of a high-performing team. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines trust as “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something.” Without trust in their leader and in one another, a team cannot perform at its best, or even at a level of mediocrity, for any sustained period. The impact of a lack of trust can be summed up in this quote, from a nurse I interviewed about the health of her team’s culture: “After each shift, I go home feeling defeated because I can’t give the care I want to my patients. I don’t work in a supportive environment where people trust and respect one another, and that impacts my ability to ask for help and to trust that others will be there when I need them to be.”
Lack of recognition. There’s nothing more damaging to morale than when a team feels like their contributions don’t matter. People need fuel to stay motivated and perform at their best, and the energy that carries people the farthest comes from knowing their contributions are making a difference. American psychologist and philosopher William James said, “The deepest principle of human nature is a craving to be appreciated.” When leaders take the lead in acknowledging their team members’ positive contributions on a regular basis, they promote the importance of focusing on the unique strengths each team member brings, which in turn builds team morale and appreciation for one another.
Lack of a clear and embraced common goal. When team members are united by a common goal, they’re more likely to be cohesive, better able to work through conflict and more motivated to move the team forward toward the goal. You may think your team has a clear goal, but you’d be surprised how often I’m met with blank stares when I ask teams to describe their common goal — often, only the leader has the answer. Knowing the common goal is only the beginning, however; connecting team members in a meaningful way to the goal and their purpose every day is essential to combating toxicity.
So Now What?
Once you recognize the drivers behind your team’s toxicity, the real work begins. Yes, it takes work to combat a toxic climate, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. With a clear plan and a step-by-step approach, you can start making significant inroads and seeing changes in your team’s climate, often more quickly than you imagined. Here are some points to consider before jumping in:
- Commit and be open. It’s important that you be prepared to complete the process once you begin, because not following through will only set your team back even further. You must be open to hearing and trying to understand your team members’ perspectives, even if you don’t agree with them. You must be prepared to hear difficult feedback and reflect on the impact your leadership style has on your team members and the team climate. And finally, you must be prepared to change, to be uncomfortable and to stretch yourself.
- Get clear. Take time to look outward and ask, “What does high-performance teamwork look like?” Getting clear on what your team must strive for will create a clear and common development goal for your team to work toward. In my experience, there are seven elements that drive high-performance teamwork, and teams that demonstrate them consistently create thriving cultures in which everyone can perform at their best.
- What areas can you address now? Consider the things that may make for easy starting points. You’re likely to identify some practices that are easy to implement — maybe even things you’ve thought about doing but just haven’t gotten around to. What might you do immediately to begin building greater trust, removing fear and creating dialogue around values and the team’s common goal? Are there ways you can start recognizing team strengths and showing appreciation for team members’ contributions?
- Get support. It’s important that you have whatever support you may need to effectively address the team’s issues and build a healthy climate. Jumping in and tackling issues in an environment where trust is lacking can be risky; taking time to think through the right process, tools and support needed to engage team members in a meaningful way will pave the way for a successful process.
- Decide — and take action. If you’re ready to take action, then do so! If you recognize the need but feel hesitant, seek out support to develop a plan that fully engages the team in the process.
These are all great starting points as you work to heal toxicity in your team, but keep in mind that for team improvement to happen, it must be done by the team, not to the team; creating a high-performance team should be a shared responsibility. For a deeper look at how to improve your team’s effectiveness, check out our 4 Steps to Improving Team Effectiveness video.