Meet the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – and why they matter in your workplace

Since 2015 we’ve been heavily involved in a Management Development program for one of the big 4 accounting firms in Luxembourg. One of the many rewarding aspects of being involved in such large flagship projects, is the chance to co-train with other management trainers and learn from each other. In 2017, thanks to Alexandra D, I discovered John Gottman’s work and since then I’ve seen it help people in and out of work with the relationships that most matter to them. If (like me) you haven’t heard of him, John Gottman is a highly respected psychologist and relationship expert, who with his wife, Julie, leads The Gottman Institute [ https://www.gottman.com/]. Gottman studied relationships between spouses and couples for over two decades and discovered patterns of behaviour that he could use to predict which relationships would not survive with over 90% accuracy.  Although his research and calling focuses exclusively on couples, his thoughts and methods easily transfer to our professional lives and our workplace relationships too!

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Meet the 4 Horsemen (or the 4 team toxins)

Gottman believes that there are 4 negative kinds of behaviour that can destroy relationships. This 2-minute video introduces them nicely.

The four destructive behaviours are:

  • blaming and criticism – attacking your partner’s character, behaviour or personality.
  • defensiveness – seeing yourself as the victim to pre-empt or ward off attacks and blaming others for your failures.
  • contempt – attacking your partner’s sense of self with sarcasm or cynicism to insult or abuse them.
  • stonewalling – withdrawing from the relationship and any meaningful connection.

Gottman calls these 4 destructive behaviours “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. I’ve also heard coaches and trainers rename them “The Four Team Toxins” in an effort to make them sound more business-relevant.

Why the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse matter in the workplace

And let us be honest – we have all probably displayed these 4 toxic behaviours and acted in a toxic way at one time or another. We are human. And whether you want to call them “the 4 horsemen” or “the 4 team toxins”, these behaviours matter in the workplace – and in a very tangible way.

These behaviours are toxic to an effective, respectful and rewarding workplace. If interpersonal relationships are breaking down, you can expect to see the quality of communication deteriorating.  Tasks and projects will take longer, work will be incomplete or below expected standards and, as the behaviours impact productivity, you can expect to see poor results.  Motivation, commitment and team spirit will all suffer, and destructive conflicts will increase. And at its worst you’ll see stress, illness and good people leaving because “They’ve just had enough”. If you want to drive performance, you need to tackle them head on.

So, what can managers do about the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

“Ok, some people aren’t as nice as others, that’s life … but as an Audit manager what should I do? I’m a manager not a counsellor.”

 – Marcel, Manager in Audit & Assurance

Every professional who cares about their relationships with others will benefit from exploring the 4 Horsemen by …

  • being able to recognize when you are behaving negatively.
  • learning to consciously shift your mindset when necessary.

Whether toxic behaviour is a common occurrence or a thankfully rare phenomenon, great managers need to …

  • be able to recognize when others are behaving negatively.
  • learn to help others understand their behaviours and the impact it may have.
  • be able to tackle difficult conversations with both individuals and teams.
  • learn to help others stop negative spirals and have a fighting chance of turning toxic relationships around.

In parts 2 and 3 of this blog we will explore how this can be achieved but to close, here are 5 practical tips to get you started…

  1. Take responsibility for your own feelings. This starts with you consistently building self-awareness and reflection into your actions. Focus on who you want to be and how you want to be … regardless of what the other person does or says. This is tough but immensely powerful.
  2. Practice curiosity – ask yourself “What is actually happening here?”, “What am I missing?”, “How have I contributed to this situation?” and “What will help us through this?”
  3. Do not make assumptions and openly check your findings. This will help increase others’ willingness to listen and engage in healthy conflict.
  4. Deposit into other people’s emotional bank accounts and feed positivity into your relationships: regularly have appreciative conversations and look to show recognition.
  5. And when you do see toxic behaviours between team members, tackle them.
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