Difficult work colleagues: 6 ways to deal with toxic teammates

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Pam Hamilton
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Whether you’re in the office or working from home, toxic teammates can fill our working days with frustration and leave us exhausted. Teamwork expert Pam Hamilton tells Stylist how you can deal with them. 

Workplace relationships can be hard to navigate, and physical distance while working from home hasn’t necessarily made things easier. From gaslighting bosses, to work email fails or just not feeling passionate about your work environment, our careers can cause us headaches for a variety of reasons. But perhaps worst of all is dealing with colleagues that don’t pull their weight and add even more stress into your day.

Sound like someone you work with? You could have a toxic teammate, says Pam Hamilton, a teamwork and collaboration expert and author of new book Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools Of Great Teamwork. Below she shares her top tips on how to deal with colleagues causing trouble.

I’m sure you’ve heard people saying “there’s always one”. In my experience this is very often true – many teams have a teammate who makes things more difficult than they need to be. I’m not talking about bullies, sexists or racists who need to be reported to HR and managed out. I mean those people who are toxic on a regular basis, enough to make them exhausting or frustrating to work with, but not enough to call a meeting with HR.  

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Signs you may have a toxic teammate

Common behaviours include:

• They are always negative or complaining about something

• They are indiscrete, unprofessional or spread gossip

• They are always late or have an excuse for why they’ve not done their actions

• They never switch on their video in team meetings, even when everyone else does

But these are small things, I hear you say, but are they enough to count as toxic? If they happen consistently, to the extent that they bring down the performance levels or the energy of the rest of the team, then yes. We all have our bad days when we’re not feeling camera ready or we’re a bit down, but toxic teammates make work harder for everyone else in the team, on a regular basis.

Bad behaviour is a habit, and there are many different reasons why difficult people behave the way they do. They might be very unhappy or even suffering from mental health issues. It may be that they have found attention, gratification or comfort in those behaviours in the past. The problem is, if it negatively affects the rest of the team, someone needs to intervene.  

It’s sometimes tempting to think of teams like families – we can’t choose them, and we get to know each other’s good and bad bits and work around them. We say things like, “Oh, don’t mind her, she’s always like that,” or “Ignore him, he doesn’t mean it.” But work teams are not our families. In fact, the best teams prefer to use the analogy of a sports team: we are here to win together, which means being our fittest, best version of ourselves, and playing well together. When we do great work, we win our games – and we enjoy ourselves too. It’s no longer acceptable to just say, “That’s the way it’s always been,” especially if it’s one person bringing everyone else down.

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Pam Hamilton is a teamwork and collaboration expert and author of new book “Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools of Great Teamwork”.

How do you deal with a toxic teammate?  

If you’ve realised you do have a toxic teammate, the worst thing you can do is nothing. If you don’t intervene, the situation will only get worse. You will need to decide which of you will be responsible for intervening. I suggest you do so on an individual basis rather than in a group, so the person doesn’t feel under attack. Once you’ve decided, you and your team can carefully and deliberately use a combination of the following approaches:

1. Respect

Sometimes people don’t feel heard or understood, which is why they are acting out. If someone is down all the time, ask them how they are and if there’s anything you can help them with. You could say: “It sounds like you are really down today, is there anything you want to talk about separately, so we can take it offline and out of the team meeting?” Especially now, when people are going through a harder time than normal, being listened to makes them feel significant, and keeps your team time for more positive interactions.  

2. Reflect      

People can be so involved in their own world that they don’t realise they are having a negative impact on others. Choose someone in the team to gently hold up a mirror to them and tell them how their behaviour affects the people around them. Be sure to prepare a suggestion of a better behaviour you would prefer to see instead. That person might say: “When I see you texting in the middle of our team meeting, it makes me feel like you’re not interested in what I’m saying. Would it be okay to ask you not to text during meetings, so we can have your full attention?”

3. Repeat

We all have good and bad habits, and it’s hard to change overnight. Because toxic teammates are often stuck in a pattern of behaviour, you will probably need to repeat yourself and your reflections frequently before they start taking notice. At the beginning of the next meeting, someone could say, “Remember we agreed last week not to use our phones during team meetings? Just reminding you all to put your phones away now before we start this team meeting, so everyone is fully present.” Repeat the reminder beforehand, so you head off the bad behaviour early.

4. Record 

If toxic behaviours are a repeated pattern, make sure to write down the specific examples when they occur, including dates, times, people present and exact words where possible. This means you are establishing a factual record that you can explain to the person when you are feeding back to them, with specific examples – they might be unaware of how often they are late, for example. 

5. Report

If you find your teammate is unable to improve their behaviour despite your positive suggestions and feedback, you may need to ask for support from your manager or HR. This is where your recorded examples and previous interventions can be discussed, so you can show that the situation is serious and needs to be escalated by a different, more senior professional, on behalf of the team.

6. Remove

Sometimes the only thing left to do, after trying everything else, is to remove yourself from the toxic person as much as possible. This may mean physically moving to a different area, so you are not sitting next to them or overhearing them. It could mean making yourself unavailable for conversations when they are nearby, perhaps by putting on headphones or explaining that you are busy. Protecting yourself against their negative energy is important for you, so you can keep being a great team member and get on with your work. 

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Toxic team members won’t change unless you help them to do so. If you are intervening to make your team work better together, then it’s the right thing to do, especially if you do so in a respectful and careful way. Helping teammates behave better will help the whole team to be more productive, and you may find that your toxic teammate feels more part of the team as a result.

Pam Hamilton is a teamwork and collaboration expert and author of new book Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools Of Great Teamwork.  

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