The Four Team Toxins

Enhance the Performance of your Teams by Eliminating the Toxic Waste

The chances are that at some point in your professional life you will have experienced the dynamics of being both a leader and a team player. Each of us is both an accomplished individual and a part of complex systems such as our families, communities, and the organisation we work for. Navigating the complex web of relationship dynamics that exist within teams and organisations can be like walking through a minefield and is often a challenge for even the most experienced leaders and managers.

Team Relationship WebThese systems are like spider webs, touch one strand and the whole structure feels the effects. This can be unsettling for even the most experienced leaders and managers. We do great work with one individual or team member only to find it has an unintended impact on another team member, or another team/department with the organisation. Reducing negative interactions within teams and organisations can have a powerful impact and help to strengthen this complex web and improve working relationships between departments, teams and team members.

The Four Team Toxins

4 HorsemenJohn Gottman PhD is an internationally renowned relationship expert and best-selling author. In his research (see references), he has identified certain kinds of negativity that are so lethal to relationships he refers to them as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They are equally relevant to professional relationships. When we work with organisations and teams we refer to them as the Four Team Toxins.

They are:

  • Blaming/Criticism – Attacking the person rather than the behaviour.
  • Defensiveness – Refusing to own your own behaviour.
  • Contempt – Includes sarcasm, belittling, cynicism, name calling, and hostile humour.
  • Stonewalling – Includes cutting off communication, silent treatment, refusal to engage, withdrawal.

Used frequently they become highly destructive to relationships – both personal and professional.

Which one do you use or experience daily? You have no doubt already realised that you have probably both used and experienced all of the team toxins at one time or another, and quite possibly far more frequently than you may care to admit. Don’t despair, there is a cure…

Getting to the root of toxic behaviour – These toxic behaviours have their root in powerlessness – they often happen when people are otherwise feeling powerless or frustrated about the situation they are in. Each of these toxic behaviours are outlined in more detail below, and after each one we have included some antidotes that can help you regain your power and stop the Team Toxins in their tracks. Some behavioural ways to work with the toxins include:

4 Simple Antidotes to Team Toxins

  1. Naming the Team Toxins when they pop up in conversation and making an agreement to go on without using them.
  2. Educate your team about the nature of Team Toxins and their destructiveness. Find specific examples of how it shows up in the team – make it playful!
  3. Create a concrete plan within your team for how you will handle toxins when they unconsciously crop up.
  4. Provide the team with antidotes or alternative ways of working with the Team Toxins. Many people often do not know another way to express themselves until we provide them with proven alternatives that work. This calls for a degree of tolerance and compassion as people come to realise the impact this has had on their team relationships.

To help your team perform more effectively we would encourage you to develop plans of action when dealing with conflict, and to behaviourally rehearse them. Educating and training your team members on managing conflict is an important part of being a high-performance team leader.

Blaming or Criticism

Criticism consists of attacking or blaming another person instead of his/her behaviour. Team members will always have some complaints about other people on their team and elsewhere in the organisation. But there’s a big difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint addresses a specific failed action. A criticism adds some negative words about that person’s character or personality. For example, adding at the end of any complaint: “What is wrong with you?” will turn it into criticism.


  • Ask: Are you willing to go on without blaming?
  • Address the behaviour you do not like, do not attack the person.
  • Soften start-up. Don’t go straight for the jugular… begin tactfully, be clear and describe what’s happening – don’t evaluate or judge.
  • Find the request/wish behind the criticism.
  • Ventilate – use a neutral third party to blow off steam and cool down prior to continuing the dialogue.
  • Use “I feel… I want… ” statements.


Although it’s understandable that people would defend themselves when criticised, research shows that this approach rarely works. The attacking person rarely backs down or apologises. This is because defensiveness is really another way of blaming. It’s in effect saying: “it’s not me, it’s you”, and it escalates the conflict. It is common for a defensive team member to feel like he is above the conflict, when in fact, he is contributing to the conflict just as much.


  • Active Listening – Use when team members are not hearing each other accurately. “Steve what did you hear Joe say?”
  • 2% rule. Treat any complaint as if 2% of it were true. “Steve if 2% of what Joe says is true, and the rest isn’t, what would the 2% truth be?”


Contempt includes sarcasm, belittling, cynicism, name-calling, hostile humour, and belligerence. Contempt is the most poisonous of all toxins because it conveys disgust and condescension. It has been shown to be harmful to the physical health of an individual. Contempt is fuelled by long-simmering negative thoughts about another person. You’re more likely to have such thoughts if your differences are not regularly resolved after they occur.


  • Are you willing to resolve this without sarcasm or name calling
  • Ventilate – use a neutral third party to blow off steam and cool down prior to continuing the dialogue.
  • Check for emotional flooding/overwhelm and work on cooling the situation down before continuing.
  • Use “I feel… I want…” statements.


Stonewalling includes cutting off communication, silent treatments, refusals to engage, withdrawal, or in mild cases simply being reluctant to express directly what you are thinking. Often, after one or more of the previous horsemen have been running wild, some team members will want to tune out of the whole thing and stonewall. The problem is that this will feed even more the blaming/criticism/contempt in the other person.


  • Check for emotional flooding/overwhelm and work on cooling the situation down before continuing.
  • Address fears of what will happen if he/she speaks.
  • Create safety and encourage him/her past their fears to speak.

To perform effectively teams must have a plan to address how to avoid or change the Team Toxins when they show up. Without one they will continue to pollute the team environment and inhibit team performance.

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