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Sep 28, 201712:08 PMOpen Mic

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5 steps to fix a toxic team

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In the world of business it’s safe to say all work is done in teams. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you most of the teams they’ve been on are average or mediocre, or good but not great. Sadly, many can tell you in dreaded detail about the toxic teams they’ve been on where gossip, sabotage, and finger pointing were the norm.

Does this sound anything like the team you’re currently on? Are you the leader of one of these teams? If so, you know how these teams can suck the life out of you and it’s time to turn things around.  

My partners and I wanted to understand what separates the best teams from the toxic ones so we studied thousands of teams, analyzed the data, and looked for patterns. We named the worst of the worst Saboteur Teams because, on them, someone is always working against at least one of their teammates.

Here are the telltale signs the team you’re leading is a Saboteur Team:

  • Members of the team are constantly complaining about each other.
  • Team members spend as much time watching their back as doing the work.
  • People make plays behind the scenes, undermining and sabotaging one another.
  • Suspicion and mistrust pervade every interaction; it seems like there are a lot of personal agendas.
  • People avoid working together and seem to dread team meetings.
  • Teammates would be perfectly happy to see others on the team fail; they criticize and point out the faults and failures of fellow team members.

If this sounds like the team you lead, it’s time to do something because Saboteur Teams destroy value at every turn and they are miserable experiences for everyone on them:

  • Morale suffers and good people quit.
  • Strong candidates don’t join the team because of its bad reputation.
  • Critical problems don’t get addressed because no one feels safe bringing up the tough issues.
  • Decisions are made covertly or seem highly political.
  • There’s little to no risk-taking or innovation.

If you lead a Saboteur Team, it’s up to you to turn it around. The good news is, improving your team is doable and it’s definitely worth it. Your main challenge as the leader is to change the dynamic by enforcing a no-tolerance policy on destructive behavior, rebuilding trust, setting clear standards, and defining a shared purpose. Here are five steps to get your team out of this highly dysfunctional place:

1. Own it.

If you don’t take full ownership for fixing your team, it won’t get better! Think about what you did to allow for this dynamic and what you didn’t do to address it. This could be an excellent time to get 360° feedback to understand others’ perceptions of your effectiveness as team leader. Talk openly with your team about your role (good and bad) and set a new standard for how you expect the team to work together.  

2. Study the facts and seek out the truth.

Use data and feedback to figure out what is really happening on the team. Get others’ perspectives. Ask questions, listen, stay curious, and be open to feedback. Be willing to seek the truth, even if it’s hard to hear. Team leaders tend to have the perspective of some, but not all, team members and may have a biased view of what’s really going on. Stay neutral and listen without judgment to fully understand why your team is struggling.


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