by Justin Standfield
I first encountered the work of psychologist John Gottman when I read about his research on divorce prediction in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘Blink’. In that book, Gladwell describes Gottman’s work at his “love lab” at the University of Washington as remarkable and reports that he can predict with 95% accuracy the likelihood of a couple remaining married 15 years later.
I’ve been working with teams for around 16 years in a range of organisational development roles, both as an internal facilitator and an external consultant; in most cases, the goal of these interventions has been to improve the functioning or ‘health’ of that group of individuals. Frequently, this has led us to explore areas such as communication, trust, power, conflict, culture and roles – with the ultimate goal of enhancing their collective performance and increasing their impact on the bottom line.
My work has often been informed by some of the well-known team approaches, such as Tuckman’s team development stages and Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of a team, and has taken the form of workshops, group process consultation and so on. When I read more about Gottman’s relationship work with couples, it struck me that some of the practical approaches and techniques could be applied to larger groups of people, especially natural work teams. He talks about “positive sentiment override” which essentially means that when a relationship is solid, it enables people to encounter difficulties without those temporary problems turning things sour; all teams I have worked with have wanted to achieve a version of this too, even if it hasn’t always been an explicit goal from outset of the development project.
In recent work that I’ve undertaken with teams that have been having problems with unresolved conflict and breakdowns in communication, I have generated some very positive results by using a particular aspect of Gottman’s work that he calls the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’. His research into relationship problems highlights a set of four characteristics (the Four Horsemen – criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling) and it’s his belief that when all four of them are present in a relationship, it’s doomed to separation. I have explored these further and used the lens of team development to identify some antidotes to counter their destructive impact. It is this working hypothesis that I have been testing adapting with teams lately and I would like to share some of my thoughts with you here.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and how they show up in teams
Criticism within this context is when someone makes a personal attack towards a colleague, such as harsh judgment about their character. The aim of this type of criticism – whether the perpetrator is conscious of it or not – is to make someone right (themselves) and someone wrong (the other team member).
What are the signs of Criticism?
Rather than this being a specific gripe or complaint, it is more often a putdown; imagine a generalised statement like “You always X” or “You never X” or “You’re so X” or “You’re the type of person who X”.
Contempt is the most damaging of all the Four Horsemen, Gottman says in his work with couples. When contemptuous behaviours appear to be the norm in a team it’s an indicator that things have reached a place where people experience meanness on a regular basis. It’s beyond the stage of hoping that things will naturally improve – what’s needed here is a concerted effort on everyone’s behalf to take action that will lead to a more pleasant culture.
What are the signs of Contempt?
Contempt is characterised by name-calling, derogatory facial expressions such as eye-rolling and grimacing, sneering and head-shaking when people are speaking. An especially unpleasant symptom of contempt is overtly hostile humour, sarcasm or mockery.
When a state of defensiveness becomes the modus operandi for people, it’s usually as a result of seeing themselves as a victim in some way and therefore fending off a perceived impending attack. In teams where the Four Horsemen are present, this type of defending behaviour is frequently used instead of opting for any sort of discussion or attempt to connect when there is tension or an issue.
What are the signs of Defensiveness?
The most commonly-reported sign is disagreeing and then cross-complaining (meeting a colleague’s complaint with a complaint of their own and ignoring what has just been said) – something along the lines of “That’s not true, you’re the one who does X” or “I only did X because you always do Y”.
In the mind of the person doing it, stonewalling serves as a method to avoid conflict and is essentially about withdrawal from the relationship. Although the intention is to keep things neutral and calm, more often than not this stonewalling behaviour presents as disconnection and a removal from communication; it is often interpreted by other team members as smug superiority or disapproval, and it tends to escalate things.
What are the signs of Stonewalling?
Assuming that someone hasn’t physically removed themselves (for example, by walking out, refusing to show up at meetings), a classic sign of stonewalling is giving others the silent treatment. When communication is taking place, it might be characterised by monosyllabic grunts and mutterings, and frequent attempts to change the subject onto something more palatable. Refusal to return phone calls and ignoring emails can both be possible signs of stonewalling.
In terms of remedying the damage caused by any of the Four Horsemen, there is a starting point that is very effective at moving things forward – or at least preventing the situation from spiralling further into a cycle of negative behaviour. It requires the members of a team to adopt a new habit regarding the expression of dissatisfaction and the making of requests, and is based on the work of Marshall Rosenberg on Non-Violent Communication (NVC). The NVC approach provides a good format for giving feedback and raising complaints healthily, and it is set out in the following steps:
Observations: What I observe (see or hear, without judgment)…
Feelings: How I feel (an emotion)…
Needs: What I need or value, that causes my feelings…
Requests: What I would like to happen (concrete actions)…
The provision of feedback is only half the story – if we truly want to moves a team towards more healthy behaviour, we must also focus on the person on the receiving end of this new style of feedback. It’s vital for them to validate their colleague by letting them know what makes sense to them about what they’ve just heard and to convey that they understand their ‘take’ on things. It’s very powerful for the receiver to claim responsibility by asking themselves, “What can I learn from this?” and “What can I do about it?”, but this only happens when there is a genuine desire to improve things and an open mind.
Although this NVC technique is not Gottman’s, I have been using it with teams for many years and I believe that it aligns well with what he describes as conscious communication in his work, namely “speaking the unarguable truth and listening generously”.
This behavioural technique and the underlying philosophy about improving team relationships are just two components of how Incendo works with groups and teams using Gottman’s relationship ideas. Talk to Justin at Incendo today to find out more about the simple, no-nonsense steps you can take to keep the Four Horsemen out of your team for good.