Jan 14

The Four Workplace Toxins – Poisonous Workplace Communication Styles

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This article was written by Roger Beaudry on January 13th 2010.

Maximizing productivity in a modern workplace requires an approach that ensures that everybody on the team has good and respectful working relationships and is focussed on resolving problems as they occur (please see my post titled A Vision of What Makes Workplaces and Teams in Them Work for a discussion of this).  There are four communication styles that distract from effective problem solving and that are particularly toxic to constructive working relationships: BLAME, DEFENSIVENESS, STONEWALLING and CONTEMPT. Recognising and learning to avoid these four toxins is fundamental to building and maintaining the “people side” of a happy, respectful and productive workplace.

The following describes and explains these four workplace toxins with a view to helping people better understand why they are problematic and identify them when they occur. While I will allude in passing to ways of avoiding and dealing with these toxins, my purpose in this post is simply to help people understand what they are and why they are problematic. A discussion of techniques that can be used to avoid and deal with them will be for later posts.


The workplace toxins are based on the work of John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington who studied relationships between spouses for over two decades. Gottman discovered patterns of behaviour between spouses that he could use with over 90% accuracy to predict which relationships would not survive.  BLAME, DEFENSIVENESS, STONEWALLING and CONTEMPT were among Gottman’s indicators of what destroys relationships between spouses. He saw their presence as so pernicious that he called them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

While Gottman’s research was on relationships between spouses, there is no doubt that the “Four Horsemen” destroy relationships in workplaces just as effectively as they do between spouses, and that their presence is toxic to respectful and productive problem solving in workplaces. As such, they are toxic to productivity.


In the workplace it is often necessary or useful to talk about “what happened”. Understanding what happened in a particular instance can provide information about what needs to be done in the future to make things better. If, for example, a package was not delivered to a client on time, there may be a need to discuss the matter with a view to repairing the situation and/or ensuring that the problem does not recur. One of the challenges of having conversations about what happened is that they can easily slide into BLAME. When that happens, the conversation can stop being about figuring out what happened and making things better for the future. It can instead spiral out of control and become toxic to important workplace relationships and to finding solutions to what happened.

BLAME is characterised by the following:

  • It is an attack on another typically with the intent, or at the very least the impact, of making the other appear to have acted wrongly. It may or may not be paired with an intent to make the attacker appear to have been in the right.
  • In BLAME, there is more focus on accusing about the past than on understanding what happened in the past. Typically, the proponent has already made up his or her mind about what happened or at the very least is biased about it. As such, BLAME is inefficient at getting to the bottom of what actually contributed to the problem by focusing attention on who was wrong rather than on discovering the causal factors that were at play in the problem’s genesis. In the example of a late delivery to a client, there may be systemic factors at play such as stressed timelines, issues relating to poor training of delivery personnel and problems with how deliveries are being scheduled and assigned. But all of that can get lost in the act of trying to assign BLAME to the particular driver who was late in making the delivery.
  • In BLAME, the focus is on the past (who was right or wrong then) rather than on the future – as such it dwells on things that cannot be changed (the past) and takes attention from fixing things (in the future).
  • BLAME encourages the person on which it is focussed to be less forthright and even dishonest about what actually happened. This makes it much more difficult to determine what actually happened so that the problem may be fixed.
  • The attacker may resort to BLAME as a result of a perceived need for self-preservation as, for example, when he or she feels threatened or attacked.

There are situations in the workplace where BLAME needs to be assigned. Where someone needs to be held accountable for their actions to ensure that they will recognise a problem and change their behaviour (for example, where someone is not taking their job seriously and the imposition of discipline would be motivating and appropriate), it may be necessary to assign BLAME. However, the challenge of ensuring that things work better in the future is almost always much more important than assigning BLAME for what happened in the past, and a focus on BLAMING typically distracts all involved from the real task at hand: fixing things so that they work better and the team becomes more productive in the future. Moreover, BLAME can undermine workplace relationships in a way that counterbalances much of the perceived benefits that it generates.

Rather than seeking to assign BLAME it is typically much more effective to focus on mapping out the contribution system – those things that contributed to the problem occurring in the first place with a view to addressing them. Such a focus on understanding what contributed to the problem so that things can be changed and the problem avoided in the future is almost always at least initially a much more powerful strategy than assigning BLAME. If after mapping the contribution system, it becomes apparent that BLAME does need to be assigned for the purpose of modifying someone’s behaviour (i.e., when discipline is appropriate and helpful), that can be done in a constructive way after the problem has been properly analysed and understood.


DEFENSIVENESS is another toxin that tends to rear its ugly head in workplace conversations about what happened. When people are BLAMED or feel there is a potential for being BLAMED in a workplace conversation about what happened, they can feel vulnerable or attacked, and this can lead them to become DEFENSIVE.  As in the case of BLAME, DEFENSIVNESS can shift the focus away from understanding the problem so as to avoid it in the future because it is focussed more on mounting a defence than on fixing the problem. DEFENSIVENESS also harms relationships by perpetuating disputes.

DEFENSIVENESS is characterised by the following:

  • Denials of responsibility, making excuses or cross-blaming (meeting BLAME with BLAME). In the example of the late delivery, there may be a denial by the driver that the delivery was late or an allegation that management has been overworking delivery personnel and not allowing them to take their breaks.
  • The focus is on defending an attack or perceived attack and on preserving one’s sense of identity, integrity and/or of having been right.
  • The focus is also typically on the past (who was right or wrong in the past) rather than on the future – as such, like BLAME, DEFENSIVENESS dwells on things that cannot be changed (the past).
  • Again, as in the case of BLAME, the priority is not with fixing things for the future, i.e., with trying to understand what contributed to the problem that occurred in the past to try to find ways of ensuring that things are better in the future – the priority is with ensuring that the proponent is not seen as being in the wrong for what happened in the past.
  • Persons being DEFENSIVE tend to feel threatened and defend out of a perceived need for self-preservation.

DEFENSIVENESS makes it more difficult for both its user and others in the workplace to appreciate the true causes of problems and it harms relationships by encouraging people to perpetuate attacks against each other.


If someone feels that they are not being successful at protecting themselves, their identity and/or their interests, especially over time and in the face of BLAME, they may withdraw, i.e., they may STONEWALL.

STONEWALLING is characterised by the following:

  • Non-responsiveness such as silence, monosyllabic responses, changing the subject or multitasking (for example, working on a Blackberry during a conversation or meeting).
  • There is a withdrawal or retreat from conflict and a failure to engage in attempts at dispute resolution.
  • The STONEWALLER sees engaging as pointless, or at the very least considers that the benefits of engaging do not outweigh the personal risks of becoming engaged.
  • The focus in on protecting one’s self by disengaging rather than on making the workplace better. There is an abandonment of hope and responsibility for fixing the workplace or problems in it.

The STONEWALLER sees keeping his or her head down and investing in alternatives to dealing with the situation (for example, applying for another position or simply biding his or her time) as better than investing in the workplace or the particular relationship that is being STONEWALLED.


Sometimes, especially in situations where BLAME, DEFENSIVENESS and STONEWALLING have occurred repeatedly, the build-up of pain, anger and/or distress can boil over into CONTEMPT.

CONTEMPT is characterised by the following:

  • The communication of profound and emotional disrespect for another through such things as ridicule, name calling, sarcasm and disrespectful body language (for example, eye rolling).
  • The intent is to convey that the intended target of the CONTEMPT is or should be seen as worthless and/or despised.
  • The proponent usually feels valued, justified, vindicated or excused by being CONTEMPTUOUS.
  • CONTEMPT may be expressed in the absence of its target, such as where one employee is CONTEMPTUOUS of a manager in a private discussion with another employee, or its venom may be delivered directly to its intended target.

Gottman’s research shows that people caught up in CONTEMPT actually experience physiological changes as a result of it. In other words, CONTEMPT is not only bad for the workplace, it is bad for people’s health.


The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are alive and well in far too many workplaces. People BLAME, become DEFENSIVE, STONEWALL and become CONTEMPTUOUS without recognising the full impact of these toxins. As they permeate workplace relationships and destroy them, these workplace toxins undermine issue resolution and this in turn perpetuates problems and encourages them to spiral out of control. The ultimate result can be sick workplaces and a loss of productivity.

There are approaches that make it possible for the members of a workplace team to talk about what happened or what will happen without resorting to these toxins. In future posts on communication in the workplace I will set out ideas on how to communicate in ways that avoid workplace toxins, focus the team on problem solving, and help build respectful and productive workplace relationships.

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