How to handle a toxic team-mate

By Fiona Elsa Dent, Mike Brent and Nigel Melville, authors When Teams Work: How to Develop and Lead a High-Performing Team

Toxic relationships of any sort can be demoralising and time consuming and within a team can be pervasive and destructive for the whole team, its working practises and performance levels. A toxic relationship can easily cause you to feel manipulated, stressed, anxious  and frustrated. Most of the people we talk to describe toxic people as those who are, for instance:

  • Know-alls
  • Rude
  • Sarcastic
  • Controlling
  • Disrespectful
  • Biased
  • Gossips

In meetings they will often display poor manners, interrupt people, apportion blame to others and can become verbally aggressive. These are some of the most common behaviours we hear about but undoubtedly there are many more. A word of caution however- although we might label their behaviours as toxic, it’s important to remember that they probably don’t see themselves as toxic! And it’s not wise to ever describe your colleague as “toxic”.

Dealing with a team-mate who behaves in a toxic manner can be tricky and complex. Here are some strategies that should help:

  • Try to identify why you find the person “toxic”. What in particular do you find annoying, is there any pattern to the behaviour, are there any specific issues where the toxic behaviour is prevalent and what do you think motivates the behaviour. The more you reflect about the person and the situations where and when the toxic behaviour happens the better prepared you are for dealing with it.
  • Attempt to find something you have in common with the person or a positive feature that you have observed in them and can relate to. Very few people demonstrate toxic behaviour all of the time. This can give you a point of reference as well as making it easier for you when and if you decide to talk to them.
  • Be patient and exercise self-control by not getting drawn into arguments or negative discussions with the toxic person. When you experience the negative/toxic behaviour remain neutral and try to engage in rational dialogue. Use enquiry to draw out the persons perspective on the issue under discussion. For instance, try asking relevant questions, test understanding, seek clarification and summarise, in essence attempt to take any negativity or heat out of the discussion.
  • It is also useful to talk to your boss about your feelings and why you have them. They may have additional or helpful information about the person which could in turn assist you to better understand them. Or they too may find the person to be toxic in which case you can possibly work together to develop a plan of action for the way ahead.
  • When and if you do decide to have a conversation make sure you are clear with them about the topic. Don’t enter into anything unless the person in question is willing to explore with you how they can be “less toxic” and contribute in a more effective way to the work of the team.

Remember, toxic behaviour from any team member can be very draining for all the people who must experience it.  So, you should develop your own coping strategies. Take control of your own behaviour and feelings – other people’s behaviour is their problem. Think about how you behave and respond – self-control is the key here.  Share the issue with an appropriate person who can work with you to help you develop these coping strategies. And finally, for your own wellbeing, it is worth thinking about how you can limit the time you spend with toxic people.

Fiona Elsa Dent and Mike Brent are global leadership experts and co-authored When Teams Work: How to Develop and Lead a High-Performing Team, with former England Rugby Captain, Nigel Melville.