The Four Horsemen: contempt and stonewalling in the workplace

Healthy and respectful working relationships are a must if you want an effective and enjoyable workplace.  In the first post of this series, I introduced John Gottmann’s work on the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In the second post, we looked at what you can do to tackle the toxic behaviours of criticizing & blaming and defensiveness. This blog post will dive deeper into the last 2 toxic behaviours – and possibly the most damaging of the 4: stonewalling & contempt. We’ll explore why they happen, their impact and how both parties can change things for the better.  We’ll end with what a manger can do when they see these behaviours within their teams.

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Contempt

Contempt is when somebody makes it clear that they feel somebody has no value and deserves no respect. As it has been built brick-by-brick over time, it is tough to dismantle, and is probably the most destructive behaviour amongst Gottman’s “Four Horsemen”.

Contempt can manifest itself as ongoing sarcasm, cynicism, insults and aggressive, belittling or mocking humour. It can be seen in small gestures (eye-rolling when a colleague starts talking in a meeting, snorting at the mention of a project, a smirk or a single “hah” when a  colleagues name is mentioned) to full on mocking and cruel statements e.g. “Wow, you’ve done better than I ever expected – even by your standards that’s truly great work Susanne. You must be exhausted after having made so many mistakes”.

When somebody shows contempt, they are actually communicating that they see themselves as better and worth more.

Why do we do show contempt?

Feelings of contempt are typically built up over time – negative experiences create their own story and, too often, nobody has tackled the situation effectively. This can leave a person feeling frustrated and angry and looking to establish some sort of “superiority”.  Contempt can also come from a sense of moral superiority based on class, cultural or religious differences. Peers can feed into it or enable it.

What happens when we show contempt?

Contempt destroys teams and relationships. It prevents trust and respect and makes it hard for any real human warmth. It is tangibly damaging, causes stress and can harm people emotionally, mentally and ultimately physically.

So, what can the person showing contempt do differently?

Truth be told, if you are showing contempt for others there is a good chance you no longer care about turning things around. However, if you have a high level of self-awareness and realise that you have become somebody you don’t want to be then this is already a great step. Going forward you can focus on redefining your relationship with your colleague through …

  • seeing the other person as a human being with equal value.
  • seeking a positive trait in them and acknowledge it first to yourself and then to the other.
  • finding something they do that you value – then tell them.
  • communicating your needs with “I” statements and not “you” statements e.g. “I feel…”, “I want…”
  • actively looking to find opportunities to make deposits in their “emotional bank account”.

And what can the person receiving contempt do to limit the toxic impact and turn things around?

  • Look after yourself and work to stay balanced and neutral when interacting with this person. Shut out the unhelpful “whatever I do will be seen as wrong” self- talk. Reward yourself for not feeding into a situation.
  • People don’t always realize that they are being offensive… or how offensive they are being. Raise awareness of behaviours in a neutral / inquiring tone e.g. “What would you like to achieve by saying that?”, “Why are you rolling your eyes?”
  • Ask questions about the other’s intent – especially if they are not communicating in their first language. e.g. “Are you aware that, when I hear you say … I feel …?” “
  • Reflect how the contemptuous behaviour is impacting you e.g. “I feel belittled when you roll your eyes when I talk. Is this intended?”
  • Say how you feel about what is going on and show your desire to make things right, e.g. “Can we take a step back and slow things down?” “Insulting me isn’t helping us to move forward and find a solution”, “ What is the best way to tackle this issue for both of us?”
  • Indicate that you are willing to move beyond the present and press the reset button e.g. “I feel we are struggling. How about we try and start again from the beginning and build a new working relationship?”
  • And when things get too much, don’t be afraid to seek support within your organization. When you do this focus on you and your feelings… and not what they said/did.
  • And finally, know where your limits are and seek support from your manager or HR if you feel these are being crossed.

Stonewalling                     

When somebody feels they are frequently and undeservedly being blamed or treated with contempt, they may choose to withdraw into themselves and give one-word answers or even refuse to participate at all. Discussion, healthy questioning and positive conflict are key elements of any successful team.  Stonewalling stops this from happening, and feeds contempt, defensiveness and blaming.

Why do we do stonewall?

By refusing to cooperate, engage, react or communicate we look to protect ourselves and ride it out. Beneath this we may be seeking to control or establish hierarchy e.g. “I don’t need to listen to you”.

What happens when we do this?

The impact is that communication stops. The other person may become increasingly frustrated, angry and then despondent. Communication collapses and relationships quickly collapse too. Other colleagues get pulled in to the toxic situation as they become impacted, and everything gets slower and tougher … meaning ultimately performance and results suffer.

So, what can the “stonewaller” do differently?

If you recognize this behaviour in yourself and want to change you can…

  • focus on who you choose to be – who am I really? How do I want to behave?  How do I behave when I am at my best?
  • ask for space if you need it, and commit to resume once things have calmed down.
  • find a way to calm your emotions. Is there a third party you can express your feelings to? Alternatively, verbalize them out loud to yourself (or write them down if you prefer).
  • work out why you have reached this point. Why are you so angry and reluctant to contribute? Answering these questions may help you to understand your feelings better and enable you to continue.
  • avoid righteous indignation e.g. “ I don’t have to take this anymore” or seeing yourself as an innocent victim

And what can the “stonewalled” do to limit the toxic impact?

  • Ask yourself why are they stonewalling? What are you doing/have you done that is making the other person not feel safe in expressing themselves?
  • Focus on building safety. Agree a fixed time, neutral and private location, confidentiality and help them come back into the conversation with simple exploratory open questions.
  • Accept that a break might be needed and press the “pause” button while communicating that you are committed to continuing the conversation later.
  • Really listen to what the other person is saying.

What can a manager do when they see contempt and stonewalling within their team?

The hard truth is that as a manager you probably won’t be able to do as much as you might like to.  Whereas a skilled manager can actively help team members get past criticizing, blaming and being defensive, contempt and stonewalling are far more difficult to deal with. In fact, any blog would struggle to explore the variables and options.  Here are some questions to ask yourself…

  • What is the impact of the behaviour on the team and our results?
  • What can I accept? What can’t I accept? Where is my line in the sand?
  • Where is the contempt or stonewalling coming from? e.g. why this person? this situation? this environment?
  • How willing am I to reflect back what I am seeing? The impact it is having? And the impact it may have later?
  • Am I prepared and committed to consistently confront contemptuous or stonewalling behaviors over the long-term?
  • To what extent can I ring-fence a person without impacting the team or passing more work and responsibility on to others?
  • Am I choosing to do nothing? Or am I afraid to do something?
  • Who else can help me in this situation?
  • To what extent has HR been involved so far? What can they do?
  • Under what circumstances am I prepared to let this person go?

Whether you are just moving into a management position, managing a conflict in your virtual team, or just want to get the very best from your staff and the teams you manage, being aware of Gottmann’s work on the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse is incredibly useful and practical. At the end of the day, results are delivered through people and people are complex. None of us are always at our best and we can all struggle in relationships.  Awareness of the 4 Horsemen is a start, followed by self-reflection and support.  An effective manager is neither a counsellor nor a buddy – but they do need to manage people as individuals – and this means managing knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours.

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