In such a demanding work world, it is easy to fall into the temptation to think that lack of productivity or cohesion in teams is determined by the presence of a toxic leader; and if not, of a toxic partner, a toxic team, a toxic organization, a toxic market

Personally I have to recognize that every time someone uses this adjective referring to a person, or group, a feeling of discomfort invade me and even a feeling of injustice. The cause? Because I do not think anyone deserves this label, and at the same time some of the actions that we all do deserve it from time to time.

Who can say that their leadership (as a person and as a professional) is always resonant, positive, creative and inclusive? I personally do not know anyone. Everyone, absolutely everyone, has moments where our leadership falls into the clutches of reactivity, whether it because of the fear, ignorance or despair. And at these moments our behaviors can become very toxic, without even wanting it. In this article you can read 12 techniques to train your leader mind.

The pressure received, the continuous stress, or the low physical tone invite us to use resources that very often are not the most healthy and desirable for the rest of the people in our environment, but which help us to meet our needs of the moment. They are resources that in the short term can be very valuable and useful, although in the long term they are hurting us as they diminish the quality of relationships with others.

John Gottman is a psychology professor known for his research work in the world of love relationships. Thanks to their contributions today we understand more the mechanisms of communication between individuals, not only in the field of intimate relationships but also in any other type of relationship between people, including the professional environment.

toxic leadership


According to Gottman, toxics are mechanisms of self-protection that are activated at times when we perceive a hostile environment or do not know how to handle. In front of people with whom we do not feel comfortable, it will also be very possible for these types of attitudes to be manifested.

Gottman defines four toxics, using the metaphor of “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”, which impair communication between people. Each time some of these are “used”, the “recipients” or “receivers” of them are negatively impacted emotionally. It is for this reason that they are considered as behaviors that include some type of “emotional poison”.


These are the following:

  • Blaming:

These are critical attitudes towards someone who is considered to be responsible for an unrealized action or unmet need.

  • Defensiveness:

It is the justification before petitions or demands made, not assuming any responsibility on the matter in question.

  • Stonewalling:

These are protective behaviors or walls that short circuit the communication or make it unfeasible.

  • Contempt:

It is the use of sarcasm, destructive irony, or non-verbal communication that lead to a lack of respect to the contribution or identity of the interlocutor.

As you can imagine, these toxics feedback to each other. Defensiveness, for example, feels “invited” whenever blaming intervenes, just as stonewalling is a habitual reaction to contempt.

Very often they can also be seen acting in pairs, being habitual for example that someone is justifying (defensiveness) criticizing at the same time to someone (blaming).

We all have our “favorites” that we use in situations where we draw reactive resources. It is good to understand and reflect on my toxic tendency as well as to detect and understand the toxic actions of others.

When we become aware of this we are able to begin to manage more positive responses to critical situations without succumbing to toxic reactions. For this can help us what the author calls “the antidotes to the four horsemen.” These are actions to neutralize or minimize the harmful effects of them.

We know that toxics will never disappear since they are inherent to human behavior, but we can reduce their toxicity to the maximum to convert destructive communication processes into constructive communication processes.

Once we detected the toxic used by the person, we must take an action to neutralize or minimize its effects. In other words, we should look for an appropriate antidote in each case.

Below are some of the antidotes to use against other people’s toxic behavior. That is, when someone communicates with us in a toxic way.

For Blaming toxic:

  • Turn it into a request, making it available to the person who blames
  • Make the other speak from the “I” (judgmental appropriation)
  • Bring the speech to the ground of facts (provide data)

For Defensiveness toxic:

  • What is the 2% of truth about what I really say? Seek the common bond
  • Normalize or legitimize the emotion that has the defender
  • Focus on the problem or behavior, not the person

For Stonewalling toxic:

  • Be curious. Inquire into the situation and needs of the other person
  • Tell the other party if we can do something to facilitate dialogue
  • Show how we feel, showing our vulnerability
  • Do not take it personally

For Contempt toxic:

  • Intervene in the moment to make evident its presence. Name its presence without fault
  • Facilitate a space for relief, in order the disdain does not continue climbing
  • Inquire at the origin, in order to understand the primary need

Each of these antidotes should be used regularly and in a systematic way, understanding that for some people it will be more useful while with others it will require much more time and constancy in its use to begin to see the results.

In any case it is worth trying again and again. Relationships between people deserve it.


Enric Arola