How Gottman’s ‘4 Horseman Of The Apocalypse’ Can Destroy An Office


As I’ve said in the past, there’s a lot to be learned from relationship therapy theories when compared to office culture. This is why today I have brought an interesting read for any supervisor or leader in a business. John Gottman’sThe Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert

Gottman is one of the leading minds in the field of marriage and relationship research. He has run the Gottman Institute for past 40 years, completing in-depth research into what makes a healthy relationship so healthy, and what causes unhealthy relationships to ultimately fail. Really, for anyone in a committed relationship, I would recommend you give it a read. But here at Inciting Purpose, we focus on careers, so let’s get back to our wheelhouse.

But here at Inciting Purpose, we focus on careers, so let’s get back to our wheelhouse.

One of Gottman’s claims to fame is that he holds an astounding 91% accuracy rate for predicting if a marriage will end in divorce simply by listening to 3 minutes of an argument. This is because his research has shown that it is not whether or not the couple argues, it is the way in which they argue.

Basically, his whole process is separated into 4 signs of a destructive relationship, but we will only touch on the first two signs as they are the most pertinent to a healthy office culture. These two signs are the “Harsh Startup” and the “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

So, let’s jump right in!


Harsh startup

Gottman says that the first indicator that a relationship is unhealthy is what he calls a “harsh startup” to a discussion. A harsh startup is either a person approaching someone with an accusatory slant or someone responding to a sincere request for conversation with negativity.

So what does this look like?

Staci, the supervisor, approaches Jeremy, one of her staff.

Staci:”Hey Jeremy, can you complete a report from that last client? I don’t seem to have the sent invoice anywhere.”

Jeremy, rolling his eyes: “Sure, I’m so excited to get you this vital information.”

If someone begins to speak on a subject and is immediately met with sarcasm or negativity, it’s very difficult to redirect the path of the conversation toward anything productive. 

This is the basic precursor to Gottman’s Horseman of the Apocalypse. 


4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The Harsh Startup leads almost immediately into these 4 toxic interpersonal behaviors, which Gottman has effectively labeled as the 4 Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. He states that they often arrive in a particular order, starting with Criticism and going toward Stonewalling, but not unusual to bounce around during a discussion. 


Gottman takes note to separate criticizing behavior from complaints. It’s normal to have complaints about someone’s behavior, and it’s healthy to voice those complaints.

Staci: “Jeremy, I see that the invoices are regularly late coming from your desk. This makes it really difficult for me to follow through on my tasks because I’m often waiting on those invoices.”

Complaints keep the focus on the behavior. 

Criticism, on the other hand, attacks the character of the person.

Staci: “Jeremy, you can’t keep your tasks straight. You’re so absent minded and you make such dumb mistakes. Honestly, it’s like you don’t care about your job. Did you grow up in a family where responsibilities didn’t matter?”

Sadly, it’s quite common to have leaders in an organization use criticism to get their staff “in line.” But all that really happens is the actual problem becomes overshadowed by the personal attacks. Relationships are bruised and no one is feeling motivated to work harder. After enough criticism, this leads pretty naturally into the next horseman: Contempt.

After enough criticism, this leads pretty naturally into the next horseman: Contempt.


Criticism often leads right to contempt. The behavior shifts from attacking the character of the person to sarcasm and cynicism. Remember, these 4 horsemen most often show up in a particular order. But they can show up in different orders depending upon the relationship and the stage of the arguments. The example given above for a Harsh Startup would be an example of a relationship that skips over Criticism and jumps right into Contempt through the use of sarcasm.

Anyway, Contempt takes the main stage when the individual being attacked attempts to reconcile the relationship, but is continually shot down by the criticiser. 

Jeremy: “Maybe I can try a new way of organizing my desk and time. That might help me keep up on the invoices.”

Staci, scoffing: “Oh, yeah. That must be the secret to getting your life in order. Clean your desk and all will be fixed.”

Gottman does note, and for good reason, that contempt talk doesn’t start out that way. Often the origins of these issues are simple requests that went unanswered, or disagreement continued. Thus, the requests became disrespectful and contemptuous. 


As easily as criticism slipped into contempt, the third horseman trots into the frame: Defensiveness.

As expected, when we are presented with contempt, we try to defend ourselves. The only problem is when someone is acting out of contempt, they are not likely to hear reason from a defensive position. Gottman stated that this is not only because contempt is not looking for a way to be reasoned with, it’s also because defensive behavior often comes off as redirecting the blame.

Staci, scoffing: “Oh, yeah. That must be the secret to getting your life in order. Clean your desk and all will be fixed.”

Jeremy: “Well, sometimes I don’t have time to organize my desk just how you would like it. I have a lot on my plate.”

Do you see how, while Jeremy was trying to defend against Staci’s contemptuous comment, he is actually stating that Staci was being unreasonable by expecting him to be organized to her standards when he has so many responsibilities? In reality, she most likely gave him the responsibilities as his supervisor. He is essentially blaming her for his failures.

Defensiveness is a slippery slope! No wonder it rarely works. 

In the end, the defensive behavior will only escalate the situation, making Staci either up the ante or become defensive herself. Either way, it’s not a good outcome.


After the arguments increase in severity, becoming immersed in toxic conversation patterns, the last horseman to the act of stonewalling. 

Either someone begins to ignore the other, or they simply half-heartedly agree with every statement. Whichever way they behave, it is clear that they have begun the process of stonewalling. When stonewalling occurs no meaningful conversation will be able to take place. This is because, while they can hear the other person, they have lost the motivation to connect. 

Staci: “Jeremy, I really need that invoice.”

Jeremy: “…”

Staci: “Jeremy?”

Jeremy: “…”

Staci: “Jeremy, I really need to know that you heard me.”

Jeremy: “…Yup.”

By this point, it is incredibly difficult to recover a working relationship. Yes, it is possible, but intervention from HR, Employee Assistance Programs, and management is often necessary to get the parties even close to being cooperative. 


Why Does This Matter?

Having these behaviors as routine in a relationship can cause more than toxic conversations. Gottman cites research showing that continuous contemptuous behavior can have the consequence of being more likely to suffer from colds and the flu. Why? Simply put,  our stress increases when in toxic relationships. With increased stress comes increased levels of the hormone Cortisol. 

Cortisol is the hormone released during the “Fight or Flight” times. Cortisol increases our focus, improves our reflexes, and even starts redirecting blood flow to the extremities, in case the fight response becomes flight. That being said, while Cortisol is literally a life-saving hormone at the right times, extended periods of increased cortisol can damage the immune system, leaving you more susceptible to illness. This is why stress and toxic relationships can not only make working with those people difficult, it can make you miss work due to illness and exhaustion.

Gottman’s Four Horseman of the Apocalypse can cost money in time, employee intervention, and possible employee turn-over. It’s especially costly for a business if the office culture shows a pattern of these toxic relationships. By that point, you’re not looking at one uncooperative working relationship, you’re looking at an entire team of contemptuous, defensive, critical employees.

Whether or not your office culture struggles with these toxic patterns of behavior, it can be helpful to be aware of how easily these horsemen can show up at the front door. I strongly recommend that anyone in a leadership position should read Gottman’s books. His insights have helped me personally understand how to empower coworkers and keep toxic patterns out of both personal and professional relationships.

Have you seen these kinds of communication patterns in your workplace? What was done to change the circumstances?

Leave your stories, questions, and suggestions in the comments below!


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