Clean It Up

Don’t let the title fool you; this is not an article about excessive Post It notes or unfiled stacks crowding your desktop (and floor in some cases).  It’s about straightening up the less tangible messes we create in our interactions.  Frequently, we’re not even aware of how some of our responses may be upsetting and divisive.  In the context of team coaching , we refer to these destructive attitudes and behaviors as Team Toxins.
 
Dr. John Gottman, award-winning psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, is world reknown for his relationship studies and ability to apply leading-edge research to everyday situations.  “Team Toxins” are a derivative of his work.  They refer to 4 categories of behavior which significantly contribute to breakdowns in relationships. 
 
Team Toxins
Blaming/Criticism:  Attacking the person rather than addressing specific behavior.  Clues:  “you alway” or “you never”

Contempt:  Acting/talking in a demeaning fashion; often the implication is that you are better than the other person.  Clues: eye-rolling, audible sighs, name calling

Defensiveness:  Assuming all comments are a personal attack, refusing to take responsibility for your own actions/inactions.  Clues: making excuses, ignoring the other person’s concern and deflecting by adding your own complaint, saying “yes, but”

Stonewalling:  Avoiding conflict by not engaging, changing the subject and/or physically steering clear of the situation.  Clues:  withdrawing, remaining silent, pretending not to have an opinion, skipping uncomfortable meetings.  (I notice this one more frequently among high performing teams.  It appears to be more “polite” or “professional”, but don’t kid yourself; it’s still toxic.)
 
Anything sound familiar?  I’m betting your answer is “yes”; most people have had some experience with all of them.  If we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that at some point we’ve dipped into the dark side ourselves.  (I tend to slip toward defensiveness.) It’s normal.  It’s normal and it usually doesn’t work so well, does it?  With repeated use, Team Toxins can become an unhappy norm that erodes relationships, damages morale, obstructs communication and ultimately undermines the team’s success.
 
Just writing about them makes me feel I have boulders in my stomach.  I’m suddenly aware of all the other tasks on today’s list.  I see how easily I could be coaxed from the grayness of the Toxins to something more “fun”.  Unfortunately, this shift parallels how many of us dodge addressing the toxic behavior on our teams or in our relationships. 
 
It’s a nasty, energy-sucking cycle and it takes awareness and courage to break it.  The first step is to recognize the toxins and their impact.  Just reading this article has started that process for you; pass it along to others.  Now you have a common understanding and language; use it to talk about what’s going on.  Together, consider:   

  • What’s a better way to manage frustration/disagreements?
  • What do we do when we notice toxic behavior?
  • How will it be different working in a ‘cleaner’ environment?

Create a few agreements to help you stay on track.  One team, for example, uses the “timeout” hand signal when they see a toxin creeping in.  Once alerted, the group can address it and move on.  Sometimes, if things are really heated, a five minute break helps.
 
Stepping into this conversation also requires a certain courageous boldness and commitment.  Someone has to acknowledge the snarly elephant in the room sullying any sense of joy and creativity.  Feed your bravery by imagining how it could be better.  Clearing out the current mess makes room for toxin-free collaboration, clearer purpose and brighter energy.

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