The five most common toxic team behaviours – and how to counter them

One of our favourite models for working with workplace conflict comes from the Global Center for Right Relationship (CRR). CRR built from John Gottman’s definition of unhealthy conflict behaviours.   All five are normal human behaviours – we’ve yet to find a relationship, team or family that is free of them. And, awareness of them massively enhances the quality of team work.  As we become more aware of our toxic behaviours, we can catch ourselves and each other in the moment and course-correct before we create harm.

They are:

  1. Blame: Attacking the person rather than the behaviour; being critical, domineering or harsh.
  2. Defensiveness: Refusing to take responsibility for one’s own behaviour, or not being open to influence.
  3. Contempt: The opposite of respect, contempt is defined as “the feeling that a person or a thing is worthless or beneath consideration”[1]. It can include sarcasm, belittling, cynicism, name-calling, hostile humour, hostile gossip, and belligerence. The most damaging of the toxins; this is the one that Gottman looks for when assessing a relationship’s odds of longevity.
  4. Stonewalling:Avoidance, uncooperativeness or fake compliance, passivity, disengagement, withholding. Not being open to influence.
  5. Flooding: Emotional overwhelm which (temporarily) deskills.

Here are some ideas for countering the toxins:

  • Replace furious with curious – what is wanting to happen?
  • Use statements that begin with “I feel…” or “I wish…” (e.g. “you lazy **** have left the kitchen in a mess again” might become “When I find the kitchen left in a mess, I feel taken for granted. I wish we could find a way to fairly share out the boring work”)
  • What’s the hope or request underneath the complaint?
  • Ask for whatever it is you need to feel less defensive – perhaps less blame, or more positivity?
  • Look for the 2 % of truth in even the most unhelpful feedback
  • Take a breath and practice humility and seeing the bigger picture
  • Be curious
  • Are you flooded? – if so, stop and come back to the conversation later
  • Know that contempt is highly damaging to both giver and receiver – you can’t effectively influence someone if your starting point is one of contempt
  • Practice compassion and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes
  • Practice respectful communication
  • Assume positive intent
  • Avoid hostile gossip. If you find yourself complaining to a third party, agree to take it back to the person with whom you have a complaint
  • Try all the counters to blame outlined above
  • Are you flooded? – if so, stop and come back to the conversation later
  • Consider what you need in order to feel safe to speak out. Ask for it
  • Find the courage to speak – it’s usually less bad than we imagine it to be
  • If all else fails, ask for a mediator or relationship coach
  • Take a break from the conversation and come back to it once you’ve had time to gather yourself.

We have lots of ideas and exercises for working on this model with work relationships and teams, and for creating ‘conflict protocols’ as part of team agreements.

Contact us for a conversation to help you apply this to your situation.

[1] Oxford English Dictionary 2017.