Paul Glen: How to deal with a toxic team

Paul Glen: How to deal with a toxic team

Senior managers need to act when they realize that the project they are responsible for is heading for disaster. But how do you know whether that action should be applying a little pressure, tweaking the process, parachuting in your best troubleshooter or completely overhauling the project team?

When faced with this dilemma, most managers lean toward minimalist approaches, because radical interventions carry bigger risks. Excessive interventions can impose unnecessary costs, introduce new problems or destroy morale. Unfortunately, small changes rarely fix big problems.

The biggest problems crop up when the group develops a toxic culture. Such teams passively refuse to implement new processes, push back against changes to deliverables or poison the goodwill of anyone you add to the group. They have caught a superbug, the organizational equivalent of drug-resistant bacteria. A toxic culture can't be rooted out with small modifications to processes or personnel. You need to do something big, like canceling the project or overhauling the team.

Here are five warning signs that might indicate that you have a toxic team:

Apathy: Toxic teams have no sense of urgency about anything. They put in no extra effort to meet a deadline, don't become frustrated by obstacles and religiously stick to regular office hours. The team's members may not be naturally apathetic people, but they have come to believe that they are helpless to control their own success.

Antipathy: Toxic teams are animated by self-righteous hostility toward other groups in the organization. It can be healthy for a team to want to prove how good they are (or even how much better they are than everyone else) by delivering spectacular successes. You have trouble, though, when that mutates into a determination to show how bad everyone else is by treating them disrespectfully and openly denigrating their abilities and intentions.

Rigidity: Toxic teams can be pervaded by a dogmatic belief that there is one and only one right way to do anything. For them, compromise is evil. But technical work is all about compromise, and refusal to engage in it is a very bad sign. Be aware, though, that you might mistakenly see teamwide rigidity when actually it's a case of one difficult leader or a sponsor who is asking for technical impossibilities.

Repetition: Everyone makes mistakes, but toxic teams repeat the same ones over and over. That suggests that the group's leaders are either unable to learn from their mistakes or are incapable of changing how the group thinks or behaves.

Isolation: Toxic teams never come to you proactively with information on progress, problems or questions. They avoid communicating with sponsors and users, especially when they know that there are delivery issues. In the worst cases, they actively avoid contact initiated by others.

When you see these problems, you need to make decisive changes that get attention, remove obstacles and unambiguously demonstrate your commitment to the behaviors and values the team needs to succeed. You may need to fire or remove the team's leaders, cancel service contracts, reorganize the team structure or demand that they redo unacceptable work.

I see risky and pervasive interventions as a last resort. But when you see teams with deep dysfunctions that virtually guarantee their failure, you shouldn't hesitate to take bold action.

Paul Glen, CEO of Leading Geeks, is devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. His newest book is 8 Steps to Restoring Client Trust: A Professional's Guide to Managing Client Conflict. You can contact him at

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

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