How Unhealthy Work Conflicts Can Hold Your Business Back

Updated on 16 September 2019

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Is your SME Toxic? Why You Should Care

You know you are supposed to detox every now and again, yet you tend to postpone this, or never do it and complain about all sorts of pains and niggles. Maybe you then do the detox, and you feel so much better?

Toxins create havoc in our bodies, and also in our teams in the form of unhealthy workplace conflicts.

John Gottman is an American psychological researcher and clinician, who has completed over four decades of research into relationship health. The outcomes are also extremely relevant to working in teams, which in essence are a web of relationships.

Gottman found that he could predict the breakdown of relationships based on the presence of 4 toxic communication styles in a workplace conflict and how they were dealt with when they showed up.

These are:

1. Criticism

Offering feedback and critique is helpful, but criticism consists of blaming or attacking your partner as a person. Being critical about someone’s character or personality creates a sense of being assaulted, rejected, and hurt.

2. Contempt

This a very erosive toxin in teams, as it doesn’t address any issues directly. It comes across in communication styles such as mocking, hostile humour and ridicule as well as body language such as disdainful rolling of eyes. It creates a sense of worthlessness.

3. Defensiveness

A natural and typical response to criticism or blame, it however isn’t helpful in the team dynamic. Defensiveness often comes across as a counter blame, or being the victim in a situation. It escalates the workplace conflict.

4. Stonewalling

In this approach, all communication is cut off through withdrawal, cutting off, silent treatment or saying that one is too busy. This common response when dealing with workplace conflict seems impossible.

Although most of us tend to revert to at least one of these behaviours in stress/workplace conflict situations, they usually don’t help to resolve conflict and tension, but rather perpetuate them.

The intent is to become aware of how and when these show up when working in teams or between team members due to their impact on team cohesion. Once there is awareness of how and when they show up, you can pause and reflect and find alternative ways to deal with that situation.

Here are some simple antidotes to these toxins:

Criticism – instead of focusing on the other person, become clear about what is going on for you. Use ‘I statements’ instead of ‘you statements’. Create ‘I statements’ from the questions: What do I feel? What do I need?

Contempt this can feel like a big ask: start looking for the good in what the other person does, and express these to them. Respect is something that is given before it can be recieved.

Defensiveness – take the opportunity to identify what is true about what is being shared (even when shared in an unskillful way). Is there 2% you can take ownership of?

Stonewalling – workplace conflicts have a big impact on us, emotionally, physically and mentally. Taking a break when things get very heated is helpful. Cool things down with the commitment of coming back to the conversation to resolve the difference.

Prioritise the team’s health

It’s essential for the health of the team to continuously complete detoxing exercises. The impact of these toxins [can prevent the team from performing at] maximum capacity.

I help leaders and their teams to detox and co-create a ‘protocol of conduct’ around toxins, creating an accountable and supportive team that is more engaged and present. In addition to toxins, becoming aware of unconscious bias, preference, rank and so on, can help to develop a healthy team dynamic.

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