When it comes to predicting the breakdown of a romantic relationship, leading relationships researcher John Gottman proposed that there are “four horsemen of communication” that signal things are turning sour. While the name taps into apocalyptic imagery, the “end of times” they represent isn’t inevitable. Gottman suggests that these conversational habits, when spotted early, can be reversed. 

The same is true for our four horsemen of failing work relationships. If you’ve noticed building tension or undercurrents of bullying in your team or if you are struggling with a relationship with a colleague, here’s what we recommend you do to stop things going south.

Begin by reading about our four horsemen below, and then do a quick audit – have I noticed any of these habits in myself, in my team members? Even one or two creeping in could signal a shift that’s worth addressing. Then, check out our practical tips for reversing the tide.

  1. The first horseman of failing work relationships is what we call Avoidance. Many of us are better at smoothing over or placating than we are at having courageous conversations that provide meaningful, useful, and constructive feedback or tackle difficult problems upfront. When we engage in avoidant conversational techniques, we are deferring the difficult but necessary conversations to a point where they usually have no choice but to blow up into something bigger.
  1. The second horseman is apparent when we engage in Undermining behaviours. This is when we disrespect others or mock them openly or in private. Also known as “workplace incivility”, this refers to low-intensity rude behaviours that can be hard to tell whether they’re intentional or not. They’re often a jab at someone’s personality or character (e.g., “Classic Tim with his head in the clouds…”) and can be a precursor of a bullying culture in the workplace when gone unchecked.
  1. Next is Defensiveness. Driven by self-preservation, this habit leads us to defending our own actions when things go wrong, or when we receive constructive feedback. Defensiveness is the opposite of being accountable. It often arises due to a perceived attack on who we are as a person and can be a symptom of a competitive work culture where people feel the need to put their own success before the success of the team. 
  1. The last horseman is Inconsistency. This can look like “stonewalling”, avoiding a person or engaging in the silent treatment, or stubborn deferral or dismissal (“I don’t have time right now to talk about this”). Inconsistency is also characterised by a lack of follow-through, regularly shifting or cancelling meetings, and outright ignoring of emails or requests for help.

If any of these horsemen behaviours are present across a number of people or teams, it is worth asking if there is something deeper that is giving rise to this behaviour. Is workload so high in your team that inconsistent follow-through is the only answer? Is there a widespread culture of fear that makes authentic feedback difficult for everyone? These are issues that need to be addressed at their roots.

Putting these issues of culture aside for now, here’s what you can try at an individual level to get a better hold on your relationships at work:

  1. If you are a manager who struggles with avoidance, it might help to set in place a conversational template for giving real and authentic feedback. For example, take one of organisational psychologist Professor Adam Grant’s suggestions to frame constructive feedback as a vote of confidence, by beginning with, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” It can also help to be upfront when you are giving feedback, so that the recipient doesn’t feel trapped (e.g., “I’ve noticed a few things about XYZ project, would now be a good time to discuss those?”).
  1. To overcome the tendency to undermine, check whether you, or others you know, are prone to focusing on the shortcomings of others, without paying attention to their unique strengths. It might be helpful to complete the free VIA Character Strengths assessment yourself to see where your top strengths are and, importantly, those on which you rate less highly. Consider the same for your team members – where are they strong that you are not? How can you redirect focus to their strengths, not their perceived shortcomings, and uplift these strengths for the benefit of the team? 
  1. Tackling defensiveness can be difficult, given it is often a kneejerk reaction. Instead, focus on what it means to be accountable to role-model failure. The next time you make a mistake, own it loudly. Changing a culture of defensiveness isn’t a quick fix, but shifting the focus from individual gain to team gain is always worth it in the long run. What’s more, it’s almost certainly going to be welcomed by others in your team by normalising the “hard stuff” and emphasising that it’s OK not have everything all together, all the time.
  1. Lastly, beat inconsistency by being radically honest with what you can achieve. For example, if you are a manager, it is a lot more useful to your team members to consistently meet monthly than it is to be constantly rescheduling and cancelling weekly one-on-ones. And commit to being transparent in what you can deliver, when. Saying that you can help, but not until the week after next, is much better than saying you’ll do it tomorrow and it dropping off your list completely.

When we succeed at turning these horsemen around, we move towards a style of workplace communication that is authentic rather than avoidant, uplifting rather than undermining, accountable rather than defensive, and trustworthy rather than inconsistent. And we reduce the likelihood of things spiralling into a bad place – where the only option is to call it quits on the relationship altogether.

While these are some of our best tips, there’s much more to the picture when it comes to mending strained work relationships. We can help. Get in touch to learn about our training options to build better, thriving teams. 0800 643 000, [email protected].