Quietly Toxic: How to Deal With Team Members Who Couldn’t Care Less

“If you can’t get rid of a toxic team member, isolate them.” – Dan Rockwell, American business blogger at Leadership Freak.


Quietly Toxic:   How to Deal With Team Members Who Couldn't Care Less by Laura Stack #productivityFew things kill productivity faster than a toxic teammate—someone so awful they poison the workplace environment. (click to tweet) You can work around or repair a lack of resources, poor training, terrible leadership, an uncertain future, shoddy work processes, even micromanaging; however, toxic workers destroy from the inside out. Like a cancer, their dissatisfaction and distrust eventually metastasize to others, leading to a sick team that nothing short of radical surgery can save. A bad attitude is contagious and spreads quickly.

Unfortunately, team-wreckers aren’t always obvious. Gossips, saboteurs, and unhappy loudmouths usually make themselves known quickly, so leadership can deal with them directly before things go too far. But the disengaged—those who don’t care about their jobs—clog up the workflow process because they miss deadlines, miss work often, arrive late, and refuse to pitch in during crunch periods. I call them TOXICS. Toxic team members can cause cracks in the foundation of the team work ethic. If not repaired, the cracks can spread, until the whole structure teeters on the brink of collapse. After all, if Bob the Toxic doesn’t care about his job, or Andrea the Toxic regularly takes two-hour lunches, why should anyone else try so hard or take their work seriously? You can try to just ignore their behavior and continue to do a great job and not let them rub off on you. But what if their poor performance impacts your work?

Leaders should catch and correct toxic behavior. But at least for a while, you may find yourself stuck with a “Quiet Toxic” you can’t get rid of. Possibly your manager just doesn’t notice the problem. Could be the quiet toxic is related to the owner, belongs to a powerful family or union, or the manager is a friend. Possibly, your team simply feels it should police itself before turning to higher authority for help. In such cases, team members can confront the toxic team member themselves.

Clearing the Air

Are you the only one who has a problem with The Toxic? Has anyone else mentioned frustration? Have several people called out The Toxic in a recent staff meeting? If not, it might be YOU. Could you change your attitude and see what happens?

But if you know you’re not the only one, you can’t be afraid to step up because you think you might anger The Toxic. Many people don’t say anything, because they are worried about rocking the boat or causing trouble. Believe me, the short-term pain of confrontation is worth the long-term peace and sanity.

Invite The Toxic to lunch and discuss the situation. Make it clear things have to change if you continue to work together, or you’ll never get anything worthwhile accomplished. Meet in a public venue to limit the likelihood of them causing a scene, and keep your voice low and reasonable as you explain the problem. Ask why they feel dissatisfied, and offer to help if you can. The Toxic may not realize their disengagement has damaged the team. Once you bring it up, The Toxic may promise to shape up and engage with the rest of the team. On the other hand, you might be told in no uncertain terms to buzz off. Well, at least you tried.

The next level of escalation involves a meeting with other members of your team who are having problems with The Toxic—again, ideally offsite, just in case the person goes off on a rant. Think of it as an intervention, like family members might perform with an addict or someone with dangerous depression. If the entire team goes in determined to help, you may just pull off a miracle, and you may get agreement.

Final Options

If that doesn’t work, volunteer to serve as a spokesman to your manager and/or HR and take it to the next level. What if you discover at this point The Toxic is untouchable? If that’s the case, work around the person. Discuss ways to limit the damage with your other team members and take care of things yourselves. You can still get your work done—perhaps not as efficiently as before—but better than not. (Basically, you’ll be like a lame horse in a thoroughbred race, doomed to straggle in at the back of the pack, but hey, you’ll finish.) Hopefully The Toxic will get the point and notice he/she is being left out.

Ultimately, however, I believe it’s always less painful and faster to lance a boil rather than let it fester, so to speak. You can simply refuse to work with The Toxic. Be aware that this last resort can backfire, depending on the toxic person’s untouchability. But if The Toxic is so unbearably awful, leaving the team might prove beneficial to you.

Have you ever had a Toxic on your team and how did you handle it? If you have a workable secret without betraying confidences, we would love to hear it!

© 2015 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.



  1. Great post on a huge topic! My favourite line is “After all, if Bob the Toxic doesn’t care about his job, or Andrea the Toxic regularly takes two-hour lunches, why should anyone else try so hard or take their work seriously?”
    As a leader I need to remember that tough conversations always make things better – just not always in that moment!

  2. This article is good, and I agree with the majority of the information in it, except this part: Are you the only one who has a problem with The Toxic? Has anyone else mentioned frustration? Have several people called out The Toxic in a recent staff meeting? ****If not, it might be YOU.**** Could you change your attitude and see what happens?

    While in some cases it is true it might be the person with the initially perceived problem, I find it a discouraging thought suggesting that it might be the owner of the complaint to be the problem, if they found none agreeing/seeing what they see.

    In my experience, I have noticed a countless number of the “disengaged toxic”, and seldom I found others sharing my views, despite what I could see was fairly obvious. Most of the time, others had no idea what I’m talking about (because “they doesn’t pay enough attention to these things”. Their reason).

    • Lucine, of course there are always exceptions, and I can absolutely imagine it’s true that others may not notice the toxic in your workplace. However, more often then not, when I taught “Dealing with Difficult People” classes, the ones who attended WERE the difficult people. I’m merely suggesting you consider the idea and do a bit of self-reflection to ensure that’s not the case. If it’s not, then no need to be discouraged, and as is the option with all unsolicited advice (mine!), you can ignore it. 🙂

  3. Michelle H says:

    In my place of work, it is quite difficult to ignore the apparently toxic and apathetic attitude (to the people who are working on the floor). Not only is it apparent, it is spreading rapidly.
    As someone who works on the floor with the toxic, I can honestly say that the entire team is becoming poisoned by only a few person’s behaviors and actions. When you start hearing workers, who have for years put in extra effort, say things like “no more going out of my way” or “give them an inch, they take a mile, so there is no point in going above and beyond because they will take total advantage of it,” it becomes apparent that there is an issue that needs to be addressed because it is spreading like wildfire. It’s an overwhelming concern because even new employees automatically think this is the way the office works. So they adjust their sails according to the current winds which are stagnant or stifling.
    Even though this has been brought up a few times, management changes work schedules and duties to try to alleviate the problem, rather than address the “underlying” issue. Needless to say, the overall quality of “fresh air” in the office is nearly depleted and, in a place where we used to see people work happily for 10+ years or more, turnover is now becoming the trend due to ill-managed toxicity.
    After writing this short blurb, and reading it aloud, I think it is up to the workers being affected (yes, this includes myself) to discuss the “underlying issue” with management and ask them to provide feedback and/or training to help us become a hard-working, cohesive unit again.

    • The saying about “One rotten apple spoils the barrel” is true. A negative attitude can spread and infect an entire team or indeed an organization. Leaders are often wary of firing the toxic for fear of a lawsuit or not being able to replace the person. The key is to document performance expectations and use corrective action to correct the behavior or get the toxic to move on. Or else the good employees start moving on, as you’re seeing. Best wishes!