What is a toxic team? Toxic people? No, Not really.
Better way to define it as toxic relationships between people in a team. And it’s important, because if we say that people are toxic it is impossible to change, but if we say behavior is toxic, this is a whole different story.
And the good news is that it is totally under a team manager’s area of influence. So if you are managing a team, and it now behaves in a “toxic” way, it is not hard to fix. I’ll tell you four simple steps to take so you can improve it right away.
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Step #1. Shift focus from individuals to team.
Usually when the relationships in the team are toxic it is about people defending themselves and accusing others.
As a manager you can significantly influence this behavior. What you need is to change focus from personalities to team. And there are always 2 types of situations: when something good or normal happens, or when something that is not so good happens.
In good and normal situations, when you praise it is better to praise the whole team, not a person. Of course you still need to recognize individuals, but make sure that in our situation when you do so you recognize everyone on the team for some specific merits, and always finalize with recognizing the work of the whole team. By doing this you will start rebuilding the team as such.
Then, in a sort of bad situation, make sure it is related to the entire team, even if a single person is mostly responsible for the failure. Think about it this way: even if it is a single person who is responsible, he or she is a part of the team, and now it is the result of the whole team, because the final result of the team work is unsatisfactory.
So it is better to refer to the whole team’s failure in such situations. And by doing this you will build stronger relationships and responsibility inside the team as well as show people that there’s no sense in being defensive as it is anyway a mutual responsibility. Also by this you encourage team members to help each other as they all are interested in the success.
Step #2. Always position yourself as a part of the team, not higher.
This is very common when managers position themselves higher in order to “prove” they are those who everyone should listen to. I don’t like this “artificial hierarchy” approach and usually suggest a different path which I believe brings better results in fact.
You simply play the role of a manager in a team. And this is what actually happens. We all play different roles.
So when there is a failure, or other not good situation, make sure to be a part of the failure as well. Because this is in fact the role of a manager to be responsible for the team’s results, including failure. You can always say that you were not able to make everything and everyone work as planned.
This position and your words will mean more for your team if you are with them, not separated, not blaming them for doing something wrong.
In the success situations however it is better to take a position that it is all about the team effort and not specifically mention any of your own merits.
Step #3. Separate problems from people.
When there’s a problem the last thing you need to spend time on in the critical moment is blaming the person who is responsible.
If you do so this person gets defensive and you will not solve the problem effectively. And by that you will simply screw the relationships in the team, and this will stay after you solve the problem eventually.
So blaming is a poor step both short and long term.
What is better is to separate the problem and clearly state that “there is a problem in front of us and we need everyone on the team to help to solve it”.
Be sure the responsible person will understand it anyway. But what happens in this scenario is that they won’t get defensive but rather will do their best to really help.
Later, when the situation is settled, you will be able to figure out what caused the problem in the first place so you could avoid this in future, and not because you want to find somebody who caused the problem.
Step #4. Do not support finger-pointing in any form.
Often in “toxic teams” people tend to say that someone does wrong with this and that. And this can be presented in the form of a feedback to a manager.
It is better to react to this type of feedback in a way that you appreciate a person caring about the business and the team. But also ask him or her if they actually discussed this question with the person face to face first? What exactly did they try to do themselves to help the situation?
By this you gently point out that the best way in similar situations would be to firstly do something, try to help as a team member, and only if this doesn’t work go to a manager.
This is good because of the 2 reasons:
1) People will start trying to improve things without escalation first because otherwise it would look as if they were simply blaming others. And this is not cool.
2) When people try to help, they become attached to the situation they are dealing with, and this additionally helps to bond the team. Eventually you will see people actually solving the situations and constructively discussing the real problem, not people.
That’s all folks. Hope this helps. And keep in mind that there is no single correct solution, and each situation is individual and can be solved in different ways. Here, I’m just describing things the way I see them, and of course it’s up to you if you want to try this approach or stick to a different one.