As mentioned in previous posts, Bruce Tuckman identified five stages in team
development; Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, [Transforming]. In the Forming stage we focused on establishing strong communication to create a foundation of trust. We focused on 8 key behaviors that support developing trust in a team dynamic. Keeping in mind that a ‘team’ is a group of relationships, I would also like to introduce 4 relationship toxins that I have coined the Toxin Tornado! John Gottman, PhD, and an internationally renowned relationship expert identified these toxins. In his research, mainly with couples, he recognizes certain types of negativity that are so lethal to interpersonal relationships that he refers to them as the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse! When you read these, observe how they show up and if they do in your interpersonal relationships.
Blaming or Criticism
There is healthy critique and then there is criticism. Criticism from a negative perspective is when a team member is blaming or attacking another person instead of focusing on the behavior. In relationships, we will always have some complaints about other people, however, there is a big difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint is usually addressing a specific failed action whereas a criticism adds negativity about that person’s character or personality.
There are ways to give constructive feedback in situations that are impactful to the whole team or to members of the team. If members can agree to handle the ‘storm’ without blame, then that is the first step. Sometimes it is helpful to use a neutral third party to blow off steam and cool down prior to giving feedback. If you can then address the behavior that is creating the storm rather than making it a personal attack on the person, they will be more inclined to hear you! And probably the most effective antidote to getting caught in the blame game is to speak from a place of ‘I’, I feel….…I want……..I am hoping for.
Blame creates defensiveness, which in turn creates blame! It is circular and why it is so lethal because it goes round and round-where we stop nobody knows! Defensiveness is saying, “It’s not me-It’s you”, which in turn escalates the conflict. Often time the defender believes they are not creating the conflict but defending in the conflict. The reality is they are contributing just as much as the attacker/blamer.
The quickest way to defuse the blame game is to resist the urge to react and tap into active listening skills. Ask reflective questions or give reflective feedback-“Amber what did you hear Bethany saying? Or “What I heard you say was…” and follow up with a powerful question. For example; “What I heard you say was I messed up the communication in the project-what would you expect me to do differently?” If you can resist the urge to react to a personal attack or someone blaming and instead practice objective curiosity, you will take the ‘bite’ out of the attack and leave it where it belongs-with the attacker.
Contempt shows up in a number of behaviors such as sarcasm, belittling, cynicism, name-calling, hostile humor and belligerence. Contempt is the fuel of the toxin tornado because it sends a strong message of disgust and disdain and keeps the negative force going. It is important to recognize these behaviors for what they are and not just brush it away as “oh, that’s just Joe”
If differences are not resolved and negativity continues to build in working relationships, you are feeding the contempt toxin. The best way to avoid this toxin is to be diligent in resolving conflict in the moment or in a timely manner so contempt does not have a chance to root. If it has taken root, it is important to realize that a conflict resolution with an objective third party needs to happen or the impact may be detrimental to the whole-not just the two parties involved.
If I were to engage with a relationship toxin (which I did quite often before I woke up to them!), this would be my toxin of choice! Being a quiet person by nature, cutting off communication, silent treatments, refusal to engage, withdrawal and reluctance to express myself was right up my alley. When the other horsemen are running rampant, the stonewaller will check out. This in turn feeds blaming which feeds defensiveness and ends up in contempt, and then it’s really time to party! Yes, it is an overwhelming relationship mess, just as the damage a tornado leaves is an overwhelming mess.
The best way to help a stonewaller is to create a space that is safe. This may mean, for a while, that the space for expression is one on one until the conflict is minimized. It may mean addressing the fear of ‘speaking’ head on. What is important here is to recognize when a team member may be using their quiet nature to stonewall rather than confront honestly what may be happening on the team.
If you want to help your team avoid the toxin tornado here are 4 Solutions to consider:
- Educate your team on the toxins and their destructiveness.
- When you see blame/criticism, defensiveness, contempt or stonewalling show up, call it out in a non-threatening way (maybe even playfully) and get agreement to proceed void of that behavior.
- Create a concrete plan within your team for how you will handle toxins when they unconsciously show up.
- Hire a coach (like me!) that specializes in relationship systems to coach your team in navigating the complexities of team development.