Toxic teams: what’s the antidote?

It all started 16 years ago. Ness sold Ian her old barbeque. Three months later, Ian claimed the barbeque didn’t work. But Ness refused to return his money. Since then, the relationship had gone from bad to worse. Ness and Ian had not spoken to each other for over twelve years. And the rest of the team had split into ‘Ness’ and ‘Ian’ tribes. The conflict had spiralled out of control.

The team was a classic example of what happens when toxic team dynamics are left unchecked. So what, exactly, are toxic team dynamics? They are behavioural and communication patterns which undermine healthy workplace culture.

From an anthropological perspective, team toxicity is a way of dealing with conflict. This could be an internal conflict caused by one team member’s psychological distress. It could be an intra-team conflict, in which members of the team are ‘at war’ with each other. Or it could be an expression of inter-team conflict within an organisation.

So what can managers and HR practitioners do to address toxic team dynamics? Here are two key interventions you can use.


1. Challenge the team’s mythology


Workplace conflicts invariably involve storytelling. Over time, conflict stories become unquestioned parts of the team’s informal history. They become team myths. Too often, they become ‘origin myths’ – which enshrine dysfunctional behavioural norms and provide a seemingly ‘reasonable’ explanation for those norms. If you’ve heard the words ‘they’ve never got on…’ you’ve heard an origin myth.

Toxic origin myths create problems because they form a social template for team behaviour. This is why smart managers and HR practitioners challenge them. To do this, you need to:

  1. Provide a healthy, alternative origin myth. For example, by reinforcing corporate history and values.
  2. Establish clear behavioural norms. To do this, hold a team norms workshop.
  3. Create a ’happily ever after’ endpoint for the origin myth. An experienced team building expert can help you do this.


2. Start a culture-building process


Culture is broadly defined as a ‘way of life.’ It is expressed through language, behaviour, belief systems and artifactual communication (the expression of meaning through objects). Poor culture-building initiatives address the behavioural level only. Robust culture-building activities impact at all four levels. To make your culture-building initiative a success, you need to:

  • Dedicate ongoing time to it. A single ‘change workshop’ will not change anything. In fact, it will probably reinforce the team’s conflict myth.
  • Set guidelines for appropriate language. Affirm team members when they stick to the guidelines and challenge them when they don’t.
  • Listen out for gaps between what is said and what is done. These gaps usually indicate that a deeply held (and unchallenged) belief set is impacting team behaviour. Your job is to make the belief set explicit and challenge any toxic elements it contains.
  • Look out for artifactual expressions of conflict and intervene. For example, if your kitchen is full of passive-aggressive signs, these need to be removed. It often helps to teach your team to handle conflict assertively, by running a conflict resolution workshop.


Contact Eleanor Shakiba to organise training for YOUR team.


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