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  • Writer's pictureThriving Teams Institute

Managing Team Dynamics: Coaching a Toxic Employee


Team dynamics are the invisible forces that influence how a team performs and communicates with one another. These dynamics, if neglected, can profoundly impact the team's productivity and the organization's overall performance. As leaders seek to optimize their organization for success, understanding the nuances of team dynamics is crucial. It goes beyond just ensuring everyone gets along; it's about harnessing the collective power of the organization and ensuring that each team member is set up for success and well-being.


The post below explores an aspect of team dynamics that many organizations face: dealing with a disruptive employee, also known as a "Loose Cannon," as a client referred to them once.


Just as a malfunctioning part can derail a well-oiled machine, a single disruptive team member can significantly hamper team productivity, morale, and overall organizational health. As you will read, not addressing this issue can lead to a reduced return on investment in our human capital and, in severe cases, can lead to an exodus of talent from our company.




At Thriving Teams Institute, our experiences and research show that almost every work team across the spectrum of businesses, industries, and professions has at least one disruptive, toxic employee operating as a loose cannon in the workplace, if not more.


The Wall Street Journal reports that 98% of workers experience incivility on the job, with 50% reporting they engage in rude exchanges at least weekly. This behavior affects everyone around them, causing negative emotions to ripple through teams everywhere, diminishing productivity and job performance. This is the work of the loose cannon.


What exactly is a Loose Cannon?

From experience and research, we know that the behavior we observe in the workplace is a function of how people interact with each other and the work environment. The loose cannon is an individual who walks around the workplace, crushing people left and right both on their team and other teams. They are toxic.


If you don't know what a toxic worker is, it is someone who harms the organization from a fiscal or human capital viewpoint. Our research suggests that a toxic worker can have more impact on performance than a "superstar."


Toxic workers seem to induce others to be toxic across teams and organizations, which is the ripple effect of the loose cannon, and if an organization's people are it's most significant competitive advantage, the loose cannon weakens that advantage with every toxic interaction. Businesses invest a large number of resources to recruit, hire, and develop their talent; loose cannons and other toxic workers ruin the investment return.


Research by Jon Gottman from the Gottman Institute suggests that focusing on relationship-enhancing behaviors can counter the impacts of negative interactions and amplify the effects of positive interactions. Their research on couples suggests a stable relationship has a positive-negative ratio of 5 positive interactions to every negative interaction. Though their research focused on married couples, it provides insight into workplace relationships and behaviors that negatively shape the climate of work teams and entire organizations. Toxic workers, like the loose cannon, make it challenging to counter negative interactions with positive ones and help form toxic work cultures.


Toxic work cultures destroy relationships within and across teams and whole networks and are a primary reason employees leave organizations. One sign of toxic work culture is the presence of the relationship killers Gottman characterized as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Horsemen: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling contribute to a toxic culture created by nonsecure, anxiety-driven, avoidant co-workers and supervisors.



What do you DO with a Loose Cannon?


Well, there are two options available to you.


Option 1: Do Nothing.


You can let them go and HOPE the problem will go away eventually. This usually doesn't turn out well for the loose cannon or the organization.


Option 2: Get to work.


Our research and experience show that team thriving is a choice and action to be taken as much as it is a state of being. You can invest in the development of the individual and the team or workgroup to which they belong. Yes, this means work, but it can be done, and we are here to help. Just focusing on the toxic worker is a reductionist approach and won't solve the problem. We take a systems-based approach and explore the work environment in which the loose cannon and their work group or team operate in to see how the interaction patterns drive behavior.


Organizations can significantly benefit from shaping and developing their culture to include initiatives to ensure that stable, secure, collaborative, and, most importantly, authentic relationships exist between all team members. Emotional responsiveness, availability, and engagement are critical to the quality of professional relationships, just as they are essential to personal relationships. Viewing an organization such as a business or nonprofit as a network of relationships and teams rather than an entity under the influence of one individual acknowledges that organizational leadership is a continuous interaction and emotional connection between managers, supervisors, and their people.


When managers and supervisors practice relationship-based leadership throughout an organization, it reinforces and strengthens the culture, creates relationship-enhancing behaviors, and more positive interactions are an effective defense against the Four Horsemen referenced previously.



It is important to note not every loose cannon has a toxic intent behind their behavior. They could be just reacting (not responding) to their work environment and are not always aware of their impact on the workplace.


If you choose Option 2, and we hope you do, then let's get started with some assessments and team coaching to gain self-awareness and foster growth. Depending on the particular situation with your team or organization's disruptive employee, one of the following assessments might be appropriate:

· ESCI 360 (Emotional and Social Competency Inventory)

· EQ-I 2.0

· EQ- 360

· A Custom Designed Assessment

These assessments will give a snapshot of how your loose cannon operates emotionally and also how the environment around them influences their behavior. We can help you determine that when you contact us.


With the assessment done, we can then begin the developmental initiatives to transform them from loose cannons to thriving employees and team members.


Teams and organizations are human systems. Bringing in a team transformation coach for the loose cannon and their team helps the individual and the team see and understand the system. The data from the assessments will give the loose cannon a better picture of how others "see" them, how they impact others, and how others impact them. With this information and understanding, the "loose cannon" can then realize the need to learn and change to improve performance or behavior. When this moment of self-discovery happens, the learning and developmental journey can begin for the loose cannon and their team.


You might be thinking, "How do you avoid being a loose cannon yourself?"


Great question!


1. Know yourself and know how you impact others and how they impact you both positively and negatively. Remember Gottman's 5:1 ratio.


They have to live with you. How do you think they experience it?


2. Know your strengths and areas that need development.


Contrary to popular opinion, you can't always operate in areas of strength. It is impossible in work environments where the context of the job and environment change on a regular basis. Understand what frustrates you and what doesn't. Everyone has a derailer; no one is perfectly composed all the time. We offer the Neethling Brain Instrument (NBI)

to help leaders and teams understand their strengths and what derails them.


3. Understand what your derailers are so you can work on measures to counter them with a coach, peer, supervisor, or mentor. The most mature and composed leaders and team members have an understanding of themselves, their impact on others, and their derailers.


Contact Us.


The Thriving Teams Institute is ready to help you and your team understand how you experience each other and how you can improve your emotional intelligence to obtain a more positive work environment, which leads to better business results.



You can learn more about our team development courses here.


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