How to deal with a toxic teammate

Toxic people can impact not just individuals but whole teams. Experts share strategies for using your emotional intelligence to deal with teammates who display toxic behaviors
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The law of averages suggests that sooner or later, you’re likely to encounter someone in your organization who exhibits toxic behavior.

“Most of our work environments have elements of what we refer to as ‘toxicity’,” says AmyJo Mattheis, executive leadership coach and CEO of Pavo Navigation Coaching, “and the impact can be devastating to a team. When things are unclear and confusing, that is when people begin to feel afraid and [under] threat, which fuels the spread of toxicity.”

That can have significant effects on the rest of us. “Individuals will experience health issues due to stress, burnout is common, constant worry, lack of ability to perform to full ability, and many other dysfunctions as a result of bullying in the workplace, lack of psychological safety, and persistent stress and pressure,” says Jeanet Wade, business consultant and author of The Human Team: So, You Created a Team But People Showed Up!

Toxic behavior can result in communication problems, project issues, and deliverable delays.

The impact on the team and larger organization can be just as devastating. “A toxic team member casts a pall over the team and is a drag on the performance of each individual on the team and the whole team,” says Kevin Cuthbert, consultant and executive advisor at executive coaching and assessment firm Bates (a BTS company). That can result in communication problems, project issues, and delays getting deliverables across the finish line – for a start.

“Individuals on [toxic] teams often feel threatened and disengaged from their work. because the toxic team environment diminishes performance, and the poor productivity often feeds back into the toxic culture,” says Anh Phillips, research leader at Deloitte Consulting and author of Work Better Together). She calls this the “doom loop.”

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

Toxic behavior and the pandemic

Toxic behavior may have occurred less frequently or been less noticeable during the pandemic. “There has been more stress but also a lot of grace-giving and cutting-of-slack to account for whatever people have going on in their personal and professional lives,” Cuthbert says. “The water cooler is gone and hasn’t been replaced and there is less of a forum for those who are negative or unhappy.”

But it can take numerous forms. “Motivating through fear and unattainable goals and timelines, obfuscating expectations and scope of job descriptions or projects, not clearly identifying the North Star and who is doing what, being inconsistent in holding people accountable, dominating, yelling, talking over others, and interrupting are all signs of toxic behavior,” Mattheis says. “Working remotely has not changed that reality. What it has done is adjust how it looks and feels as well as made it more difficult to speak to it and hold people accountable.”

How to deal with toxic people: 7 constructive steps

Like dealing with a toxic boss, responding to a peer’s unhealthy dynamics can be tricky, but there are constructive approaches for using emotional intelligence to address the issues and mitigate their impact on your own productivity and well being. We talked to experts to gather some options for you:

1. Consider the impact

Is the behavior simply irritating or truly impactful? “The first question to ask is ‘How important is this in service of my job or what this team is trying to achieve?’” Cuthbert says. “If is not that important, I might do nothing. But if I am depending on them regularly, and I am not getting what I need, then it is a bigger issue and it is on me to try to understand it and determine what the right path is to take.”

[ Are you a toxic boss – or are you dealing with one? Read also: How to deal with a toxic boss. ]

2. Seek to understand

"If you want to really get to the root of the matter to resolve it, compassion and empathy really go a long way."

“Something that often gets missed in discussing how to deal with toxic people is the importance of understanding the reasons for why this person is in that place,” says Cuthbert.

In many cases, the team member may be unhappy for very legitimate reasons, such as a mismatch of their skills and role. “When we see people acting in a negative way, we often fall back on the idea that they are doing it on purpose or with ill intent,” Phillips says. “But this is not always the case, and if you want to really get to the root of the matter to resolve it, compassion and empathy really go a long way.”

As a starting point, assume the person wants to do well. “I always try to make up a more positive story about what is going on for the person. If I do that, I am almost always going to be helpful,” Cuthbert explains. Making up a negative story usually doesn’t help the situation, Cuthbert adds.

3. Talk to the teammate

“If you have a good relationship with the individual, you might go there yourself and try to understand what is going on and why,” Cuthbert says. “Try taking them aside and say “I am noticing you don’t seem very happy. Is there something going on that we can talk about? Is there something I can do to help?’ “

Listen, but don’t try to “fix” the person, advises Phillips. (If there is a serious issue, you may be able to refer them to internal resources for assistance). “Extending kindness to this person may not make it all better, but it could be the first step to counteracting the negativity,” says Phillips. “While toxicity and negativity are contagious, so are kindness and compassion. Many small acts and gestures added over time can make a difference.”

4. Avoid public confrontations or internal gossip

This can make the person feel threatened, embarrassed and/or angry, explains Phillips. While it may be useful to enlist peers to help try to understand what is really going on and how the team might help the person, Cuthbert says, “it is not productive with everyone piling on discussing it in the background.”

5. Limit interactions

It can be important to set boundaries in order to take care of yourself, says Wade. If it’s possible, reduce the time you spend with a toxic teammate. “Surround yourself with people who fill, rather than drain your cup,” Phillips advises.

6. Enlist someone higher up

“Respect and mutuality make a strong team and therefore the first step is to give each other the opportunity to adjust behavior,” Mattheis says. However, it is not your job to fix or manage your team member, so if the behavior persists, loop in your boss. If that doesn’t have a positive impact, connecting with your HR business partner is the next step, Mattheis says.

7. Focus on your contributions

Try to resist judgment and blame, which may exacerbate toxicity, says Mattheis.

You can’t control the actions of others, but you can decide how to respond to those actions and model better behavior. “When you act with and insist on behaviors that promote well-being and positive team environments, you can begin to bring people along,” Phillips says. “Team cultures are shaped by each person on the team, not just by the leader.”

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.