Many of us work and communicate in team settings, at least some of the time. And we know what happens when one or more team members are unhelpful, unresponsive or unethical. The dysfunction and frustration can lead to resentment, anger or worse, all of which can be vented on social media outlets. And there’s the potential damage to trust, reputation, productivity, recruitment, etc. So, what to do?
Writing about toxic coworkers in the Harvard Business Review, Abby Curnow-Chavez says, “…the single most important factor in team success or failure is the quality of relationships on the team.” Her four steps to address this are:
1. Have an honest, candid conversation with the person.
2. Raise your own game and don’t stoop to their level.
3. Talk with your boss.
4. Take care of yourself and don’t let the toxic behavior damage your emotional and physical health.
Good advice but let’s explore the relationship aspect a bit more. Baseball Hall of Famer Casey Stengel had it right when he said, “Getting good players is one thing. The harder part is getting them to play together.”
Minimizing negative behaviors and interactions starts with a well-articulated organizational culture. I say minimize because, let’s face it, we’re human. Thinking we can have a perfectly harmonious organization is like believing in the tooth fairy.
We don’t always get to choose our teams. Some members are there by default or because of a special skill. Some people simply won’t do the work and find ways to take a free ride. A dictator can take over the team and, before you know it, this person is delegating without any consultation. Others will perform the work if assigned but they simply will not communicate.
But having a set of operating principles and setting expectations are not enough; the consequences for bad behavior must be clear. There are few things more destructive in the workplace when passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive behaviors are tolerated.
I believe there is tolerance because 1) there is usually little fear of being penalized and 2) people want to avoid confrontations and be liked. Waiting and hoping things will improve will not make it so.
We know it’s hard for most people to articulate their feelings, especially around sensitive issues. Few go looking for a confrontation but it’s a critical part of working in teams, and supervising and leading others. Having the courage to take some action is not the same as “making waves.” Making waves connotes stirring up trouble and creating new problems. This is about airing and addressing the issues by asking questions, and seeking clarifications while showing respect for different views.
Working remotely in virtual teams tends to exacerbate any unsteady team dynamics. There are many advantages to accessing talent across geographies but it helps to have at least occasional face-to-face contact. In-person interactions allow us to observe all the nuances and evaluate the visual cues. With these additional inputs, we’re able to assemble a more accurate picture of the particular circumstance and how to address it. James Surowiecki noted in The Wisdom of Teams that “A successful face-to-face group is more than just collectively intelligent. It makes everyone work harder, think smarter, and reach better conclusions than they would have on their own.”