Team discord leads to personal stress, low job satisfaction, poor productivity, anger, despair, and psychosomatic illness such as insomnia, muscle pain, headache and gastritis. At a team level, it can impair productivity, learning, collaboration, and even survival. This discord also greatly affects others in an organization as well as its contractors, clients and consumers. And the final price tag is very high. How can you get a toxic team past its dysfunctional behavior? Dr. Christine Riordan, Dean of the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver, cites recent research that suggests a way out:
LEADERS MUST INITIATE VALIENTE CONVERSATIONS: Research has confirmed that a leader’s ability to address team conflict is crucial to successfully resolving toxicity. Ideally, the team’s own leader will address the issue, but if the leader is part of the problem, another team member or someone from outside must initiate the conversation. The true mettle of a team is tested by how it deals with bad behaviors and violated expectations, and its success may hinge on how well its leader handles them. Leaders who avoid crucial conversations, fearful of damaging relationships, ultimately pay a price in damaged team morale and low productivity.
ACCOUNTABILITY WORKS BETTER THAN BULLYING: Once a leader initiates the crucial conversations, team members must join in and take responsibility for their roles in causing team toxicity. It is far easier to blame and judge others than to look at one’s own part in the problem. Sometimes members bully one another to get their way. This can take the form of spreading rumors, making unfounded accusations, yelling, glaring, interrupting, undercutting, undervaluing, humiliating, or sabotaging other members of the team. Such actions create a miserable work environment. Members should focus on achieving team results and engaging in behaviors that help the team move forward.
GET THOSE SKILLS UP TO SPEED: work on communication, conflict management and problem-solving skills. Just as individuals can need help with personal relationships, teams can need help developing and maintaining positive, synergenic relationships. In tense situations, people often make rash judgments and assign blame. Professionally facilitated sessions can help air basic issues and help make people better team members.
SHARE THE VISION WITH THE GOALS: Along with clear goals, a shared vision of the larger purpose behind those goals provides structure and direction and a context within which members can make decisions. Involve the team in goal setting to increase each member’s buy-in and commitment.
GET THE TEAM “CHARTERED”: agree upon a minimal set of ground rules for how members of the team will behave, make decisions, share information, and support one another. Social contracts set the norms for team interaction. They may both prescribe positive behaviors (e.g., be honest, transparent, candid, and trustworthy) and proscribe negative ones (e.g., no negative e-mail blasts to team members, no interrupting, etc.).
DISAGREEMENTS CAN GROW A TEAM: Differences of opinion, respectful debate, and constructive conflict do not have to ravage a team and can, indeed, make for a healthier team. Discussions and debates about serious issues usually result in better team decisions, as long as they don´t get personal. Team members must know when to stop fighting or complaining and when to start listening or gathering more evidence. They must remain open to new ideas, accept input from others, explore options and work toward win-win solutions. Each member must recognize that his or her idea may not always offer the best solution, and must accept the chosen outcome instead of harboring grudges against other members.
Dysfunction leads to devastation. Team members must recognize this fact to avoid missing opportunities for the great achievements that only a team can accomplish. As Malcolm Gladwell notes in his book Outliers, “No one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone.”