Yesterday wasn’t a good day. I work on a small “team”. We don’t really interact as a team ought to. We end up working in silos because that is the path of least resistance. We lack any cross training, change control process, and basic communication. One developer deployed code into production without informing anyone. It didn’t go well and we unnecessarily impacted external customers. We also lost credibility with our internal stakeholders. All of this was so unnecessary and occurred because we simply lack the basic skills of being part of a team.
Our boss wanted all hands on deck to resolve the production issue. But when your teammate is protective of their slice of the pie, it is really hard to get information or know how to assist. This teammate does not communicate and gets away with this behavior because he is the only one who knows where the bodies are buried. So they often let it slide, he’ll lay low for awhile and then the cycle starts up again.
This is not the first toxic teammate I have encountered in my career. And I often tough it out for awhile because I love the work. But eventually I get discouraged and move on.
This morning, I was reflecting on this current team and past teams. Is it me? Why do I get so frustrated when a teammate underwhelms? I know we all have different skills and personalities. I often think that’s what makes a team great – we’re better together then individually. But what if one person just doesn’t want to play? How are you supposed to force someone to play when they don’t believe in the team? What usually ends up happening is that management tries to apply rules that impact everyone versus addressing the toxic teammate. That breeds discontent among those that try to perform and further divides the team.
I have been a part of some highly productive teams and when management provides strategic direction, there’s no stopping us! I think those productive, functional teams have ruined me in a sense. I place a lot of value in team contribution where we work towards a common goal. But when that team is toxic, often due to a single person, the balance is off and the focus is not on the deliverable, but rather the dysfunction. How can a team deliver a great solution when there’s resentment and discord?
So what is the solution? I really don’t know. I can try to understand where they are coming from. Is it fear-based? Are they driven by ego? Is there some common ground and understanding? Some teammates don’t make it easy to get to know them and just dig in.
I think everyone should operate under the assumption that they are replaceable. I think a manager needs to address the toxic teammate individually by setting clear expectations about communication and team interaction. Set some goals that are measurable. It could be as simple as reviewing your code weekly with the team. Do not ignore the problem and expect the team to resolve. That never works. The team will end up dissolving.
Now, some people will just never alter their behavior. They will always be right. And if that person is on the critical path, it’s best to start offloading and cross train as soon as possible. Perhaps even get a consultant in to act as a sponge and document key information while the team builds up the necessary skills to learn. The more you poke around under the hood, the less of a threat that individual becomes. Start now! Don’t wait for 5 years and lose most of your functioning team members.
Remember, it’s never a good idea to have all the knowledge locked away with a single individual. It’s also never a good idea to let a team disintegrate because a toxic teammate is empowered. A productive team will take you places. A dysfunctional team will drive you to drink.