The Honey Badger

This is the fifth part of a 12-part series featuring snippets from our new book, Team by Team. The only team building book ever written by the actual team. You can buy the ebook here.

Articles in this series:

  1. Selfishness: The Key to Teamwork
  2. Failing Forwards
  3. Stretch vs Support 
  4. Teeming with Teams

The most ferocious animal in the world

Notorious for their strength, ferocity and toughness, honey badgers have been known to attack and repel almost any kind of animal when escape is impossible, even much larger predators like lions. They are listed as the “world’s most fearless animal” in the Guinness Book of World Records. They are both impressive and terrifying. Ultimately, not something anyone would want to spend time with.

Unfortunately, in my career I have been in contact with one on more than one occasion. To clarify, I don’t mean the actual animal, but a person who embodies their behaviours. Let’s say the honey badger is their spirit animal. They are fearless, mentally tough, intelligent, competitive. They like to work in solidarity and often whine. They want to win at any cost, and they are toxic.

“They are fearless, mentally tough, intelligent, competitive. They like to work in solidarity and often whine. They want to win at any cost, and they are toxic.”

I’m sure I’m not the only person to have encountered someone like this in the wild. They’re surprisingly common. On a good day, honey badgers manifest as ambitious, driven individuals who can follow through on the impossible. Their performance is second to none. Exactly the type of person anyone would want on their team, and actually many do. However, what distinguishes a honey badger from the “good” ambitious person is their execution. They maintain their positive aura by creating a negative environment for others; sneakily breeding a culture of tit-for-tat, backstabbing, blaming and singling others out. It degrades everyone else and artificially elevates their position individually. It’s quite clever when you think about it.

Thankfully, they can get caught. But often it will be too late. The honey badger’s behaviours have rubbed off onto other well-intended team members, who begin to reflect these in each other. They start to keep the honey badger out of conversations, treat them with disrespect and blame them for any and every team trouble. The team culture is fully damaged. What’s more, the team brand also takes a battering. Poor team connectivity and dysfunctional habits create a feeling of uncertainty in those outside the team, who then struggle to navigate their working relationships and end up with poor results. This is NOT the outcome anyone would want for their team.


So how do we deal with them? How do we stop a honey badger from ravaging through our teams and leaving them as bird scraps? Figuratively speaking, of course. Here are a few tried and tested tips:

Catch them at recruitment
— If someone possesses the attributes of a honey badger, that’s a gentle flag. Test them on negative “honey badger behaviours”, ask previous employers about it, ask them about it. It’s not accusing, it’s probing. Just like you would do with any other quality.

Spot them in their infancy
— Be aware of how team behaviours change around certain members. Does the vibe change when someone is or isn’t there?

— Encourage an open-door policy and actively ask/listen to the team about how they get on with each other. It will quickly be apparent if there is toxicity from one single person.

Manage them in adulthood
— Approach the honey badger gently, being sure not to blame them. If they know they are being watched they can cool down and put their focus into other battles. Be careful though, otherwise they’re likely to push the blame back in another direction.
— Give them a team development responsibility. As the honey badger’s success now rides on the success of others it could reverse their internal thought process to be more productive for the group.
— Distract them. Give them responsibility for something that doesn’t have any direct impact on the group. The success of that project becomes their priority and there’s no-one to back-stab, no-one to blame. Just be sure to keep them involved in the team’s overall progress and they won’t be left-out.

Go in for the cull
— If it’s not working, ask them to leave. The successes they bring do not outweigh the time and energy used to keep the rest of the group alive.
— Be very clear about the reasons for dismissal so they understand. And be sure to let their next employer know if there’s a honey badger on the rampage!iw

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