For his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, researcher John Gottman observed the behaviors of dozens of married couples over a period of years to see if he could discover the specific behaviors that would accurately predict whether a marriage relationship would ultimately succeed or fail. Turns out, he could.

Although his research specifically targeted marriages, his findings have been immensely helpful for all kinds of relational systems – friendships, family systems and professional working teams. Although Gottman documented many behaviors that negatively impact a relationship, his research revealed four in particular that inevitably signal the downfall of the relationship long term. He named these The Four Horsemen (as in, Of the Apocalypse). 

In my own team coaching work, I have noticed that whenever any of these behaviors is present on a team, it quickly shuts down creativity, engenders suspicion and mistrust, and severely heightens the overall stress level of the team. If the behaviors stay for too long, the team will collapse.

So what are the Four Horsemen?

  • Criticism — Not to be confused with a “complaint,” which targets a specific unwanted behavior in another team member, criticism moves past the behavior to pass judgment on the character and motivation of other members of the team. “I’m disappointed you didn’t turn in your work on time” is a complaint. “It’s clear to me that you either don’t care enough or are just too lazy to do your work with excellence” is a criticism.
  • Contempt — Sarcasm, cynicism, eye-rolling, hostile humor, mockery behind someone’s back (or to their face) are all expressions of contempt. Gottman identifies this as the worst of the four horsemen, because the feelings of disgust are so strong they drown out our ability to really listen to the other person or see them as valuable or worthy of respect.
  • Defensiveness — Ever back a frightened cat into a corner? That’s a pretty good picture of a defensive reaction. It’s the unwillingness to humbly consider what another person is saying about your choices, your behavior or its impact on them. It’s a self-protective reaction that tries to turn to focus off of you and onto the other person. The underlying message of a defensive reaction is basically, “It’s not my fault; it’s yours!” Defensiveness erodes trust and escalates conflict.
  • Stonewalling — The more common team vernacular for this behavior is “checking out.” You may still be physically in the room, but that’s the only part of you still present. You’ve totally disengaged. You tune out. You’ve left the party. When people stonewall on a team, it’s like they aren’t even there anymore. Because they aren’t.

If any of these behaviors are present on your team (including in you), it’s like a red alert that your team no longer feels like a safe place to be for your team members. There are unresolved hurts running the show, and they will continue to do so until they are thoughtfully and carefully addressed. For the sake of your team’s effectiveness (not to mention its overall health) some deeper conversation needs to happen – and happen fast.

The best course of action is to bring in a coach who is trained in team dynamics to work with you and your team until the underlying issues are addressed and resolved. If you want more information, or would just like to talk about your particular situation with a coach, drop me a line.

Meantime, I’m curious: Have any of the horsemen shown up on teams you’ve been a part of? If so, how did you handle it?

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