Fixing a Toxic Team Culture

Susan Beaumont Deepen Administrative Leadership Leave a Comment

When the culture of a team goes toxic, people perform better individually than they do as a team. Morale is low. Members don’t utilize each other’s skills and abilities. Team members engage in gossip, backbiting, and excessive complaining. People hold grudges and learn to expect the worst from one another.

Changing a toxic culture begins with examining the team’s shared behavioral norms. Behavioral norms are the informal and usually unspoken rules that groups follow when they work together.

Hitting Reset

Some group norms are helpful to the team’s work and some are unhelpful. An example of a helpful norm is, “Our team members don’t receive or respond to anonymous complaints.” An example of an unhelpful norm is, “Any complaint registered by any person in the congregation is grounds for stopping action.”

To reset a culture, invite the team to consider the following six areas of interaction. Write down any norms that the team agrees are descriptive of their current practice. Hold off on considering whether the norms are helpful or unhelpful for now-that comes later.

  • Participation and Engagement: Who initiates team interaction? How are others expected to respond? How do we ask one another for help? How do we balance our time together vs. time alone, time onsite vs. time offsite? How do we manage meetings? When do we have fun?
  • Managing Performance: How do we set expectations, share feedback, and hold ourselves accountable? How do we evaluate our progress? What are the consequences when someone fails to follow through? How do we reward or celebrate success?
  • Information Sharing: Who gets access to information and how are they expected to share what they know? How is confidentiality handled? What do we share with one another about our personal lives?
  • Decision Making: Who decides which problems we will address? How quickly are decisions made?  Who must be consulted before we decide? Who has veto power? How do we know when we have decided? How do we follow through on decisions that have been made?
  • Handling Conflict: What conflict management strategies do we default to: accommodation, avoidance, compromise, competition, collaboration? What is our practice for managing complaints lodged against the team? How do members negotiate complaints they have against one another?
  • Leadership: Who speaks on our behalf? Who do we defer to? Who assigns work? Do our leadership practices change depending on the issue or circumstance? What style(s) of leadership do we value?

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Narrow In

After the team has identified current behavioral norms, narrow in on the unhelpful few. Post the behavioral norms you’ve named on newsprint around the room. Give each team member five sticky dots and ask them to place their sticky dots on those behaviors that are most unhelpful. Encourage them to select behaviors that, if changed, would make the biggest difference in the right direction for the wellbeing of the team.

When voting is complete, focus conversation on those behaviors that garnered the highest dot count.  First, explore the assumptions and values that drive the behavior. Why is this behavior problematic for us? What rewards do we get for behaving in this manner?  What values are we protecting or promoting? What unresolved tension between values does this behavior reveal? 

Then, invite team members to name alternative behaviors for each of the most unhelpful norms.  For example, a team named this group norm as problematic. “We are expected to make decisions on important issues in the same meeting in which we receive information about the issues.” Together, the team decided to claim a more helpful behavior moving forward. “Team members are given at least twenty-four hours to consider new information before decision are made.”

Make a Commitment

Once the preferred behaviors are identified, consider adopting a behavioral covenant.  A behavioral covenant is a written document developed by the team, agreed to and owned by its creators and practiced daily as a spiritual discipline. The covenant answers the question, “How will we behave (how will we live together?), especially when we don’t understand each other and when we don’t agree?”

A leader cannot impose a behavioral covenant on a team. The team must create the covenant together and decide to hold themselves accountable to its content. It may take time to let the team decide they can trust themselves to commit. Limit your commitment to a handful of new behaviors, so that the team focuses on a few critical changes.

Follow Through

Keep the covenant visible and central to the life of the team. Review it regularly in team meetings. Let existing team members teach the norms to new members. Occasionally, ask the team to self-evaluate; how are we honoring (or not) each clause of our covenant?

Finally, realize that all covenants will be breached. The team has not failed when someone breaks one of the promises. The team has failed when the violation is not addressed by other members of the team. Teach team members a simple approach for talking with each other when promises are broken.

Here is a simple five step model for teaching team members to confront one another in a spirit of love.

  1. State what you observed in concrete terms: “Yesterday in the staff meeting I noticed….”
  2. Describe the impact: “I felt (or experienced) …”
  3. Wait for a Response……………………… (Listen to the other person as they respond to you and as they describe their own experience.)
  4. Remind them of the standard: “Remember, when we adopted our team covenant we agreed to….”
  5. Ask for, or suggest, a specific solution: “Next time, …”

Team cultures are difficult to change. Behavioral norms are often passed unexamined from one generation of leaders to the next. However, you don’t have to let a culture remain toxic. You can transform team culture by naming the behavioral norms, evaluating them as either helpful or unhelpful, and crafting better choices- together.

About the Author

Susan Beaumont

Susan Beaumont is a consultant, author, coach, and spiritual director. She has consulted with over one hundred congregations and denominational bodies across the United States and in Canada. She is known for her groundbreaking work in the leadership dynamics of large congregations. Susan is an ordained minister within the American Baptist Churches, USA. She currently attends a Presbyterian congregation. Her background includes an M.B.A. from Northwestern University and an M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary. See all posts by Susan.

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