Defeating the Four Horsemen of Hell Through Team Coaching

Jim* made Susan cry yesterday. In nursery school, this is normal and expected. However, I work with adults in IT, not three-year-olds in nursery school. Jim and Susan are senior IT professionals with about 20 years of experience each.

But the dynamic is the same, at least until teams learn conflict resolution skills. Let me explain.

We all have our own ways of dealing with conflict. Sometimes people do a pretty good job at that. And sometimes people don’t. When we are at our worst and our least skilled, we don’t deal with conflict well.

There is a wonderful researcher by the name of John Gottman who has categorized the places we go when we are at our worst. He calls them the Four Horsemen of Hell. When these horsemen run rampant, they turn into team toxins. The toxins pollute teams and relationships, and sneak around like nasty little gremlins that gobble productivity before it can happen.

The Four Horsemen of Hell

So what are these team toxins? And where do we as coaches find antidotes to offer to the organizations we coach?

The four Horsemen of hell are blaming/criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. These are both more and less obvious than they seem.

Blaming/criticism is basically attacking someone personally versus their behavior. It’s been hard this week for me to support Susan when she attacks Jim, even though I know that that’s the only way she has available to her at the moment for trying to make things better.

And then on Jim’s side, the horse he rides when he is at his least skilled in conflict resolution is stonewalling. That’s basically turning your back, giving the other person the silent treatment, cutting off communication, withdrawing, and refusing to engage. This is exactly what Susan’s husband of 30 years does when they have a fight, so when Jim does it at work, it makes things even worse, because the more Jim does it, the more Susan attacks. And that it’s a downward spiral that leads nowhere good. And when stonewalling doesn’t get Jim what he wants, which is relief from blaming then sometimes sarcasm shows up, which makes everything worse.

The third Horsemen of hell is defensiveness. We all know this guy and he’s ugly. When I first started coaching this team three weeks ago, defensiveness showed up a lot. It sounds like this, “Oh, well, the bad thing only happened because (fill in the blank – they/the bad guys / the dumb technology) didn’t let us do what we wanted to do. But we would have if we could have. Worry, Ms. Stakeholder, you can’t have that, but gee, it’s not our fault.”

There were lots of excuses and I sat there getting pissed off because I saw the team selling itself short. I have confidence that every team and every organization has 20 times more potential than they think they do. My job as a coach is to open that up, invite them to look at that door and walk through it into a whole new place of possibility.

The fourth Horsemen of hell is contempt. This horseman has pooped all over my current team recently. Manure in the form of sarcasm, cynicism, belittling and hostile humor. In fact, in my first meeting ever with this team, the day after their leader quit, they sicced this horseman on me.

It’s natural to sometimes attack the leader if nothing else is handy. And it was valuable information to me to begin to understand the system of that particular team. It showed me that they were under incredible stress to be acting like that with a new person. Any of the Horsemen can be bad habits that we’ve learned in terms of how to deal with conflict.  And they can come out particularly when an organization or a team is in a transition or under stress.

And that’s valuable, because the Horsemen often represent the “edge behaviors” that give the coach insight into both what’s happening in the organization that’s challenging, as well as what new positive thing is trying to happen. It’s my job as leader and coach to on the look out for these edge behaviors, and then to leverage them to help the organization unfold its current stage of development.

The good news is there are ways to stop each of the Horsemen. It’s to invoke antidotes to each of the team toxins.

There are some general antidotes that can be effective at chasing away any of these toxins. First, call out the toxins when you see them show up. Help people see the negative impacts they are having and ask, “Is that really the impact you want to be having?”

Second, constantly look for what’s right versus what’s wrong, and express gratitude to others out loud for what’s going well. That goes an incredibly long way. What you look for, tends to show up. It’s a basic principle of both quantum physics and life.

In your team partnership agreement, or agile social contract, you can also create a team behavioral plan to handle the toxins. This behavioral plan might be with each other or each individual with him or herself. It might sound like, “when I feel a toxin coming on, I will go to the balcony by taking a break for a few minutes.”

One team I coached recently decided that one of their top values is positivity. So we made up a game that goes like this. Any time a team member “stinks” up the room with negativity, everybody gets to throw the stuffed skunk at him or her. (They named the skunk Pepe; it’s really cute). And since whatever you look for tends to grow, I also got them a stuffed giraffe, because the giraffe has the largest heart of any land mammal. They decided the giraffe was about gratitude. And they made up a rule that they would look for things to thank people for, then toss them the giraffe. The skunk and the giraffe are now part of every daily stand up with that team, and the giraffe is getting increasing amounts of “fly time.”

You can also coach folks to check the team and themselves for flooding. Flooding is emotional overwhelm. In your role as coach, you can help them practice ways to respond to that, like taking a deep breath, and increasing their awareness of one negativity or any of the toxins try to creep in.

It’s possible to increase positivity during conflict by using what Gottman calls a “soft start-up.” This matters greatly in business, because the highest performing teams have high positivity, according to researcher Marciel Losada.

The soft start-up is where you can get a lot out of the “yes, and” approach. The best example I ever saw of this was when I was talking with two business partners about establishing our own office.

Melissa said, “I think it would be cool to have concrete floors.”

Janet looked surprised and a little upset, but then she said, “Yes! And what I love about that idea is that we could put a drain in the middle of the floor. That way we could water our plants and just let the excess water run out of the pots, over the floor, and down the drain. And we could have skylights, too.”

We all busted up laughing and ended up with a really nice office. In the words of Holocracy, we exercised the ability to resolve tensions between “what is” and “what could be” into productive conflict.

And there are also specific antidotes to each of the four toxins. The antidotes to blaming/criticism are first to ask yourself, “Am I willing to resolve this without blaming?” and “what’s the thing we both believe is important here?” If individuals are not ready to ask this, then the coach can ask it and model this behavior. This is basic alignment coaching which is an essential piece of effective organizational coaching.

Other antidotes to the blaming/criticism Horseman are to address the behavior you don’t like instead of criticizing the person. You can also listen for the dream behind the complaint, or for the request behind the blaming, both in yourself and in others, and then respond to that request instead of reacting to the blaming.

An antidote to defensiveness is active listening. You can say, “So I hear you saying “x>” Did I hear that right?” Then let them correct you. Get curious and put yourself into a learning mode. Another antidote to defensiveness is the 2% rule. Treat any complaint as if it were 2% true. For example in the team I’m coaching now with Jim and Susan, my coaching might sound like this, ” Jim, if 2% of what Susan says is true, and the rest isn’t, what with that 2% be?”

And the basic antidote to the Horseman contempt is kindness. Coach your teams to seek opportunities to practice kindness and compassion. Ask them, “Are you willing to resolve this without sarcasm, accusations or name-calling?” Asked them to tell you the truth, and if they’re not ready, invite them to take a break, or maybe ventilate to the coach (who keeps that confidential). Encourage them to not triangulate. Triangulating is your basic nasty sixth grade trash talking gossip circle. It’s where “person a” on the team complaints to “person b” on the team about “person c.”

Triangulating never, ever, leads anywhere good. Tell your clients that you are coaching, “If you’re thinking is it’s us against them, take a good hard look at yourself in the impact you are having. Ask if those are the impacts you really want to have.” And another antidote to contempt is to learn to soothe in cases of emotional flooding and learn to soothe, like taking a deep breath or a break.

Finally, antidotes to stonewalling are to coach your teams to check for emotional overwhelm. Teach them to recognize the amygdala hijack – getting upset in a split second – and to teach them how to be proactive and to soothe. And more direct painkillers for stonewalling are to coach people to address their fears of what will happen if they do speak out. This might feel frightening or threatening to them initially, so go slowly at the pace they need. And last but not least is to put the behavior “out in front.” You can even take a mobile device or pen or whatever and stick it in the middle of the table and tell your team that it’s the issue “out front.”  That it’s us shoulder to shoulder against the problem and not us against each other. I put bagel “out front” with a team 6 months ago, and last week I found out they still keep that bagel on the table (rock hard by now no doubt), and they “put it out in front” every time they have a disagreement, to frame it as “us against the problem” vs “us against each other.”

Here are some great links, if you’re interested to learn more about offering antidotes to the team toxins and killing off those productivity gremlins:

The Four Team Toxins

* Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.

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