Changing Toxic Behaviors of Members of Your Project Team

Toxic team membersIf you spend enough time in business, eventually you will have someone on your team who exhibits what some people call “toxic” behaviors in the work place. While there are many ways to define toxic behaviors, I am going with the classic B school definition of narcissistic, self-focused behavior. While organizations and individuals can both exhibit toxic behaviors, I am going to focus on individuals for the sake of this article. Let’s just say that if you find yourself in a company that tolerates leaders losing their tempers often, employees avoid conflicts with managers because of fear of reprisal, and bosses routinely throw temper tantrums and make unreasonable demands, then get out. If your company puts up with and even encourages this type of approach, it will never get better. Don’t try and gut it out. There are too many great companies out there to work for to waste your time working for a bad one.

I was at lunch with a guy I really respect on Monday and we got to talking about old bosses who were crazy. We both had a boss in our past who was the text-book example of someone who used manipulation and flat out lying to try and motivate their employees. The challenge with this type of strategy is untruths always come out and people get tired of being manipulated. The really smart ones quickly move on.

As a project manager, you are more likely to face this type of situation with people who are on your project team or if your project outcomes are somewhat controversial, then within the ranks of your stakeholders. You probably won’t have much influence over the behaviors of stakeholders, so let’s focus on your project team members. While your project team members may not be your direct reports if you are in a functional organization, you are still in a unique position to help people improve the strategies they use in their interactions with other people. While I am not an HR professional, I am a project manager and in the 13+ years I have been working as one, I have managed hundreds if not thousands of people on my project teams. I have learned some simple truths that serve me well to this day.

  1. Focus on behaviors that are concrete and measurable. One recent member of one of my project teams had a real hard time telling the truth about anything. Even in situations where he did not need to lie he often did. I have no idea what the cause of this behavior was, but I am sure it was embedded so deeply in his personality that Freud would have had difficulty pulling it out. He was responsible for estimating the amount of time it would take him to complete work packages and providing progress reports to the team. He and I made a goal that he would be more accurate in his estimates and his progress reports. You can use this same tactic for team members who are habitually late to meetings, who use profanity in the workplace, who are offensive to other members of the team, or lose their temper when they feel pressured.
  2. Find a key influencer and partner with them to coordinate your responses. Find someone within your organization or even better on your project team who is respected by the team member in question. Talk to them about your concerns. Don’t go to them to complain, keep your conversation objective and free of emotions — focus on specific examples. Take a list of solutions to the key influencer and see what approach they would suggest. Work with them to make sure a consistent approach is taken throughout the organization.
  3. Remove enablers, triggers, and barriers. I had a team member who would bad-mouth the performance of the rest of the team when in truth she was having trouble keeping pace with the required level of work. Her performance wasn’t due to a lack of technical skills or something that could be taught, but the fact that the person she shared her cubical with another person who perpetually complained about her role in the organization. They literally spend a couple of hours a day complaining about their work. I asked the administrator I was working with if it was possible to move the offender into a cubical closer the the rest of the project team and pair her with someone who had a more positive outlook. It took a while, but the offender eventually quit undermining the team to the rest of the organization. She also picked up the slack and became a valued member of the team.
  4. Teach and coach. When in doubt, teach and coach some more. It takes less time to fire someone than it does to teach and coach them into exhibit better behaviors — I have read that you should multiply their salary by ten to find the true cost of replacement. It is less expensive to help someone who wants to change to improve their behaviors than hiring someone new onto your team. Spend your time productively. Last year I sat down with a team member and outlined the behaviors they exhibited that were hurting the productivity of the entire team. It wasn’t an easy conversation — nobody likes to hear they are hurting the team. In that same conversation, I outlined what I thought was a effective strategy that would change how the person interacted with the rest of the team and asked that person to come up with their own plan that would take into account the outcomes that I had outlined. It took time out of my schedule to continue to work with this individual, but they were able to significantly improve their contribution to the team. They also reported to me at the end of the process that they were much happier at work.

The basis of this approach is the assumption that everyone wants to be successful, contribute to team production, and isn’t at your company to be disruptive. As a project manager it is your role to use the best tools you have at your disposal to successfully deliver your project outcomes. That means that sometimes you may have to work with individuals who are a little more difficult to get along with, but that is your job. Imagine the value that you can offer your company if you are THAT project manager who not only delivers outcomes but also makes the people on your project team better.

Related Topics:
Daily Stand-Up Meeting Tips
Get Along with Difficult People
Agile Project Management Overview

About the Author

I am the author of this site, and what I say goes. I love talking about the benefits of formalized and professional project management and getting stuff done.