The seven signs your coworkers are TOXIC and how to fix the problem

No workplace is ever totally harmonious, but can you tell the difference between the inevitable ups and downs of working with other people in stressful situations and a toxic environment that ruins morale – and is bad for business?

Pamela Hamilton, from Portsmouth, author of Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools of Great Teamwork, has revealed to Femail what makes a toxic team, including co-workers who gossip or play pranks on others, and how to tackle the problem. 

According to Pamela, most workplaces fall into two categories: a group of professionals who do their best to work together, or a ‘dysfunctional family who make excuses for each other’s bad behaviours and terrible habits.’  

How would you describe your team at work? Are they a group of professionals who do their best to work well together to achieve their goals? The answer is an easy way to identify if you’re in a toxic environment. 

Teamwork expert Pamela Hamilton, from Portsmouth, has revealed the signs your team is toxic and given tips on how to rectify the situation, stock picture

‘We spend so much time at work that we can’t help getting to know each other well. Everyone has good days and bad days, and we don’t always work together as well as we could,’ Pamela said. 

‘But for the most part if we can get along, and do the best we can, working in a team can be enjoyable.  

‘We can’t always choose who they are, we get to know each other well over time, and eventually we work out what each person is good at, and we sometimes see their worst sides under pressure.’

This closeness sometimes leads people to consider their work colleagues like a ‘family’, but Pamela said this is the wrong approach. 

Seven signs your work team is toxic

You may be in a toxic team – here are the warning signs:

  1. Bullying and bad behaviour are ignored, excused or even encouraged
  2. People regularly cry at work or shout at each other
  3. Team banter makes other colleagues feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or left out
  4. People make excuses for each other like ‘don’t mind her, she’s always like that’, or ‘ignore him, he doesn’t mean it’
  5. People are indiscrete, unprofessional or spread gossip
  6. People are overworked, underpaid or unfairly treated, for example being expected to answer emails at all hours
  7. There’s a culture of fear – no one wants to say anything because they worry about being targeted

‘Work teams are not our families,’ she said. ‘In fact, high-performing teams prefer to use the analogy of a sports team. We are here to win together, which means being our fittest, best version of ourselves, and playing well together.

‘When we do great work we win our games, and we enjoy ourselves too. It’s no longer acceptable to just say “that’s the way it’s always been”. Instead, we need to bring our best selves to work, and make sure other people do too,’ she said, continuing the analogy. 

Pamela said the best teams are respectful of each other, no matter who they are, and no matter what pressure they are put under.   

She added that research has shown that bullying and bad behaivour such as gossiping are not only bad for team morale, they also lower team performance. 

‘So they are not just bad for the team members, they are bad for business,’ she said.   

However, Pamela added that toxic teams usually develop a strong culture, which is hard to take apart.   

Thankfully, there are ways to improve the situation.  

‘We all have a responsibility to each other to improve the way we all behave at work. Anyone in a team, whether the team leader or a team member can intervene to fix a toxic team.’

1. Ask for things to improve

The first thing to do in order to improve a team’s toxic behaviour is to actually ask for things to improve, Pamela said.  

‘If there’s a toxic culture, anyone in the team can say to the rest of the team “I’m feeling uncomfortable/unhappy/bad about how we behave together at work, could try to work together in a better way?”,’ she said.  

‘You’re not blaming anyone, you are raising the possibility of improving the way things are. In the worst case scenario, people may not take you seriously, and you will need to keep asking a few times before they listen,’ she added. 

But in most cases, Pamela said your coworkers are more likely to agree with you and support you, and will start asking the same questions in order to work better together, the expert added.  

2. Focus on behaviour not people:

Once you have got people’s attention and made them aware that you’d like things to improve, you can refer to examples of behaviour you’d like to fix,’ Pamela said, adding that it’s important not to put the blame on any specific individuals. 

Pamela has penned SuperCharged teams: 30 tools of great teamwork

Pamela has penned SuperCharged teams: 30 tools of great teamwork

‘You can say “I know we have all laughed in the past when we tease the interns, but I don’t feel comfortable about it anymore because I don’t think they find it funny. I’d prefer it if we stopped doing it”,’ she explained. 

3. Speak up early if it happens again

Speaking up early is crucial in making sure you stop toxic behaviour in its tracks, Pamela said. 

After speaking about an issue once, you should make sure to repeat the fact you’re uncomfortable as soon as you see it happen.  

‘Once you’ve said you’re uncomfortable with a specific behaviour, then the next time it happens you can say, “I have already said that playing tricks on the interns makes me uncomfortable, I don’t think it’s right to carry on. I’d like it to stop please”,’ she said. 

4. Name and explain unacceptable behaviour

Naming and explaining what type of behaviour you won’t permit on your team is a good way to move forward when other people join. 

‘In future, or with new people joining, you and the rest of the team can tell them how you have agreed to work together and what you don’t do as a team,’ Pamela said. 

‘For example “We don’t play pranks on each other in this team because it was making some people feel really uncomfortable, even if other people found it funny”,’ she added.  

‘”We discussed it and we agreed it wasn’t fair, so we stopped”,’ she went on. 

5. Seek support  

‘If all your best efforts fail to make the team less toxic, you may need to ask for advice and support from your boss or HR,’ the teamwork expert said, adding it might not be enough. 

‘Sometimes company cultures are so ingrained that they need professional intervention from someone independent or more senior,’ she said. 

‘In toxic team situations, it is far better to speak up than to let things get worse. You are doing it not only to improve how you feel at work, but also to help the rest of the team,’ she said. 

Pamela added that some people didn’t realise the power they had on others, but that if you ‘openly discuss how you would like to work together, you will build trust, do better work, and enjoy the work more.’

‘Every person in the team, not just the leader, has the permission and the responsibility to ask people to behave better at work,’ she said. 

‘Let’s not be a dysfunctional family at work, let’s be more like sports teams and do our best to play well together and win.