Alcoholics Anonymous has a 12-step program for beating alcohol addiction. The first step can be paraphrased as: Recognize that you have a problem and confess it in some public way. Applying the 12-step process to my own circumstances, here goes: I was a member of a toxic team.
This toxic team no longer exists. A majority of the members moved on. For some members, this meant incurring large financial costs as they changed locations, although they stayed with the same organization. For others, it meant looking for new work and for a few, it meant staying on and working with the new team to create a better atmosphere and a productive team.
For me, it meant moving away. More than a year later, I still lament the breaking up of the team. I have spent this time studying toxic teams and what causes them.
Although there are many times when a group of people work together, this togetherness doesn’t necessarily constitute a team. “Team” indicates there is a conscious effort by members to identify themselves as part of a collective with common goals.
The Army understands the concept of teams well; it takes many teams of people working together to meet the mission. There are many different performance skills, but the task or the mission can be completed only through the coordinated efforts of many people.
A true team member subverts personal wishes and identifies with the team goal. There are times when the team’s goal seems contrary to one’s personal wishes, but that member puts aside pride and redirects his or her self-interest for the good of the team. This is not always an easy thing to do.
What Is a Toxic Team?
A toxic team is a group of people who conspiratorially work together counter to the direction that leadership desires. A toxic team is constantly at odds with leadership, and seeks to undermine the direction that leadership attempts to move them. A toxic team may still have the perspective of benefiting the organization or meeting organizational goals but is subversive nevertheless. Toxic teams have their own agendas, and actually sabotage some short-term goals of leadership or an organization. This sabotage may not be a formal and planned conspiracy, but the lack of formality does not lessen the teamwork involved in the toxicity. Team members may not have discussed their negative influence, but there is a sense of camaraderie. A toxic team will justify its bad behavior and blame the organization or leadership as being completely responsible for the problems that exist.
Several factors can influence or move a team toward toxicity. The first is a lack of trust in leadership. If a majority lacks trust in leadership, these team members will band together in a negative way. Team members feel that they can trust each other and have each other’s backs, but for some reason fail to find leadership as having their best interests in mind. A lack of trust will undermine a leader’s ability to lead.
A second influencer is the feeling of powerlessness. If team members feel they have nowhere to go to express their concerns, they will lament collectively that they have no place to go. By banding together, they hope to accomplish what an individual is unable to accomplish.
Third, a lack of communication or meaningful dialogue with leadership also contributes to team toxicity. Communication is one of the most important things that leadership can do for a team. The perception that leadership does not communicate reinforces bad attitudes. Failure to communicate indicates that leadership doesn’t consider team members important enough to be part of a larger dialogue about organizational direction or new initiatives.
Another issue is perception of a lack of support. When a team member feels abandoned, it is better to be part of a group than to suffer as an individual. If more than one team member feels similarly, the perception snowballs and becomes larger than life.
Finally, reinforced negative perceptions of leadership will grow if team members can find repeated examples of negative leadership behavior that support team premises. Team members will play and replay examples that they see, and will feed those negative perceptions with stories from other team members.
There may be many other factors contributing to team toxicity. These were the main ones that had direct influence on the toxic team of which I was a member.
Perception is not necessarily reality. Individual team members must remember that people view the world from their own perspective. It is as if every toxic team member has on a pair of dark glasses and instead of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, sees only blackness or dimmed reality. Team members need to individually remove the dark glasses and change their own perspective of the job they hold. The darkness a member sees clouds vision. Just because you see something one way doesn’t mean it really is that way. Team members need to work to illuminate areas where there are problems, and recognize their own role within the problem.
Like alcoholics, the first step toward fixing a toxic team is to admit that the problem exists. It takes time for teams to become toxic. No team member made a purposeful decision to become a toxic individual. If you see that you personally have become toxic or extremely negative, take responsibility for your own behavior and determine that you will not individually contribute to overall negativity.
Negativity and negative cliques can thrive in an office culture and can spread from individual to individual. Bruna Martinuzzi of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., a business consulting company, says unchecked negativity can impact an entire organization. Just as negativity can spread, so can positivity. Individuals need to decide to become part of a positive culture.
Open communication and honesty within the team will open doors to discuss perceptions within the group and with leadership. Teams often fail to communicate with leadership. A decision needs to be made that only open and honest communication can solve this type of problem. Team members need to divorce themselves from strong emotional attachments to the opinions and perspectives they hold individually. Although we all have emotional attachments to our own particular position, we need to view the situation dispassionately so we can see reality as it is. Separate opinion from facts, and then deal with only the facts.
Teams should also strive to think strategically rather than locally. Large organizations such as the Army need to look at the big picture so that missions can be accomplished. Teams tend to be myopic, seeing only their immediate needs while discounting the needs of others. Teams need to stand back and look beyond their own realm to get the big picture. They need to put themselves in the shoes of their leadership so they can understand all the problems that must be addressed. Recognize that leadership must prioritize problem-solving and that your team’s specific problem may not be the most important, even though it seems to you that it is.
Perhaps the most important thing a toxic team can do to fix its own negative culture is to look for mutuality. Mutuality means focusing on the similarities of your team goals with the goals of leadership. You might be surprised at how similar they are. Many people have a tendency to focus on the differences rather than the similarities. Find places where you can have mutual respect for people in leadership and their positions. Maintain this respect even when it is difficult to do. Recognize that all people—including you—have weaknesses. If you look for a commonality, you will make a major step toward detoxifying your team.
Lastly, overcome paranoia. People have a tendency toward self-centeredness; we often think that everything is about us. Management is not out to get you, even if that is your perception. Diminish your own unrealistic self-importance and look outside yourself. Everyone has challenges at work; very few people like everything about their job. You will have problems, but they are solvable if you are willing to work to solve them.
I don’t know everything there is to know about toxic teams, but I do know my own story of being part of one. Our team was very talented, had a lot of experience, and was particularly creative and intensely loyal to each other. However, the myopia of seeing only our own team and our own needs damaged us beyond repair.
Over time, we became toxic and as a result, we were miserable. None of us acknowledged our individual contributions to the problem. Had we dealt with some of the problems as suggested here, we may have been able to detoxify. We, and the organization, would have been better for it.