Sometimes the results of team dysfunction are relatively innocuous. The team might just be a little slower or a little less rewarding than you would like. But in too many teams, the problems are more severe. People find themselves dreading a job they used to enjoy because their teammates are bickering, or rejecting new ideas, or simply not pulling their weight.

Let’s be honest: Some teams are toxic.

That kind of deep dysfunction doesn’t appear overnight. In a way, the unhealthy state of so many workplace teams mirrors the chronic illnesses in our society – both are the result of failing to do some simple, small things every day to maintain health. None of those individual steps seems terribly important on its own. It’s no big deal if I skip my workout today – and the world won’t end if I don’t contribute much at the meeting this week. But eventually, missing all of those small steps adds up to a big problem.

For individuals, it can mean diabetes or heart disease. For teams, it can mean turning into one of five types of diseased teams. And in both cases, once the problem is really serious, it takes a lot of time and energy to put things right.

Take the team diagnostic test to see if you are working with a toxic team.

Give yourself a point for each statement you believe or suspect is true. Total the points at the end of each section. Sections with four or more points should be cause for concern.

The Crisis Junkie Team

People on the team struggle with lack of role clarity.
Team members complain that there are too many priorities.
Some important action items get “lost between the cracks” and not completed.
The team tends to find excuses for why things can’t be done.
People “duck” and try to avoid working on initiatives unless forced to do so.
The team performs significantly better when there is a crisis.
Politics and image management are improved significantly by crises.

The Bobble Head Team

Team members share similar perspectives on problems.
Meetings are amiable and pleasant.
Team members refrain from challenging people they see as more senior.
The team reaches consensus quickly and does not re-open decisions once made.
The team is viewed as isolated or siloed by other parts of the organization.
Team members avoid conflict when possible.
The team is uncomfortable with opposing points of view.

The Bleeding Back Team

Team members seem to agree in the room, but disagree outside the room.
People use indirect or sarcastic language to express discontent.
Projects stall in implementation because of too little support.
Decisions are frequently re-opened after they have been made.
Back-channels are used to influence decisions.
Team members have little trust in one another.
Team members manage up and try to show themselves in the best light.

The Spectator Team

One or two people tend to dominate the discussion in team meetings.
The majority of conversations in team meetings tend to be with the leader.
Several people on the team become passive and stop contributing in meetings.
People who are not the subject matter experts tend not to add value on issues.
Meetings are used primarily for sharing information.
Few people participate in discussions that don’t involve them directly.
The team seems to be without a compelling common purpose.

The Royal Rumble Team

Meetings and interactions can be aggressive and tense.
People use personal or unfair attacks during debates.
Team members lose their temper in team interactions.
People are poor at listening and hearing different perspectives.
Past issues are brought up frequently, even if they were supposed to be resolved.
Team members take sides in arguments and create factions.
Some team members shut down because of the tone of the discussions.

For more, download my new ebook Toxic Teams – Diagnosing your Team’s Dysfunction.

Further Reading

What I Learned from my Second Dysfunctional Team

Top 10 Signs that Your Dysfunctional Team is Getting Better

What to do if you’re Struggling with your Team

24 Responses to Are you working with a toxic team?

  1. Nancy

    Wow! As much as I hate to admit it, I can see a few past teams described here. Despite team discussions on changing the dynamics and improving performance, we couldn’t seem to change. I guess not being able to get at the heart of things stopped us, and then again, maybe we didn’t have the right motivation…

    • Liane

      Nancy, thanks for your comments. I’ve seen many well-intentioned teams that struggle to find their way out of a dysfunctional dynamic. I think one of the challenges is that the team tries to jump into the dynamic (trust, communication, etc.) without first getting clarity on why the team exists. Without that alignment, it’s really hard to konw how team members need to behave. If you find yourself in this situation again, start by building consensus on WHAT the team needs to do and then you can work on HOW you need to do it.

  2. Brian Wellman

    I’m lucky enough that I haven’t worked on a toxic team myself but have definitely worked with my share of them over the years. It is an awful place to be – the business completely suffers and so do the team members personally. Thankfully, these teams can become high performing over time but not without a little hard work and a genuine commitment to change.

  3. Sonya Stevens

    Great insight, Liane! I found myself thinking of a team I worked with in the past. It was full of amazing people who were individually strong, but as a group things just weren’t working. While reading through your article the team’s toxic pattern jumped right off the page. I LOVE your diagnostic beacuase it makes it so easy for teams to identify their dysfunctional patterns so they can begin the work they need to do to get back on track.

    • Liane

      Thanks for your comment Sonya, I think you’re describing a team that many of us can relate to…someone the whole is LESS THAN the sum of the parts. We all understand the promise of teams..synergy and a whole greater than the sum of the parts. I think many people think this is a pipe dream. I can assure you that it’s not…if you take the high road, it will become very difficult for your teammates to do otherwise. In that way, you can really change your team.

  4. Ren

    Each of these team types brings a picture to my eyes. Some I have seen too closely and been inside of. Helpful to think about it in different ways. Even the bobblehead team (which sounds kinda nice on the surface) clearly has the gaps that come from not enough honest conversation. I’ve seen that one too and how it slows things down.

  5. Tammy Heermann

    What are people’s experience with these types of teams globally? I’ve seen these types of teams and been on some in North America but was wondering about your experience with these concepts internationally?

  6. Liane

    Tammy, this is a great question. I have certainly seen some differences in the team dynamic in other countries. The Caribbean was particularly different because of the extremely indirect and polite styles. It made conflict very slow and almost like an intricate dance. I’d love to hear from other community members who have experience in different cultures. Thanks for the comment!

    • Jenny

      I’ve worked in a Korean-based organization where I worked closely with the Management Team. From my experience, there seemed to be a strong tendency to agree with the senior person in the room and/or the team leader – I would probably classify them as the classic bobble head team.

  7. Razia Garda

    In my 25 years in business I have been on so many teams and at times witnessed behaviour which was uncharacteristic of some individuals. Meetings were unproductive, witnessed personality clashes and at times colleagues were too afraid to voice their opinions,concern or share new ideas. Liane, these are awesome diagnotic tools that will quickly help identify these Toxic Teams and what leads them to be dysfunctional. They are very well thought out!!

  8. Emma Wyatt

    The above analogies elucidate behaviors that i have experienced whilst working in a team. More worryingly i can see how my own behavior may have at times, contributed to team toxicity!

    In the UK we are famed for our inability to express our emotions and feeling uncomfortable when people talk about their emotions. Our natural instinct is to react with an ironic joke or blame ill feeling on the weather. We often avoid conflict and wait to the dire end to vent all emotion bringing up past issues, leading to tense interaction. The result a Royal Rumble!

    Thanks Liane for this engaging approach to a serious topic!

    • Liane Davey

      Hi Emma, it’s always great to hear how different cultures (both National and organizational) affect the dysfunction of teams. Your examples of how humor is used to deflect uncomfortable or emotional issues really hit home for me. I think humor has power to keep teams in misery. Fortunately, it also has the power to help teams out of it. Sometimes we are more comfortable to have difficult conversations if we can approach them from the lighter side. Teams who find funny ways to call out bad behavior are much more comfortable to say something rather than let it slide or to get passive aggressive with it. Thanks for your comments.

  9. Vince Molinaro

    Great ideas Liane. I find your descriptions of the types of toxic teams very practical and helpful.

    I’m curious, what are the risks to the business or company when toxic teams don’t commit to improving or fixing their situation?

  10. Tiina

    Personally I find the Passive/Aggressive team the hardest one to work on. At least with the Royal Rumble you might leave the room bruised and crying but you know where you stand, you know where the enemies are and can make decisions. The meetings where everyone seems to be agreeing but are actually sitting there thinking that they are not going to do what they say they will do are the most debilitating. Even worse than the Passive-Aggressive Team however, is the Passive-Aggressive Leader. Made myself physically sick once trying to work for one of these abusers.

  11. Bryan

    So very helpful to see this boiled down to just a few simple, yet powerful, ideas. As I read the statements, I realize just how many crappy teams there are out there. In fact, I have seen some teams that are so bad they can’t even agree on where they are ineffective. Lots of finger pointing and little, if any, self-reflection. Hard to know where to start without clarity on the issue(s).

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  13. Holly

    Hi Liane, thanks for the diagnostic tool. Found it useful, my question is whether you have the “cure” in your book or on the website. I have attended one of your presentation and maybe due to the limited time given, you did not talk much about the “cure” for each type of the toxic teams. Thank you!

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