Five Steps to Fix a Toxic Team

In the world of business it’s safe to say all work is done in teams. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you most of the teams they’ve been on are average or mediocre, or good but not great.

And sadly, many can tell you in dreaded detail about the toxic teams they’ve been on where gossip, sabotage, and finger-pointing were the norm.

Does this sound anything like the team you’re currently on? Are you the leader of one of these teams? If so, you know how these teams can suck the life out of you and it’s time to turn things around. 

Abby Curnow-Chavez is a partner at The Trispective Group together with others in her company wanted to understand what separates the best teams from the toxic ones. They studied thousands of teams, analyzed the data, and looked for patterns.

According the Curnow-Chavez they named the worst of the worst “Saboteur Teams.” They were so named because, on them, someone is always working against at least one of their teammates.

Here are Curnow-Chavez’s telltale signs a team is a Saboteur Team:

    Members of the team are constantly complaining about each other
    Team members spend as much time watching their back as doing the work
    People make plays behind the scenes, undermining and sabotaging one another
    Suspicion and mistrust pervade every interaction; it seems like there are a lot of personal agendas
     People avoid working together and seem to dread team meetings
    Teammates would be perfectly happy to see others on the team fail; they criticize and point out the faults and failures of fellow team members

Adds Curnow-Chavez “Saboteur Teams destroy value at every turn and they are miserable experiences for everyone on them.”

She adds:

    Morale suffers and good people quit
    Strong candidates don’t join the team because of its bad reputation
    Critical problems don’t get addressed because no one feels safe bringing up the tough issues
    Decisions are made covertly or seem highly political
    There’s little to no risk-taking or innovation

If one happens to lead a Saboteur Team, it’s up to that person to turn it around. The good news is, improving ar team is doable and it’s definitely worth it.

The main challenge as the leader is to change the dynamic by enforcing a no-tolerance policy on destructive behavior, rebuilding trust, setting clear standards and defining a shared purpose. Here are Curnow-Chavez’s five steps to get your team out of this highly dysfunctional place:

  1. Own it:  If you don’t take full ownership for fixing your team, it won’t get better!  Think about what you did to allow for this dynamic and what you didn’t do to address it. This could be an excellent time to get 360 feedback to understand others’ perceptions of your effectiveness as team leader. Talk openly with your team about your role (good and bad) and set a new standard for how you expect the team to work together.
  2. Study the facts and seek out the truth: Use data and feedback to figure out what is really happening on the team. Get others’ perspectives. Ask questions, listen, stay curious, and be open to feedback. Be willing to seek the truth, even if it’s hard to hear. Team leaders tend to have the perspective of some, but not all, team members and may have a biased view of what’s really going on. Stay neutral and listen without judgement to fully understand why your team is struggling.
  3. Set new standards of behavior and make tough decision: As the team leader, it’s critical that a new standard for performance and behavior is set. Set a high bar and apply it to ALL team members. You can’t have different standards for different team members. Too often the negative behaviors of certain individuals are overlooked or ignored for various reasons. This doesn’t help, it hinders.    Make sure the team understands the repercussions of their actions and be willing to follow-through. Frequently point out examples where team members are, and are not, living up to the new standards. Remember, you get what you tolerate!
  4. Get the team on board: The team needs to meet regularly, and as the team leader, you need to keep everyone committed to the new rules of the road. If you need to, find a strong facilitator to help. That person could be a professional facilitator, an internal HR business partner, or a trusted colleague who has skills and is viewed as being neutral.  Involve the team in discussing its challenges and suggesting ways to improve. Don’t forget to celebrate the team’s progress and successes, even the small ones.
  5. Don’t give up: Turning around a Saboteur Team may be the hardest work you will do as a team leader. It takes time, courage, and commitment. Keep your vision in front of the team and give team members regular feedback and coaching. Look for and publicize quick wins and reward the right behavior. For many team leaders it’s tough to do this, but remove team members who aren’t willing or able to change. It only takes one saboteur for the whole team to become toxic – make the tough decisions when you need to. No leader has every regretted getting rid of an underperformer or a saboteur.

If you’re the leader of a toxic and dysfunctional team, you’re likely suffering from the experience. And, it’s likely your business results are suffering too. Facing the truth about your team, setting a new standard, requiring the team to building strong and healthy relationships, and developing new habits takes energy and courage. However, once you begin the process of turning around your team, you are likely to see improvements immediately. Be intentional in your efforts – and persistent - and you’ll reap the rewards.

Abby Curnow-Chavez is a partner at The Trispective Group and the co-author with Audrey Epstein, Linda Adams and Rebecca Teasdale of The Loyalist Team: How Trust, Candor, and Authenticity Create Great Organizations. For more information, please visit,