Troubled versus toxic teams

It can be hard to tell the difference in the midst of day-to-day activities, but it’s important to know the level of your team’s dysfunction

Have you ever asked yourself, “Is the group of people I’m working with dysfunctional?” If you haven’t, you’re either oblivious or new to the work world. It’s an important question to ask on a regular basis, because the problems that undermine collective success usually start as small issues, either between people on the team or between the team and its outside stakeholders.

And it’s naturally a difficult question to answer. When you work in the same environment every day, the habits and patterns of behavior become part of the experience of being at work. The nature of the group is hard to discern when you’re a part of it. To ask someone to objectively evaluate his or her own workgroup is like asking a fish to describe water.

When you do ask yourself that question, it’s also important to remember that not every team with troubles is dysfunctional, doomed or dangerous. In fact, nearly every team has trouble at one time or another. Schedules slip. Tempers flare. Fingers point. Sometimes people get into scrapes and develop bad habits during times of stress, as when trying to push a big project over the finish line. Most of the time, interpersonal issues arise and fade without requiring significant interventions from managers. People of good will often work things out on their own.

But there are times when troubles stop being an unpleasant nuisance and become a serious threat to the team and potentially to the organization as a whole. This is when troubled teams turn toxic. And unlike troubled teams, toxic teams have no chance of recovering on their own. They only get worse.

So what is a toxic team? A toxic team is one that is trapped in an intensifying cycle of negative behavior, beliefs and emotions. What makes toxic teams toxic is the self-reinforcing cycle at the core of the dysfunction. In the cycle, the visible negative behaviors of team members (and perhaps outside managers) engender invisible, powerful, negative emotions and assumptions that, in turn, trigger even more negative behaviors. Without outside intervention, these teams can become a cancer on an organization.

Here’s a simplified example. Imagine that a project manager always shows up to team meetings 15 minutes late. The first time, everyone just goes with the flow. But by the fourth time, they seethe with rage as they wait. They feel that they are being treated with disrespect and that the project manager is trying to prove how much more important his time is than theirs. When he does show up, they might retaliate by giving him incomplete and possibly even misleading information. Soon, he’s giving bogus status reports to his stakeholders and feels as if he’s been set up to look bad when he makes promises he can’t keep. So he starts micromanaging the team, trying to control their every move. In turn, they feel even more disrespected and mistrusted. And on it goes.

In contrast, troubled teams also have issues with negative behavior, emotions and assumptions, but they have not (yet) fallen into the self-reinforcing cycle of negativity. This is the key distinction between the degrees of dysfunction.

Toxic teams are not only a danger to themselves. They tend to spread their discontent beyond the boundaries of their group. People go home every night feeling terrible about themselves, their work and their organizations. Wanting to feel that they are justified in feeling that way, they talk to people in other teams and departments, looking for validation for their negativity, and in the process, convince others that things are as awful as they themselves believe. The dysfunctional assumptions and attitudes can spread throughout the organization.

This is why toxic teams require careful, thoughtful, outside intervention. Simple solutions rarely work. Firing one or two offenders won’t fix those problems. Even if the cycle of toxicity was started by one bad apple, it’s no longer perpetuated by that person alone. The negative attitudes and assumptions will remain even if the instigator is removed. The toxic cycle requires multiple participants to grow and spread.

So if you are concerned that your team may have transformed from troubled to toxic, you need to look for help outside the group, or even outside the organization altogether. It’s not the time to sit back and wait to see how things play out.

Paul Glen is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at info@leadinggeeks.com.

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