Empirical research shows that psychological security is crucial for team alignment and integration, as shown, for example in a study conducted by Google, which analysed more than 180 teams.
High levels of positivity and low levels of toxicity create teams that feel comfortable expressing opinions even though those may generate conflict. These teams are willing to leave their comfort zones and put all their talents to work. These teams have greater emotional and social intelligence and low attrition rates even in high-pressure situations.
Recognising the four major toxic behaviours
You may realise that your team or organisation still has a long way to go toward a toxicity-free environment. The first step towards improvement is to become aware of and recognise toxic behaviours. To this end, the American psychologist John Gottman offers us a useful tool, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse“:criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
- CRITICISM: consists of blaming or attacking a person on the team. There’s always something to complain about. But there’s a big difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint is directed at a concrete failed action. Criticism adds negative words about a person’s character or personality.
- CONTEMPT: includes sarcasm, disrespect for one’s companion, cynicism, humiliation, mockery, ridicule and even extreme insult. Contempt is the most poisonous of toxic behaviours, as it leads to disgust and condescension. Contempt appears when one is unable to resolve existing differences soon after they occur and hence leads to harbouring negative thoughts about another person.
- DEFENSIVENESS: our first automatic reaction when we receive criticism is to defend ourselves against it, whether it is by withdrawing into ourselves or counter-attack. However, getting defensive is just another way of blaming. It is common for someone on the defensive to feel like they are right, when in fact they are contributing to the conflict in equal measure.
- STONEWALLING: means cutting off all communication, passivity, lack of cooperation, silent treatment, being “too busy”, distancing oneself or in less severe cases it can manifest by not saying what you are thinking. It also happens when the rest of the toxins have been present for a long time. One of the consequences of this behaviour is that it will fuel contempt in other people.
You probably recognise some of these toxic behaviours. Turning around this kind of behaviour is not an easy task but can be done. Let’s start by realising that these toxic behaviours are rooted in powerlessness or frustration from not being able to unblock the situation. It is extremely powerful to give the team the space to generate its own antidotes and establish a necessary commitment around them. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, here are some antidotes that have worked in our experience.
Antidotes for CRITICISM
- Give feedback on the action/behaviour instead of attacking the person.
- Ask: “Are you willing to continue this conversation without blaming?”
- Transform complaints into requests, for example, “You didn’t give me enough notice for the meeting, I couldn’t change the agenda to attend. A request would be, “could you give me at least 24 hours’ notice when you call a meeting?”
- If receiving criticism: find the request/need behind the criticism.
- Soft start-up: Don’t go straight to the jugular, begin tactfully, be clear and describe what is happening in observable facts. Do not evaluate or judge.
Antidotes for CONTEMPT
- Show curiosity, compassion and openness to resolve the issue, look for the positive intention or call for help behind what is being said.
- Check for emotional overwhelm/”flooding”. Take a deep breath and pause before continuing or ventilate with a neutral third party or in physical exercise.
- Avoid sarcasm. Saying “it’s just my sense of humour” is not an excuse. Sarcasm greatly damages relationships, sometimes irreversibly.
- In serious cases, ask: “are you willing to resolve this without sarcasm or insults?”
These toxic behaviours are rooted in powerlessness or frustration from not being able to unblock the situation.
Antidotes for DEFENSIVENESS
- Use active listening and suspend assumptions: was there a misunderstanding? Probe for understanding: “Sam, what did you hear Peter/me say?”
- 2% rule: find the “2% truth” in what you hear. “It’s true that I often don’t schedule meetings with a few days’ notice and I can understand that you may think I am unpredictable.”
Antidotes for STONEWALLING
- Observe: what are the reasons that could lead to avoiding certain issues, is it fear? What kind of fear? Is it real or an interpretation? Is it a misunderstanding?
- Make it safe for people to express themselves, find the right environment, safeguard confidentiality etc.
- Explain the reasons why there is distance, passivity or lack of cooperation in a factual way.
- If you feel that someone is stonewalling you, observe what you might be doing that contributes to the behaviour.
- If you are overwhelmed, find some way to calm yourself, for example, with meditation/mindfulness or visualisation techniques.