Top tips for dealing with a toxic team member

Hit Leader Hass Culture, Leadership, Management Leave a Comment

The majority of us have been there. We end up working with  “that” person who just doesn’t want to do their job. They seem to not care that they aren’t doing it well and have no real desire to sort themselves out. In fact, it gets much worse. They end up draining the life and motivation of all those around them and bring productivity to a standstill. How do you even work with a person like that? If you are their manager and leader – what should you do about it?

Here is a long list of traits and behaviours you may see in these “toxic team members”:

  • backstabbing, criticizing, and blaming
  • gossiping and spreading rumors
  • agreeing in meetings, but not following through afterward
  • hiding information and lieing
  • purposely undermining others
  • caring only about personal agendas (over team and company goals)

I have met a few of these people in my day and they can be a real pain to deal with. If you don’t deal with it quickly and correctly the time to repair any damage caused begins to increase substantially.

It only takes one

One of my favourite games to play is a card game I got from some dear friends called Saboteur. The aim of the game, if you are a miner, is to get to the gold. You will build paths to explore and seek out the treasure that you have been dreaming about since you were a little miner baby. You will work together as a team to build the path, putting the right peices together to avoid obstacles and hit your goal. However, one of you isn’t all they seem to be. They are the Saboteur, and no one knows their identify. Their sole purpose is to derail the miners, to throw down path cards that steer the team away from their precious treasure and ultimately to ensure they do not succeed. It only takes one Saboteur in the game to create tension between everyone and turn people against one another. It only takes one Saboteur in the game to increase the chance of failure and decrease the chance of the team succeeding to achieve their goals.

If you have one team member or even one single person in the organisation who has some or all of the traits above they will destroy the effectiveness of your projects and ultimately – your organisation. This research suggests that the single most important factor in team success or failure is the quality of ALL relationships on the team. The research shows that team success caorrelates to the quality of all of the team relationships – so if there is one toxic colleague, that will have a huge impact on the team.

This one person can suck the positivity out of the room and dampen creativity as the rest of the team begin to close up, stop taking risks, speaking candidly and openly innovating together. This isn’t just something that is visible internally – others will see it too. It will be obvious that this team isn’t cohesive or inclined to be a high performing team. Additionally, because it is something that can be easily persived it will likely contradict the majority of the organisations values. It will beg the question as to whether everyone is held to the same organisational standards and values. The scary thing is that if it is left to continue for too long it can become the new team and organisation culture without you even realising it.

Handling the toxic one

I am a firm believer that open and honest communication between your team and organisation is key to effective relationships and build a firm foundation of trust. This openness needs to especially be true in times of crises. You shouldn’t hide from any issues – you should confront them and own them then try and resolve them. Here are the 4 steps you should take to resolve this dire situation:

1. Talk to them

Whether you are their manager or not you need to talk to them. If you see that their behaviour is a detrement to the team, the culture and the organisation you need to act. You cannot sit back and ignore it. Chances are if this is a consistent set of behaviours they aren’t very self-aware – in fact this research says most of us aren’t. They are not going to suddenly make a  U turn and become productive and awesome. In some cases they may not even realise what they are doing is having such a negative impact on your or the team. You have nothing to lose by confronting them about this.

When engaging, you need to make your very best attempt at providing valuable and actionable feedback. Highlight the behaviour, the impact it is having and ALWAYS provide them with tips and pointers to resolve the issue. Even if it is so blaitently obvious what they need to do to get from where they are to where they need to be, it can be immensely helpful for them to have something that models the expected behaviours to work to.

Don’t make the conversation about them, make it about their actions. Don’t say “You are a backstabbing, gossiping, lieing idiot…”, instead say “The gossip that you spread…”, “The lie that you told….” etc.

It doesn’t have to be a one-sided conversation either. It can often be useful to ask for them to provide feedback on your behaviour too. Why not make peer feedback and reviews more regular so that this kind of thing doesn’t go unchecked for a long period of time. If you build up regular, open feedback sessions, this can provide a good platform for highlighting toxic behaviour and dealing with it head on (this post has a bit more on these type of sessions and why they can be so helpful).

2. Be the change you want to see

It can be so easy to get sucked into an all out brawl with the toxic one but you need to resist the urge. You need to focus on keeping your team together and press on to achieve your team and organisational goals. You need to show this person what it means to live out the expected behaviours – you need to set the standard. Look for feedback from others and always look to improve. Be the change you want to see in this person.

3. Escalate

Don’t be afraid to take this issue up the chain. I have had to do this several times. Often, those above you will have more sway with the person and there is a greater chance they will take on board the feedback they received. It is also important to keep your team leader or manager in the loop in case they are unaware of the situation and they can help to resolve it.

Personally, I have found that sometimes it can be helpful to remove yourself from the situation and involving your manager can do that. Don’t let it get too emotional and heated – step back and let someone else resolve the situation – there is no shame in that!

4. It’s not you, it’s them

Don’t take their toxic behaviour personally. In most cases it has nothing to do with you – you are just collateral damage. Their behaviour has more to do with a lack of self-awareness, insecurity, emotional intelligence or their past experiences. This all points to this toxic behaviour as more likely to be something they aren’t neccesarily going out to do. In the majority of cases, they don’t wake up planning to play the part of the toxic colleague.

5. The last resort

I am a big believer that if you hire right, you shouldn’t need to fire anyone. In this case, I believe you need to work with this person to try and resolve the issue as I am sure they weren’t like this when you hired them – right?

As a leader, your goal should be to help those around you succeed – even if they are a bad apple. Give them the opportunities they need to grow in the right direction. Work together to help them improve – if they are open to it. Sometimes the person needs mentorship, a new role they feel comfortable in or emotional support. There are so many avenues you should look at before you considering firing the person. You can even set up a performance improvement plan and hold them to account against it regularly. At the same time it is important to protect your team and your organisation and if you feel there is no way of bringing them back on board then, yes, you need to let them go. You could also try a suspension to give them thinking time before actually firing them.

If you have tried other avenues and have nothing left – you need to let them go. Keeping a toxic person like this in your teams and organisations can have detrimental and far-reaching effects on productivity and the trust based culture you have worked so hard to build.

Don’t be the toxic one

Self-awareness is a key skill to life. You need to have a deep insight into your actions and how they affect the world around you. The one thing in this world you control is yourself – your actions and your reactions. You have the power to be the toxic one and you have the power to be a great leader to help others grow and succeed – through your actions. You need to keep yourself in check, reflect inwardly reguarly, get feedback from others and set yourself goals and milestones to review.

As with anyone, I am sure you have some bad habbits. These habbits can sometimes be destructive to those around us. The problem with habbits is that they are wired in and you simply can’t switch them off from the socket. You need to rewire yourself – bad habbits can’t just dissapear, they need to be replaced by good ones. The thing to note is that habbits can change – you can change and improve!

Read up on how to be more emotionally intelligent and self-aware here.


If you find yourself dealing with someone toxic at work there are a number of things you can do to deal with it. Firing them isn’t always the right thing to do. However, it only takes one rotten apple to spoil the bunch. Here is what you need to do:

  1. Nip this toxic behaviour in the bud quickly. One toxic person can have a huge effect on your teams and culture. Don’t let the toxicity spread and become the norm.
  2. Talk to them. Show them. Don’t take it personally. Escalate if you need to and only fire them as a lasst resort. Give them every opportunity to improve and succeed that you can.
  3. Keep yourself in check with better self-awareness, emotional intelligence and regular, humbling feedback from those around you.

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