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Barry Bloch
Barry Bloch

Global Partner for Board and Executive Leadership

Published

21 May 2024

How to deal with toxic or dysfunctional behaviours in your team

With the right approach most dysfunctional behaviour can be addressed, but if it is allowed to continue it can be incredibly disruptive. How effectively do you manage dysfunctional behaviour within your team?

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At a glance:

  • Dysfunctional behaviour can negatively impact the performance and culture of an organisation and the wellbeing of other individuals.
  • A lack of intent differentiates dysfunctional behaviour from toxic behaviour and determines whether the behaviour can be changed.
  • Most dysfunctional behaviour can be addressed when there is an understanding of the psychology of the individual; the dynamic in which it is occurring; and a commitment from the individual to change.

Dysfunctional behaviours – like being overly or unnecessarily critical or judgmental; unnecessarily testing or rejecting boundaries; setting unrealistic or unattainable standards to establish a power imbalance; and withholding information to exert control – can be incredibly disruptive in a work environment. If ignored or allowed to continue, these behaviours can negatively impact the performance and culture of an organisation, the wellbeing of other individuals, and lead to:

  • Individual, team and organisational underperformance
  • Low levels of innovation and productivity
  • High levels of stress and employee turnover
  • Unresolved conflict
  • Poor organisational culture and morale

While it’s rarely an easy process to change these types of behaviours, Barry Bloch – Global Partner for Board and Executive Leadership – believes that most dysfunctional behaviour is in fact manageable.

“Addressing dysfunctional behaviour is about creating safe and high performing work environments, because we can’t expect teams to deliver on performance expectations with dysfunctional individuals disrupting or leading the team,” he says. “It’s worth noting that safe working environments are not the same as cozy or underperforming workplaces, because regardless of whether your organisation is public or private, for purpose or for profit, there is always a requirement to perform and to deliver on the expectations of stakeholders.”

Is the behaviour toxic or dysfunctional?

According to Barry, the language that we use to describe dysfunctional behaviour is really important. “People are often too quick to use inflammatory words like toxic in their judgement of others when people’s intentions are very largely positive, and most people don’t set out to negatively impact others,” he says.

While dysfunctional individuals are far more common than toxic individuals, understanding intent is key to determining the language that you use and the approach that you take.

“If an individual’s behaviour is unconscious or unintended, it is considered dysfunctional, and the focus is primarily on changing the behaviours and stopping their impact,” says Barry. “If a leader is toxic the distinction is usually quite clear, as there will be the intent to harm others through unacceptable behaviours like bullying, aggression, disruption, domination or control. When individuals display these toxic behaviours, performance management, formal grievance procedures and the exit of that individual should typically follow.”

How to lead and manage dysfunctional individuals – and the ‘rebels’

Barry offers these pointers on how and when to work with individuals on changing dysfunctional behaviour.

Build relationships continually

Working with someone to improve and change their behavior must start on the basis of trust and understanding. “People don't learn from people that they don't have a relationship with,” says Barry.

Show that you are interested

To develop a dysfunctional individual, they must have confidence in your genuine desire to work with them on improving their performance, their behavior and their impact. “By showing interest in a dysfunctional person, you are more likely to build a constructive relationship and achieve a positive outcome for the individual and the organisation – but it has to be a two-way street,” says Barry.

Tolerate little

Before embarking on a development process there must be an understanding that it is conditional. “If an individual puts in the required work, maintains the boundaries that are set and shows growth and development, they will continue to receive development opportunities,” says Barry. “If they continue to behave in a dysfunctional way or their behaviour is harmful or hurtful to others, then performance management and exit will be required.”

Seek information through questions

There are many reasons why people might display dysfunctional behaviours, but unless you understand the why, it's very difficult to make sustainable change. “In my experience, most dysfunctional behaviors are learned ways of influencing or leading, or the product of coping mechanisms that have worked to protect an individual in the past but are not serving them well anymore,” says Barry. “To understand what is driving this dysfunction and determine the approach to change these behaviours, the right questions must first be asked.”

Listen well

Whether dysfunctional behaviours are learned or the result of skill gaps, the development approach must be based on facts and data. “Listening is crucial, because if you can listen well, you can establish context and design conditional learning to focus on the individual growing in the right way,” says Barry.

Remove harmful behaviours

As you engage in developing dysfunctional individuals, the people affected by their behaviour must be removed from harm’s way. “Exposure to harmful or unsafe behaviours simply cannot and must not be tolerated,” says Barry.

Show self-control

As a leader you must remain in control of yourself at all times. “The moment you show anger or behave like the dysfunctional person, you normalise their behaviours and justify their resistance to change,” says Barry.

Follow through with promises

Trust is critical in managing dysfunctional behaviour, but it can only exist when the expectations are clear, and people deliver on their promises. “To build trust all parties must follow through on their commitments,” says Barry. “This means doing what you say you will do, or better still, over-delivering.”

How long should you invest in developing dysfunctional individuals?

When you set out to change dysfunctional behaviours you must decide how long you are prepared to invest in the process and work with the individual. You must also be mindful of the impact that the learning and development process has on other individuals – including your employees, customers, and other stakeholders.

“As an employer you have an absolute duty of care to the safety and wellbeing of all of your people, and while it is good to grow and develop individuals it should not happen at the expense of others,” says Barry.

“If by being loyal to one individual you are harming multiple people or exposing them to harm, then you must prioritise collective safety and wellbeing over the individual,” Barry continues. “Finding the right balance requires you to decide when to invest in changing behaviours and when an individual is no longer a good or safe fit for your organisation.”

For advice on dealing with dysfunctional leaders or other members of your team, connect with Barry or reach out to your local Gerard Daniels team.

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