Fixing a Toxic Team

Team of MushroomsWhen the culture of a team goes toxic, the team leader may ask, “Do I have to fire someone to fix this?” Sometimes the answer is yes: one well-negotiated dismissal of a volunteer or staff member sometimes turns a team around. More often, though, the problem is rooted in group behavior, so the dismissal of one member doesn’t change much. Transforming the culture of a toxic team is hard work, and it begins with looking at the team’s behavioral norms.

Behavioral norms are the informal, usually unspoken rules groups follow when they work together. Some norms are helpful to the team’s work and some are not. An example of a helpful norm is, “Our team members don’t receive or respond to anonymous complaints.” An example of an unhelpful norm is, “Any complaint registered by any person in the congregation is grounds for stopping the activity complained about.”

In a toxic team, members don’t make use of one another’s skills and abilities. They engage in gossip, backbiting, and excessive complaining. They hold grudges and expect the worst from one another. As a result, morale is low, and the team performs less well than its members do.

Hitting Reset

To reset the culture, invite your team to consider the following six areas of interaction. For each area, write down any norms team members agree describe its current practice. Hold off for now on considering whether the norms are helpful or unhelpful—that comes later.

Participation and Engagement: Who initiates team interaction? How are others expected to respond? How do we ask one another for help? How do we balance our time together vs. time alone, time onsite vs. time offsite? How do we manage meetings? When do we have fun?

Managing Performance: How do we set expectations, share feedback, and hold ourselves accountable? How do we evaluate our progress? What are the consequences when someone fails to follow through? How do we reward or celebrate success?

Information Sharing: Who gets access to information and how are we expected to share what we know? How is confidentiality handled? What do we share with one another about our personal lives?

Decision Making: Who decides which problems we will address? How quickly are decisions made? Who must be consulted before we decide? Who has veto power? How do we know when we have decided? How do we follow through on decisions we have made?

Handling Conflict: What conflict management strategies do we default to: accommodation, avoidance, compromise, competition, collaboration? What is our practice for managing complaints lodged against the team? How do members negotiate complaints they have against one another?

Leadership: Who speaks on our behalf? Whom do we defer to? Who assigns work? Do our leadership practices change depending on the issue or circumstance? What style or styles of leadership do we value?

Narrow In

After the team has identified current behavioral norms, concentrate on the unhelpful ones. Post the behavioral norms you’ve named on newsprint around the room. Give each team member five sticky dots and ask them to place them on the most unhelpful behaviors. Encourage them to select behaviors that, if changed, would make the biggest difference for the wellbeing of the team.

When voting is complete, focus conversation on the behaviors that received the most dots. Explore the assumptions and values that drive each behavior. Why is each behavior problematic for the team? What rewards do we get for behaving in this manner? What values are we protecting or promoting? What unresolved tension between our values does this behavior reveal?

Then, invite team members to name alternatives to each of the unhelpful norms. For example, one team named this norm as problematic: “We are expected to make decisions on important issues in the same meeting when we receive information about those issues.” Together, the team decided to claim a more helpful behavior moving forward: “Team members are given at least twenty-four hours to consider new information before making a decision.”

Make a Commitment

Once the preferred behaviors are identified, consider adopting a behavioral covenant. A behavioral covenant is a written document developed by the team, agreed to and owned by its creators. The covenant answers the question, “How will we behave, especially when we don’t agree or understand each other?”

A leader cannot impose a behavioral covenant on a team. The team must create the covenant together and decide to hold themselves accountable to its content. It may take time to let the team decide they can trust themselves to commit. Limit your commitment to a handful of new behaviors so the team can focus on a few critical changes.

Follow Through

To be effective, a covenant must be practiced as a regular spiritual discipline. Keep the covenant visible and central to the life of the team. Review it regularly in team meetings. Let existing team members teach the norms to new members. Occasionally, ask the team to self-evaluate by asking, “How are we honoring (or not) each clause of our covenant?”

Finally, realize that all covenants will be breached. The team has not failed when someone breaks one of the promises. The team fails only when the violation is not addressed by other members of the team. Here is a simple five-step model for teaching team members to confront one another in a spirit of love when promises are broken:

  • State what you observed in concrete terms: “Yesterday in the staff meeting I noticed….”
  • Describe the impact: “I felt (or experienced)….”
  • Wait for a Response. Listen to the other person as they describe their own experience.
  • Remind them of the standard: “Remember, when we adopted our team covenant we agreed to….”
  • Ask for, or suggest, a specific solution: “Next time, …”

Team cultures are difficult to change. Behavioral norms are often passed unexamined from one generation of leaders to the next. However, you don’t have to let a culture remain toxic. You can transform a team’s culture by naming its behavioral norms, evaluating them as either helpful or unhelpful, and crafting better choices—together.

Inside the Large Congregation cover
Susan Beaumont specializes in the unique leadership needs of large churches and synagogues. Her areas of expertise include staff team health, strategic planning, size transitions, pastoral transitions and adaptive leadership. She is the author of the Alban book Inside the Large Congregation.

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