Practicing What We Preach

by Eveline Hadewegg Scheffer

May 23, 2022

When we support our clients as they get (more) ready for self-management, we always say that it’s a journey that is never really over. And that goes for our own experiment with self-management as well.  So every two months, we come together for a ‘Semco Style Goes Semco Style’ session, to make sure we’re practicing what we preach.  

The topic for our last ‘Semco Style Goes Semco Style’ session was communication. A tough subject that’s relevant and relatable for a lot of teams and organizations. The fact that we follow a hybrid work format makes it all the more important to communicate as best as we can. We use different programs for communication, like Slack, but most of the frustrations around communication don’t involve the use of Slack, the choice of channel for your message, or even the actual content of the message. Instead, it’s all about ‘le ton qui fait la musique’ ( the tone that makes the music).   

That’s why we started our session by looking at the ‘Team toxins theory’ from Dr. Gottman, who did years of research on relationships, and taking a scientific approach to the question: ‘What makes relationships work?’  

Based on the results obtained, Dr. Gottman could predict with great certainty (90% accuracy) whether a relationship will survive in the long run. To make the prediction, he would look at how couples (non)verbally communicate with each other.  

He identified four specific behaviors that often get in the way of communication and strong, collaborative relationships: Blaming, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.  

In the context of teams, they are usually referred to as, “The Four Team Toxins.”   

The Four Team Toxins are:  

  • Blaming 

Blaming is the act of verbally criticizing someone’s character rather than attacking their argument, or complaining about a failed behavior. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt. 

  • Defensiveness 

Defensiveness is protecting yourself from criticism, exposure of your shortcomings, or other real or perceived threats to the ego. The problem with defensiveness is that its perceived effect is to blame. It’s like saying, “The problem is not me, it’s you.”  

  • Contempt 

Contempt is truly treating others in a mean, disrespectful manner; mocking people with sarcasm, ridiculing, belittling, being cynical, name-calling, mimicking, and/or using dismissive body language such as eye-rolling. The target of someone’s contempt feels despised and worthless. Contempt is the most poisonous of all team toxins – it destroys psychological, emotional, and physical health.  

  • Stonewalling 

Stonewalling is shutting yourself off from the other person and withdrawing from the interaction, rather than confronting the issues (which tend to accumulate). Typical behaviors include cutting-off communication, engaging in silent treatment, and making evasive behaviors such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. Such behaviors are also known as passive-aggressive behaviors.  

The Antidotes 

After learning about the four team toxins, we paired up to talk about the following questions:  

    1. What is your ‘go to’ toxin?  
    2. Which toxin(s) do you recognize within our team?  

    My ‘go to’ toxin is defensiveness and if the discussion isn’t solved for a while, I’ll move over to blaming. When I work hard on something and someone communicates that I didn’t or says I didn’t do a good job, I can become pretty sensitive and feel I’m under attack. That’s because I want to be a good teamplayer and contribute to the team.   

    As for our team, I see defensiveness and stonewalling being the top two toxins. When it comes to defensiveness, the upside is that there is still some kind of communication. But with stonewalling it is hard to get the communication going since we are not all in one office.  

    After we talked about our team toxins in pairs, we shared our ‘go to’ team toxin in the group. Most were recognizable to the whole team. We all shared some of our intentions and defensive mechanisms, which proved to be a good way to get to know each other better.   

    During the second half of our ‘Semco Style Goes Semco Style’ session, we addressed communication, in general, by answering two questions:  

      1. What rating (1-10) do you give our communication?  
      2. How can this number be increased by one point?  

      These questions triggered a hard discussion and we shared our intentions when we communicated poorly. We also discussed the feelings that came with it, both on the receiver’s end and the communicator’s end. I could feel the tension in the room rising with this discussion in fact, I even got a bit of a stomachache from it. I often tell my clients that to grow as a team, it is sometimes necessary to experience some chafing. But, it was something else to actually experience it. As a team, we were able to contain the tension and persevere through this difficult conversation.   

      According to the Lencioni Pyramid, a high performing team needs to have conflicts. In Dutch, we have the saying, ‘Zonder wrijving geen glans’ which when translated means, ‘No shine without friction’.   

      Our ‘Semco Style Goes Semco Style’ session didn’t solve all our communication problems at once, but it did make this topic negotiable and I feel that it brought us closer as a team.   

      I’m curious to find out what our next ‘Semco Style Goes Semco Style’ session will bring to our team.  

      This article is written by:

      Eveline Hadewegg Scheffer

      Eveline Hadewegg Scheffer

      Certified Expert

      As a senior consultant, Eveline is involved in in-company customization and facilitates training programs. An experienced team coach with expertise in people’s motivations.


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