The Four Horsemen: criticism, blame and defensiveness in the workplace

Healthy working relationships are a must if you want an effective, efficient and enjoyable workplace. In our last blog post I introduced John Gottmann’s work on the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse ; criticizing & blaming, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. We explored why tackling these 4 toxic behaviours is essential if you want to drive performance and deliver results. This blog post will dive deeper into the first 2 toxic behaviours. We’ll look at criticising & blame AND the defensiveness it creates. We’ll then explore why they happen, their impact and how both parties can change things for the better. Finally, we’ll look at what you as a manager can do when you run into these behaviours between team members.

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How to detoxify criticism & blaming in the workplace

As every manager knows, when things go seriously wrong it is important to discuss “What happened?” and to ask “How can thing be done differently next time?”. Being able to do this in a transparent, open and constructive manner is hugely powerful.  Jim Collins explores this with the “autopsy without blame” behaviour in his excellent bestseller Good to Great. For “autopsy without blame” to work, you need people to feel safe – you need to detoxify criticism & blaming in the workplace.

First of all, it is important to understand the difference between complaining and criticizing. A complaint addresses a specific failed action. A criticism includes a negative judgement about the other’s personality or character. Blaming is when you are abdicating responsibility and laying all fault and consequences at the other person’s feet. For example …

  • Complaint“Thierry, we are now behind schedule with the FAT.  I’m in a really difficult position with the client.”
  • Criticism“We are behind schedule with the FAT because you forgot again to update Max. You’re so disorganized.  Now I’m in a really difficult position with the client, Thierry.”
  • Blaming“This is all your fault … and now yet again we are behind schedule with the FAT. You didn’t update Max like you should have, and now I have to solve things and deal with the client … what do you think about that? This is all on you Thierry.”

Clearly criticizing and blaming aren’t helpful or productive behaviours – but if we are honest with ourselves we have all displayed them at some point.

Why do we do blame and/or criticize others?

We have made up our mind about what happened and want to either hold somebody responsible or change somebody else’s behaviour. We tell ourselves we are just “giving feedback”, “holding others accountable” or “saying it how it is”.

What happens when we do this?

The typical (and often unintended) impact is that the receiver becomes defensive (the second of the 4 Horsemen) and constructive communication stops. The receiver will probably be less open about what actually happened as they don’t feel safe – and possibly even become dishonest, holding information back or reframing things. Alternatively, the receiver feels threatened and fights back with criticism or blame. None of this is very productive or beneficial for a healthy professional relationship.

So, what can the “blamer” do differently?

To best avoid the above, you as the potential “blamer” need to…

  • take responsibility for your own feelings – and don’t lay them on the “receiver”.
  • be open and curious about what happened. Look to understand first.
  • turn your “complaint” into a request. Concentrate on finding solutions to the problem and how you can avoid it in the future rather than focusing on the past e.g. Instead of saying “You didn’t tell me about the review meeting”, say “I really don’t want to miss another one of those review meetings, could you send me the dates for the rest of the year?”
  • use “I” language and not “you” language e.g. “I have the impression that… / To me this comes across as…”.
  • examine how you can actively contribute to a solution – it is unlikely you are completely powerless, and you will feel better if you are aware of what you can change and control regardless of what the other does.
  • be future-oriented. Again, look to understand so things can be better in the future. Mapping out on a piece of paper what happened and contributing factors can be a powerful and safe tool.
  • apologize when appropriate – did you intend to “attack”? It could be you do not feel you were being critical or had a different intent, but what matters is how the other experienced it.
  • and at all costs avoid trying to hurt the other with sweeping personal attacks such as “What is wrong with you?” or “What exactly is your problem?”

What can the “blamed” do to limit the toxic impact?

And if you find yourself being criticized or blamed try to…

  • assume their intentions are good. They are not intentionally trying to hurt you, nor do they want you to “feel useless”. They just aren’t doing a very good job of communicating.
  • listen and try to find a reasonable request embedded in their “complaint”.
  • focus on your relationship. If they are “blaming”, what are their needs?
  • resist the urge to fight back – don’t get stuck in a “who is doing what to who” spiral.
  • stay calm, assertive and openly empathic.
  • try to refocus the discussion on the future. As above, mapping out what happened and contributing factors helps.
  • help them to refocus on your relationship.

How to detoxify defensiveness in the workplace

The toxic behaviour of “defensiveness” often follows feeling criticized or blamed. It is a natural fight/flight response and, just like criticism & blaming, defending is very much about the past rather than the future.  Defending can look like excuses, denying responsibility, or even blaming the other (“I’m not the problem here – you’re the problem!”). Defensiveness rarely helps move things forward.

Why do we do defend ourselves?

We defend to preserve our own sense of self.  We want to preserve our self-identity, our sense of integrity and of being right/fair/committed/competent etc.  We are protecting our ego from criticism and can swiftly start to behave like the “victim”.

What happens when we do this?

The unintended impact is that conflict either festers or escalates.  Either way, the relationship suffers. Being defensive also prevents the autopsy and understanding of the problem, which in turn prevents finding sustainable and realistic solutions.

So, what can the “defender” do differently?

  • Really listen …. really, really listen. Shut out unhelpful self-talk and use active listening skills.
  • Connected to the above, look to clarify what you think you are hearing.
  • Now look for the “10%” of truth. It is incredibly unlikely that the other person is making everything up. Ignore the criticism and focus on the issue that is being raised. Even if you disagree with what they are saying and how they are saying it, there is probably some truth in there somewhere which connects to you and your part in the situation.
  • And once you have considered your contribution to the problem, accept and embrace your personal responsibility for the problem. Everybody is wrong sometimes.
  • Acknowledge the impact that you contributed to. Apologize when appropriate. And to quote an overused cliché, own your mistake. You’ll be surprised how powerful and effective saying “I’ve listened to what you said and after thinking it over … you are right. This is my mistake.” can be. Sometimes tackling a situation head on can also quickly change the dynamics e.g. “I’ve listened to what you are saying [criticizer braces them self for denial and prepares to continue attack] and I completely agree with you.  I didn’t do this in the right or best way [criticizer surprised and silent]. Let’s talk and see what you and I need me to do differently next time [criticizer pulled into future orientated discussion].”

 And what can the “attacker” do to limit the toxic impact of defensiveness?

  • Explicitly and authentically clarify your intention. Work to help them understand that your intention is not to hurt them. You just want to have a tough conversation because this is important to you.
  • Make them feel safe if you can.
  • Again, really listen … talk less and listen more.
  • Clarify what is being heard by the other person.
  • Use “I” language and not “you” language.
  • Show respect.
  • And reassure them that their image or reputation is not at stake. You are focusing on this situation and not everything in the past, present and future.
  • Reconnect to trust (past and future).

What can a manager do when they see criticism, blame and defensiveness within their team?

To criticize and blame is human. We have all done it.  All of us have also been unhelpfully defensive. Differentiate between a team member who displays this behaviour now an again (which is human) and one who displays a pattern on an ongoing basis

  1. Create a safe environment and build trust by sharing personal experiences of being on both ends – focus on the immediate and longer-term impact of the behaviour on individuals, team and results. Be careful not to lecture, and instead share your perceptions and experiences.
  2. Refocus the team on what happens next time (and reinforce this future-orientation when somebody starts using past tenses).
  3. When you run into a pattern where an individual is regularly criticizing and blaming others, don’t be afraid to assert your power as a manager and deliver feedback on the destructive behaviour you are seeing. Then, keep an eye out for this behaviour continuing under the surface or transforming into contempt.

In the 3rd and final part of this series we’ll look at how you can tackle and overcome the remaining 2 “horsemen” – stonewalling and contempt.

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