How to handle a toxic team mate

New TJ contributor Pam Hamilton talks toxic team mates in her first piece, unlocked for all to read. 

In a long yacht race, a 10-person crew sail together for up to a week, 24/7. Crew members work in shifts, with an intensive three hours on deck followed by three hours of sleep, on repeat until they cross the finish line. These are brutal journeys in cold, dark and often dangerous conditions, and it’s no surprise that the team and their teamwork is pushed to the limit. 

My husband is a sailor, and when he gets back from these races, I always ask about how well the crew worked together. Most noticeable and surprising is that in every race he has ever completed, there has always been one crew member who makes things more difficult than necessary for everyone else on the team. 

Whether they consistently arrive late for their 3am shift, refuse to do their cooking rota, or (my favourite), decide to stop smoking for the first time in 20 years at the beginning of an Atlantic crossing, cursing the rest of the crew to their physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms for the next three weeks.

‘There’s always one’

In my experience, many teams have a team mate who makes things more difficult than they need to be. I’m not talking about the bullies or sexists who need to be reported to HR and managed out. I mean those people who are toxic on a regular basis, enough to make them exhausting or frustrating to work with, but not enough to hire someone new. 

Bad behaviour, like all behaviour, is a habit…difficult people will continue unless you intervene.

You may be familiar with them – they are the only one on the call who doesn’t switch on their video, the one who is always late, the one who is always moaning, or (true story) the one who passes wind freely in an open plan office.

Bad behaviour, like all behaviour, is a habit, and difficult people have found attention, gratification or comfort in their behaviour in the past – so they will continue unless you intervene.

How to deal with a toxic team mate

  1. Identify one specific behaviour change you want them to make (rather than a shopping list) and consider what alternative behaviour you’d like them to have instead. 

    • For example: they are always on their emails during team meetings instead of listening and giving their full attention, so you’d like them to put away their laptop and phone and contribute fully to meetings.

  2. Script an intervention statement, starting with a positive behaviour they have, followed by a specific example of the toxic behaviour you’d like them to stop, explaining how it has a negative impact on other people, followed by a request for a behaviour change.

    • Example: ‘You bring such a wealth of experience to our team and we need your perspective in this next stage of the project. However, you did spend the last two team meetings on your laptop and doing your emails, not listening or giving us your full attention, which means we had to repeat our questions or catch you up on the conversation a few times. This made our team meetings longer and less effective, and when I am presenting, it feels like you don’t value my time or what I am saying, and it distracts me. Could you consider putting away your laptop and phone to give us your full attention during our meetings?’

  3. Listen and respond to any pushback they have by repeating specific behaviour examples and pointing out the impact on others. 

    • If they say ‘I am really busy and I have a lot of important emails to do – I can’t attend meetings and do my job unless I multi-task’. You can respond with, ‘Thank you for explaining.  However, last week when we were discussing the new platform, we had to repeat the last three slides that had been presented because you weren’t listening, and as a result the meeting went on an extra 15 minutes over time, which made the other six people in the meeting late for their next one’. You may have to do this several times, with a few different behavioural examples and their impact to reinforce the point.

  4. Once you are sure the person has accepted that their behaviour is having an impact on other people, ask them for a commitment to a new behaviour in future. 

    • ‘If I have too many emails, I will decline the meeting and instead send my thoughts in advance, rather than emailing during the meeting’  

  5. After you have a commitment from them, ask them for permission to intervene in future if they lapse back into the old habit. 

    • ‘So if we notice you doing emails in future meetings, shall we stop the meeting and ask if you’d like to continue or if you need to leave to do your emails?’

  6. Reinforce the behaviour you want, for all team members, in every new situation, for all members. 

    • Start the next team meeting by saying: ‘A reminder to everyone, for the next hour, we have all agreed not to be on our phones or laptops, if anyone needs to do emails, feel free to leave the room to do so and you can catch up afterwards from the meeting notes.’  

  7. Keep intervening, and repeat. People are likely to fall back into habits over time, so give everyone in the team permission to intervene and challenge each other.  

    • Have a charity jar on the table, and every time someone looks at their phone or laptop, they have to put a pound in the jar, which gives them permission to call out the behaviour of others.

  8. Isolate the impact. If you are struggling to get the toxic team member to change, minimise the impact they are having on other people. 

    • If they insist on being on emails, ask them to sit at the back of the room and not at the table, so they are separate from the group of people who are in the discussion. In a workshop, put all the multi-taskers or difficult people in one group so they can distract each other, and leave everyone else free to be fully engaged.

Toxic team members won’t change unless you help them to do so. If you are intervening to make your team work better together, then it’s the right thing to do. Your toxic team member may find their new behaviours feel better to them too!


About the author

Pam Hamilton is a teamwork expert and author of Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools of Great Teamwork (to be published in January 2021), and The Workshop Book. 



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