Turning the Tide on Toxic Teams: Introducing New Ways for Work®—Leaders Training

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Turning the Tide on Toxic Teams: Introducing New Ways for Work®—Leaders Course


© 2024 by Cherolyn Knapp, B. Comm, Q.Med

Have you ever found yourself leading a toxic team? When a tide of negativity is threatening the whole team, it’s confounding and confusing. Employees can be quick to identify that they work in a “toxic workplace” but how do leaders know the team has gone toxic?

Reports of bad behaviour are brought to you and you find yourself thinking, “come on, we’re all adults here, can’t we just sort this out and move on?” As a leader, you are going from fire to fire and might be feeling burnt out yourself.

As a leader, you might be spending most of your time dealing with “HR issues,” or dreading dealing with those issues, rather than the work of the team. When yet another interpersonal issue happens, you might say to yourself, “I’ve never seen anything like this before” or “I think I’m a pretty good leader but the stuff I normally do just isn’t working now.”

When leaders find themselves in this situation, it’s time to step back, look at the whole picture and figure out what needs to happen to change deeply entrenched problem teams.

High conflict teams and the individuals who fuel them

Sometimes an entire team can seem to take on the characteristics of a high conflict personality: there is repeated blaming, unmanaged emotion, extreme behaviour and all or nothing thinking. Most of the individuals seem reasonable when you talk with them individually but you keep hearing about problematic behaviour like hyper-criticism, destructive gossip and chatter, disrupted team meetings, and reply-all email or text chats that take on a life of their own.

The workplace culture may have become polarized into us vs. them. People are constantly upset, unfocused on work, quick to demand accountability, slow to take responsibility, calling in sick and leaving. And there so many complaints.

At HCI, our knowledge and experience leads us to believe that most times toxic teams and workplaces are likely being fueled by one or two key players with high conflict personalities. You yourself have probably been involved with a work group that seemed impossible, but when one person went on vacation, the entire team breathed more easily and managed to interact productively.

There are a couple of key reasons this can happen. Primarily, emotion are contagious. If there is a high conflict personality on the team who experiences unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviour, that’s going to be catchy and before you know it, everyone is regularly upset. Secondly, people with high conflict personalities tend to cultivate negative advocates. They can be convincing and they look for allies who support their distorted outlook, which fosters division and polarization on the team.

None of this is child’s play. The cost of toxic teams can be high. There is lost productivity because everyone is mired in the conflict rather than the work of the team. Quality decreases. Good employees who can’t deal with the toxic culture anymore leave, taking organizational knowhow with them. People feel burnt out and their wellbeing suffers. Recruitment and retention in an already tight labor market becomes near impossible.

Missteps by well-meaning leaders

As leaders, our first inclination is often to talk with the person who seems to be at the centre of the problems about how their behaviour lands on others. If we lack high conflict savvy, these well-meaning coaching chats go in circles. The high conflict employee is adept at taking control of the conversation and we end up listening to them vent about everyone else. The venting never seems to make them feel better and they never grasp what we want them to change. Other members of the team say they bring forward their concerns but “nothing ever gets done.”

Another possible direction these conversations go is that the alleged “problem-person” may say all the right things, which is confusing. They’ll say it’s not fair that people haven’t come to them directly – even if they have and it didn’t go well. People with high conflict personalities may say they welcome open communication but in reality they are very sensitive and even mild feedback feels like an attack. Well meaning leaders may incorrectly conclude that both people share responsibility for conflicts and expect co-workers to sort it out rather than setting clear limits on destructive behaviour.

Another possible direction when leaders try to get an employee to see how their difficult behaviour is landing on other people is you become the target of blame. The employee accuses you of singling them out for mistreatment, or favouring their co-workers, or being a bully. Every time you try to inject reason into the conversation, your competence is challenged, or your ethics, or whether you actually care.

Leaders who understand high conflict behaviour can avoid missteps that lead them into the above traps. We have worked with many very competent, well-meaning leaders who make these common mistakes when grappling with toxic team behaviour:

  • Relying on the same leadership skills to work with all the people all the time
  • Avoiding dealing with things because of leadership portfolios that are too demanding and hoping things will sort themselves out in time
  • Giving too much benefit of the doubt to employees who are actually derailing the team and concluding that both “sides” are contributing equally to difficulties. Not realizing – or forgetting – that some people actually seem to thrive on creating chaos.
  • Not setting clear expectations for workplace behaviour and imposing consistent consequences when those expectations are not met

New Ways for Work®—Leaders

At HCI, we are keenly familiar with the impact that people with high-conflict personalities have on creating a toxic team culture and the challenges that poses to workplace leaders. New Ways for Work – Leaders is a brand new course designed for people leaders in any workplace. That includes supervisors, clinical leaders, managers, directors, executives, board and committee chairs, union leaders, and elected officials. This course is for anyone who leads groups of people in public, private, non-profit and volunteer sectors.

Participants will learn how to apply the CARS Method® principles of Connecting for Calm, Analyzing Options, Responding to Hostility and Misinformation, and Setting Limits as well as the 4 Big Skills™. We have compiled key information and strategies that leaders need to apply those foundational building blocks for navigating critical leadership areas, including:

  • Ongoing griping and negativity
  • Disruptive behavior in meetings and group settings
  • Group email and team chat tornados
  • Managing performance and implementing discipline
  • Formal workplace complaints and legal processes
  • Supporting a high functioning team

Leaders will have a chance to learn and practice these building blocks through demonstrations, group discussions and role play scenarios. Our goal is to equip leaders in any workplace to identify high conflict behaviour and to acquire strategies for navigating high conflict behaviour effectively.

New Ways for Work® is a people-first, trauma-informed methodology. We promote compassion, empathy, and a no blame, no shame approach grounded in cultural and mental health sensitivity.

New Ways for Work®Leaders is being piloted on July 16 and 18, 2024 at 8:30 am to 12:30 pm Pacific Time. Register to receive promotional pricing. Pilot participants will be asked for feedback on the course, which we will integrate. Look for a recurring course schedule starting September 2024 with offerings in various time-zones throughout the year.

For course details and registration, visit our course site here.

Cherolyn Knapp, B.Comm, LL.B, Q.Med. is a conflict resolution consultant, mediator, trainer, workplace investigator, and lawyer based in Victoria, Canada. She holds a B.Comm (Human Resources) from Toronto Metropolitan University and an LL.B. from the University of Ottawa. Cherolyn began teaching HCI’s techniques in 2019, and she now brings a thorough knowledge of high conflict personality traits and resolution strategies to HCI’s trainings. Cherolyn is the New Ways for Work® instructor for HCI.

Please send your thoughts on this article to us at info@highconflictinstitute.com.

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