Project teams are consistently bound by multiple constraints, leaving little time to contend with toxic team members, yet this is often an issue that crops up.

“I have met and worked with many hundreds of people with every type of personality imaginable. Yet, the one trait that raises red flags and warning whistles is someone who is constantly negative,” said Bob Shoyhet, CFO of IT solutions provider Melillo Consulting. “I don’t think I can name another character flaw that can grow so fast and overtake so many in a short span of time.” According to Shoyhet, negative team members can be like vampires, sucking away positive energy from the team as a whole.

Shoyhet described his experience during a company-wide accounting system implementation with a past employer. The team spent months planning, putting together a team, finding a budget and selecting a product; the implementation involved all departments and required an all-hands on approach. Initially, one team member appeared to consistently present alternative perspectives, which on the surface, he said was great. The trouble was that after time these “alternative perspectives” developed into a steady stream of, “That won’t work,” and “We’re going to waste our time.” “Soon,” said Shoyhet, “I could see other team members turn sour on the project and lose the excitement and motivation they began with. Morale was disappearing in front of my eyes. I began one-on-one conversations with other team members and began to hear the same, familiar negative message. I quickly realized the source of the problem.”

He decided to tackle the issue head on: “I tried to coach the individual via multiple one-on-one meetings. I stressed my appreciation of constructive opinions, but at the same time explained my low tolerance for negativity. I needed everyone’s help to make the project a success – without exception.” But the relationship still struggled, and team members began to refuse to work with “the vampire.” Following a month of countless failed efforts of attitude adjustment and coaching, Shoyhet decided it was necessary to remove the person from the team. Did everything turn positive right after? “No, but it did become more constructive,” said Shoyhet. “We had less eye-rolling and more ‘what-ifs’ and ‘how-abouts.’ I learned a valuable lesson. Don’t confuse constructive criticism with negativity, and stop the latter the moment it rears its ugly head.”

Aaron Udler, CEO at Officepro Inc, a software training provider, also favors a direct approach when dealing with toxic team members. He said that when he encounters these people, he sits down with them and puts together a list of what’s expected of them. “If they are able to follow the expectations and stick with them, they will ultimately be less toxic and bossy to other employees,” said Udler. To date, he said, he’s only worked with one individual who had to eventually be let go, despite all efforts to work with them. “The other three employees are still with us, and their attitudes have really changed. It’s a bit refreshing,” said Udler.

Do other broader factors play a role?

Absolutely, they can. Think of Tuckman’s theory of group development: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.

Elizabeth Minei is an assistant professor at Baruch College in NYC and founder and CEO of Eminei Consulting LLC, who has spent 10 years studying team dynamics. She believes that one of the easiest ways to deal with toxic team members is to analyze the group process and determine whether the issue is personality-driven, or caused by a lack of procedural expectations. “The first recommendation that I suggest is for the entire team to sit down and determine a standard group process,” said Minei. “Standard group process includes preferences and expectations about communication channels (like text messages, emails, etc.)” She added: “In reality, members aren’t toxic, they are just annoyed that there is no clear method of how to work together.”

According to Minei, the structure of healthy team formation roughly follows this pattern:

  • First, the group forms, working to break down primary tensions, establish expectations, and get to know each other as teammates
  • Second, the group encounters some element of conflict because they don’t know how each member works within the greater group context. Conflict is not inherently bad, and can be managed well if the team established strong expectations in the forming stage
  • When a team settles into a comfortable pattern , then team “norms” (routine behaviors and working arrangements) begin to emerge. These norms pave the way for smoother task achievement.
  • Personality conflicts are often blamed when in reality the group suffers from lack of clarity on how to work together.

Recently, Minei said, she was overseeing a team who fell into a steep personality conflict two days into a task. There were coalitions that had formed, and four members were angry with the fifth member because she refused to respond to any text messages.

In this situation, Minei led the team in creating a working charter for the remainder of their task, including establishing norms, and agreeing to cease coalitions. This helped break down primary tensions, and the team came to realize that while four members had an iPhone, the fifth member had a flip phone and wasn’t getting the messages at all. To resolve this, they decided to use email and Google docs to communicate, which turned to be a more successful approach.

What’s the takeaway here?

Minei said that team members who are labelled toxic sometimes don’t realize their actions are hurting the group. For example, team members who don’t participate in brainstorming sessions may just be shy and prefer more solitary methods of generating ideas. Or someone who interrupts frequently may have a more excitable personality and not realize they are interrupting. Try to avoid assumptions. Focusing solely on individual behavior can cause companies to lose good people to unfortunate underlying problems, leaving the issues still intact going forward. Identifying and addressing the underlying cause that may be the motivator behind the toxic behavior is more likely to aid in identifying the best solution.

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