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Dealing with a toxic, destructive team member

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Dealing with a Toxic, Destructive Team Member

Feel the fear and do it anyway

Problems with people, though often the scariest, are the most important problems to tackle. You must never leave them to fester.

Nothing is worse as a team member than having a slack or toxic teammate who is not dealt with properly by the team leader. It makes everyone’s daily work life miserable, breeds resentment if someone is not pulling their weight, and can even drive good staff out of the company or off sick if their teammate is causing enough disruption.

No one is irreplaceable when they are destroying your team. No knowledge or skill is indispensable when someone is contaminating the culture, driving away good people, or making it difficult for people to do their jobs.

Take this experience I recently had that nearly cost us a lucrative contract, and made our life hell while we limped to the finish line:

“I know his bad attitude, manipulative behaviour, and failure to deliver are tough to work with, but his indispensable knowledge in this area is essential to our work. He’s irreplaceable!”

As soon as I heard our team leader say that, I knew we were in trouble. I understood why the leader felt that way, but I also knew that it was a big mistake to take this approach.

Sure enough, this teammate continued to miss deadlines with work that we relied on to do our parts, told tales about other teammates behind their backs, causing resentment and bad blood, and blocked problem-solving efforts with nay-saying and criticism. And he was left unchecked to behave as he pleased.

It had been a while since I’d been a member of a team, rather than its leader. So even though this was only a short-term piece of work, it was difficult for me to stay silent and re-learn how to handle a teammate like this without it affecting my own work. I’m not sure I succeeded.

I survived the project, but I can’t help thinking how much better the quality of the final project would have been if we hadn’t had the lead weight of that member holding us back. Or how much better the experience would have been if the leader has simply stepped up and done something.

There was a time when I was the leader and I was responsible for a person very similar to this destructive teammate.

‘Paula’ was the biggest hiring mistake of my career. I hoped to never meet anyone as toxic and divisive as her ever again. She would pick fights, lie about what other people did or didn’t do, and constantly criticise what every teammate said about anything and everything, forcing tangents and getting people’s backs up. She upset everyone nearly every day.

As soon as I realised my mistake, I started the process of getting rid of her. At the time I was working in the public sector, and firing people was a bureaucratic nightmare that took many months.

It was one of the toughest things I have ever been through in my working life. Neither she nor the system made it easy. But I knew without a doubt it had to be done. Yes, she was highly skilled and had years of experience. Yes, it would leave a painful capacity gap in our team if she went.

But I was facing the loss of many team members if she didn’t go. In the meantime, none of us could function at our best anyway.

More often than not, getting rid of someone entirely is the last resort. There are a range of things that can be done to help get a team member back on track, or agree to change behaviours, or to simply step up and pull their weight.

It should only be after a reasonable amount of intervention has been attempted that a person should be given up on and ousted. Of course, with my nightmare-hire Paula, sometimes you know pretty early on that you have a lost cause on your hands.

I know it’s hard to deal with difficult people, especially when we believe our work, or even worse, our success, relies on them.

But I also saw the destruction my former staff member wreaked on my entire department, and I knew that no amount of skill, knowledge, or even connections were worth keeping a person like that around to destroy my team from the inside out.

I had to take decisive action early on or the whole team could have imploded. I had a duty to support and protect everyone in the team. Perhaps even more importantly, my team needed to see me taking action.

Simple and decisive action by a leader can make all the difference in solving what at first seems like a huge or complex problem.

Ignoring problems in the hope that they’ll go away, or letting fear drive decision-making will make even the smallest problem worse. But if there is only one thing I could share from 20 years as a leader and a manager, it is that you have got to tackle these problems early and decisively.

No one is indispensable or irreplaceable. It may sound harsh, but it’s true. Even the highest skill level or essential function is not worth undermining the performance of the whole rest of your team, or even your company. As with all problems, tackle this one head on and do right by your team.

Yes, it will be challenging at first once they are gone. Yes, you might struggle to get a new person to fill the gap. But often just the fact that you took action, and your team sees this, bolsters their confidence and willingness to go the extra mile to help you out in the meantime.

You can sign up here to receive news of the launch of my first book, Becoming a Fearless Leader: A simple guide to taking control and building happy, productive, highly-performing teams. I will be sharing free materials to everyone signed up here shortly.

I write about how I became the founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience, and all I am learning along the way. You can see more here. If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share.