3 min read

Can You Get a Toxic Team Past Dysfunctional Behavior?

February 6, 2019

It’s an all-too-familiar scenario: a couple of disgruntled employees with a glass-half-empty outlook are constantly poisoning the well and spreading their unhappiness to the other workers. Team members find it difficult to trust one another, projects stagnate (or worse, implode), and productivity plummets.


Our own President and COO, Kate Sheffield, is no stranger to this toxic team dynamic. Although turning around a dysfunctional culture might seem pretty straightforward, many times leadership gets it wrong. Instead of addressing the underlying problems, they attempt an authoritarian approach. It’s the workplace equivalent to that viral parenting post of the two unhappy kids in the “Get Along Shirt.”

Untangling a team can, and should, work in a way that feels more positive and progressive for all.

Clear Your Calendar

The first thing you’ll need to do is to schedule a one-on-one with each member of your team. Make sure they are long enough sessions to really dig in and for you to ask a lot of questions. During this process, Sheffield consistently discovered that “the people were so concerned with being seen only for what they were doing wrong, that they spent an inordinate amount of time trying to show what everyone else was doing worse.”

As their leader, you may be tempted to open the conversation with your point of view of the situation. Instead, lead with curiosity. Give your team the space to share their thoughts, ideas, and frustrations. You’ll get a clearer picture of the team dynamics and your willingness to listen first, opine later, builds trust.

Lead with the Positives

Positivity is contagious. To get your team focused on what they are doing right, find out what each team member takes pride in doing. Hone in on their accomplishments, however big or small. Sheffield notes, “I recognized anything I saw that was positive, such as handling a difficult customer, creating a new design, staying late to get something finished, helping a fellow employee, educating me on some issue or even quietly watering the plants. Almost everyone is doing something right.”

Recognizing these acts can go a long way in fortifying positive sentiments and shifting your team’s mindset. The goal is for your team to ask themselves how they can improve a project rather than torpedo it.

Build a Solid Foundation of Trust

In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, author Patrick Lencioni stacks each dysfunction in a hierarchical pyramid. As with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you have to build a solid foundation before you can achieve higher level goals. At the base of Lencioni’s pyramid is the absence of trust.

The absence of trust can be caused by obvious behaviors like bullying, interrupting, and undermining. But it can also be caused by fear — fear to admit mistakes, weaknesses need for help. An effective leader leads by example. Own up to your mistakes. Ask a member of your team for help on a project and publicly recognize them. If guilty parties aren’t willing to recognize their own behavior, challenge them to come up with alternative ways to handle disagreements and work on communication skills — facilitated by a professional, if necessary.

Recognize Individual Accomplishments

Lencioni compares a cohesive, high performing team to expert oarsman. All team members are rowing in sync and in the same direction. Encouraging ownership and building trust are important tools for getting your team moving in the same direction, but they are made even more effective when coupled with a culture of recognition.

Sheffield has seen the power of recognition with her own teams, “When people know that their contributions are valued, they feel part of the process. At that point, they become comfortable recognizing each other, and that’s when the magic really happens. People stop being so concerned about whether they are valued [and] instead place their attention on how they can bring more to the effort — both through the support of others as well as their own talents for the work product.”

Ed Stevens

Written by Ed Stevens

An experienced and serial entrepreneur, Ed Stevens is the Founder and CEO of Preciate.