Toxic is a strong word to use in the context of a team of professionals. However, from time to time (thankfully only rarely) one will come across teams where the word is truly apt.
The symptoms of the toxic team are varied and numerous but include some or all of the following factors in varying degrees:
Blaming , bullying and scapegoating
A large element of the ‘undiscussable’ within the team – items deemed too difficult to raise but which permeate the atmosphere, creating tension
Cliques and ‘in-crowds’
Favouritism from the boss
‘double talk’ – individuals saying one thing to some colleagues and another thing to others
Talking about – and badmouthing – colleagues behind their backs
Lack of openness in discussions – particularly around disclosure of feelings
Lack of clarity on values, processes and protocols, leading to lack of agreement on what is acceptable conduct
Unfair distribution of work
Pre-occupation with internal disputes and issues at the expense of focus on the work at hand
Dominance of selfish or trouble-making team members
These are just some of the causes and symptoms. From a coach’s perspective, toxicity is something one senses early on in an assignment. Sometimes it can be felt in the guarded or negative remarks made by a team leader in an initial contracting discussion: or when walking into a team meeting for the first time and finding the atmosphere sullen, tense or even actively hostile.
What causes toxicity in teams?
The causes of toxicity are difficult to pin down: organizations are complex systems and the dynamics of teams are complex too. All sorts of factors play a part – cultural, political, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Within my own experience I would highlight the following factors, bearing in mind that the causes are often complex:
Example one: the team left ‘to rot’ by senior managers
This is a syndrome that seems to happen mainly in large public organizations, including government ministries, the health service, local authorities and parts of the media. Cases vary widely, but the common denominator in my experience is that senior teams of specialists, such as hospital consultants, senior civil servants or journalists, are left largely unmanaged and fall into a dysfunctional and ultimately toxic state. The organization effectively turns a blind eye to them until it is too late, at which point a team development specialist is sometimes called in to clear up the mess caused by managerial neglect. The trap for the team coach is to be seduced into taking on the dirty work of the senior management and risking taking the blame if the team continues to fail. »