Tinus Van Der Merwe contributed to this article

When a team is showing toxic behaviors, it has been my experience that the behavior is always tied to a common denominator:  loss, or lack of trust. With some honest dialogue, trust may be re-built between members. Without that, the team will not likely rally, and people will depart for greener pastures, not realizing the huge opportunity presented to them in this challenge.  What they might be surprised to learn, is that whatever issues were alive in this team dynamic, will likely follow them to the next team, even if it is within a different company or a distant location.  Why? Because they were proportionally responsible for what happened in that team. And, if they don’t learn from it, they will repeat the behaviors that led to the breakdown of trust.

How does a team begin to rebuild trust?  There must be a desire and commitment from each member to have honest dialogue about what they each want, and need, in order to bring their best.  If you’re leading a team, and you don’t get that commitment from a member, the best solution may be to re-assign them to another team or cut them loose altogether.  Before doing that, having a round-table dialogue with questions like these might prove fruitful:

  • What is the potential you see for this team? (invite and allow each person to speak openly without repercussions or judgment)
  • When we are working well together, what is different?
  • What do you most value in each of your team members?

Have the team members ask each other,  “What is one thing you need for me to do right now to rebuild your trust in me?” Take time with this one, people might get emotional, and that is okay. This can begin the flow of trust and connection that may never have been there. Honesty here can heal a lot of pain, when they feel safe enough to be honest.  Here are some other questions that can lead to greater clarity, curiosity and resolution:

  • How would you describe the prevalent style of this team?  For example: competitive, collaborative, hostile, supportive.  What adjectives capture the feeling of this team?
  • What do you contribute?
  • What do you want to contribute?
  • What works well for you on this team?
  • What doesn’t work?
  • What agreements would you like to make going forward?
  • How will we hold ourselves, and each other, accountable?
  • How will we make decisions that serve our mission first, and our team second?
  • How will we resolve conflicts and differences of opinion?
  • How will we meet and/or communicate often with each other to keep collaboration high?

Allowing the group to make their shared agreements will cement the connection in a more holistic way than having anything imposed upon them from the outside. Ideally, newly formed teams would have gone through this at the outset.

Those agreements need to be captured in a document and distributed. They might need to be reviewed often, until they are woven into the fabric of the team. As the facilitator of this conversation, you will want to know:  

  • Are they in full support of the mission and vision?
  • Do they trust that each one is sharing the intention of the whole, and not siphoning off time and energy to advance personal gains?
  • Can they have robust dialogue with straightforward concerns, without getting defensive?

Contrary to what many believe, the most innovative and effective teams can handle verbal challenges and requests that might sound harsh to an outside observer but are actually a demonstration of rigor when the environment invites that kind of trust and standards of excellence.

  • Is there enough trust that any one of them can raise an issue that needs to be addressed, even though feathers might be ruffled at high levels – do they care enough about the outcome to risk it?
  • How much do they trust that each member of the team is putting the bigger vision ahead of their own private agenda?
  • How gracious are they with each other about saying, “Wow, I messed up on that one,” and forgiving errors with ease?

Many of the misunderstandings and frustrations of teams that push each others’ buttons can be traced back to their strengths. Each strength has needs attached that must be met in order for that strength to deliver at its best. For example, if someone on your team has the strength of Strategic in their top five, and another person has it in their bottom five or what we call their blindspot, this can be a place where these two people literally cannot see the same.

Each is looking at life and work through the lens of their own strength. So the person who has Strategic is always looking at blueprints and flight plans that define where the team and organization are headed. The person who has Strategic in their blind spot may be a fabulous relationship builder, but simply not be able to see in the same way. They may view everything in terms of how it affects the relationships in the organization. So, in effect, it is as if one speaks English and the other speaks Swahili and they get on each others’ last nerve in every meeting.

One tool that can help: asking the other person to help you understand what they are needing to move forward, and if they know the strength that is being triggered, that can be tremendously helpful. For example, the relationship builder might say, “I want everyone to get along, even though our opinions are different. My sense of harmony (a relationship-building strength) is feeling trampled by this conversation.

When team members understand the value and contribution that each person brings with their unique strengths blend, they are more willing to accommodate each other, because they understand that this is a mutual exchange where they are also valued for their unique contribution.

Assuming that each of us wants to do our best, and has a positive intent, even though we might not understand what that intent is, is a great starting place. Get curious with each other and stay curious rather than judging or assigning blame. When a team creates shared outcomes meaningful to the whole, everyone rises and benefits.

Teri Johnson is the founding partner of Personal Best Partners, LLC and faculty coach and mentor for People Acuity. To learn more about how we help leaders and teams be more innovative and operate more interdependently, visit our website at www.personalbestpartners.com

To learn more about online resources for your team, visit www.peopleacuity.com

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