How to manage toxic teams – before your people start quitting

Dysfunctional relationships are killing your culture and driving senior leaders to leave

How to manage toxic teams – before your people start quitting

Bernard Desmidt believes he knows what makes for a successful, high-performing team because hes been part of a team that was toxic and ineffective. Arriving from South Africa in the early 2000s to work for an IT and telecommunications distributor in Australia, he was confused why everyone called each other matewhen they were clearly far from being mates.

Most concerning were the dysfunctional relationships born out of levels of distrust and disrespect of othersdiffering views and opinions. More was unsaid for fear of disagreeing with the predominant view. Team members wouldnt express their concerns with the person involved,” says Desmidt.

A lack of trust and infighting within teams are an all too common experience. But since the accelerated move towards hybrid and remote working and virtual teamwork, communication has become more complex. 

For example, Desmidt says that some leaders feel their teams are having too many unproductive virtual meetings partly due to the effort required for teams to stay engaged and in touch. Trust has also been undermined as suspicions about what team members are really doing and whether they are being distracted at home.

The propensity to hide behindemails and texts, or misinterpret their intention, or put in writing what a person wouldnt say face to face, all create a breakdown in good team relations. But given that virtual collaboration is on the increase, how can managers cultivate effective teams when no one is in the same room?

Cracking conflict

Joe Hart is an organisational psychologist who spent seven years at Gallup, a global leader in engagement and strengths based development. He says: It takes hard work, discipline and a commitment from each team member to put aside their personal ambitions in favour of the team.”

Healthy conflict is part of any team and the goal is knowing that people wont take it as a personal attack but see it as a commitment to the success of the team, says Hart.

His advice is to create triangles of trust between two team members who arent seeing eye to eye and only involve a manager to help reach a resolution in partnership.

If youre going to say something about someone, you say it to their face rather than immediately going to a manager. This goes for both positive and negative comments.” Just having a direct dialogue, although it may not resolve the conflict initially, reinforces trust through the system, says Hart.

Bonding the team

If individuals feel bonded by being part of a team that they feel has great worth, conflict will be kept to a minimum.

Teams are motivated by a sense of belonging and identity that is gained through shared purpose. Everyone needs to feel like their contribution is meaningful not only for them but contributes to the success of the team,” says Hart.

High performing teams are able to visualise a shared future, adds Desmidt. They motivate each other, learn from each other, resolve disputes and perform their jobs in ways that strengthen the overall system.”

To build that kind of rapport requires design and discipline, experts agree, especially when colleagues are out of sight.

"Teams do not become teams because they call themselves teams or because they have engaged in some'team building' activity. Team building may help in getting to know people better, but discipline is essential to achieving as a team,” says Desmidt.

What that means in practice is not only developing a culture built on mutual respect and trust but fine tuning the details of what needs to be achieved and how.

How, what and when

In his coaching, Desmidt gets teams to plan and agree on:

  • What they are there to achieve
  • Their collective performance goals and which ones are only achievable by working interdependently.
  • What actions they will commit to.
  • How their success on each goal is measured.

Hart takes a blended approach to training, strengthening the work habits of the team and offering one-to-one coaching for individual members.

Group training is fantastic at learning how to define the purpose and expectations as a collective, but people arent always open to sharing what they find challenging about teamwork in a group setting. This is where one-to-one coaching can be a powerful tool to enable individuals to open up about where they need support most and, more importantly, receive personalised coaching based on those needs,” says Hart.

A method that works well for larger cohorts is to coach somebody live on screen while the rest of the team observes remotely.

It requires bravery from the individual that is being coached but there is always one person willing to put their hand up. Interestingly, when we view somebody else getting coached, we see ourselves in the conversation and the transfer of learning is much more powerful,” says Hart.

While many high-performing teams are made up of very skilled and smart people, its individuals ability to empathise with each other that gets a unit operating like a well-oiled machine.

Teams distinguish themselves by how they commit to engage and relate when together – and apart – and, above all they hold themselves and each other accountable to collective performance goals they know can be achieved only by working interdependently,” says Desmidt.

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