A team is a spider’s web of interconnected relationships, touch one strand and the whole web feels the effect. What’s more, most teams sit within wider organisational systems- webs within webs- each impacting the other.  In organisational life, you are always in relationships, whether you like it or not- and all relationships have conflict, even the most successful ones.  Whilst effective relationships are not the only predictor of team performance, when relationships become toxic people’s energy becomes focused on internal politics, silos and turf-wars rather than on pulling together to achieve the team’s purpose and goals.

Even experienced leaders find navigating the web of complex relationships challenging, and dealing with destructive conflict time-consuming and draining

So, should teams eradicate conflict? Not at all! For teams to leverage their collective intelligence and to achieve more together than they do as a group of individual leaders, productive conflict is essential. Patrick Lencioni, author of bestseller “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” says: “Teams that trust each other are not afraid to engage in passionate dialogue around issues and decisions that are key to the organization’s success. They do not hesitate to disagree with, challenge, and question one another, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions.” At the same time, we have all experienced how destructive and unproductive conflict can be! So it’s not conflict itself, but how it’s managed that contributes to realising a team’s potential.

John Gottman, PhD of the Gottman Institute has studied success and failure in marriages and can predict with over 90% accuracy which couples will divorce and which will stay together.  Whilst this research was done on marital relationships, the data speaks to all human relationships. He uses “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to describe four behaviours that get in the way of communication and collaboration:

  • Blame/Criticism – attacking the person rather than offering a critique or voicing a complaint
  • Contempt – sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, belittling, cynicism, eye-rolling, scoffing
  • Defensiveness – making yourself a victim and reversing the blame
  • Stonewalling- blocking, withdrawing, refusal to engage, silent treatment

Contempt is the most lethal of all.

Nobody is perfect and these behaviours are a normal part of being human. The toxins occur even in the most successful relationships, and their roots are powerlessness, frustration, an inability to effect change and a lack of psychological safety. 

Team coaches have a valuable role to play in helping teams to familiarise themselves with the toxins, normalising them, and then supporting teams to replace them with more effective behaviours, which Gottman describes as ‘antidotes’ (for more information on these see the references below).

As a team coach, rather than teaching these antidotes, I coach the team on how they will, individually and collectively, deal with them when they show up- which they will!  The team can develop this into a set of norms – a behavioural contract for how they commit to working with each other and what they can count on each other for.

I also coach the team to understand the root cause of toxic behaviours as these are often down to poorly designed teams and a lack of clarity on the teams purpose, goals and priorities than about personality differences (see Vol 13, Issue 3 “Two Frameworks to Gauge Team Readiness”).

It is critical for coaches to role-model alternative behaviours in how they show up with teams demonstrating appreciation, curiosity, respectful direct communication, making requests and other healthy behaviours in action.

References:

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A leadership Fable. Patrick M Lencioni. John Wiley & & Sons (2002)

The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/