4 Types of Toxic Behavior Undermining Team Productivity

Are the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” riding roughshod through your team? The team toxins that are secretly undermining cohesion in the team.

(Woodcut: “The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse,” 1498, by Albrect Dürer.) 

Own up if you’ve ever rolled your eyes in a meeting when someone said something stupid? Or sighed to display your disbelief or displeasure?

We’ve all done it.

I have a friend who’s brilliantly smart and good at what he does. But there comes a point in his interactions with colleagues where he is so frustrated at not being understood or listened to, that he sits back in his chair and disconnects from what’s going on in the room. His frustration is understandable but his response his unhelpful to his teammates. His contempt is palpable. Unsurprisingly, at this point communication breaks down and his bridges within the team are very hard to rebuild. For this friend, this behavior is limiting his career as he’s seen as not being a team player.

So what is it about this behavior that is so destructive?

While many of us may resort to this behavior, it’s unhelpful. These toxic communication methods are an issue for both team member and team manager.  Anyone who leads teams needs to develop the ability to notice this behavior and nip it in the bud. It’s one of four types of toxic team behavior that undermine the cohesion and productiveness of teams.  And for the individual, we make choices on how we interact with people, and though it may feel good to take the self-righteous path, it’s important to understand the consequences of our choices.

Research into marriages can help our understanding of teams in the workplace. John Gottman can predict the outcome of a marriage with 91% accuracy. He’s able to do this because he’s studied the behaviors that lead to the breakdown of marriage.

Gottman names these poisonous behaviors as the four horsemen of the apocalypse – a brilliant metaphor for the damage and destruction of they can cause. He notes that “these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.” When these four horsemen ride into town, it’s not about solving the problem but rather ensuring that the blame doesn’t stick.

At the very core, workplace teams are relationships much like marriages and so his research provides important insight for companies looking to foster team productivity.


The first of the horsemen is criticism, which is a complaint about a person’s character. It casts judgment on an individual.


The second horseman, contempt, follows criticism. This is when we sneer, roll our eyes, or use sarcasm. It’s a display of our disgust in a person, which is the reason why contempt can escalate a conflict.


Once contempt shows up, the other party usually becomes defensive because they feel vulnerable or under attack. This can go along with denial, making excuses or blaming someone else. This objective of being defensive is to protect one’s integrity, be seen to be right.


If defensiveness is not successful at protecting interests, people resort to stonewalling. This is a place where all hope is gone and the person has decided there is no point in engaging further. This is a choice to disengage from any communication, limit oneself to monosyllabic responses, or take refuge in multitasking (working on a laptop on through a meeting). It’s the time where we withdraw into our shell in a self-righteous and defeatist “harumph.”

I’ve sat through many meetings where any combination of these behaviors are evident and the chairperson or manager brushes over what is happening. And for not without reason – it is can be difficult to take a stand or intercede in a negative discussion. But there is a downside and cost of letting the four horsemen trample through the meeting. These communication styles undermine the team’s ability to resolve conflict, and perpetuate problems rather than solve them. And much like the impact on marriages, the four horsemen can damage the fabric of a team and their ability to achieve or produce anything meaningful.

We may not have the option to divorce teams at work but many of us will have wished for that option once the team has collapsed into this dysfunctional space.

Toxic communication methods are an issue for both team members and team managers. Know that it’s human to err and to ride one of the four horsemen, and be willing to accept your part undermining the team cohesion. Be willing to get off the horseman you have chosen to hitch a ride with.

For the manager/team leader, it’s important to develop the ability to notice these behaviors. You have the several options including calling out the behavior (most people won’t be aware of what they are doing), mediating between the parties, and cooling the situation before continuing. All actions require a level of courage to intercede.  For the sake of your team’s cohesion and productivity, I’d say the discomfort is well worth it.

Catherine Stagg-Macey // Catherine Stagg-Macey has spent over 20 years in the technology and insurance sectors. She has experience in a wide range of roles from programmer, project manager, leader and strategy advisor. At Celent, which she rejoined in Sept. 2014, she established and led the firm’s European Insurance practice. She now serves as Executive Advisor at the firm. Passionate about people, she retrained as a coach and founded Belgrave Street, a business offering executive coaching, workshops and facilitation to the insurance and technology industry. Follow her on Twitter: @staggmacey.

Comment (1)

  1. Advance trained by the Gottman Institute, I meet couples in my Portland, Oregon Relationship Gardening office and find that a desire to stop poisoning communication is not enough for people to make the shift to healthy alternatives. Even the antidotes provided by the Gottmans which are based on actual successful relationships need a bit of translation for just about anyone to find the other options that will keep everyone in the conversation.
    For example, a person making a critical statement needs a way to express the real desire behind the complaint. I coach people to use alternatives that get at the heart of the wish, or focus on the positive, and in a business setting alternatives to criticism can sound like this:
    “What I noticed that worked smoothly in the past is…”
    “I hear what you are saying that you want to do …, but I remember where you really shined was doing…”
    “To get our numbers up, we could (will, ought to consider) do more of… something that Tony is really good at.”
    “What can we do today that will make this shift we are after? I hear what not to do, but let’s nail down what we can do.”
    “What I notice that worked smoothly in the past was to…”

    When a person resorts to the Four Horsemen there are practical ways to shift each one of them productively. A good coach will give tangible alternatives and practice so that better habits can be put into use immediately.
    Of course the presence of the Four Horsemen indicate that the setting conditions are turning too negative either in outright negativity or via neglect-so in making a shift we start with how to change the climate into a more positive culture so that goals and conflict discussions have a better chance.
    Thanks for bringing attention to research based ideas for business settings. We do know that these findings apply to how we are with anyone, not just in marriages and can make life so much easier when put to use.

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