Wed, Aug 30th, 2017

By Shelley Hom

When facing a toxic team, how can our own leadership self-awareness help start the healing process, or hamper it? Discovering our talents through the StrengthsFinder and learning how to invest the time into developing them into strengths is a critical component that often gets missed after finding our strengths. Part of the development cycle is knowing when to use your themes, so we can move from strengths knowing, a state where we know our talents, and what they are, to a state of strengths doing, a state where we know how to use our talents intentionally and purposefully to align teams and create the outcomes we seek.  Knowing the right amount for the right situation is critical in the effective application of the strengths doing stage. As we will see, the misapplication of good intention can yield unfavorable results.

A Toxic Team Experience

I have always been attracted to positivity within leadership, valuing the hope and security it brings. When I took the StrengthsFinder, I was not at all surprised to find that Positivity was one of my top 5 themes. However, even as I type this, I am remembering a time when I first started full time employment, one that completely contradicts my “always” statement.

My first full time position was one where I was part of an unhealthy team. In fact, the very first staff meeting I was involved in broke up early because a couple of staff people were arguing so loud that they were pulled into the manager’s office. The meeting was adjourned quite abruptly after only ten minutes.

At that point I was still on team “positivity”, but that would soon change. The environment was toxic: rumors were rampant, factions were formed, work ethics undercut, and even allegations of work being taken from desks in order to get other people in trouble were made. Perhaps you have been on a “team” like this.

Our manager was in her mid-thirties, but as the months and years wore on, she looked almost fifty. This was a tough, tough bunch. She was pleasant enough, seemed thorough and had an incredible amount of knowledge. As time wore on, she appeared almost skittish when she heard someone call her name. There were a handful of us she came to when she needed something important done, she did not even attempt to ask the remaining 80% of the toxic team, for fear that they would just cause more heartache in the area.

I had my own issues, constantly being belittled for processing the amount of work I did. “we get paid the same if we do this much” and she would hold her hands apart about two inches, “or if we do this much” and she would hold her hands apart about 12 inches….”you keep doing that much and they will expect us to follow suit”.

The Well Is Poisoned

This was the world V.B. walked into. I am using her initials to protect her anonymity. V.B. replaced our skittish manager, rolling into the office on a hot summer day, smiling ear to ear. Her first order of business, a staff meeting. We were gathered together in the employee breakroom when she began her speech which went roughly like this – “We spend more time together in a given week than most of us spend with our families. I want this to be a fun place to work, where we are like family, celebrating one another’s accomplishments and being there for one another if we stumble and fall….family”.

If emojis were a “thing” back then, she would absolutely have been the “colon, right parenthesis” email signature kind of manager. She was positive, and strong, and supportive and ….

…Dead in the water before she ate her first lunch there.

This team, which included me, pretty much rolled our eyes at this crazy woman and some actually got up and left the area. It wasn’t until I was out of the environment and walking in manager shoes of my own that I realized just how awful we were to her. She walked in with enthusiasm and excitement, and was greeted with an ice cold steel door slamming in her face. I imagine she was very excited to get the job; maybe staying up all night perfecting her first day’s speech, hoping to build something cool, but perhaps she had never fully experienced the wrath of a toxic team previously.

She REALLY wanted to build something cool.

Unbuild And Then Rebuild

The problem was, while she was Ms. Positivity, the team was not prepared for this type of management style needed to first decontaminate a toxic team. There were just SO many obstacles she had to traverse before she could get the toxic team motivated, let alone moving forward in the same positive direction.

In a piece entitled Building a Positive Team, Helping Your People Be Happy and Engaged, the author confirms that managers need to remove any roadblocks and obstacles prior to encouraging positivity in our teams.

Psychologist Fredrick Herzberg discovered years ago that employee satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not opposites, instead, in order to create job satisfaction you must remove the causes of dissatisfaction. Only then can you add the factors, which will contribute to gaining employee satisfaction.

Building employee satisfaction takes time, but the time is well worth the effort. It does not happen in a single workshop, or meeting, it is repeated habits that create a strengths culture where employees are valued and satisfaction can thrive.  First, we have to remove the toxicity that is present from previous culture.  That process in it of itself will take time.

Once you have removed all the obstacles from a toxic team, work on building confidence in your team; allow some autonomy, provide growth opportunities, address those individual employees that tend to be negative and bring the entire team down. Perhaps employ a tool like the Betari Box, understand how poor attitudes can affect the entire group, and share that understanding with your negative employees.

There are many tools at your disposal. However, perhaps none are as important to a manager as understanding your own strengths and those of your employees. Learn to cultivate your talents and apply them to your leadership role, while identifying those talents within your team. One of the first things our 34 Strong team does when introducing Strengths to a team (and believe me, we have worked with some teams that started with high levels of toxicity), is to take the team through the process of understanding the following 3 steps which you must focus on to drive meaningful change.  Those 3 steps take us from concept to application and they are:

  • Strengths Thinking
  • Strengths Knowing
  • Strengths Doing

This process helps a toxic team re-frame how team members see each other.  It starts the process of removing the poison as the focus starts to shift from seeing through a lens of toxicity to seeing others through a lens of talent…what are my talents and what are their talents? This is a starting point that 34 Strong has successfully utilized over the long term with numerous teams. Reminder…this is the starting point only…one session will not change everything…it is the prolonged habits that create lasting impact!

Back to V.B…Because the poison was not removed, V.B only lasted a few months in that position, she left our toxic team on a brisk fall afternoon, her departure far more solemn than her arrival. It only took one season for her to realize that her enthusiasm and positivity would only take her as far as the team’s health would allow. Maybe it’s time to take a look at your own team, how healthy are they? And how can you help create a more positive atmosphere leveraging the best of their strengths as a foundation?

What is the other lesson at play here?  As I have reflected since that first job, V.B. had great talent, but we have to know when and how to use our talent.  What is the right amount for the right situation? How do we calibrate our talents as leaders? Sometimes where we naturally start and make the assumption: “Of course this will resonate with everyone…” we can realize that through our natural talent filters (which develop or decline from the way in which they are nurtured or received for good or bad), not everyone else will resonate with where our talent filters are coming from. One of our key roles in becoming self-aware is going from strengths knowing…I know my strengths, to strengths doing…I know how to use my strengths, effectively, in the right amount and in the right situation. This is where strengths has the power to take you if you invest in developing them. So have you stepped from strengths knowing into a stage of strengths doing?  If not, how can you afford not to? It may be the starting point to removing some elements of toxicity from your team, even if that team is in markedly better shape than my personal toxic team experience.

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Shelley Hom is a technology manager with the State of California who was introduced to Strengths Finder through a leadership academy at work. Using what she has learned both in her work and personal life, she mentors colleagues, family and friends on using ones’ strengths to get them where they want to go! When she isn’t working, she loves hanging out with people and enjoying the simple things life has to offer; laughing, chatting, reading, and let’s not forget writing – all usually done with a really good cup of coffee close at hand! Outside of blogging for 34 Strong Shelley’s own blog can be found at: 

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