How would you describe your team at work?  Are they a group of professionals who do their best to work well together to achieve their goals?  Or are they more like a dysfunctional family who make excuses for each other’s bad behaviours and terrible habits?  Most work teams are somewhere between the two – we spend so much time at work that we can’t help getting to know each other well.  Everyone has good days and bad days, and we don’t always work together as well as we could, but for the most part if we can get along, and do the best we can, working in a team can be enjoyable.

But what do you do if your team always feels like a dysfunctional family all the time? 

You may be in a toxic team – here are the warning signs:

  • Bullying and bad behaviour are ignored, excused or even encouraged
  • People regularly cry at work or shout at each other
  • Team banter makes people on the team feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or left out
  • People make excuses for each other like “don’t mind her, she’s always like that”, or “ignore him, he doesn’t mean it”
  • People are indiscreet, unprofessional or spread gossip
  • People are overworked, underpaid or unfairly treated, for example being expected to answer emails at all hours
  • There’s a culture of fear – no one wants to say anything because they worry about being targeted

It is tempting to think that the people we work with are like our families – we can’t always choose who they are, we get to know each other well over time, and eventually we work out what each person is good at, and we sometimes see their worst sides under pressure.  But work teams are not our families.  In fact, high performing teams prefer to use the analogy of a sports team – we are here to win together, which means being our fittest, best version of ourselves, and playing well together.  When we do great work we win our games, and we enjoy ourselves too.  It’s no longer acceptable to just say “that’s the way it’s always been”.  Instead, we need to bring our best selves to work, and make sure other people do too.

The best teams behave respectfully towards each other, no matter who they are, no matter how pressured the work is and not matter how senior they are.  Research has shown that bullying and bad behaviour are terrible for team spirit and lower team performance, so they are not just bad for the team members, they are bad for business.  The problem is that toxic teams have often developed a strong culture and habits are hard to break. 

However, we all have a responsibility to each other to improve the way we all behave at work.  Anyone in a team, whether the team leader or a team member can intervene to fix a toxic team. 

Here are 5 steps to take to fix a toxic team:

  1. Ask for things to improve:  If there’s a toxic culture, anyone in the team can say to the rest of the team “I’m feeling uncomfortable/unhappy/bad about how we behave together at work, could try to work together in a better way?”  You’re not blaming anyone, you are raising the possibility of improving the way things are.  In the worst case scenario, people may not take you seriously, and you will need to keep asking a few times before they listen.  But more often, other people on the team will agree and support you, and they will start asking the same question too “could we try to work better together?”.
  2. Focus on behaviour not people:  Once you have people’s attention and made them aware that you’d like things to improve, you can refer to examples of behaviour you’d like to fix (without blaming specific individuals).  You can say “I know we have all laughed in the past when we tease the interns, but I don’t feel comfortable about it anymore because I don’t think they find it funny.  I’d prefer it if we stopped doing it”.
  3. Speak up early if it happens again:  Once you’ve said you’re uncomfortable with a specific behaviour, then the next time it happens you can say “I have already said that playing tricks on the interns makes me uncomfortable, I don’t think it’s right to carry on.  I’d like it to stop please”.
  4. Name and explain unacceptable behaviour:  In future, or with new people joining, you and the rest of the team can tell them how you have agreed to work together and what you don’t do as a team, for example “We don’t play pranks on each other in this team because it was making some people feel really uncomfortable, even if other people found it funny.  We discussed it and we agreed it wasn’t fair, so we stopped”.
  5. Seek support:  If all your best efforts fail to make the team less toxic, you may need to ask for advice and support from your boss or HR.  Sometimes company cultures are so ingrained that they need professional intervention from someone independent or more senior.

In toxic team situations, it is far better to speak up than to let things get worse.  You are doing it not only to improve how you feel at work, but also to help the rest of the team.  Some people don’t realise the impact they are having on others, but if you openly discuss how you would like to work together, you will build trust, do better work, and enjoy the work more. 

Every person in the team, not just the leader, has the permission and the responsibility to ask people to behave better at work.  Let’s not be a dysfunctional family at work, let’s be more like sports teams and do our best to play well together and win.

Pam Hamilton is a teamwork expert and author of Supercharged Teams:  30 Tools of Great Teamwork. In Chapter 8 of Supercharged Teams “Dealing With Conflict” you can find 4 tools on how to deal with a toxic team and what to do about conflict at work. There is also a free team assessment you can take to understand how your team performs and learn which chapters and tools are right for you. This article was written for and published by The Mail Online on 27th July 2021.