I’ve had two prominent situations where there was a toxic teammate, a bully, in my program. The first time I didn’t respond. I was too distracted trying to get a building built and too stupid to realize the impact this one individual was having on my team culture and our performance. In 2007 we were third at the NCAA Championships; by 2010 (the year my toxic bully graduated), we were 14th in a sixteen-team field.
That experience seared me, so that the next time I was faced with a toxin in my culture I responded very differently. Like an oncologist treating a cancer, I verified the problem and then moved aggressively to contain and eventually remove the pathogen. Interestingly, when I removed this athlete from the team, there was a segment of the roster that was angry with me. They were certain that it was the trouble-maker who was actually the one being picked on and victimized. Such is a bully’s ability to remain in the eco-system that is empowering their behavior.
I was undaunted. My experience had enabled me to see the situation in a different way. It didn’t take much nerve to remove a cancer that I knew would kill the culture of my team. My understanding that culture is the engine of performance left me little choice but to do what was best for everyone; move decisively, explain my decision to the people that had questions, and reinforce the standards of behavior that would dictate everyone’s inclusion on the team. The newly cleansed culture drove the program to new heights, as we won our first team NCAA National Championship that spring.
Looking for a little more perspective to help generate the nerve you need to address the cancer in your system? How about the study done by Will Felps, now a professor at the Rotterdam School of Management, who discovered that one “bad apple” reduced a team of five’s performance by 30-40%. Moreover, the behavior of the one bad apple was reflected in the behavior of the rest of the group as well.
Leader, take a look at your team and the people who inhabit it. Recognize the impact that one toxic member can have on your team’s performance and attitude. Do you have the nerve to address it? What cancer aren’t you cutting out of your system?