Being a leader is not an easy business. There are a lot of ins and outs of the job. And being a leader doesn’t end when the clock strikes five. Being a leader is a lifestyle. So, inevitably toxins from your personal life, external forces, and internal conflict tend to seep in. These toxins can come in the form of disrespectful behavior, poor communication, the inability to perceive situations from another point-of-view or employee-shaming. The list of toxins that have the possibility to hinder a leader’s potential, goes on and on.

And toxins in leadership can lead to unproductive teams, a work environment that becomes comfortable with a culture of blame, and unengaged employees. Again, the number of consequences that toxins can have on the workplace is unlimited.

In order to successfully rid the leadership of toxins, the toxins must be identified. You can’t get to the root of the problem if you don’t know what the problem is. Dr. John Gottman and his many studies on relationship communication concluded that there are four communication styles that can kill a working relationship — or really any relationship!

In regards to leadership, specifically, reverting to these communication styles could very well hurt your team in many ways. That’s why it’s important to identify these styles in order to take action to repair the damage and prevent any new damage from happening.

What Are the Four Horsemen?

The idea of the four horsemen of the apocalypse holds its origins in the New Testament, in a section depicting the end of times. These four horsemen are conquest, war, hunger, and death. Dr. John Gottman took this idea and metaphorized it for the sake of his research on relationship communication to answer the question: What ends relationships?

What he found was that criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling were the equivalent of conquest, war, hunger, and death when it came to relationship communication. Although Gottman’s research was focused mainly on the relationship between couples, both heterosexual and same-sex, his theory can be carried over into the business world to examine working relationships.

And when you magnify in on leadership, in regards to these four communication styles, you will see the damage that criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling can do to a team when the person in charge relies on these styles for their delivery.


Criticizing is not simply complaining about a certain behavior or action done by an employee. And, it’s not giving an employee a constructive critique of their work. Criticism is an attack on character. A complaint or critique is related to a specific issue, whereas criticism is not. 

To better understand the difference here is an example:

Complaint/Critique: “I was concerned when you were not at the morning meeting. Next time could you please communicate with me as we agreed upon?”

Criticism: “We were all waiting for you at the meeting and you never showed up. That’s selfish. You are always late and have no regard for anyone else’s time.”

The difference between the two examples is clear. The criticism is harsh and puts blame on the employee while demoralizing them, whereas the complaint/critique offers a positive repair to the situation.

Criticism is often a result of a problem not being addressed from the start. For example, if you are a leader and you have an employee who is always turning in assignments late, you may one day explode at them by shaming their character. However, they turned in late assignments over and over because you failed to tell them that it is unacceptable. So is it really their fault?

Perhaps in forgiving their late work in silence, you were trying to be a ‘cool boss’ or a relaxed leader. But, by bottling up emotions and exploding later, you embody the opposite of a ‘cool boss.’ Proper communication is actually the ‘cool’ thing to do. And with proper communication, there is trust and productivity from your team. Nobody wants to work for a leader who shames their character.

When leaders phrase negatives as critiques rather than delivering it as criticism, employees are much more likely to respond. If leaders constantly use criticism, the other horsemen of communication tend to follow.


Contempt is extremely destructive, not only to love relationships but to work relationships, as well. Contempt is the highest form of disrespect. It includes sarcasm, mocking, ridicule, mimicking, and namecalling. Contempt also includes body language such as eye-rolling. The horseman, contempt, does not wear a mask. It is clear to the person dishing it out and the person receiving it, that it is meant to make someone feel worthless and despised.

Contempt comes right after criticism for a reason. It takes the idea of criticism and takes it even farther by putting an elitist spin on it. Basically, contempt is the equivalent of negatively talking down to someone.

Issues that are long unresolved can result in feelings of contempt. When issues are not dealt with properly this fosters strong negative feelings toward another person. In the business world, there is no room for this type of communication. When leaders harbor contempt against an employee, it is unacceptable. Problem-solving cannot effectively happen if a leader holds a negative view of an employee. This contempt must be erased in order to move forward productively. And to do this, the underlying issues of the contempt must be resolved.


Defensiveness is most commonly a response to criticism. This can come in the form of playing the victim or making excuses. It is a natural evolutionary defense mechanism to try to make the attacker back down. However, this can be a workplace killer.

It’s not uncommon for leaders to feel attacked by their employees, especially if the leader has fostered an environment where criticism is common from both sides: the leadership and the team. But, defensiveness and blame-escape create an even bigger problem and push the problems of the workplace farther down the rabbit hole.

Defensiveness from a leader inadvertently pushes the blame back onto the employee who’s criticizing, escalating the conflict. This can become an endless game of tug-of-war that ends with both the leader and the employee in the mud.

To avoid this messy situation, leaders should accept accountability for issues brought to them by employees and work to repair the problem. To do this ask yourself two things: What is your goal? And what is the underlying issue of the problem?

Once, you answer those, repairing the issue and the relationship with your employee should be a piece of cake. You must always remember, you’re all working toward the same end-goal. And blame and defensiveness will only slow the progress.


Stonewalling is equivalent to the idea of death from the original four horsemen of the apocalypse. This is when a person closes themselves off completely, stops listening, and shuts down. Stonewalling can be done by either turning away and not talking or by purposely becoming distracted by engaging in other things. For example, a leader might start answering emails while their employee is trying to discuss an issue with them.

To better understand, stonewalling, you must know how it affects the body, as well. When someone feels the need to shut down, chances are their heart is racing and stress hormones are released into the bloodstream. This mirrors the evolutionary freeze-fight-or-flight response.

Oftentimes, leaders stonewall as a defense mechanism. This is the freeze in the freeze-fight-or-flight response. They may feel too emotionally angry, sad, disappointed, or ashamed to continue the conversation. If that’s the case, the leader would benefit greatly by asking to discuss the issue when they are feeling more level-headed. This will only benefit both the employee and the leader because it will make the later conversation more rational and geared toward problem-solving.

How To Lead Without Toxins

To integrate positive leadership communication in the workplace, you first must rid it of all the toxins. Positivity cannot be nurtured in a negative environment. Here is a simple list of ways to foster a kind, productive, blame-free, and respectful workplace culture:

There is a lot that goes into being a good leader, but these tips are a great place to start, especially if you have just finished eliminating toxins from your workplace. By prioritizing these behaviors, your workplace culture will quickly be repaired.


  • What are the four horsemen of relationships?

The four horsemen of relationships lay in communication style. They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

  • What is criticism?

Criticism is different from a critique or a complaint. It is used to negatively attack someone’s character and is not focused on a specific event.

  • What is contempt?

Contempt often comes after criticism. It is the most destructive of all the horsemen. It consists of sarcasm, mocking, ridicule, mimicking, and namecalling. Contempt also includes body language such as eye-rolling.

  • What is defensiveness?

Defensiveness is a response to criticism. It is the act of putting the blame back onto the employee and rejecting accountability.

  • What is stonewalling?

Stonewalling is when a person has a physiological reaction and completely shuts down during a conversation.

  • How do these four horsemen ruin a work environment?

The four horsemen of communication can ruin a work environment by fostering a culture of blame and harsh criticism. This will result in an unproductive and uncommunicative team.

  • How can you be a good leader?

Being a good leader is not always easy, we all have evolutionary human responses that can be hard to fight, especially if we feel as if we are under attack. But there are some simple behaviors you can put into effect that will help to make your goal a reality including taking accountability, listen and responding, leading by example, communicating with your team when issues arise, being self-aware, learning to trust and building trust with your team, and giving positive feedback — not just negative feedback.