Handle your toxic team member

We’ve all been there. A new initiative is announced and you’re tapped for the project team that will handle planning and implementation. You may be excited about it or dreading it. And some of that may relate to whether you raised your hand for the opportunity or were “volun-told” to take on this extra responsibility. Either way, working on a project team usually means taking on work in addition to your regular job duties and working with people that you may not regularly interact with. Getting off to a good start with clear expectations and a commitment to working well as a team can shape the experience in a positive way.

Recently a client shared with me her frustrations working on a special project team that was floundering. Their meetings were dragging on and little progress was being made. Dynamics among the team members was problematic and there were emails circulating among some on the team about the toxic team members who seemed to be holding the group back. My client feared that her association with this poor-performing team would negatively impact her reputation and possibly affect her performance review. While she wanted off the team, she knew that the best course of action would be to address the issues the group was facing so that they could move forward and get the job done.

We discussed some of the individual and team behaviors that were getting in the way and looked at how best to address some of the difficult personalities on the team. By naming the toxic behavior that was negatively impacting the team’s performance, we were able to come up with ways to combat the behavior and get back on track. You may recognize some of the toxic team members outlined below. Here are a few ways to deal effectively with them when you encounter them on your next project team:

The Know-It-All – The person who thinks he has all the answers can be hard to handle. Often he will shut down creativity as he pushes through his ideas and argues strongly for his opinions. One way to deal with the know-it-all team member is to have the group work in pairs or trios to come up with ideas and solutions. This allows everyone to weigh in and gives the team the opportunity to hear multiple strategies and ideas.

The Chatterbox – One big energy drainer on a team is the person who goes on and on when they have the floor. He takes 10 minutes to say what can be said in two – and drives everyone else crazy. If you have one of these difficult personalities on your team, you’ll have to agree to some ground rules and processes for the group. Assigning someone to the role of facilitator for the meeting can help keep the conversation moving and gives permission to interject and open up the floor to other team members.

The Naysayer – This project team member can also squash creativity and stifle team interaction. Often proud to be the self-proscribed “devil’s advocate,” she has a reason why every solution won’t work, how every idea has been tried already, and why the work of the team won’t be appreciated. Having the group agree to ask questions for clarification rather than responding with a reason why something can’t be done creates an environment where the group learns more about an idea and focuses on understanding instead of shooting down.

The Absentee – Progress on a team can be severely hampered by the person who regularly shows up late or misses meetings. Often the group will find itself revisiting past decisions and conversations because the absentee is not aware of what went on before. Again, a team agreement about consistent participation can help. Early on, the group should decide whether it’s OK to send a representative in your absence and how absent members will be informed of what took place. Ultimately, the absentee team member may have to be replaced or asked to leave the team.

The Whiteboard Hog – It can be almost comical to watch this toxic team member jump up, grab a marker, and take their position at the whiteboard. Often this is a tactic to control the conversation. Using a whiteboard to visually capture a concept or record ideas during brainstorming is essential to the project team process. And some people are particularly good at that. If you have someone on your team who does that well, then encourage her to step up to the whiteboard. Make it clear that you’ll take turns at that role and set ground rules for ensuring that all ideas are captured during brainstorming.

Toxic team members can spell disaster for any team – and particularly for cross-functional teams brought together for a specific project. Taking the time upfront to launch and orient the team properly, set ground rules and team agreements, and define roles and responsibilities will help ensure a successful outcome.