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How Can Project Managers Handle A Team Member With A Toxic Personality?

By News Creatives Authors , in Small Business , at September 9, 2021

Jeannette is the CEO of Lurdez Consulting Group. She brings over 20 years of project management success to her work helping companies.

Program and project managers are decision-makers. We are constantly exposed to situations where we have to deal with conflict in all its forms. It is our responsibility to either choose a different path from where we are going or make modifications to guarantee the correct deployment of a project and the integrity of a team.

Throughout my professional career, I have had the opportunity of working on a variety of projects where I encountered toxic personalities who contributed to the creation of an unpleasant environment for everyone involved in the project. Those experiences were the most challenging, as those individuals could have affected the dynamics of the team and promoted the detriment of the whole project had I not intervened on time.

What is considered a toxic personality?

A person with a toxic personality is an individual who is constantly spreading negativity among a team, mistreating and diminishing teammates or criticizing every idea without proposing new ones. Although these few characteristics seem bad enough, there are plenty of damaging behaviors a person who is prone to being toxic can perform.   

How can you identify them and take action?

As a program manager, I am often requested to take on projects that are being altered and dragged out due to either a lack of communication or because one member of the team has a toxic personality that disturbs and influences everyone else’s performance negatively. Throughout my career, I have learned that when working with toxic personalities, it is imperative to observe their behavior and their impact on others. It is also important to document and plan to take immediate action for dismissal.

If you want to identify who is causing issues in the project, you should observe how the team interacts and communicates. Before the initiation of a project, rules should be established, and observing how each member of the team adapts to those rules is critical. As a project manager, you should assess whether there is someone dragging the group’s energy down.

Let me share four simple steps I always follow to evaluate the behavior of the team and how it will impact the successful completion of a project:  

1. Listen and take notes.

Be receptive and stay open to every comment and complaint. The team must be able to rely on you and trust you will do everything in your power to help them solve their problems. Also, write everything down and make sure all the information is properly documented so when the time comes, you will have a register of everything.

2. Observe.

Once you are aware of which employee is causing conflict, watch him or her carefully. Have at least two or three meetings with them, and evaluate if they always behave the same way or if they only have a poor attitude when they are in group meetings. Try to determine if it is a group issue (maybe a lack of motivation or unclear outlines) or a personality problem.

3. Plan how you are going to confront the person.

If it turns out to be a personality issue with one member of the team, you need to plan how you are going to proceed. First, take into consideration how that person tends to respond to feedback. If they are shy, it might be better to speak with them alone in a one-on-one conversation; if the person is extroverted, perhaps they’d prefer to be approached in a group setting.

For example, I once was in a group meeting and one member of the team started acting inappropriately. As I was leading the meeting, I was responsible for putting a stop to the situation. I proceeded to pause the meeting and let the employee know they were not providing constructive feedback and perhaps disrespecting their teammates. I proceeded to ask them politely to abandon the meeting. It was not an easy situation, but it was my responsibility as a program manager to get back on track and proceed with the meeting.

4. Follow up.

The best-case scenario would be that the person reacts positively and has a change of attitude. If that happens, you should follow up with them and document their behavior so you can then hand the situation over to their manager. As the project manager, you will have to act as a mediator and explain to leadership the details of what happened, which employees were involved and what the outcome of the situation was.

The last step would be to address the situation with human resources to ensure it is well-documented. This last step is very critical because it will be the HR department that would have access to any other behavioral issues with that employee or whether they were on probation. Reporting this to HR could be a possible permanent dismissal of that employee.

To conclude, we can say the impact of a toxic personality within a project can be huge. Not only resources such as time and budget can be affected, but also the overall performance of the people involved. As project managers, we have many challenges, but above all, we must watch over the project team and inspire them so they can succeed at their work. Paying attention to your team and listening to their needs can make the difference in the deployment of any project. So, remember to motivate them to work as a team, and offer them all the tools they need to reach the best possible outcome.


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