How Do I Handle A Toxic Team Member?

Carrie Webber, Owner, The Jameson Group

What is a toxic team member?

We are often asked questions by dental professionals who are at a loss for what to do about a problem that isn’t exclusive to dentistry. Inevitably, the questions are: “What do I do about a team member who is resistant to change and affecting the rest of the team? What do I do when the resistance of that team member has become toxic? 

In some instances, the effects of one team member’s behavior become pervasive, infecting the entire team and the practice culture as a whole. Solving the dilemma this presents isn’t as simple as firing that team member and moving on, either.

The Effects of a Toxic Behavior from Team Members

In a study by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor at Harvard Business School (you can view and download the study here), a toxic worker was defined as “a worker that engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people.” 

Having a person on your team that reflects that definition of behavior can cause detrimental results in your practice, including:

  • Loss of patients
  • Loss of employee morale
  • Increased turnover
  • Loss of reputation in your community as a business
  • Loss of productivity

In fact, the study by Harvard Business School concluded that a negative team member can have a bigger, greater impact on your business than a superstar team member—meaning, negative team members will do more harm than a superstar team member can do good! 

How to Overcome a Toxic Situation

Getting yourself and your team back on course is paramount to your practice’s success. How do you manage to course correct without making the situation worse? Here are three tips to help you walk through this experience with your team and come out better for it on the other side.

1. Communicate.

One of the most common responses to a negative employee or team member is no response at all—avoidance. Of course, we’d all like to avoid conflict as much as possible. If you are in a leadership position, however, you’re the person who must lead the way through this situation. So no response isn’t an option. 

The first step to take is to take stock of the situation. It’s important that you get clear on the toxic behavior of the team member and the specific impact it is having on the rest of your team or your business. Once you see the far-reaching effects, it’s time to clearly communicate this to that team member through a very crucial conversation. Together, through active listening and effective problem solving, you want to discuss options to move forward.

I always advocate for giving a team member the chance and the choice to either change their behavior or not, which will lead to further conversations down the road. I also advocate for doing so smartly; documentation of this conversation is important as well as documentation of agreement to move forward in a positive manner. You must meet the issue of negativity attitude head-on.

If there is a hope and a future with this team member, it is important to communicate in this conversation that you WANT them to be successful, you WANT your working relationship to work and you WANT to work with them to make it a more positive experience for everyone. We are all more motivated by positive, rewarding environments and what’s in it for us. So work to uncover the root cause of the negativity, and work together to see if improvement is possible. Make it clear that you have their best interests at heart, but that the negative behavior must change and will not be tolerated.

2. Set the expectation.

If toxicity is running rampant in your practice, it’s time to set boundaries. It’s important to draw the line in the sand of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable moving forward and to clearly communicate this to your entire team—repeatedly. Everyone needs to be on the same page of where you are going as a team in terms of the culture and attitude of the practice. Everyone needs to understand what is expected of them in their role, and then it is up to you and team leaders to hold everyone accountable to those expectations. Accountability is a critical core factor in effective leadership.

Choosing not to hold the one negative force accountable to the same standard ends up punishing the high-performing and positive contributors on your team. This, in turn, becomes a demotivator and you are at risk of losing superstars because of that one person and your response to the situation. 

Often, we as leaders delay these important conversations and decisions because of fear—what if someone leaves, what if they object, who would we find to replace them, would their replacement be any better, and so on. Fear is a paralyzing agent if we let it be. 

3. Know when to let go.

As a fellow business owner and leader, some of my most painful lessons have come from holding on to a work relationship long after it was obvious it wasn’t a good fit. I’ve been in your shoes. What I’ve learned is that often, we as leaders aren’t objectively viewing the situation for what it is. We hold on due to fear and misperceptions. 

For example, we may perceive that the team member behaving negatively is good at their job when in fact, their work performance is nowhere near what you think it is or what it once was. Unfortunately, you probably won’t realize this fully until you do let that person go. It’s hard to see in the moment that the price of their continued negativity is almost always more costly than the rewards of holding on. And the cleanup in the aftermath can be just as painful as the separation when you make the choice to delay the inevitable.

4. Talk to your team.

If you had to let that team member go, it’s paramount that you talk to your team once again about the culture you’re trying to build within the practice. Outline your vision for the practice and invite them to be a part of this endeavor by asking for their thoughtful participation. Ask for suggestions for team building activities, for example. Let them know there will be a sheet of paper in the office waiting for their suggestions. Repair the damage that’s been done.

Take the opportunity to give your team your attention individually. Check-in with them to see how they’re doing. Go into these check-ins knowing you aren’t the only one who will have mixed feelings about the unavoidable firing of the negative team member. Sometimes you’ll discover your team isn’t completely clear why that person was let go, and they may be wondering if they’re next. Other times you’ll discover relief that the negative influence is gone, but there are past hurts that your team member still needs to unpack. Your thoughtfulness in having a one-on-one conversation to ask them how they’re doing will reassure them that you care, you’re paying attention, and they’re still a valuable member of the team.  

Team Member Stuck with a Toxic Team Partner

You may be reading this and thinking, “But, I’m not the owner, what do I do from my position?” You can lead this shift from where you are by being a champion for the high road. How do you do that?

1. Do not participate in negative gossip or conversations.

 If you find yourself caught in this drama cycle of negativity, encourage the person initiating it to go to the source or make the statement that you will not participate in such conversations any longer. 

Champion your team toward positive work partnerships, positive initiative, and forward-thinking professionalism. Starve the negativity so that it has no place to take root and thrive in your workplace.

2. Consider the future.

If you are the leader and decision-maker, you must consider this team member’s future in the practice and the impact they are having on the practice as a whole. Make the time and effort to have that critical conversation that is long overdue about their behavior and the concrete negative effect it is having on the practice. 

3. The behavior is toxic, not the person.

Remember, it’s not the the team member that’s toxic, it’s their behavior. Give them the chance to make the choice to change the negative behavior, but hold them accountable to what is communicated and don’t delay if that agreement is broken. 

When standing in the space of uncertainty, ask yourself the following:

  • What are the benefits of keeping/releasing this team member?
  • What are the risks?
  • What is the REAL performance impact this behavior is having on your team and your business? Look for measurable impact if and when possible.

Repetitive negative behavior AFTER constructive conversations have taken place is a huge red flag. In the end, if they choose not to change their mindset and behavior in the practice, you must make the decision that is the best for the team and the business as a whole. As the study by Harvard Business School shared, it’s better to be free of the negative forces on your team than to have even one superstar! That speaks volumes to the impact toxicity has on the health and happiness of your practicing life. 

Doing nothing is not a solution.

Indecision is, in the end, a decision. Have the conversations you know you need to have. Encourage and expect improvement and change. If they choose not to shift, make the decision necessary to keep you and your team thriving. There is no room for toxicity in a high-performing dental team.

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