Interpersonal toxicity is lethal to companies, especially ones in the early stages of growth. More than 75% of employees said a toxic workplace affects their dedication to a company, according to Harvard Business School research. Startups and scaling companies risk losing everything to toxic teams that increase stress and decrease efficiency.
But toxicity is difficult to quantify. At what point does an employee’s poor behavior become a hinderance to productivity? Should managers measure the latent issues (like team morale) to which the employee contributes, or should they evaluate whether someone diverged too far from the company’s mission and values? Unfortunately, there aren’t one-size-fits-all answers to these questions. Team leaders need to first assess what problems exist in their individual workplaces and then discover the root causes.
For example, if you notice a team’s turbulent output, they may be struggling with trust. A team that doesn’t share and reflect on mistakes won’t ever become a top performer. As the leader, it’s up to you to identify this toxicity (a lack of trust) and encourage an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their highs and lows.
The good news? You’re not alone when dealing with toxicity. APQC research found that almost all managers deal with similar problems. I’ve personally dealt with overcoming toxic behavior at every stage of our company (from five employees to more than 100).
One of my favorite analogies is “the toxic pizza.” When a volatile employee speaks up during a team meeting, the employee has essentially delivered a poisoned pizza to the table, free of charge. If you’re running the meeting, all team members will look at you to see what you do. If you haven’t prepared for this moment, then every member of the team will take a bite. Toxicity bleeds into everyone that comes into contact with it — some more than others.
5 steps to turning around toxic teams
In theory, preventive action is the best solution. Some team leaders impose no-tolerance policies and list in detail what toxic behavior leads to an offense. Others routinely send out surveys and gauge the workplace environment based on employee feedback, hoping to extinguish toxicity before it flares.
If you’re facing toxicity right now, here’s how you can get your team back on track:
Take responsibility. It falls on team leaders to address workplace toxicity. By taking ownership of the situation, you can focus on the best solution and align your team members in the process. Make sure everyone is on the same page.
Listen actively. Corporate change should happen from the inside. Management needs to understand the state of the company’s culture before they can fix it. Create employee engagement surveys, pay attention to the day-to-day, and be receptive to feedback.
Enforce policies. Once you discover best practices, it’s time to put them into action. Hold your team accountable for their performance and behavior. When everyone knows what to expect, there aren’t any surprises.
Thoroughly communicate. Change isn’t a one-way street. Explain your efforts to eliminate toxicity and discuss the team’s progress with everyone. A successful transformation is the result of a strategic approach and empathetic communication.
Keep trying. Change also doesn’t happen overnight, so commit to it and keep a positive attitude. Reward behavior that you’d like to see more often and, if necessary, remove the employees that drag everyone down.
Remember the pizza: One toxic bite can affect your whole team.