Monday, April 29, 2024

Toxic choir (and committee) members – how to stop them spoiling it for others

Many of the queries I get sent concern ‘toxic’ choir members. People who disrupt things and spoil it for others. 

photo by eek the cat

I thought I’d look a bit deeper into what’s going on and consider what you can do.

We hear the term ‘toxic people’ bandied around a lot. But what does it actually mean?

One definition is “anyone whose behaviour adds negativity and upset to your life”.

The context is usually one-to-one relationships: like friends or romantic partners. But it also happens in groups like choirs or choir committees.

There are many traits that so-called ‘toxic’ people share.

They are often very self-centred and oblivious to the needs of others. They can be manipulative and want to control everyone. They tend not to have very good boundaries, either emotional or physical. They believe that they are always right. If you confront them head-on, they will play the victim. And perhaps most importantly, they need a lot of attention.

Just think of people like Donald Trump or Liz Truss.

They are certainly not team players.

However, team players are exactly what we need in a choir or choir committee. Somebody who works for the greater good of the whole group, who puts their individual needs to one side temporarily (see Singing in a choir – balancing individual freedom with the demands of the team), who can appreciate that every individual is different, who can see the overall picture, and who knows that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The danger of having a toxic member of your choir or choir committee is that they will demand a lot of focus and energy (that could better be used on other things), they will disrupt the process (often), and they will make other members feel uncomfortable. In the worst case, you may get members leaving.

How can we deal with such people?

Here are some suggestions that might help.

nip it in the bud

It may be that the person is unaware of the effect that they’re having on others. So talk to them. Have a heartfelt and personal conversation with them as soon as you notice that their behaviour is having negative effects. Don’t be confrontational, but also be open and honest. If you don’t bring the subject up early on, it will only get worse. This should be up to the choir leader or committee chairperson (not individual members). They need to be strong, direct and kind.

Leaders are often unwilling to engage like this because they don’t want to be unkind or critical. But if you don’t engage early on, things will definitely spiral until it’s much, much worse.

set boundaries early on

If you notice any kind of toxic behaviour in your group, it’s time to re-emphasise boundaries. You may have a written (or implicit) set of guidelines about how a choir or committee member is expected to behave. Now’s the time to remind everyone of this. Leaders can sometimes be hesitant about  drawing the line because they may feel bad or guilty about how people might react. But it’s important for everyone that ground rules are laid out clearly.

it’s not you, it’s them

There are reasons for people’s toxic behaviour. They almost certainly have stresses and difficulties in their own lives that they’re not dealing with. Perhaps they feel they have no control in their own life, so need to control others. Or maybe they’re lacking in self-esteem so constantly have to draw attention to themselves and show off. Again, be kind when dealing with them. You have no idea what else is going on in their lives.

try not to engage

Even though they may have their own problems, don’t be tempted to try to fix them, or offer unsolicited advice. Don’t get sucked into their drama. Try to distance yourself from them. It’s amazing how one person can have so much power and effect a whole group. If you don’t engage with their behaviour, it’s less likely to have such a strong effect on the group.

beware of ‘flying monkeys’

Toxic people often surround themselves with enablers or manipulate others into taking their side. They will use ‘flying monkeys’ to back them up, or to pass on toxic messages to help undermine others. As soon as you notice this happening, you’ll need to talk to those concerned (see ‘nip it in the bud’ above).

cut them out

It may get to the stage that no amount of talking or attempts to understand will change their behaviour. There will come a point when the behaviour of one person can be detrimental to the whole group. In which case you need to  consider the majority and simply get rid of the problem. Ask the person to leave the choir or vote them off the committee. It may seem like an extreme step, but it can be necessary. You don’t owe them an explanation (or they’ll get into an argument). Just be clear about boundaries and tell them you don’t want them in the group any more. Hopefully things won’t get this bad because you will have nipped it in the bud early on.

my own experience

I’ve been very lucky in my almost 30-year career. I have seldom had any toxic choir members, or at least none who have disrupted things too much.

If there have been toxic people, they have tended to affect those immediately around them and not had a huge effect on the choir as a whole. I’ve only known about it when individual singers have come up to me and told me what’s going on. I was then able to intervene.

By setting clear boundaries and letting singers know what kind of behaviour is acceptable, I’ve never had to ask anyone to leave any of my choirs. Any toxic members have left of their own accord because their behaviour has been ignored (so has no effect on the choir as a whole). They weren’t able to get the attention they needed.

I’ve inherited committees in a couple of choirs I’ve taken over. For many years these committees worked extremely well and helped enormously with things like social events, etc. But once, a seemingly nice person got elected to the committee. As soon as they got on, their behaviour changed and they became a nightmare! We waited three years before they had to stand down. What we did then was to rewrite the constitution (it was badly in need of updating any way) and put a clause in that allowed any toxic person to be voted off the committee by majority vote. Phew!

older posts

You might find these other posts of interest.

How to deal with a toxic choir member

There's always one! – coping with different singing abilities in a small group

Dealing with individual singers in a large choir

Help! How to deal with choir members who sing out of tune?

Chris Rowbury


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