How to Manage a Difficult Team Dynamic

You head home at the end of the day feeling exhausted and defeated. You wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about what happened at work and what you should have said. Mornings bring the dread of facing your team for another day. As their leader, you know it’s on you to change things – but you’re not sure where to begin.

Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Many managers find themselves facing challenging teams from time to time. Fortunately, there is hope. Here are some concrete ways to manage a toxic team and turn things around:

Identify the source of the toxic behaviors – not just the symptoms.

What behaviors are most toxic to your team’s productivity and motivation? Start by making a list. If you get stuck, ask yourself: What bothers you most? What do other team members complain about most? Which excuses have you heard over and over again?

Then, consider each of the behaviors in detail. What is the impact on the team’s performance? How does the behavior effect the team’s emotional health? And what toxic assumptions are likely behind each of the behaviors?

Be honest about taking – and sharing – responsibility.

As the team’s leader, you may be tempted to take all the responsibility for a toxic team. But one person cannot turn an entire team’s dynamic bad. When you try to determine who is responsible for each behavior, ask: Who is initiating the behavior? Who is escalating by responding in kind or “piling on” negativities? Who is encouraging it, rewarding it, or passively allowing it to happen when they could stop it?

Some of the responsibility will be yours, but some of it will belong to members of your team as well.

Decide how to intervene.

While choosing how you will intervene to improve the situation, start by focusing on behavior. Behaviors are directly observable, which means you can set straightforward criteria for behavior and check to see that behaviors have changed. When setting new behavior standards, make a clear break from the past, so that the team sees the line between “old” toxic patterns and “new” productive ones. Finally, make it clear that the goal is to reach a better future. The sight of a better future helps motivate team members to make the necessary changes.

Put your plan into action.

Start by enlisting the support of key players in the group. Their help will be necessary in order to put your changes into action, and they may be able to offer valuable feedback. Take responsibility for those behaviors that are yours, and lead by example by changing your behavior and making it clear why you are doing so. Then, focus on the future: Frame the discussion as a list of what your team will do from now on, not a list of things they have failed to do in the past.

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