Transforming Toxic Teams "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 25 September 2020 True Leadership, Leadership Premium Content, psychological safety, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 2219 illustration of a weak team member Product Management 8.876
· 11 minute read

Transforming Toxic Teams

At some point in our careers, we’ve likely all experienced a toxic team or two. You know the team we mean, the one where everything is a battle, conversations are tense and people are constantly frustrated and anxious.

These issues that arise can be a result of the behaviour of the whole team, a few individuals, or even the effect of just one person on the rest of the team. As a result, the team underperforms, makes poor decisions, and its people don’t stay around for long – if a team is dysfunctional and on the road to becoming toxic, the signs will be there.

But what causes this dysfunction and toxicity, and what can you, as a product leader do about it? How do you spot it developing, and what can you do to reverse the slide? Most importantly, how do you prevent it from happening in the first place?

Know What to Expect

A veteran of the tech industry, Jeb Hurley is co-founder and CEO at team relationship management software provider Xmetryx. He has a background in behavioural science and he researched team science, connecting what behavioral science knows to what team leaders do while earning his doctorate.

In his experience, the tech and finance industries tend to experience higher levels of toxicity than other industries, simply because of the amounts of money involved – but there’s often a transparency about this that mitigates the dysfunction. “Where real toxicity comes in is where expectations are high of having a supportive high-trust culture. And if that’s not what your expectations are if you’re going to work on Wall Street. Where people really get taken aback is when they’re expecting rightfully to be in a healthy environment,“ he says.

We all want to be part of a happy and successful team and in a #mtpcon San Francisco keynote, Building Happy Product Teams like Heist Teams, Laura Klein shares her experience of working in different teams, and what she learned by asking team members what makes them happy.

She says: “Happy teams are made up of groups of people who trust and respect each other, they collaborate. They work together, sometimes they work apart, sometimes they have solid predictable process, they check in, they don’t spend more than an hour to a day meetings.”

But, she says she discovered how easy it is to turn a happy team into an unhappy one. In fact, she tells us in her talk, there are plenty of ways to do it, one being micromanaging. In her research into happy teams Laura says she found that teams want a very clear goal but simply hate being micromanaged, a hard line to draw. Get it wrong and you end up being a dictator.

“Please don’t be a dictator. Give teams clear goals and visions, but let them solve the problems that they need to get there. There’s a reason that you hired those people in the first place. They’re experts.”

And hopefully we’ve all heard of Google’s Project Aristotle, which attempted to analyse why some teams were more effective than others. But it need not take much for the team engine to misfire: in any group dynamic there are many catalysts that can lead to a team becoming toxic.

Jeb comments that the catalyst may be something as simple as a bit of gossip: “Someone may feel unable to bring their full self to work because people are gossiping about their personal life maybe – and there’s a human tendency for it to spread. That makes the work environment far less comfortable, far less safe for someone who feels their ability to be effective is being impinged by people talking about them.”

Product consultant Petra Wille points out that you can often encounter dysfunction when you’re new to a company and you take over an existing team. “If you’re already with a team and you start to see some dysfunction, for whatever reason, it’s not immediately toxic and you can address it,” she explains.

Petra recommends that people read Patrick Lecioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team to give themselves a grounding on how dysfunction can manifest in a team. Briefly, Lecioni’s five dysfunctions are:

  1. Absence of trust
  2. Fear of conflict
  3. Lack of commitment
  4. Avoidance of accountability
  5. Inattention to results

But there are multiple catalysts to any of these dysfunctions, and it’s worth examining the main ones.

Lack of Clarity on Basic Values or Norms

Jeb says the most fundamental cause of toxicity is a lack of clarity around the basic values or norms by which people are expected to operate. “It’s the little micro actions day-in day-out, subtle acts of exclusion, that drive down inclusivity,” he says, “there may be biases that enter into conversations either overtly or unconsciously.” If there isn’t a set of clearly established norms or values – which have been embraced throughout the organisation – to monitor, guide and assess behavior then people will begin to stray. “If norms aren’t adhered to and enforced then that’s the first step in a process of creating a toxic environment on a team, and little acts of aggression, little acts of exclusion, begin to permeate behaviours,” he adds. There have been some high-profile examples of this – consider the past regimes at Uber and at WeWork, and the difficulties these businesses had as a result of the toxic environment they operated in.

Culture Clash

Culture clash is also a part of this: you may see culture clash between different functions in an organisation, says Ken Chin, formerly CPO at Seek Asia, “for example, a sales team may work very differently to a product delivery team”. He says: “Most companies organise in functional silos with a culture that allows people to communicate and work effectively across them.” If that breaks down – or never existed in the first instance – then you’re on the road to dysfunction.

Some cultures are more susceptible to this dysfunction than others. Ken points to business culture in Asia, which tends to be deferential and averse to challenging leaders or other business groups. Citing Tuckman’s stages of group development, he says: “You’ll see a team will go into forming and then they go into storming but because they always back away from conflict, they fall back into forming again. And they never get through the storming stage into norming and performing.”

Toxic Leaders

If a leader comes from a different background from their team they may have different motivations from the team. Ken says he has experienced this many times. For example at a tech incubator and investor, he says, the digital natives on the product teams would have to pair up with a consultant and this lack of a shared context led to some unusual business decisions.

Jeb Hurley cites the example of someone he worked with at an international tech business, who was promoted to a country manager role. “This individual turned out to be quite a bully, and was really damaging to the organisation. He ultimately impacted and degraded performance on the team because he consistently caused significant conflict. He reduced psychological safety so people did not feel safe to express their opinions.” It had a huge impact on the business, staff quit, people at regional headquarters began to hear complaints, and, says Jeb, ”we began to get approval requests for deals that didn’t comply with company practice. It began to impact the business, to the tune of millions of dollars in losses, due to lack of approvals, inappropriate practices and so on. At its core it had everything to do with someone attempting to achieve goals in a toxic way.”

Ken Chin adds: “In most modern product delivery organisations, you’re trying to get the teams to be autonomous as possible. If a leader doesn’t buy into that view, or behaves in a way that is dictatorial, then you can set up that organisation for very weird behaviours and dysfunction.”

Performance Management Systems

Unfortunately biannual or annual performance reviews, and the linking of those to bonuses and promotions can create extremely toxic behaviour too. Surely we’ve all seen or experienced this at some point in our careers. Ken gives an example: “Finance may say there’s a certain amount of money for paying out bonuses across the company. Effectively that forces people managers to say, ‘within my teams, if I want to give someone a bigger bonus, then somebody has to have a smaller bonus’. That can turn into a game between managers.” It’s an extremely unfair and biased game, he says, one that can create an environment where the entire team or even the whole organisation can feel that it’s extremely unfair and become demotivated.

Brilliant Jerks

There will always be the odd person who shouldn’t be part of a team. As Ken says: “Are you hiring someone who is an absolute genius? Maybe they are fantastic front-end developer or an incredibly intelligent data scientist? But maybe they’re a bit of an asshole and nobody wants to work with them.”

But they may be a brilliant jerk because nobody has ever talked to the team about expectations of their behaviour. Petra Wille adds that if you find one individual who is toxic to a team it should prompt you to look back and examine how they got there.

How Do You Handle a Toxic Team?

Tackling a toxic team, or one that’s headed that way, is by no means easy but, in reality the solution is rooted in the skills and traits of a good product manager.

Be Human

Businesses have changed tremendously in recent years. They tend to be organisationally flatter, more team-based, and are more likely to take an agile approach than they would have been a couple of decades ago. But people are still struggling to adapt to these changes, as Petra observes. “Sometimes companies are demanding more change from their employees than the employees can actually live up to. So they can feel overwhelmed and alone.” She adds: “It’s managing people. And yes it’s super hard, but on the other hand, it’s not – because you should be as human as you can be and really invest time and value people in an unbiased way.” It’s apparent that, above all, team leaders should ensure that they don’t behave in a way that violates trust.

Provide Psychological Safety

Without providing a team with psychological safety, the team environment can go toxic very quickly, and the team will no longer get the behaviours that it needs to innovate and be truly productive as a group of people. At Mind the Product we’ve covered psychological safety in blogs and #mtpcon talks many times and here are some of our more recent posts exploring this important challenge:

Address Bias – Both Overt and Unconscious

In order to do this, leaders and teams need to police their own behaviour. Jeb points out that most large public companies have policies around bias, but they are less likely to have policies that address psychological safety, because they’re much harder to apply. “You can have a team that is psychologically safe for all but one person,” he says.

Beware Toxic Traits

Jeb adds that you can watch out for the personality types and traits that tend to create toxicity in teams, narcissists, or extroverts who lack empathy or emotional intelligence or conscientiousness. You can watch how the team behaves in retros, look at whether one individual dominates the conversation, or if they arrive at surprising decisions, and so on, to monitor for toxic traits.

Build Your Team With Care

When you’re forming a team it will pay dividends to focus on the values of individuals, he says, and proactively manage relationships. “The creation of a team is about taking individual values and making them collective against a goal to be achieved. So get an understanding of what motivates someone, it gives you a good sense of the likelihood that they will be toxic in a team environment.” Ken adds that it pays to be explicit about expectations of behaviour, and rather than constantly escalate issues, allow teams to develop maturity and equip them with the tools to resolve conflicts themselves.

In a well-functioning, highly performing team, team members are able to air an issue in a way that is visible to the entire team, and the team will together work to address that issue, Jeb says. He says he once worked with an Israeli fighter pilot squadron, the epitome of an elite team, and watched the way they looked out for each other. “When humans are being human, they create gaps in trust, What they were really good at was recognising and closing those gaps.”

Further Reading

If you have a resource you’d like to recommend, please let us know in the comments.

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