Taking On Toxic Naysayers

Team leader strategies for dealing with toxic negativity

Posted May 16, 2014

Being the leader of a team on which there is a toxic naysayer is one of the most challenging situations you likely will ever face. However, if the toxicity is allowed to fester and infect the group, soon you won't have a functional group to lead. Morale will drop. Team members will become frustrated and disillusioned. Productivity and momentum will decline—all of the things a team leader hopes to avoid.

When you lead a team, you have a lot of responsibilities, but one of the most primary is to protect the emotional safety, well-being, and integrity of the team. When a team member is chronically negative, critical, and condescending, it's natural for other team members to begin to feel unsafe about sharing ideas and frustrated by the lack of productivity that comes with constant derailments. When this begins to happen on a regular basis, it's up to the leader to jump in and address the problems as quickly and as effectively as possible. Here are a few suggestions to help that happen.

Prevention is always better than intervention. If you're just beginning a group or if you're taking over the reins from someone else, you should take the opportunity to set some ground rules that will help the team work more productively and safely towards its goals. Roger Turcotte, author and key note speaker on leadership, suggests that these ground rules should, at a minimum, include:

  • showing respect for others' opinions
  • offering constructive criticism of an idea or a plan, but not being critical of fellow team members
  • asking for clarification of a proposed idea or plan, especially before launching into any concerns about the idea or plan
  • acting, both individually and collectively, in a manner consistent with the guidelines or by-laws that govern the group
  • offering a thoughtful rationale for their ideas or any concerns they may have about the ideas of others instead of just proposing or rejecting ideas
  • engaging in behavior that is courteous and cooperative

Once these ground rules are presented, you should get each team members' commitment to work within these parameters. (Even if you're not just taking over leadership of a group, it's never too late to establish ground rules addressing how you expect the group to treat others.)

Instituting inclusive and respectful procedures at meetings. Toxic naysayers can quickly bring the productivity of a meeting to a standstill by interrupting, spewing negativity, and launching relentless criticisms toward anyone who presents an idea. Having procedures in place that will reduce the likelihood of this happening is a good strategy for meetings, especially when you have team members that have a propensity toward negativity.

When I first took over the presidency of the PSTA at my children's school, I established ground rules very similar to those suggested by Turcotte. I also handed out a sheet of paper at every meeting that was divided into three sections: a space to write counterpoints, a space to write concurring thoughts or additions, and a space to write constructive suggestions or solutions. At the bottom of the page, I added the following quote:

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a person’s growth without destroying his or her roots. ~ Adapted quote from Frank Howard Clark

The purpose of the sheet was three-fold. First, I wanted it to serve as a visual reminder that I was looking for constructive commentary and positive/purposeful suggestions that would serve to move the group forward rather than drag people down. Second, I was hoping it would keep group members from interrupting someone's flow by writing down their thoughts instead of prematurely jumping in with their own thoughts. Three, it's often the case that when we hear something that makes us want to respond, we stop listening to the rest of what that person has to say because we begin to frame and rehearse our own response. By jotting down their thoughts onto paper, I wanted group members to get the thoughts out of their heads and onto paper so that when it was their turn to speak, they wouldn't forget the points they wanted to make. The sheet worked very well and the meetings tended to be highly productive with more positive interactions and fewer interruptions than in previous years.

The current PSTA President uses a different, yet equally effective approach to reduce interruptions. Each group members is given a small square of colored paper at the beginning of every meeting. If group members have something to say about an idea being presented, they don't speak out of turn. Instead, they move their square of paper toward the center of the table to let the president know that they have a comment to make. When the speaker finishes, the president calls on people in the order in which they pushed their square out. These small signs of respect can go a long way in making everyone feel that their voices are being heard without stepping on what others have to say.

Address Slip Ups When They Happen. No one is perfect. We all slip up from time to time. So when a team member or team members start to become overly critical, divisive, or disruptive to the flow of the meeting, it's important to step in and remind the person(s) about their commitment to play nicely with others. If the behavior doesn't improve, you should be prepared to take it to the next level.

Face-to-Face. Having a private face-to-face meeting with the toxic naysayer may seem uncomfortable, but it needs to happen in order to get the person back on the right track. Letting such disruptive and divisive behavior continue in group meetings will not only shake the confidence of the group and affect their productivity and momentum, it also will reinforce the naysayer's negative behavior. The conversation should be polite, but direct, using examples of behavior as necessary to make your points.

Here's what you should try to avoid in the meeting:

  • Avoid comments about the person's character; instead, focus on their behavior. "You" statements ("You have a problem;" "You need to stop criticizing everyone") tend to put people on the defensive. Instead, use specific examples of behaviors that go against the established ground rules and how those behaviors affect the quality of members' interactions.
  • Avoid telling the naysayer what he has to do (unless you have to). Once you present the basis for your concerns, ask the naysayer for help in solving the problem ("How can we work this out?"). If he comes up with reasonable solutions, get his commitment to use those solutions in future meetings. If he is unable to come up with any ideas, take this opportunity to remind him of your expectations for how team members should behave during meetings, then ask him to commit to following those guidelines in future interactions with team members.
  • Avoid emotion. Keep your voice at a normal level and your tone even. If you're asking someone to behave respectfully toward others, it's important that you behave respectfully toward her. (This may seem obvious, but toxic naysayers can push people's buttons like nobody's business, causing normally calm and controlled people to lose their tempers. Make sure you don't fall into this trap.)
  • Avoid defensiveness. This is not about you, and any attempt to make it about you should be redirected to the point at hand. If you find yourself feeling or becoming defensive, this should serve as a cue to you that the naysayer has succeeded in making the conversation about you. Turn it back to where it needs to be—on his inappropriate group behavior.
  • Avoid engagement. If it's gotten to the point where you need to have a face-to-face, it's not a debate. It's giving the person a chance to recognize that she's not playing nicely with others and to correct that behavior.

If after all of this, you still can't reach a common ground and the person is unwilling to comply with the ground rules you've set, you should strongly consider asking the person to remove himself from the team. If that doesn't go well ...

When all else fails, escalate to the top dog. In almost every organization, there is someone with higher authority. If the toxic naysayer in your group is not responding to any of these interventions and has become so divisive that you feel that you have to take drastic action to protect the integrity and emotional safety and well-being of your team members, then go to the top. First, your boss may have ideas that you may not have thought of, and second, if you're trying to move someone out, it's best (and sometimes necessary) to have the support of your boss.

In closing, remember that as team leader your colleagues are expecting you to protect them to some extent. As Turcotte points out, team members expect team leaders to "establish and maintain an environment in which people can come together and work without being distracted by the behavior of one or more members. Effectively addressing naysaying goes a long way towards meeting these expectations."

If you have any strategies for handling toxic negativity that have worked well for you or your group, please share them by using the comments link below.

This is Part II of my series on toxic negativity. The first article in the series is The Toxic Naysayer: Has One Infected Your Team?

© 2014 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

About the Author

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., psychologist and author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout," specializes in the area of women and stress.

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