How to Stop Cancerous Behaviors from Spreading Among Your Team


It wasn't too long ago that cancer was the “C-word,” and the C-word was a death sentence. Research, techniques, treatments and therapies were limited, and like many treatments today, in themselves deadly.

Most of us have had cancer touch our lives in some way. Cancer, like other life-threating illnesses, does stand for a big C-word, but the word is "change." Change to one’s routines, concept of self, sense of control, financial security, personal relationships, humility, professional opportunities — everything changes.

Just as cancer can impact on one’s life, so can cancers grow within your work team and organization. As the leader, you need to know how to watch for the signs. Cancer is insidious, and symptoms can be subtle, but signs are there if one is connected to one’s team and alert to shifts in energy, productivity, absenteeism, disagreements and conflict. These shifts happen slowly and fester over time. If left unchecked, the "cancer" will create a chokehold on your team effectiveness and efficiency.




1. Own your role.

Just as you, as an individual, need to participate in your health and wellness, so too do you need to create an


environment that fosters the health and well-being of your team’s effectiveness and potential. Be their advocate. Get what they need to succeed and excel.


2. Check up regularly.

Make time to connect with each of your team members. Use the time to not only give timely and ongoing feedback but to check in with their thoughts, concerns and challenges.


3. Always ask; do not assume.

If you have begun to note or sense changes in productivity and energy, ask. Do not assume that things will resolve on their own.


4. Locate the cause, not just the source.

Team cancers may appear to be created by specific individuals, but there is always a more significant issue that has generated tension or conflict. Consider any changes in things like roles, responsibilities, funding and personal challenges that may have triggered the discontent. When people feel mistreated and disrespected, they often respond by breeding cancerous interactions.


5. Treat directly.

Treatment should include a review of organizational structures that may have led to the discontent. Many top-down changes cause controversy and dissension within work teams. If changes are to be embraced and accepted by your team, take the time needed to support them in understanding and owning their new role in the change.


Yes, there are individuals who will continue to resist and refuse to accept the change, like certain cancers. It then becomes your responsibility to be clear and upfront with them on the consequences (resigning, firing) of the choices they are making.


6. Foster healing.

Diagnosing and treating the cause of your team’s cancer is only part of the process. Recovery requires targeted support to rebuild communication, productivity and trust.


7. Create healthy team habits.

Create routines and rituals that support your team’s health and wellness. Create time for open communication. Make time for your team to understand, adapt and work with all changes.


Cancer teaches us leaders to respond to change by listening, questioning, listening and responding. As the leader, you are an advocate for the well-being of your team and every team member. Your advocacy ensures that change becomes a communication process that nurtures the professional health of your team, providing time for every team member to personalize their response. Your team will thrive as change becomes a process for learning, expanding the potential of all. After all, team cancers cannot grow in a positive learning environment.

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updated November 2019

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