“A problem is a chance for you to do your best.” — Duke Ellington
Ask people about what's the best thing about working in a team and they'll name things like increased collaboration, innovation, and motivation.
Ask people about what's the worst thing about working in a team and they'll say things like increased competition, conflict, and reactivity.
Yup. In today’s world, teams are one of the main ways that work gets done. There are some great benefits to working in teams, to be sure. And… despite our best intentions, sometimes teams have habits that can get in the way of being at their best.
When I work with teams, we talk about four behaviors that are so detrimental that they are considered toxic and lethal to productive working relationships: blame, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling (as defined by John Gottman):
- Blame: Attacking another person instead of focusing on a behavior.
- Defensiveness: Refusing to own your part of the problem.
- Contempt: I think of this as blaming on steroids. Includes sarcasm, belittling, cynicism, name calling, hostile humor. Can be actually health damaging over long haul.
- Stonewalling: Cutting off communication, silent treatment, refusal to engage, withdrawal.
All these behaviors have roots in a sense of powerlessness: they often happen when people are otherwise feeling powerless in a situation they’re in. Successful ways of addressing these behaviors will focus on increasing power, positivity and possibility within the team.
If you notice any of these behaviors in your working relationships, try this:
- Notice your own patterns: which of these behaviors do you regularly use? What is the impact when you use them?
- “Call them when you see them”: simply noticing and airing out toxic behaviors can diffuse them.
- Be curious: repeat what you heard and ask for clarification about what's being said. Then clear any assumptions or misunderstandings that may be getting in the way.
- Look for a request behind the complaint: the toxic behavior may be simply be an unskillful attempt to give useful feedback or request change.
- Don’t make it/take it personally: instead of focusing on who is doing what to whom, focus on what is trying to happen in the team system.
- Take a different path: look for ways to build more positive and constructive relationships within in the team via acknowledgment, alignment or other tools.
- Focus on how you want to be regardless of what what others do. Toxic behaviors have a hard time existing in isolation.
In the comments below, I want to hear from you. Let me know:
1) What toxic behaviors do you notice as being common in your teams?
2) What remedy above would you be willing to try? I'd love to hear your results!