Six signs your co-workers are toxic and three effective ways of responding
Kevin William Grant
Published on
November 23, 2019

Research indicates the single most important factor in team success or failure is the quality of relationships on the team.

One toxic team member is all it takes to destroy a high-performing team.

Common destructive toxic behaviors at work include:

  • Backstabbing, criticizing, and blaming
  • Gossiping and spreading rumors
  • Agreeing in meetings, but not following through afterward
  • Hoarding information
  • Purposely undermining others
  • Caring only about personal agendas (over team and company goals)

Toxic team members are destructive because they:

Create drama and distraction: They take the positive energy and creative brainpower out of the room. Team members waste precious time watching their back, instead of openly innovating, taking risks, and speaking up candidly about what’s on their minds.

Erode teams: The toxic behaviour of toxic team members poorly represents the team and creates a negative impression with colleagues outside of the team. Team dysfunction is highly correlated with team brand and results.

Undermine leadership: Toxic workers breed cynicism when companies espouse values and norms of behavior, but don’t hold all employees to the same standards.

Degrade the team culture: The toxic behavior starts to become the norm. Well-intended team members begin to reflect this bad behavior as well, treating a toxic teammate with disrespect, griping behind their back, and keeping them out of the loop whenever possible.

Effective Ways to Deal With Toxic Colleagues

Have an honest, candid conversation with the person: If you don’t attempt to do this, you are 100% ensuring that the relationship will continue in its dysfunctional state. You cannot assume this person will suddenly be aware of their toxic behavior. Make an honest attempt to provide productive feedback. Focus on the impact the behavior is having on you. Ask for feedback on your own behavior as well.

Raise your own game, and keep your ego in check: Don’t lower yourself to their level. Watch for and manage your fight-or-flight response. The more you can maintain your focus on team goals, the less likely you are to become blinded by win/lose thinking with this toxic peer.

Become the role model: Set the standard for how you want the team to act through opening a supportive collaborative dialogue.

Take care of yourself: Don’t let the toxic of collagues damage your emotional and physical health. Own what you can, let go of what you can’t influence, and make a change if you have to.

If you have worked hard to develop better relationships with your saboteur coworker, and it’s going nowhere, or getting worse, consider seeking the advice of an HR professional or trusted mentor on what else you might try.


If you are the team leader, the way forward is clear. You need to acknowledge what’s happening with the team, and you hold the toxic team member to a higher standard of behavior. Regardless of their productivity, results, technical expertise, raw intelligence, or invaluable experience, you cannot tolerate behavior that drags down everyone on the team.

If you’ve done everything you can and are not seeing positive progress, you should consider leaving.

Life is too short to stay stuck in a no win situation.

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