Originally published on Forbes.com
I think it’s a safe bet that you have, at some point in your career, been part of a toxic team. I know I’ve had what felt like more than my fair share of that experience and I have yet to talk with anyone who doesn’t know how that feels.
Have you ever noticed that when the team dynamic feels toxic we always look for someone to blame? It would be so much easier to solve the problem of toxicity if we could just identify one person as the root cause and replace them. In fact, that fallacy has resulted in incalculable losses in productivity and potential without actually resolving the real issue.
That’s because the root cause often isn’t a person who is toxic, but rather a team dynamic that starts off as unhealthy and descends into toxicity when the real issues aren’t addressed. And the real issues are almost always related to one or more human need that isn’t being met.
In The Human Team I share the framework for actualizing team potential that I call the 6 Facets of Human Needs™. One of those needs is the need that we all have to contribute. While failure to meet any of these six needs can result in an unhealthy team dynamic, for now let’s focus on this one. While some folks may feel this need more strongly than others, and people will act out in different ways when this need isn’t met, all humans need to be allowed to contribute in meaningful and significant ways. Even the people with the best and highest intentions will create a toxic team environment if they don’t feel this need is being met.
People Need to be Needed
The best teams have people who have a high drive to achieve, to hit the grand slam, slay the dragon, or complete the Hail Mary pass. When there’s a crisis these are the folks you know will come through. But if the only time you allow them to shine is when there is a crisis you might notice that crisis situations seem to brew up out of thin air.
While this is seldom a conscious pattern, it’s common for people who are often rewarded for being the hero in a crisis then put back on the shelf when everything goes back to business as usual, to unconsciously create turmoil. The knight in shining armor starts subtly calling out anyone and everyone to meet them in battle, the firefighter fans the flames of the tiniest spark until it’s a raging inferno.
If you want to keep these achievers focused and productive you must create opportunities for them to be the hero by contributing at their peak ability.
Disengagement is Contagious
When people are asked to be involved but aren’t given a clear path to contribute, they disengage. We see it when we include people in meetings or on projects but don’t give them specific assignments or don’t invite their input.
And when people are disengaged they will either check out emotionally or create distractions and disruptions in order to feel like they’re a part of what is going on. Their behavior then invites similar behavior from others until the disengagement spreads and toxicity sets in.
You can avoid this by making sure you’re only including people in the meeting, on the memo, or on the project who have a clearly defined contribution to make to the effort.
Over Nurturing is Like Over Watering
Many leaders try to counter toxicity with nurturing activities. But when the needs of the team aren’t being met that’s likely to backfire and actually create greater levels of toxicity.
It’s like trying to get a plant to grow by continuing to water it every day when what it actually needs is sunshine or a bigger pot – you cannot use nurturing to compensate for not giving the humans on your team what they really need to thrive.
Teams that are continually “nurtured” without having their need to contribute met will feel smothered, threatened, and even belittled. They’ll sense that a lot is being poured into them but they won’t have a clear understanding of what is expected from them to warrant the investment.
However, when goals are established and every team member understands their role in meeting the milestones, nurturing activities can help them maintain the edge. Nurturing is effective only when the natural needs of your team are being met.
Take a look back at the toxic team environments you’ve experienced or are experiencing. Can you see one or more of these three patterns unfolding? Use that focus and take the time to ensure that all members of your team are clear about their role in creating team success and you will automatically change the pattern, improving both the health of your team and the results they are able to produce.