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Teams & Relationship Systems - 07-04-2023 - Beverley Acton - 0 comments
Behaviours that destroy relationships


I want to write about behaviours that corrode relationships, make for uncomfortable work environments, and create pain within ourselves and for people around us. It’s not a sexy topic but it is an extremely important one, especially as we all face increasing pressure, change, and challenge in our lives and businesses.

I will refer to research carried out by John Gottman, who uses the metaphor The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, to describe 4 behaviours and communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship, partnership, or marriage. In a corporate setting, those same behaviours are often referred to as team toxins.

A word about the language used ...

I don't agree with labelling people as toxic. It's such a strong word and a one-sided view. It's a label that creates fear and doubt and doesn't leave much space for that person to reveal a different side of themselves. I do recognise there are toxic behaviours and behaviour patterns that have a destructive impact and often these behaviours come from deep-seated insecurity, trauma, difficult past experiences, or some other often unconscious root.

When there’s a high ratio of toxic behaviours, and a relationship or team has become infused with hostility and anxiety, you’ll notice the following…

  • Unhelpful conflict will unfold quickly and more regularly.
  • Sensitivities are heightened and hyper-vigilance becomes a norm.
  • Openness, transparency, and clear communication is replaced by assumptions, second guessing, and unhelpful narratives as each person tries to protect themselves and figure out what on earth is going on.
  • Individuals become so committed to their story and version of events that they can no longer hear alternatives, analyse their own behaviours, or challenge themselves to consider how they are contributing to the breakdown of the relationship or team.
  • It can get really loud or really quiet, but either way, the relationship is stuck, and issues are left unresolved.


Communication breaks down and toxic behaviours become the norm. There's very little space, and it becomes an unsettling, unhealthy, and unproductive place to be.


According to relationship research by John Gottman who analysed interactions to identify behaviours that predict divorce, findings which have been replicated in a corporate setting. The 4 toxic behaviours that can be lethal to relationships are:

1) Blaming

2) Defensiveness

3) Stonewalling

4) Contempt

The research revealed an important ratio, every time one of these destructive behaviours is used, 5 positive interactions are required just to neutralise the behaviour. This 5:1 ratio demonstrates just how crucial it is to be self-aware when we show up in a relationship in a toxic way. Which we all do by the way ...

... these behaviours are everywhere. We all bring them, and we all find ourselves in unhelpful states, moods, and situations that bring these behaviours out in us. If the relationship or team has a strong foundation, a high positivity ratio, and the individuals are self-aware enough to recognise when their behaviour is unhelpful and do something about it, then a relationship can survive and thrive.

However, if these 4 lethal behaviours are used consistently, they will corrode relationships and the impact of that can be devastating for everyone in the relationship (including the person demonstrating toxic behaviours), and people around the relationship.

As a leader, it's important to know about these behaviours because if you bring them into the room, you will set the tone for these behaviours to flourish around you. It's important to observe these toxic behaviour patterns in yourself and others and get curious about what's happening if the negative ratio increases. When you notice the relationship dynamic is unhealthy or a particular individual or group of people are consistently demonstrating these behaviours, it might indicate someone or a team is struggling and needs help. It might require a difficult conversation to bring awareness to what is happening, or bespoke support in the form of coaching, counselling, training, or something else.

The easiest thing to do is point fingers at others. The challenge for most of us is Identifying these behaviours in ourselves ...

If you find yourself doing any of the following, then it's possible you're damaging your relationships, making life difficult for yourself, and the people around you:

  • Lashing out, attacking, or criticising.
  • Quick to blame others when you’re unhappy about something.
  • Ignoring or not responding to emails, calls, requests to discuss a problem and not fully showing up (you can be in a meeting but not be present or willing to listen for example).
  • Deflecting, fixating on your experience only, and not acknowledging someone else's view or perspective.
  • Gossiping or avoiding speaking with the person you are in conflict with but choosing to discuss the issue with others.
  • Triangulating - recruiting people to "your side of the argument".
  • Refusing to accept repair bids - attempts made to connect with you and resolve the issue or create a more positive conversation.
  • Reopening previously agreed upon issues or settled disputes.
  • Reshaping the narrative to prove you're right or have been wronged.


If you want to increase the positivity ratio and improve relationships and team dynamics, here are some steps you can take...


  • Reflect, reflect, reflect... search inside yourself and observe your behaviours. We all have blind spots and self-awareness is key.
  • What emotion or unmet need is fuelling the toxic behaviours? What other ways can you express yourself and meet this need?
  • Challenge yourself to acknowledge when and where you have dropped into toxic behaviours.
  • Practice self-compassion and compassion for others - toxic behaviours create pain for everyone involved.
  • If you have been loud and charging at the person, people, or problem. Practice leaning back and cultivating calm.
  • If you have been leaning out and stonewalling, practice showing up and being present instead of avoidant.
  • Work to identify the common interest everyone has and why it's important to resolve the issue and rebuild the relationship.
  • Aim to be clear, consistent, and kind when you communicate.
  • Take the high road and develop personal practices that will support you to breathe through a conflict and remain open to solutions and different ways to move forward.
  • Practices such as journalling, breathing, movement, and self-care rituals are very helpful.
  • Remember and communicate what you appreciate about the other person/people.

Team toxins have a hard time surviving alone, if they are showing up within a team, the whole team needs to do the work and explore them together.

The aim here is not to avoid conflict or create toxic positivity. Helpful conflict, healthy debate, curiosity about different perspectives, compassion for different experiences, and the willingness to admit your mistakes and to hold space for others when they make an error … all lead to greater alignment, new ideas, development, and positive relationships.

Good communication and skilful, thoughtful handling of conflict builds psychological safety and results in environments where everyone can thrive, learn, and grow together.


If you'd like to find out about 1-to-1 or team coaching get in touch or click here to book a call. 


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