What Makes a Good Team Turn Toxic (And How to Fix It)

What makes a good team turn toxic? Well, it doesn’t happen overnight, and even toxic teams can continue to keep a company afloat for a little while. But if you leave that team unchecked, it could become the detriment of your organization.

In this article, we will explore some common factors that can turn a successful team toxic, including the dangers of groupthink, the impact of poor communication, the perils of unresolved conflicts, the demotivating influence of inadequate reward systems, and the downside of neglecting individual personalities. Moreover, we will delve into practical solutions to counteract these issues and foster a more collaborative, efficient, and healthy team environment.

  1. Groupthink Hinders Decision Making and Destroys Innovative Thinking
  2. Lack of Synergy Creates Ineffective Team
  3. Inability to Resolve Conflicts Creates Turnover
  4. A Poor Reward System Leads to Dwindling Motivation
  5. Neglecting to Nurture Individual Personalities Leads to Dysfunctional Teams and Lowered Productivity

Groupthink Hinders Decision Making and Destroys Innovative Thinking

Most of us have seen examples of groupthink, sometimes referred to as mob mentality, or even “the madness of crowds.” Here’s a famous example from the internet that explains it perfectly without any words:

In the video, a lone man begins dancing at a festival. One person joins in, and so does another, and within minutes, a massive group of people have formed around him.

Another example you may have experienced personally is with lines and crowds. I was once at the Los Angeles Convention Center for an event, and there was a massive line checking people in at the door. It was hot outside, but the crowd had no choice but to stand there and wait for the staff to check in every single person. It looked like we’d be in line for at least an hour.

Then, a colleague of mine said, “There must be another way in!” As we continued down the street, we discovered another entrance to the convention center. It astounded the staff at this entrance that they were receiving so few visitors. Within minutes, we entered the comfort of the air conditioned convention center.

Independent Thinking vs Critical Thinking

As much as we value thinking for ourselves, we’re all susceptible to groupthink from time to time. This is especially true in stressful or urgent situations.

Some people pride themselves on their ability to “think for themselves,” but actually, this isn’t the issue. That’s because “independent thinking” and “critical thinking” are not the same thing.

Critical thinking is when you use the provided information to retain a neutral stance while conducting your reasoning. Many of the people who waited in line used their critical thinking to deduce that waiting in line was the unfortunate reality of attending such a large convention. On the other hand, my colleague used her independent thinking to go one step further: she questioned the situation and went against the status quo to find a better answer.

While critical thinking is valuable in the workplace, independent thinking is what prevents your employees from becoming stuck in mindsets like “That’s how we’ve always done it, why should we change now?”

How Groupthink Limits Innovative Thinking

It might seem like groupthink is a good thing for an organization. After all, we’re always striving for alignment and cohesion between our teams. However, it much more often can create a toxic environment that limits the ability of effective teams:

  • Stifles Creativity and Innovation: Groupthink can hinder creativity and prevent innovative solutions from surfacing as it discourages individual members from expressing unique or different perspectives and ideas.
    • Poor Decision-Making: Groupthink can lead to poor decision-making because the group may overlook alternatives, not adequately assess risks, and fail to consider the long-term implications of their decisions in an effort to maintain consensus and harmony.
    • Leads to Ignoring External Advice and Opinions: Groups experiencing groupthink tend to dismiss the opinions and advice of those outside the group, which could lead to a lack of fresh perspectives and potential solutions.

How to Reduce Groupthink

Groupthink is an inherent trait in all humans. It’s what helps keep our society together! In the context of creating a high-performing team, however, you know how important it is that people fulfill their job while also thinking outside of the box.

Here’s how you can limit the groupthink in your organization:

  • Ensure groups are not isolated: If a group is cut off from external input and perspectives, it may be more susceptible to groupthink. This isolation can lead to a lack of fresh ideas and perspectives, which promotes homogeneity of thought.
  • Establish procedures: In the absence of a systematic decision-making process, there is a greater chance of groupthink occurring. Lack of clear procedures can lead to hurried decisions without sufficient exploration of all alternatives.
  • Manage your leaders: When a group leader is particularly authoritative or strongly opinionated, even a good team member may feel pressured to align their opinions with the leader’s viewpoint, discouraging dissent and alternative perspectives. A good team leader should avoid expressing their opinion too early in the decision-making process, as this may influence team members to conform to the leader’s viewpoint.
  • Promote Open Communication: Encourage all team members to express their opinions freely, regardless of whether they align with the majority view. This fosters a culture where diverse perspectives are valued and respected.
  • Encourage Critical Thinking: Reinforce the importance of critical thinking and independent decision-making. Team members should feel comfortable challenging ideas and presenting alternative viewpoints. In fact, team building games are a great way for the entire team to practice this.

Lack of Synergy Creates Ineffective Team

“Synergy” is one of those terribly overused buzzwords. You might have rolled your eyes having to read the word just now. But like most cliches, it’s overused for a reason, and it’s that synergy between team members is essential for healthy teams.

When you hear the word “synergy,” the main takeaway is that it simply means combining things together to make something new. Synergy between team members helps generate new ideas, establishes clear direction, and helps a strong team produce their best work. But when there’s no synergy between team members, it can get bad quickly:

There once was a tech startup determined to launch a new mobile app. The project team consisted of professional from the design, programming, marketing, and business units. However, a lack of synergy began weighing down the team.

First, there were communication issues. Developers weren’t taking the designers’ ideas seriously, and marketing was trying to push for app features that were overly complicated and unnecessary.

On top of that, roles and responsibilities weren’t clearly defined. Marketing was creating promotional strategies touting app features that couldn’t realistically be implemented within the deadline. Meanwhile, designers and programmers frequently stepped on each other’s toes, allowing crucial tasks to fall through the cracks.

Feeling there was no other option, team members began to work in silos, focusing on their individual tasks without collaborating with the rest of the team.

Unsurprisingly, the project lagged behind schedule and the prototype lacked the promised features. Not only that, but the morale of the team plummeted, with key members leaving the organization. Ultimately, the startup was doomed for failing to deliver on its promises.

How Did It All Go Wrong?

In the end, the startup learned a hard lesson about the importance of synergy. Had the team prioritized effective communication, clear role definitions, and trust-building, they could have pooled their individual skills and expertise more effectively to achieve a common goal.

Here’s what went wrong:

  • Poor Communication: When team members aren’t effectively sharing information, asking questions, or expressing their thoughts and ideas, the overall collaboration is hindered, leading to a lack of synergy. On the other side of the coin, team members need to be actively listening and receptive to open communication.
  • Undefined Roles and Responsibilities: If team members don’t understand their individual roles and responsibilities within the team, it can lead to confusion, duplication of efforts, and ultimately disrupt the flow of synergy.
  • Lack of Trust and Respect: When team members do not trust or respect each other, it can lead to competition over cooperation, negatively affecting the team’s ability to work synergistically. Without respect and trust between members, open communication and defined roles won’t matter much.

How Soon Can You Start Building Synergy?

“Synergy” is a part of culture, and while culture can’t be created overnight, you can begin implementing attitudes and initiatives to turn the culture around. Here are a few ways you can do that:

  • Improve Communication: Promoting open, honest, and regular communication within the team can ensure that everyone is on the same page. This involves not only speaking but also active listening to understand each other’s viewpoints and ideas.
  • Clarify Roles and Responsibilities: Each team member should have a clear understanding of their own and others’ roles and responsibilities. This prevents confusion and overlaps and encourages each member to contribute effectively to the team’s goals.
  • Build Mutual Trust and Respect: Encourage a culture of mutual respect and trust within the team. This can be achieved through team-building activities, recognition of individual efforts, and promoting a culture of empathy and understanding.

Inability to Resolve Conflicts Creates Turnover

According to the CPP Global Human Capital Report, 85% of employees experience conflict to some degree, and 29% of employees report that conflict has led to an increased likelihood of leaving their job.

What these figures mean is that we all have to deal with conflict—it’s a regular part of working at an organization. However, what the 29% illustrates is that unresolved conflict can lead to a toxic environment that drives people to quit.

If that sounds dramatic, consider this story:

Amanda was a great leader and highly talented software engineer, recognized for her exceptional skills and creative problem-solving. However, trouble started brewing when this fast-moving IT company hired a new project manager, Paul.

Paul had a different work approach than Amanda. He preferred strict adherence to planned schedules and protocols, while Amanda thrived on flexibility and creativity. The difference in their working styles soon led to frequent disagreements and mounting tension.

Although both Amanda and Paul were committed workers, their disagreements began affecting the project’s progress and overall team dynamics. Upper management noticed the tension, but they chose to ignore it, believing it would resolve itself over time. They failed to provide a platform where Amanda and Paul could constructively resolve their differences.

The lack of conflict resolution led to increased stress and frustration for Amanda. She felt that her ideas and creative solutions were not valued. The work environment that once excited and motivated her had become a source of constant anxiety and dissatisfaction.

Ultimately, the unresolved conflict and toxic work environment led Amanda to reluctantly seek opportunities elsewhere. She eventually accepted a position with a competitor, leaving the company to grapple with the loss of a key talent.

Conflict Can’t Go Unresolved!

Just like in all relationships, unresolved conflict leads to resentment. And resentment is one of the most toxic traits that we can exude.

The story of Amanda underlines the importance of recognizing, addressing, and resolving conflicts effectively in the workplace. Failing to do so not only affects team dynamics and productivity but can also result in the loss of valuable employees.

As stated above, a vast majority of employees face some kind of conflict. Conflict is a part of everyday life that we must accept in the office. But when conflict is left unresolved, it leads to:

  • Increased Stress and Decreased Job Satisfaction: Unresolved conflict can lead to a toxic work environment filled with tension and stress. This can significantly decrease job satisfaction, leading to higher chances of employees leaving the organization.
  • Lower Productivity and Morale: When employees are embroiled in conflict, it distracts from their work and hampers productivity. Over time, this reduced productivity and persistent negative environment can lower team morale and lead to employees seeking opportunities elsewhere.
  • Damaged Relationships and Team Dynamics: Unresolved conflicts can damage professional relationships, disrupt team dynamics, and lead to a breakdown in collaboration and trust. This loss of cohesiveness can result in individuals feeling isolated and opting to leave the organization.

It All Starts with Healthy Communication

The best teamsnaturally if there’s trust and open communication between people. However, when communication is already strained, it can be difficult to turn that ship around. It’s not impossible, though. You can change a team’s culture with team building workshops or active efforts:

  • Promote Open Communication and Active Listening: Encourage team members to express their thoughts, ideas, and concerns openly and respectfully. Equally important is to teach team members to listen actively and empathetically to understand others’ perspectives.
  • Provide Conflict Resolution Training: Equip team members with conflict resolution skills through workshops or training sessions. These could cover aspects like identifying the underlying causes of conflict, understanding different conflict resolution styles, and learning negotiation and mediation techniques.
  • Establish Clear Conflict Resolution Procedures: Implement clear policies and procedures for dealing with conflicts. This could include a step-by-step process for addressing and resolving disputes, guidelines for maintaining professionalism and respect, and provisions for third-party mediation when necessary.

A Poor Reward System Leads to Dwindling Motivation

Before we get started on this topic, let’s just clear up one of the biggest misconceptions about getting your team members motivated:

People don’t need more motivation—they need motivation that aligns with your purpose.

As best-selling author Susan Fowler explains, all of us possess motivation for the things we love doing and find important, otherwise known as “intrinsic motivation.”

She says that many organizations go wrong by believing they can’t affect intrinsic motivation in any way. This is why they resort to “extrinsic” methods of motivation, like incentives and bonuses.

But actually, you can use a very powerful form of motivation that she calls “aligned motivation.” Essentially, this means creating value and goals in the organization that align with the values of your employees. While you won’t ever be able to replace someone’s intrinsic motivations, you can create values that form a deep sense of purpose in your team members. In the case of Fowler, to use an example, her motivation for being vegan is tied to a deeper purpose, and that’s how she was able to lose her taste for meat for the last 35 years.

Establish a Culture of Recognition

Before you can start instilling motivation in your team, you should make sure you’ve done what you can to create a company culture that values recognition. Rather than creating incentives and bonuses, what we’re talking about here is creating behaviors that encourage recognition from all team members:

  1. Recognize Regularly: Make recognition a regular event, not just an occasional occurrence. This could be done at team meetings, in internal communications, or via recognition platforms.
  2. Celebrate Various Accomplishments: Don’t just focus on big wins. Recognize efforts, progress, and small victories too, so everyone feels their contributions matter.
  3. Personalize Recognition: Tailor the recognition to the individual. Some people may appreciate public praise, while others prefer private acknowledgement.
  4. Encourage Peer-to-Peer Recognition: Create a culture where employees are encouraged to recognize each other’s efforts, not just top-down recognition.
  5. Align Recognition with Company Values: When recognizing employees, relate their actions or contributions back to your company’s values. This reinforces what behavior is valued in your organization.

Fostering Aligned Motivation

Fostering a sense of aligned motivation in a team—where individual values echo the broader goals and beliefs of the organization—can lead to remarkable productivity and dedication. This harmony doesn’t arise by chance; it’s cultivated through strategic actions that encourage employees to identify with the company’s core principles.

  1. Clear Communication of Company Values: Clearly articulate your organization’s mission, vision, and values from the outset. Whether it’s during onboarding or regular team meetings, ensure that employees understand and connect with what the company stands for.
  2. Hire for Cultural Fit: During the hiring process, assess candidates not just for their skills and experiences but also for their alignment with the company’s values and culture.
  3. Value-driven Recognition: Recognize and reward employees whose actions and behaviors reflect the company’s values. This could involve employee awards, shout-outs during meetings, or features in company newsletters.
  4. Leadership Modeling: Leaders should exemplify the company’s values in their actions and decisions. When employees see this, they are more likely to align their motivations with those values.
  5. Employee Involvement: Involve employees in decision-making processes, especially those that directly affect them or their work. This gives them a sense of ownership and aligns their personal motivations with organizational goals.

Neglecting to Nurture Individual Personalities Leads to Dysfunctional Teams and Lowered Productivity

Think of a thriving garden, where each plant plays its unique role in creating a harmonious ecosystem. The rose lends its elegance, the marigold its vibrancy, and the lavender its soothing aroma. Each plant has distinct needs in terms of sunlight, water, and nutrients.

If a gardener were to ignore these differences and treat every plant exactly the same, the garden would lose its balance. The rose might wither from too much sunlight, or the lavender might drown from excessive watering. The garden’s beauty and vitality are maintained by recognizing and catering to each plant’s individual requirements.

In much the same way, a team is comprised of individuals each with their own strengths, preferences, and needs. Neglecting to nurture these unique traits can lead to dysfunction, much like a garden where individual plant needs are ignored. Understanding and catering to each team member’s individual personality is essential for creating a high-performing, cohesive team.

The Hazards of Neglecting Individual Strengths

A team can certainly function without every team member being optimized for their best role—it happens all the time. However, those teams will not function as well as they should. And even worse, your top talent might decide to go somewhere else if they feel that they aren’t being played to their strengths. In fact, it was found that 60% of employees say that it’s very important they have a role that allows them to do what they do best.

Here are some warning signs that your team may not feel their individual strengths are being utilized:

  • Lack of Understanding and Conflict: Without understanding individual personalities and different backgrounds, team members may misinterpret others’ behaviors, leading to unnecessary conflicts and dysfunctional teams.
  • Misalignment of Tasks and Skills: Neglecting to consider individual personalities can lead to assigning tasks that don’t align with individuals’ skills or working styles, leading to decreased productivity.
  • Decreased Employee Engagement: Employees may feel misunderstood or undervalued when leaders ignore their individual personality traits, leading to decreased engagement and productivity.

How to Start Using Your Team Properly

It all starts with understanding your team on a deeper level! They aren’t just there to push things forward—they’re all equipped with unique skill sets that, when combined correctly, can produce a high-performance team.

Here are some ways you can start recognizing—and using—your team’s skills and traits:

  1. Conduct Strengths Assessments: Team building experts can help you assess the strengths and working styles of your team members.
  2. Foster Open Communication: Encourage your team to share their preferred working styles, strengths, and areas they’re passionate about. You can achieve this through one-on-one meetings or team workshops.
  3. Assign Roles Based on Strengths: Once you understand each team member’s strengths, assign tasks that align with these strengths. This not only improves performance but also enhances job satisfaction.
  4. Provide Opportunities for Skill Demonstration: Create opportunities for team members to showcase their strengths. This could be through presentations, leading a project, or even informal “show-and-tell” sessions.
  5. Encourage Peer Recognition: Implement a system where team members can recognize and appreciate each other’s strengths. This fosters a culture of appreciation and allows you to see strengths that you may have missed.


In conclusion, the toxic transformation of a good team isn’t sudden but a gradual process, often steered by unchecked groupthink, poor communication, unresolved conflicts, unsatisfactory reward systems, and a disregard for individual personalities. Each of these elements alone can dent team effectiveness, and together, they can precipitate a team’s downfall.

However, by recognizing these pitfalls, we can take proactive measures to prevent them. It’s about fostering open dialogue, promoting synergy through clarity and understanding, building robust conflict resolution mechanisms, creating rewarding systems that genuinely motivate, and recognizing and nurturing the unique strengths of individual team members. By doing so, not only can we avert toxicity, but we can also cultivate teams that are resilient, effective, and harmoniously aligned with the organization’s core values.