Monthly Archives: July 2013

Taming Toxic Team Members

We’ve all had to work with toxic team members—bosses, peers, and subordinates. I don’t know anyone who enjoys working with such individuals, however some of us are better able to handle them than others. Let’s break this issue down into several steps: why someone might be toxic, what you can do about the situation, and some useful tools.

Toxic Warning Sign

Why Is Someone Toxic?

Human beings are complex creatures. We are blessed with a powerful and yet intricate cognitive ability which allows us to manipulate our environment to our advantage, but unfortunately this ability also allows us to ruminate and mentally travel down dark pathways, causing depression, mental instability, and other pathological behaviors. People may descend these pathways as a result of genetics (trait behavior) or traumatic experiences (state behavior).

Suppose you have a co-worker who frequently lashes out at others in meetings. Your initial reaction may likely be one of anger with a desire to push back against this individual. Now suppose I told you this person was physically and sexually abused as a child. Would your attitude shift toward compassion? Probably, although you still may not wish to have the person on your team.

Remember that many people lead very chaotic lives, whether by choice or inclination. They may desire to bring everyone down to their level. Some individuals will be toxic because they are bumbling and maybe don’t have the mental equipment to handle social situations gracefully.

This is where the concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) enters. Although many models of emotional intelligence exist, most cover the ability to become aware of one’s own and others’ emotions as well as the ability to regulate one’s emotions and influence the emotions of others. A toxic individual could have an overall low EQ and find themselves bumbling from crisis to crisis, could have an overall high EQ and intentionally leave a wake of destruction behind, or lie somewhere in between. What is important is that if you are able to determine their EQ level then you will know what to work on—intentional sabotage or bumbling incompetence.

Toxic individuals frequently get together and commiserate. They tend to feed on each other and unfortunately they can spoil an entire team if left unattended.

What You Can Do

Try to have a conversation with these folks. Sit down one-on-one and attempt to get to the deeper level of the problem. Sometimes this is not possible because the other person is unwilling to open up and let you in. Other times the individual may begin to allow you an insight into the depth of the issue. Seek clarity in understanding what is going on. Probe gently for a deeper understanding. Explain to the individual that while you may respect their position, it is not productive for the team. If possible, don’t leave with assumptions on anyone’s part.

Set boundaries and hold the team members to those boundaries. Be specific about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

Toxic individuals frequently spew their trash via e-mail because it is easier than doing so in person. Many times we will say things online or in an e-mail that we wouldn’t in person because a distance exists between us. This makes the altercation impersonal and less compassionate. Simply stop the e-mail battles and pick up the phone or walk into the individual’s office. You may also want to consider that writing an e-mail can be cathartic for some.


You have several tools at your disposal. One is to consider an individual’s behavior on a spectrum from “Yes” on one end to “Toxic” at the opposite end and “Challenging” in the middle. I think we’ve all heard the term, “A ‘yes’ man.” This type of person will say yes to whatever the team or boss wants in an effort to get ahead or get along. As a result, they contribute very little. Some leaders prefer subordinates such as this since they are malleable, submissive, and low maintenance. At the other end of the spectrum toxic individuals will push against you no matter what. They will search for ways to resist. Again, this could be for several reasons and it, too is clearly nonproductive.

As in many cases, the middle path is the most productive. An individual may challenge you, which causes you to think through an idea or problem more thoroughly. This can be very helpful, especially if the individual helps your group or organization create something better as a result. Reviewing this model with the toxic individual may be very helpful in illustrating how you view the problem.

Another tool is called the positivity ratio. Research has shown that leaders exhibiting positive behaviors at least three times as often as negative behaviors have higher performing teams. While this works only to a certain point, the concept is important to explain to a toxic worker so he or she understands the powerful effect of positivity.

Finally, a technique known as the mirroring dialog from Imago Therapy can be used to help dissipate charged energy from a toxic team member and provide a path to a more open dialog. While I don’t have space here to go into the details of the technique, I encourage you to explore this powerful tool if you are committed to adding skills to your toolkit.


If the toxic team member doesn’t want closure and keeps beating on the current topic you can certainly call them on it and ask for an explanation. Many times the individual has no desire for closure. That is the point at which you must make a decision as to whether or not you are better off with or without the individual. Sometimes you are stuck with the person. They might be a friend or relative of your boss or your boss’ boss.

Keep in mind—you will learn and grow from each of these situations. Ask yourself what the lesson is in each one, for you will likely be able to apply the lesson later on in life or teach it to someone else.


  • Toxic team members may be inherently toxic or may be so as a result of past experiences
  • Don’t engage in e-mail battles—talk on the phone or meet in person
  • Set and hold distinct boundaries
  • Explain the difference between challenging versus toxic behavior
  • Seek clarity and closure
  • Decide when you’ve had enough and it is no longer worth keeping the toxic team member

Keywords: leadership, toxic team members, EQ, emotional intelligence, mirroring dialog, boundaries


  • Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686.
  • Luquet, W. (2007). Short Term Couples Therapy: The Imago Model in Action. New York: Routledge.
  • Mayer, J. D., Roberts, R. D., & Barsade, S. G. (2008). Human abilities: Emotional intelligence. Annual Review of Psychology, 59(1), 507-536.
  • Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 185-211.
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The Leadership Failure of Mohamed Morsi: Will Your Workers Revolt, Too?

The removal of Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s President is a poignant reminder of the difficulty in satisfying the myriad demands of disparate segments of a society or organization. While Mr. Morsi was a democratically elected leader of a country, his failure can provide many lessons for those of us who work in business and non-profit organizations.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi

In a nutshell, Mr. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party put personal agendas before the common goal of repairing and building a flourishing Egyptian government and society. He failed to rebuild the Egyptian infrastructure, leaving the economy struggling with high prices for food, gasoline, and other commodities. He and others in his party grabbed power by ramming an unpopular religiously tainted constitution down the throat of the Egyptian people and appointing Islamist officials to as many posts as possible.

Eventually the Egyptian people and military had enough and took to the streets and once again violence has ensued. Let’s take a look at what lessons we can glean from this experience to help us lead our organizations.

In my experience, the best leaders put the organization first and set aside their egos and personal agendas. Jim collins does an excellent job elaborating on this in his well-researched book Good to Great. In his words, a Level 5 leader “Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” You could begin by keeping a journal of your daily activities and noting which activities are moving you closer to your team and organizational goals, and which activities are moving you toward personal goals. You may also find that some activities are taking you nowhere, which would be helpful to know.

The second lesson we can find is how important it is to provide an adequate infrastructure so that a team may flourish and excel—to use their talent to its fullest extent. The Egyptian economy is in shambles, which cripples all businesses from tourism to technology. Are you providing the necessary equipment and financial resources for your team? Have you asked what they need lately?

Finally, pay attention to all of the groups within your organization, whether these be types of workers, individuals at all levels in the organization, all facets of the organization such as marketing, development, production, or ethnic and gender groups. Each group will bring a somewhat unique perspective to your business and may provide a profound insight that propels you forward. One of the mantras I continue to recite is “Respect Everyone.” If we genuinely come from this attitude our team members will see it for what it is—a genuine interest and concern for each individual and group.

Bringing groups together which have widely divergent views and interests is difficult and requires a skilled leader. The key point is to continue focusing on the goals and vision of the team and organization. Use these as the focal point instead of the differences in views. Ask how the different views can help achieve the goal, thus building synergy to create exceptional solutions to problems.

In summary, I believe the lessons from the failure of Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood party are:

  • Set your personal agenda aside and focus on the greater goals of the organization and your team,
  • Provide an adequate infrastructure for your team so that they may flourish and utilize their talents to their fullest extent, and
  • Remain attentive to all groups within your organization.

Keywords: leadership development, leadership lessons, Egypt, Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood


  • Al Jazeera. (2013, July 3) Profile: Mohamed Morsi. Al Jazeera. Retrieved July 8, 2013 from
  • Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap. and others don’t. New York: Collins.
  • Daragahi, B. & Saleh, H. (2013, July 5). Egypt: The second revolution. Financial Times. Retrieved July 8, 2013 from
  • Khalaf, R. (2013, July 4). Morsi’s downfall will entrench Brotherhood’s sense of victimhood. Financial Times. Retrieved July 8, 2013 from
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