This week, one of my colleagues at SGR, who lives out in the country, had an infestation of rattlesnakes under her house! Can you imagine? She loves animals, but that didn’t keep her from taking drastic steps to make sure that the snakes understood it was her house—not theirs. She didn’t think for a second that co-existence was a long-term possibility, either. As soon as she knew they were there, she had complete clarity: it was either her or them.
Make it “them”.
It’s funny, but sometimes we lack the same clarity when it comes to “co-existence” with toxic team members. For some reason, we entertain the fantasy that it’s possible to keep toxic people on the team without the culture becoming… well, toxic.
That’s a fantasy that turns into a nightmare faster than you can say, “Rattlesnake Kate.” When we allow toxic people to remain on the team, we often do so because we misunderstand one really important reality. We console ourselves by telling ourselves and others that no one is getting seriously injured, and we ignore the fact that the issue is not how many people have been bit or how seriously they were hurt. The real issue is that the culture is toxic, even if someone hasn’t been poisoned.
My colleague didn’t tolerate the rattlesnakes or comfort herself by saying, “No one’s been bit, yet.” Common sense told her, “They can’t stay.”
Leaders have to realize that protecting the culture of your team is just as critical as protecting the safety of your home. If your team isn’t safe, if your culture is toxic, people can’t work as effectively because they are constantly concerned with minimizing, managing, and surviving the toxicity of the culture. The question is: leader, why do you tolerate that?
Harvard Business School has identified seven symptoms of a toxic team member:
- Frequently complains about and criticizes others in public.
- Brings out the worst in other members.
- Attacks people instead of criticizing the issues.
- Talks in the hall, but not in the room.
- Constantly disagrees with everyone and everything.
- Displays chronic discrepancies between public words and private actions.
- Claims to understand his or her behavior, but seems unable to change.
I don’t know about you, but I think that allowing someone like that to remain on your team is somewhat akin to letting a rattlesnake live in your house. It’s not easy to get rid of a rattlesnake that’s living under your house; but it’s worth it because no matter what it takes, it certainly beats the alternative.
The same is true with a toxic team member. Tolerating toxic team members should not even be an option.