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  • Writer's pictureUlrika Gustafson PCC LL.M

Managing Toxic Behavior: A Practical Guide for Leaders

As a leader it is likely that you at some point throughout your career will be confronted with the complex challenge of managing toxic behavior within your team or organization. Toxic behavior can manifest in various forms, from persistent negativity and undermining of colleagues to more overt acts of bullying or harassment. Such behaviors not only disrupt team harmony but can also erode the foundational trust and respect necessary for effective collaboration. In this Leadership Insights post, we'll dive into the workings of toxic behavior, its negative effects and strategies to manage it.

Understanding Toxic Behavior

Toxic behavior in the workplace is characterized by actions or attitudes that significantly damage the work environment. This can include consistent negativity, gossiping, refusal to cooperate, belittling others and a general lack of respect for colleagues. It's the persistent nature and the detrimental impact of these behaviors that distinguish them from isolated incidents of conflict or stress-related outbursts.

We are all aware that the presence of toxic individuals within a team can have far-reaching consequences. It can lead to decreased morale, increased stress levels and higher employee turnover, which in turn can affect productivity and the overall health of the organization. A toxic work environment can easily stifle innovation and creativity as team members may feel undervalued or intimidated, hindering their willingness to contribute ideas and take initiative.

Addressing toxic behavior swiftly and effectively is crucial for leaders committed to maintaining a positive organizational culture. Unchecked toxicity can easily spiral, affecting not just the immediate team but the broader organization, potentially damaging its reputation and its ability to attract and retain talent. Leaders must be very vigilant in identifying toxic behavior and courageous in taking action to address it, ensuring that the organization's values are upheld and that a supportive, respectful work environment is preserved.

In this regard, leaders are not just managers of tasks but in a sense also creators of organizational culture, tasked with the crucial role of handling these challenges. In the following sections we'll look into practical strategies for leaders to effectively counter toxic behavior, equipping them with the tools they need to transform toxicity into a catalyst for positive change.

Maintaining Composure: The Keystone of Effective Leadership

In the face of toxicity, maintaining composure is not just about keeping your cool; it's about embodying the calm and collected leadership that can steer a team through turbulent waters. Composure signals to your team that, despite provocations or negative behavior, you remain in control and focused on broader objectives. This quality is pivotal because it sets the tone for the entire team's response to challenging situations. When a leader reacts emotionally or defensively, it can escalate tensions and undermine the team's respect and trust in their leadership. On the other hand, a composed response fosters a sense of stability and resilience.

Maintaining composure involves a conscious effort to manage your emotional reactions, ensuring they don't cloud your judgment or impede your ability to make rational decisions. It's about taking a moment to pause, reflect and choose a response that aligns with your leadership values and the organizational culture you aim to cultivate. This skill is particularly crucial in high-stress situations where your reaction can either defuse a toxic scenario or contribute to its intensity.

Carlos, a COO in the manufacturing industry, reached out for support as he had found himself frequently clashing with a direct report known for their confrontational style. These encounters often left Carlos feeling frustrated and demoralized, affecting his focus and productivity. Through executive coaching, Carlos came to realize the importance of being more intentional about his response to toxic behavior. He learned to recognize the early signs of his rising frustration and developed strategies to maintain his composure, such as taking deep breaths, pausing before responding and reframing his perspective to view these challenges as opportunities to strengthen his leadership.

Naturally it wasn't always easy but with awareness and clear intention, Carlos shifted his approach and it had a profound impact. By addressing issues with calm and clarity, he not only neutralized the immediate negativity but also began to change the dynamic with the confrontational team member. Over time, the team member's attitude started to improve, influenced by Carlos's consistent and composed leadership. Also, Carlo's ability to remain composed under pressure earned him greater respect from the entire team, enhancing team cohesion and productivity.

Carlo's story underscores the transformative power of maintaining composure. By choosing to respond rather than react, leaders like Carlos can navigate toxicity with grace, safeguarding their team's morale and fostering a positive, resilient workplace culture.

Setting Boundaries: Navigating the Line Between Firmness and Flexibility

Setting boundaries within a team or organization is a critical leadership task, especially when dealing with toxic behaviors. It involves defining clear expectations about acceptable conduct and the consequences of violating these norms. Effective boundary-setting is essential because it helps preserve a healthy working environment, ensuring that respect, professionalism and positive collaboration prevail. When leaders fail to establish or enforce boundaries, it often leads to a culture where negative behavior goes unchecked, likely eroding team morale and productivity.

To set boundaries effectively, leaders need to communicate their expectations clearly and consistently. This communication should be direct yet respectful, leaving no room for ambiguity about what is considered inappropriate behavior. It's also crucial for leaders to lead by example, adhering to the same standards they set for their teams, thereby reinforcing the importance of these boundaries.

During our coaching engagement, Julia, a Director of Sales in the fashion industry, was faced with a team member who frequently interrupted colleagues and dominated meetings, stifling collaboration. Initially, Julia was very hesitant to address the behavior, fearing it might lead to some kind of conflict. However, the situation began to not only affect the team's dynamics and performance, but also raise valid questions about Julia's suitability as a leader.

Guided by coaching, Julia recognized the necessity of setting clear boundaries to foster a more respectful and productive team environment. She decided to have a private conversation with the team member, where she outlined her observations and explained how the behavior was detrimental to the team's success. In this meeting she also emphasized her commitment to a collaborative team culture and detailed the specific changes she expected to see.

Julia also made it clear that she was available to support the team member's efforts to adjust their behavior, offering resources and regular check-ins to track progress. This balanced approach - being firm about the need for change while also showing support - helped the team member understand the seriousness of the issue and their role in resolving it.

The outcome was significant. The team member's behavior gradually improved, leading to more balanced and productive meetings. On top of that, Julia's decisive yet supportive approach in setting boundaries enhanced her credibility and authority as a leader, reinforcing a culture of mutual respect and cooperation within her team. Her experience illustrates that setting boundaries, when done thoughtfully and assertively, can transform potential conflicts into fantastic opportunities for growth and improvement, both for individuals and the team as a whole.

Leading by Example: The Power of Positive Influence

Leading by example is a cornerstone of effective leadership, particularly in the context of mitigating toxic behaviors within a team or organization. This approach involves showcasing the values, attitudes and behaviors you wish to see in your team members. The significance of leading by example lies in its silent yet persuasive power to shape the culture and norms of a group. When leaders consistently demonstrate positive, respectful and solution-focused behaviors, they set a standard that encourages similar conduct from their team members.

Adopting this leadership style requires a high degree of self-awareness and commitment to personal and professional ethics. It means making a conscious effort to act in ways that reflect the best practices and values of the organization, especially during challenging situations. This consistency between words and actions not only builds trust and respect but also inspires and motivates team members to follow suit.

I was partnering with Martin, a VP of Engineering in the software development industry, as he noticed a growing trend of negativity and blame-shifting within his team, and it was beginning to impact project timelines and quality. Recognizing the need for change, Martin committed to modeling the behaviors he wanted to see in his team. He made a point to openly acknowledge his own mistakes and discuss them as learning opportunities during team meetings. He also made an effort to publicly recognize team members' contributions and encouraged collaborative problem-solving, emphasizing the value of learning from setbacks rather than resorting to finger-pointing.

Martin's commitment to embodying these positive behaviors led to a noticeable shift in the team's dynamics. His willingness to be vulnerable and solution-oriented set a new tone for the team, gradually diminishing the negativity and fostering a more supportive and collaborative environment. As a result, the team's performance and morale improved significantly, demonstrating the ripple effect of positive leadership behaviors.

Martin's experience highlights the transformative potential of leading by example. By consistently demonstrating the values and behaviors he wanted to instill in his team, Martin was able to influence change and guide his team toward a more positive and productive path, proving that the example set at the top can have a profound impact on the entire team.

Seeking Support: Leveraging External Resources for Leadership Growth

In the face of persistent toxic behavior within a team or organization, seeking external support can be a strategic move for leaders. This might involve consulting with mentors, engaging with peer networks or working with an executive coach. The value of seeking support lies in gaining fresh perspectives, finding new strategies and reinforcing one's leadership capabilities to effectively address and mitigate toxicity.

This approach underscores the importance of continuous learning and development in leadership. It acknowledges that leaders, regardless of their experience or position, can benefit from external insights and guidance. Seeking support not only helps in resolving current challenges but also contributes to a leader's long-term growth and effectiveness.

Jaime, a return coaching client of mine and a Regional Manager in the hospitality industry, is a great example of how willingness to seek support can have a positive impact. Faced with a divisive team environment exacerbated by a few toxic individuals, Jamie found her usual strategies ineffective in restoring harmony and productivity. Recognizing the need for a different approach, she reached out for coaching.

Through our partnership, Jaime was introduced to advanced conflict resolution techniques and communication strategies tailored to her specific challenges. The coaching also provided a confidential sounding board for Jaime to reflect on her leadership style and its influence on team dynamics. Our work together enabled Jaime to develop a more nuanced understanding of the situation and to experiment with new, more effective leadership behaviors. Armed with these new strategies and insights, she then implemented a series of targeted interventions designed to address the toxic behaviors head-on while fostering a culture of open communication and mutual respect within her team. The result was a noticeable improvement in team cohesion and a significant reduction in disruptive behaviors.

Jaime's experience demonstrates the transformative potential of seeking external support. With self-awareness, Jaime embraced the guidance of an executive coach and it lead to her not only being able to overcome a challenging situation but also emerge as a stronger, more effective leader. This approach not only resolved the immediate issues but also equipped Jaime with skills and strategies that will serve her well in future leadership challenges.

Fostering a Culture of Respect: Building the Foundation of a Positive Workplace

Cultivating a culture of respect within an organization is essential for creating a positive and productive work environment. This culture is characterized by mutual respect, open communication and an appreciation for diversity in thoughts and opinions. Fostering such a culture involves more than just establishing rules; it requires a sustained effort from leadership to model respectful behaviors, encourage team members to do the same and address any actions that undermine this culture.

A respectful workplace not only improves team collaboration and morale but also minimizes the likelihood of toxic behaviors taking root. When respect is a fundamental part of the organizational ethos, it becomes easier to address issues constructively and collaboratively, without resorting to negativity or disrespect.

When I worked with Ella, a fairly newly appointed HR Director in the travel industry, she was faced with a team environment where disrespect and misunderstandings were becoming increasingly common. Although Ella had not encountered such level of toxicity in a team before, through insights gained in coaching she swiftly recognized the need for a systemic change to re-establish a foundation of respect.

She initiated a series of workshops focused on communication skills, team building and conflict resolution. These workshops were designed not only to educate but also to provide practical tools and strategies that employees could use to enhance their interactions. Ella also implemented regular team-building activities that emphasized collaboration and mutual respect, further reinforcing these values.

Ella also made sure to lead by example, treating every interaction with colleagues as an opportunity to demonstrate respect and understanding, regardless of the situation. She courageously made it clear that disrespectful behavior would not be tolerated, and she was quick to address any issues that arose, always with a focus on learning and improvement rather than punishment.

The effects of Ella's efforts were profound. Over time, the team's dynamic transformed, with noticeable improvements in how team members interacted with each other. There was a significant reduction in conflicts, and when disagreements did occur, they were handled in a much more respectful and constructive manner. This shift contributed to a more positive workplace atmosphere, higher employee satisfaction, and improved team performance.

Ella's experience underscores the importance of actively building and nurturing a culture of respect. By prioritizing respectful interactions, providing opportunities for skill development and leading by example, leaders can create an environment where positive behaviors thrive, and toxic ones have no place.

Embracing Growth and Transformation Through Leadership

Addressing toxicity in the workplace doesn't have to be a daunting task. Instead, it presents a unique opportunity for leaders to drive growth and transformation within their teams and organizations. By adopting a proactive and strategic approach to dealing with toxic behaviors, leaders can turn potential setbacks into catalysts for positive change, enhancing team engagement, morale and productivity.

The journey towards a more positive workplace always starts with setting clear boundaries for what is acceptable behavior and what is not, and leading by example. By leading with intention it is easier for leaders to view difficult situations not as insurmountable obstacles but as opportunities for development and improvement. Reflect on your leadership style and consider how a more intentional, respectful and proactive approach can transform challenges into stepping stones for growth.

Let's connect and share our experiences and strategies for overcoming toxicity and fostering an environment where every team member can thrive. Together, we can build resilient teams that are equipped to handle challenges with grace and emerge stronger on the other side.

Ulrika Gustafson LL.M PCC is a Certified Executive Coach, former C-suite leader and partner of HAMILTON THERRELL Executive Advisors, an international advisory group of experts in leadership and organizational transformation. She advises CEOs and coaches senior executives in Fortune 100 and 500, startups, family businesses and government institutions on succeeding in demanding environments.


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