Identifying & Managing Toxic Workplace Behaviors

Planning a new project and getting organized for kickoff and beyond is a big undertaking for a project manager. It is where a majority of the work takes place, with the goal of getting things running smoothly for the remainder of the project, including periodic check-ins, reviews, and status reporting. Nothing feels better than a project that is running smoothly, on time, and on budget.

Until someone on the team does something to spoil that perfect pace. It’s inevitable, it happens, and it can be overcome quickly with the right know-how. How can project managers best navigate toxic workplace behaviors by project team members?

4 Types of Toxic Workplace Behaviors That Negatively Impact Projects

If you can think it up, it can be done. There are many opportunities for good people to act in a negative and destructive manner on a project team. Sometimes it is intentional, and other times it can be attributed to poor choices or weak time management. The best advice for project managers running a team consisting of different roles and personalities is to attempt to get to know everyone, look for early signs of things going sideways, and when negativity strikes, have a plan to address it quickly and move on.

Bad team behaviors can range from the mild to the mind-blowing. Here is a list of some examples, in order from the expected and easy-to-handle, to the unexpected and tough to make a call on, with examples. All of them have some degree of impact and disruption to a project’s progress.

1. Habitually Missing Deadlines

This one can creep up on you when someone is late for a deliverable or misses critical details, extending the time they need to complete a task. The first time may have a good explanation, but a repeat offender is a big problem.

Why this happens: The culprit can be a lack of attention or interest in the work, or being burned out or overburdened with work load. The person may be disorganized, a procrastinator, or distracted easily. There could also be something going on in their personal life that is suddenly affecting their ability to perform.

What to do about it: Stay on top of the timeline and note each occurrence of delay. Check in frequently in advance of the due date and ask the right questions to take the temperature of their confidence of hitting the deadline. You can do this through stand ups, weekly status meetings, or by individually checking in with them close to the deadline, asking what they need and if they expect to be on time. Keep them accountable with a written record of these inquiries through email, instant messages, or in meeting notes.

Read more: Deliverables in Project Management

2. Not Following Process

There is a good reason why project managers work hard to define good processes and then educate and guide the team through each one. Everyone wants things to run smoothly; veering off course has the potential to make things messy.

Why this happens: This behavior usually happens because someone either does not understand the process (being new) or doesn’t agree with it. A team lead may not have offered sufficient training to this person. They may have done it differently at another job. Whatever the reason, this is an annoying and disruptive behavior that often involves someone eventually skipping or combining steps to hurriedly meet a deadline.

What to do about it: The best way to ensure process is followed is to be clear about roles and process during project kick off. Detail all the steps in the project plan, and include input from the people doing the work in the development of the project plan and timing of the tasks. If they can access and see the plan and the steps leading up to and during their part, they can’t use the excuse that they didn’t know. If they purposefully go off the grid and skip specific handoff and review steps without your knowledge, this can have a detrimental effect on the quality and the timing of the deliverable.

If, for example, QA begins before the development of all features is complete, that could lead to inadequate testing and things breaking during launch. The result could be additional time and cost to fix the problem — which was created by simply not following the process that was laid out. There is a fine line between managing a team and micro-managing a team. If you are tracking all project details closely, you will notice when something suddenly changes or seems off. You should then be able to address the issue and ask the questions to get to the bottom of why something may not be right. A project manager may have to play detective to find the culprit, and then diplomatically talk through why this is a problem, what is expected, and how it can be avoided in the future.

Read more: Create Useful Project Status Reports: A Comprehensive Guide

3. Blaming and Fighting With Each Other

Just because a group of people has to work together does not guarantee they will all always get along.

Why this happens: Confrontational workplace behaviors — like people fighting over things and blaming each other when things go wrong — can stem from a general dislike of one another, jealousy over who someone is or how they are treated, or competition in a role. They can also occur over something specific, like quality of work. Favoritism, nepotism, and even romance can interfere in team dynamics.

What to do about it: This type of behavior may be difficult to understand and turn around. Begin with speaking individually with those involved and consider bringing them together for a private discussion. Listen to all sides and learn what you can in a neutral setting. Inform a superior or manager about the situation for additional support and follow-up. This toxic workplace behavior can usually be handled without involving human resources, but in some cases it may be habitual or more serious.

Read more: Top 10 Reasons Why Projects Fail

4. Unprofessional Attitude

Displays of unprofessional behavior can be unsettling. This very bad behavior includes rudeness, lying, general disrespect, harassment, discrimination, and sometimes bullying. It can be aimed towards team members, subordinates, vendors, or clients. This is top of the list when it comes to the level of seriousness and impact to the project.

Why this happens: Flat-out bad behavior of this kind is obvious in the actions or statements made towards others. It can kill team motivation and veer goals off course quickly. This can happen when someone is resistant to change, as in the event of a downsizing or reorganization. It can be the result of an inability to receive constructive criticism. It can also be something personal that has nothing to do with the project, the team, or the work environment.

What to do about it: Whether it is a known issue with an individual, or a sudden outburst of bad behavior, this is a situation where you may need back up from a superior to help intervene. Reporting it immediately and discretely to a manager and HR is key to becoming an active part of the solution. There may be a formal process to follow and in some cases, the resolution may involve parting ways with that person.

Read more: Risk Assessment Matrix 2021

How Project Managers Can Guide Team Members Back on Track

Project managers work with all members of a team, and are often the best person to see what is going on and address it with those team members. A few things that can be done to help guide those involved back on track include:

  • Zeroing in on the cause of the bad behavior
  • Collaborating with those involved and others to help identify what went wrong and define a path to resolution
  • Providing constructive feedback without any blame
  • Reviewing the consequences of the behavior with everyone involved
  • Documenting all details
  • Offering solutions on how best to avoid repeating the problem
  • Encouraging input and feedback through conversation, surveys, and training

When to Involve Human Resources

The time may come when the toxic workplace behavior on the project team is too big for you to handle alone. This could include confrontational scenarios, but would definitely include an unprofessional attitude that is dangerous, intimidating, physically harmful, overly rude, or emotionally hurtful to another. In these cases, Human Resources may have to get involved to implement a formal process of addressing the situation and coming to a just solution.

Always make an effort to document what you see, hear, and know immediately following an incident, so you can provide accurate information to the right people who can help address the problem and bring resolution.

Read next: What Are Lessons Learned in Project Management?

Anne Meick

Anne Meick is an author, copywriter, and digital project management consultant, leading digital teams and projects in highly regulated industries. She is the founder of Writers' Connection and blogs on writing, editing, and book publishing.