Addressing and Eliminating the Four Team Toxins

a team sitting at a table

Can you think of a time you experienced a negative or even toxic encounter with a colleague or member of management? Even if you’re currently a manager or executive, you likely have experienced negative exchanges at work, even if they didn’t directly involve you. Unfortunately, the relationship patterns that play out in personal lives will often leak into the work environment as well.

The more time you spend with another person, the more likely you are to experience conflict at some point. How both parties handle that conflict will often mirror how they handle conflict with spouses and significant others outside of work. Four of the most common and destructive relationship patterns are known as the four team toxins.

What are the Four Team Toxins?

The concept of the four team toxins was adapted from a relationship theory known as the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse. The theory was developed by bestselling author and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman and identifies four relationship characteristics that he believes can predict the end of a personal relationship:

  • Blaming/Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Contempt
  • Stonewalling

These four interpersonal dynamics are equally destructive when they take place in workplace relationships. Managers and team leaders can use the concept of team toxins to make interactions between colleagues healthier while positively impacting company culture.

Understanding and Resolving the Four Team Toxins

You probably have a general idea of what it means to blame, defend, criticize, and stonewall. It’s still worth going into some detail about what these terms mean in relation to workplace relationship management. You can then use the concept of team toxins to educate each team member and arm them with healthier ways to handle workplace conflict.


Blaming another person for something negative or criticizing in a manner that attacks their character is one of the most common negativities experienced in the workplace. It’s different from making a sincere complaint to have a problem corrected or offering constructive feedback to help another person improve performance and grow.

Imagine pulling into a parking lot at work early in the morning and discovering the unlocked gate leading to a high-security warehouse. You approach the employee in charge of locking the gate at the end of each day and say one of the following:

Option A: “You didn’t lock the gate last night. I can’t believe you would forget something so important. Maybe you can’t handle that much responsibility, and I shouldn’t trust you.”

Option B: “I discovered the gate unlocked this morning. I know you don’t normally forget, but we need to make sure the building is protected overnight.”

Option A blames the employee for forgetting an important task and attacks their level of responsibility. Option B is a healthier alternative that addresses the problem without a personal attack.

Tips to Overcome Blame/Criticism:

  • Teach every team member the difference between personal attacks and constructive criticism.
  • Train supervisors, managers, and leaders to focus on the behavior rather than the person during performance reviews.
  • Avoid singling out one person or small group when a team hits an obstacle or fails. Build a culture of support and acceptance rather than finger-pointing.


Defensiveness is one of the subtlest team toxins. It can leave another person feeling helpless, frustrated, or vulnerable with no clear manner to respond appropriately. It’s rooted in the refusal to accept responsibility for faults and often comes with many excuses. Some of those excuses may even point the finger at someone else, making the encounter even more hostile by adding another of our four team toxins.

Imagine the following conversation playing out in a break room near you:

Colleague A: “I was expecting your brief this morning. I can’t do my work and get it to the client this afternoon if I don’t have it soon. Are you almost finished?”

Colleague B: “Maybe you should ask if everything is okay before demanding work. I have so many other things going on and can’t always prioritize your needs over mine. Maybe you shouldn’t have promised such a tight deadline to the client.”

Colleague B is demonstrating defensiveness here by excusing the missed deadline and turning the blame back on Colleague A.

Tips to Overcome Defensiveness:

  • When faced with criticism or constructive feedback, pause to think honestly about the accusation. If there is any truth to it, owning up to your mistakes or oversights is best, even if the accusation was delivered harshly.
  • Develop a company culture that embraces humanity. Let your team members know that you expect delays and setbacks but expect them to communicate with one another clearly and frequently to avoid unnecessary complications.
  • Train your team in active listening and professional communication skills. The more they communicate with one another, the more likely they are to work problems out without defensive dialogues.


Contempt comes down to disrespectful behavior that mocks or ridicules someone else. There is never a place for it in the workplace because it can negatively impact team members’ self-esteem and mental health.

Dr. John Gottman identifies the following as examples of contempt:

  • Mocking
  • Sarcasm
  • Ridicule
  • Name-calling
  • Eye-rolling
  • Scoffing

Imagine the following encounter in the workplace:

Colleague A: “I’ll have to work overtime to finish this on time.”

Colleague B: “As if you ever turn anything in on time. Why start now?”

Even if mumbled under the breath or spoken indirectly to another coworker, these comments are belittling and inappropriate. They can create a hostile work environment that drives away your best team members.

Tips to Overcome Contempt:

  • Address employees spreading contempt in the workplace right away. If you hear it personally, have multiple firsthand reports from other team members, or suspect it’s taking place, have a manager or team leader address the situation.
  • Allow tense situations to calm down before holding meetings or addressing an upset team member. Some team members may need time to take deep breaths and control their emotions before addressing some issues.
  • Invest in communication skills training for your team. Allow them to work through an interactive workshop or bring in a live speaker to ensure everyone understands what is and is not tolerated in the workplace.


Stonewalling often occurs in response to the other four team toxins, especially when a team member feels constantly attacked, criticized, or belittled with no safe way to respond. It comes down to ignoring another team member or tuning out in the workplace. Refusals to participate in conversations, reply to messages, attend meetings, or help another team member can all fall into this category.

Imagine speaking to an employee and they turn and walk away without bothering to respond. You don’t know why they refuse to interact with you, so there is no opportunity to fix the problem. These actions can interfere with workflow, customer service, and other critical elements of business, destroying workplace harmony.

Tips to Overcome Stonewalling:

  • Have a supportive talk with someone you notice is stonewalling within the workplace. Try to determine why they have shut down communication and determine how you can help break the ice and open doors to healthy interactions again.
  • Identify team members who may benefit from confidence-building exercises and training. Investing in your team members can help them handle conflict more directly without shutting down emotionally.

Identify Your Team’s Toxins Now

Which of the four team toxins have you witnessed in your workplace in the last year? Do you believe any of them are prevalent enough to damage company culture, drive away good team members, or interfere with the quality of work? If you’re aware of even one claim of negative exchanges like these, you can guarantee other similar exchanges are taking place – perhaps more often than most team members realize. Working with an expert is the fastest and most effective way to identify, address, and eliminate interpersonal toxins in your workplace. Get in touch with me now to discuss the benefits of working with a leadership coach when working with the four team toxins.

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