Introduction to toxins and conflicts in Organizations
Who has not been or has heard about toxic organizations or teams? Being in a toxic environment is very destructive, both personally and professionally, affecting motivation, well-being, health, and performance dramatically.
The 40 years of research of Drs. John and Julie Gottman have moved not only to the relationships of couples, which are what they have investigated all this time, but to work relationships, since they are as well human relationships and apply the same patterns, emotions, feelings, limiting beliefs, and reactions.
Achieving more cohesive, focused, autonomous, motivated, and mindful teams (Mindfulness Teams) will reduce toxicity and conflicts as well as increase the well-being and performance of the teams.
I will talk in this article about Drs. Gottman’s toxins applied to organizations, to be able to identify them and see what to do with them, as well as the personal application, which at least for me, was a great revelation.
In organizational and relational systems coaching (ORSC), teams (systems) are studied from the point of view of the relationship between the members of the system (applying Gottman’s research, apart from others) and not from the point of view of the individual. That is, we never talk about the person X or Y is toxic, but we see toxicity in a system, and we work on it, since the transformation must occur in the entire system / team.
You will see how we can also bring these tools to any area of our life where there are relationships (partner, children, friends, family …), so it is useful to understand the techniques and experiment with them.
Toxins and Antidotes
Gottman spoke about relationship toxins as «The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.» Just by thinking about the riders we can get an idea of how destructive these toxins can be.
We will see them in detail, but they are classified as:
• Criticism or blame
We will see that in most cases, one of them is the one that predominates in a system / team, although it is not negligible to analyze in which we also find ourselves as an individual that generates or receives toxins in our relationships in different teams / systems, whether personal or professional.
The good news is that every toxin has an antidote, so the important thing is to diagnose the toxin and start treatment as soon as possible.
Criticism or Blaming
There is a fine line between complaint and criticism or blame. Things are always going to happen to us within a team that make us uncomfortable, but we must be able to differentiate an action that a colleague has taken that has made us uncomfortable and to be able to speak with him about it as something specific focused on the concrete action vs. a personal criticism of the individual.
I give examples so that it is better understood, whether we receive toxins or we are the ones who use them.
Imagine that a meeting has been arranged about a topic that may affect you and your team, and the colleague who arraged it (Pepe) has not invited you. You find out a few days later and you get uncomfortable about it.
Your answer to this can be:
1.- You focus on the action: You are aware that what your collegue has done has bothered you, but you decide to talk to him about the fact itself. “Pepe, I would not like to miss these types of meetings because I have dependencies on my projects and I would like to be able to anticipate possible impacts. Could you please invite me in the following meetings? «
2.- You focus on criticism: You get very angry and blame the person. “Pepe, let’s see if the next time you decide to invite me to the meeting, you should know that this affects me. It is your mistake. «
The first position makes us reflect on what has happened and what we can do to change it and we will see how in most of the cases the person will have done it without realizing it and everything will be solved quickly. We will avoid ourselves a few annoyances.
In the second position we blame the person for not including us in the meeting, we assume that he should know that he has to takings us into consideration and that he has made an unforgivable mistake.
Now think on the other way around, it is you who has arranged the meeting and you forgot to invite someone, assuming that it was without bad itention, otherwise it would be something different. That person gets very angry and talks to you with the toxin of criticism. In this case you have two ways of reacting:
1.- You apologize for the mistake and invite the person to the next meeting and ask him if he need a summary meeting to update him.
2.- You get defensive. «Let’s see if you think I’m a diviner, I don’t know the details of all the projects we can impact, if you already knew that this project has started, you could have told me to count on you in the meetings.»
What happens in point 2 is that you are blaming the other person and you can reach an infinite circle of blame. Here the toxin would begin to spread, not only to your relationship but most likely to the relationships between the two teams in which these two people are working. Remember that toxins are very destructive and above all contagious.
As you can see, the antidotes to use are:
When we blame:
1.- Curiosity. Do not assume that there is something personal in the action of the other, communicate the fact that has happened and your request about it. Curiosity is the more powerful antidote to criticism.
2.- What can you do? Instead of poisoning yourself and releasing your anger, think about what your contribution to the problem could be, if there is the posibility for you to change something (request to the other), your perspective will change, otherwise you will plunge into rumination, victimhood and in extreme case anxiety. The way to combat this is to focus on what can be under your control.
When someone blame us:
1.- See the criticism as feedback. Think that criticism is often an unfortunate feedback (Oh my god, the unfortunate feedback that I have given!) and that the other person cares about you, only that they do not know how to communicate better.
2.- Ask for forgiveness. If you have done something that has made someone uncomfortable and they tell you, first, take responsibility and apologize and then try to find out what else is behind this criticism that you can change for the future, what is that person trying to say you, «Count more with me ”“ I would like to get more involved ”….
As we’ve seen before, being on the defensive is another form of blaming, which is why these two toxins go quite hand in hand. When blaming and we defense, we blame as well.
Responding to blame with another toxin will not solve anything, it only increases conflict and discomfort, causing it to reach a point where it is unsolvable.
Here it is still important to think about what I can do so that this relationship does not deteriorate further, and no more conflict is generated.
Let’s take an example:
You have to deliver a project that is multi-departmental and there are several teams working on it. The global manager arrange a meeting and says there are going to be delays because your team hasn’t delivered on time.
Your answer to this could be:
1.- Putting yourself on the defensive: You hear it and automatically put yourself on the defensive and say that the fault is not yours but another team that was delayed and you had a dependency and that the requirements that the functional team has given you have changed and that you had already raised it.
2.- You investigate a little more (curiosity): You ask your collegue to clarify a little more why the project is delayed by your team, that you have escalated the risks as they appeared.
As you have seen, the defensive reaction only serves to generate even more toxicity towards other teams and the second position, helps to understand if there is something that you have not taken into account or if simply the way of communicating of your collegue has not been correct and you give him the option to rectify.
In ORSC they always say that you try to see the 2% of truth in what the critic says, because it can still give you clues of something that you could have done differently, such as escalating the risks before or doing it in a different way, talk to the person instead of just sending emails and documents …
And now let’s think about the opposite position, a person becomes defensive with your comments.
To this you can respond by blaming or also putting yourself on the defensive or you can try to ask your collegue what he has understood about your communication because he may have misinterpreted it or that you have expressed yourself wrong, in any case, that negative impact should not leave you indifferent, take responsibility and ask for forgiveness or clarify what you wanted to say, and above all put in value the work of that person and what you appreciate him/her, it will automatically reduce the tension.
If we summarize the antidotes, we find some already seen before and some new:
1.- Curiosity. Don’t take the other person’s bad faith for granted.
2.- What can you do? Look for that 2% of truth in what the other says.
3.- Put in value the other person. It will reduce the tension level.
4.- Always have an active listening level 2 and 3 (remember that level 1 is that you listen to yourself, level 2 you listen to the other, level 3 you listen to “us / everything”).
This toxin is the most destructive one, it consists of applying sarcasm, insults, making less, cynicism, etc. This toxin is released after a long time of rumination of the person, it is not a specific reaction to a punctual feeling of attack, but it is premeditated, which makes it very lethal.
As we have already seen that reacting to one toxin with another one does not fix anything, the way to combat this toxin is to first try to understand what the other means (curiosity), that is, try to understand why they say it, the real purpose behind that toxin ( Someone is pressuring hime, their goals are put in risk, he does not understand how you work or the difficulties you have, etc.) and expresses the feelings that this toxin is generating to you.
«Marta, I am feeling attacked and that makes me feel very bad and angry with you, please let´s treat this issue in a different way.»
Adapt the language to the situation and person, but always talk about the situation and the impact it has on you, not about the other. Avoid say things like «You are insulting me or attacking me …»
Think that there are people who are not able to communicate in another way and we also need to apply levels 2 and 3 of listening to be able to work on “what is under our control”.
If you realize that you are the one who is contempt, try:
1.- To think that every person is unique, complete, creative, full of resources and that you are not being able to see the greatness of that person.
2.- Do not hide behind “I am like this”.
3.- Show your feelings and explain to the other person why you are feeling that contempt to give the other the opportunity to open up to you.
4.- Respect is earned by approaching problems in a constructive way and working in a conscious and positive way. In this way the contempt will become respect and appreciation. If you want to be respected, recognized and appreciated, you have to respect, recognize and appreciate.
You will see that the antidotes are repeated: curiosity, see what you can do, put in value the other and listen to in level 2 and 3.
I would add in this section that when contempt touches one of your most essential values on a human level, you are going to have to practice curiosity a lot.
When any of the above toxins occurs, we can easily position ourselves in this one, this toxin will make us distance ourselves, cut off communication or simply stop saying what we think.
If you are in this toxin, work the antidotes that we have seen before and try to apply some relaxation technique if you look very overwhelmed, even ask for a break if you need it before continuing the conversation. Try to identify your fears and your essential values that are not being honored for reducing the impact it is causing you.
And if, on the other way around, you identify that a collegue is isolating itself in the interaction with you, try to identify what toxins you are using and apply the antidotes.
Conflicts inevitably appear in our personal or professional relationships. The problem is not the conflict itself, but how we manage it, as shown in the research of Drs. Gottman. And in the same way that we all use toxins in our relationships, nobody is free of toxins.
We always consider in a conflict that the other is wrong and has to change, but that is not possible, we cannot control nor change others, but we can manage the impact that the behaviors of others have on us, understand that differences of opinion are normal and healthy and consciously choose how to act on everything that is under our control.
In order to successfully manage conflicts, we must identify The Four Horsemen and counter them. If we don’t, the conflict will end up being chronic and unsolvable, which has a tremendous impact on individuals and organizations.
There are many techniques that we can apply to diagnose and work on toxins in teams, but before starting here, I suggest you experiment with yourself, think about what kind of collegue / leader you would like to be , review the toxins description and identify in your closest relationships in which toxins you are / receive, and start applying antidotes, the ones I have put here or others that you think can work better for you.
Bringing this to the teams requires more method and experience, consult with colleagues or expert consultants if you see that there are continuous conflicts in the teams, because this is a clear symptom that there are toxins that are becoming chronic.