Open any hazardous materials storage area and you will find many scary labels, most warning of certain death and other calamities if you are not careful with the chemical it is attached to. It is unfortunate that people do not come with such labels! It is no revelation that toxic people are in our lives, our workplaces, and certainly on our project teams. How do you recognize them? Are they always obvious? Once you find them, how do you deal with them?
A toxic team member is one who is undermining the team in some fashion. They are the ones who roll their eyes behind other’s backs, who hold information just for the sake of power, they are more concerned with ensuring they look better to the PM — even if it quietly alienates the entire team. This person might be outwardly snide, degrading, and full of disdain for other team members or may just talk about nearly every other team member behind their back, one by one, if it suits them. I have worked with people like this before, and because the PM seems to really love them (why wouldn’t the PM love them? From the PMs point of view, what is not to love? This person does anything and everything possible to make the PM happy.) If the PM cannot see that one by one, his team is fading away, that morale is deteriorating, should someone tell him? It’s a tricky question; if the toxic person really does everything for the PM you could come across as a whiner. So, many people just quietly do their jobs and plan on their escape to another project team or to a new company.
Are all toxic team members so obvious? Perhaps there are some that put on quite a show to prove they are kind, but then you discover they are only spreading their poison directly to the PM’s ear. Even if it was a complete team effort, they take all the credit. Maybe you had four people assist on a difficult task, but in a huge group meeting, this person says “thank you” only to three (and it seems they left the fourth person out on purpose.) Maybe they invite everyone to lunch, but leave one or two people off the invitation. This is not good for the team; it will deteriorate it slowly like a cancer. You cannot always smell the toxic fumes these people generate.
I have found the best way to handle these people is with a great attitude – I mean a REALLY terrific attitude. I liken it to shining sun in a dark dingy basement. Still, not everyone has such a sunny disposition, and that’s ok. So – are there other ideas out there? Should we pull the toxic person to the side and try to understand them better? Should we just circumvent them from the process whenever possible? What would you do?