7 Steps Transform Toxic Employees into Excellent Team Players

  1. Seven Steps Transform Toxic Employees into Excellent Team Players
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7 Steps Transform Toxic Employees into Excellent Team Players

During Women’s Business Leadership Coaching sessions, I’m frequently asked, “How can I coach an uncoachable employee? A toxic team member?” This article series, “How Exemplary Leaders Transform Toxic Employees Into Excellent Team Members,” explores a variety of women’s leadership tips for coaching employees who present you with challenging behaviors, such as underperformance, lack of motivation, passive-aggressiveness, harmful gossip, obstructing productivity, manipulating or controlling other employees, pessimism, narcissism, cynicism and distrust of your leadership. You’ll learn validated ways of resolving some of your demanding and complicated challenges with team members.

How Do Leaders Transform Toxic Employees into Excellent Team Members?

Over 20 years of experience coaching women business leaders has proven that very few employees are truly “uncoachable” if a leader follows the proven seven-step plan outlined below.

  1. Identify the true sources of your frustration when you interact with certain team members. Only when you have this self-awareness will you know how to meet your needs and resolve feelings like anger, helplessness and fear that you’re being controlled by an employee whose behavior challenges your state of equilibrium on the job.
  2. Recognize exactly how and when your personal fight-or-flight response is triggered so you can learn and master new ways to effectively manage this unconscious response that all of us default to until we become aware of what’s happening. Identify which personality types are the easiest and most difficult for you to lead and coach. Gender differences at work make this exceptionally valuable for women business leaders.
  3. Understand what you can and cannot control during interactions with your team members. This will allow you to concentrate your efforts in productive ways instead of wasting your precious energy in unfocused ways that distract you from the main issues in a conversation. You’ll know what you can actually resolve and what is better left alone.
  4. Discover new ways to build trusting relationships with employees whose actions or personality conflict with your personal beliefs and behavior patterns. This is especially critical when you work with team members who don’t understand or are suspicious of your leadership style, goals, directions or personality.
  5. Clarify what, if anything, you need to document when you work with employees who display troubling behaviors. Have a firm understanding of when you would and would not involve the Human Resources Department (HR). Become crystal clear what does and does not make an employee “uncoachable.”
  6. Upgrade your coaching skills regarding working with employees who present difficult behaviors. Discover and practice proven ways to postpone judgment and frustration so you can instead ask helpful questions when a team member seems defensive, passive-aggressive, stubborn, defiant, suspicious, fearful or insecure. Trust me. There are proven coaching questions that can turn the situation around.
  7. Set and maintain boundaries so you can separate the problem from the person, reduce your stress, sleep better and receive glowing performance reviews for being a role model of effective behavior management.

Once the above framework is in place, you’ll approach each team member’s challenging behaviors with a beginner’s mind and the intention to discover what truly motivates them. I guarantee that the sturdy structure I can help you create will escalate your confidence to resolve the situation. It will also prepare you to enjoy the level of curiosity that is essential for the type of employee coaching you need to do.

You’ll be able to easily separate a team member’s problem behavior from what you discover about their core Self, including their true positive intentions and what motivates them. Since coaching with sincere curiosity creates unexpected solutions most of the time and curiosity cannot co-exist with a negative judgmental mind, you and the employee can solve problems in a win-win way. I guarantee you’ll also be excited to learn more and more about yourself during this process.

What you’re about to read is the first illustration of how the above Seven-Step Plan works. The rest of this “How Exemplary Leaders Transform Toxic Employees into Excellent Team Members” article series provides much more detail about how to lead and coach each of the so-called “toxic team members” described in the first paragraph of this article.

We’re going to begin this series with the example of how to coach team members who are skeptical or cynical about your leadership abilities, methods or agenda.

Example #1: Challenges of Coaching Skeptical and Pessimistic Team Members

Whether openly during a meeting or silently in their mind, this type of distrustful employee questions your leadership agenda, capabilities or actions. Please keep this fact in mind: Some very capable team members who can serve as excellent trouble-shooters are hardwired to search for every possible problem each time you present a direction you want them to take. They need proof that proceeding in a given direction is absolutely the best decision. Without that certainty, these employees may dig in their heels, ask more and more questions or procrastinate in other ways instead of following your leadership.

They’re often accused of being chronic naysayers because they consistently question other people and their actions. You can see how this frustrates capable leaders with a strong, clear agenda until they understand the positive intentions and the needs of this type of team member. This is why my Seven-Step Plan for Transforming Toxic Employees into Excellent Team Members stresses understanding the true intentions, hardwiring, motivations and needs of each “difficult employee”. In the case of the skeptic, you’ll spontaneously develop compassion for an individual who anxiously longs for absolute certainty in an information-based world that presents a wider array of possible paths forward every year.

Comments like “We could do what you say, but something bad might happen if we do” and other overly-cautious behavior can irritate or inflame you when this skeptic’s actions (based on their worries or feelings of insecurity) conflict with your optimistic style of revving up your team for action. You can see why it’s imperative that you discover the skeptic’s positive intentions and how their comments and behavior relate to their needs for reassurance that the sky is not falling and that the course you’re directing them to take is for their benefit, as well as best for meeting the organization’s goals.

These skeptics aren’t malicious and they don’t mean to harm your agenda. Their doubting Thomas behavior is usually not passive or aggressive. They were either born (hardwired) more suspicious of the twists and turns of life than you are or their childhood programmed them to be hypervigilant about some aspects of life. Once you get to know them with an open mind, you’ll discover that they are not being stubborn, difficult or obstinate. They are simply being themselves.

Why Not Just Get Rid of Doubters, Pessimists, Cynics and Skeptics?

Skeptics are often the smartest people in the room, although some people find them the most annoying. They need to be understood and placed in jobs that fit their unique skills and their way of perceiving and exploring the world. One of my past clients knows he’s often labeled “a negative, pessimistic, half-empty glass thinker.” He floundered in the business world until we worked together to make sure he gained a position that was perfect for his personality. He is now making a much higher salary than when we first began working together because he is paid to do tasks that he does better than most of us.

Since he has an unusually keen eye for detecting “What can possibly go wrong”, he now prevents problems by anticipating them. He is finally appreciated at his job instead of being perceived as a nuisance. He also occasionally consults for start-up companies to help them save money and other resources by flying forward too fast and then having to do damage control.

When a leader knows how to productively work with doubters and not allow them to create a toxic work environment clouded by mistrust of leadership, the disbeliever’s questioning mind will not only prevent unforeseen problems, working with the cynic can result in the creation of constructive solutions.  When I was Executive Director of a national nonprofit organization, I always made sure we had a skeptic on our National Board of Directors because the pessimist pointed out possible problems that our more positively-oriented Board members overlooked.

Even though I sometimes thought it would have been more fun to have a Board composed of cheerleaders, the doubters I always made sure to appoint not only helped me prevent problems, they alerted me to questions the national media might pose when they interviewed me. Because of this, I was much more prepared to avoid unnecessary internal and external controversies.

Over time, every skeptic helped me become a better leader. In turn, I helped them discover that the sky doesn’t always fall. They trusted me to sincerely listen to their opinions. I recognized their assistance and pointed out that their input improved my leadership skills. In private, I sometimes helped each skeptic, one by one, consider that they could sometimes choose to follow their consistent default question, “What if something bad happens?” with a second question, “But what if something good happens?” This helped us travel forward in a balanced, win-win way.

What was the Strategy That Worked?

As described in the seven-step framework above, I took the following steps.

  • Identified what I truly needed and how that related to the organization and the people I was leading.
  • Discovered where I was vulnerable to activation of my own fight-or-flight system when someone questioned my leadership style, decisions or motives.
  • Explored how my leadership personality interacted with the personality of doubting, questioning skeptics.
  • Set clear boundaries so a doubter’s chronic questions or people who distrusted my leadership could not negatively affect the organization or me.
  • Established a trusting relationship with each skeptic while discovering their true motivations and intentions.
  • Discussed the distrusting skeptic’s strengths with them and brainstormed how they could play a positive role in the organization that would be win-win.
  • Was clear what I could and could not control, including knowing that, even though I could not change a skeptic’s behaviors, beliefs or personality, there were ways to work together in mutually beneficial ways.
  • Became truly compassionate about the anxious nature of skepticism. Then did my best to reassure cynics that they were safe and that I respected their contributions.
  • Learned and practiced the leadership coaching skills I needed so I could approach each situation with a beginner’s mind and allow curiosity and the desire for a sincere relationship with each skeptic to create innovative solutions.

What Kinds of Employees Challenge Your Business Leadership?

Do you ever hear yourself complaining about a team member or superior whose behavior frustrates, worries or intimidates you? For over 20 years, I’ve helped business leaders, emerging leaders and employees of all kinds who were struggling with “difficult people dilemmas” at work. My business leadership coaching clients build successful teams, enjoy excellent support systems and gain promotions and other rewards from upper management.

Sign up now for your complimentary consultation so I can help you, too. The average ROI (return on investment) of business leadership coaching is over 500%. Also, sign up for our newsletter to ensure you receive each new “How Exemplary Leaders Transform Toxic Employees into Excellent Team Members” article I write for you. I promise every article will delight you with proven solutions to your management and leadership problems.

© 2019 Doris Helge, Ph.D. as interviewed on “The Today Show,” CNN and NPR. Certified Master Leadership and Executive Coach Doris Helge is author of bestselling books, including “Joy on the Job” and “Transforming Pain Into Power.” Doris has helped hundreds of leaders like you meet every challenge you’re facing. To make sure you receive each weekly tip, click here to join our mailing list.


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About the Author

Doris Helge

© 2019 Doris Helge, Ph.D. at www.WomensLeadershipTips.com Doris Helge, Ph.D., MCC is a Certified Master Executive Leadership Coach and author of bestselling books, including “Joy on the Job.” Click here now to sign up for your complimentary Leadership Coaching Consultation.

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