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