Have you ever heard of John Gottman, the Gottman institute or their ideas around conflict resolution and marriage success predicting factors? Probably not as let’s be honest, not many of us are big on self-improvement, bettering relationships and in general personal Human Work just as not many of us are willing to do the Human Work in the workplace either. It is this lack of care and intentional work that leads to more and more divorce and I put it to us today, that it is this lack of care and intentional work that will eventually lead to more and more "work divorce" aka attrition as well.
The first horseman in Gottman's model is “criticism”, which refers to negative comments or attacks on a person's character. In the workplace, unconstructive criticism can take the form of harsh feedback or public humiliation. The dreaded “blame culture” and in toxic cultures systemic bullying. When employees feel criticized or attacked, they are likely to become disengaged and unproductive. This of course can lead to increased absenteeism, decreased morale, and ultimately, attrition.
The second horseman is "defensiveness", which refers to the tendency to react defensively when feeling attacked or criticized. In the workplace, defensiveness can take the form of blaming others or denying responsibility. When employees feel defensive, they are likely to become even more disengaged and unproductive. This impacts Psychological Safety immediately and with it the ability of the team can have to collaborate as it leads to a lack of trust, low job satisfaction, decreased well-being, lower performance and productivity and ultimately, attrition.
The third horseman is "stonewalling", which refers to the act of withdrawing from genuine communication or interaction. In the workplace, stonewalling can take the form of avoiding conflict or shutting down emotionally. When employees feel ignored or dismissed, they are likely to become disengaged and unproductive. This can lead to a lack of collaboration and innovation, leading to decreased morale and ultimately, attrition.
The last and most dangerous of horsemen is "contempt", which refers to the feeling of disgust or disrespect towards another person. In the workplace, contempt is an insidious concept as it isn’t as manifest and easy to pinpoint as it would be in a marriage’s context but keep reading and you’ll see why these ushers in most worries for attrition.
They call it “The 4 horsemen” for evident reasons - after they start appearing it’s all downhill. They are behaviours so damaging that they are reliable predictors of imminent failure. Whenever there is criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt we must worry. Whether it is in our couple’s relationship or the work one.
If anything, in the workplace we can’t even think back to a time when none of these existed as the cycle of feeling scrutinised, checked on and yes, “criticised’ seems to forever have existed in one fashion or another and the “defensiveness” it ought to have rightfully received is stifled and repressed as workers everywhere are not feeling entitled to be fighting their own corner.
But the worst parts of it all, the elements that are the most dangerous to set aside as unimportant are "stonewalling" and “contempt” and they are unfolding right now.
What else is disengagement other than extreme “stonewalling” and “contempt” in one? In a couple, when one “stonewalls” the other partner, they cut off any meaningful interaction so that they show they are displeased or simply because they do not have the interest to engage, or, worse, in order to manipulate a certain reaction into being. Unless the two partners learn how to manage this interaction and minimise it by introducing “repair” attempts, the “rupture” that initially pushed one of the two (or both) into stonewalling becomes permanent and there is no coming back from the alienation it brings about and the couple is eventually doomed to disconnect and drift apart.
In an enterprise, employees who had long been at the receiving end of criticism already find themselves completely cut off from any meaningful dialogue with the enterprise nowadays. They don’t speak FOR them and they don’t speak TO them. The organisation never makes them feel valued and appreciated for any contribution, the full extent of the dialogue is perfunctory and pertains to everyday tasks but nothing meaningful, authentic or emotionally valuable occurs between the two parties.
What’s more, the employees are now stonewalling back. That’s what “active disengagement” stands for. They have nothing to contribute, no reason to go above and beyond and communicate, create or invent and no emotional availability to invest passion or interest in anything connected with what the company stands for.
They are both utterly checked out of the mission and no one is there to reestablish the dialogue. If the company and its employees saw a magical organisational shaman who would function as a super-marriage counsellor they would try and determine how so much HumanDebt found its way into the middle of this relationship but they would first and foremost teach both sides about “rupture and repair”, “sensitive radical honesty”; “empathy”; “shared gratitude”; “purpose reaffirmation and passion resignation” and so much more and hope that they start “talking again”.
Last but absolutely not least, the way that the enterprise has let things get this far in how everyone feels undervalued, alienated, disconnected, unwell and like a replaceable “resource” is the clearest manifestation of contempt. If they had felt any other way than extreme disinterest and even looked down on their employees, they wouldn’t have let the other horses in or called them back to the office.
The bigger drama is that we are at a stage where “active disengagement” is starting to contain disparaging views towards the enterprise and when people go from “quiet quitting” to semi-active actively realising that divorce is imminent and starting to be vocal about all the bevvy of ailments that they had kept quiet about.
When employees start seeing the real horror of the high levels of Human Debt and they feel like resources that are met with disapproval and criticism, cause defensiveness and close-mindedness and then deafening silence and the immensely damaging contemptuous and openly disparaging attitude, they’ll eventually have had enough and filed for divorce.
If you want to keep them, you’ll need the equivalent of couples’ therapy - learn to open genuine dialogue channels and protect their veracity and sanctity with all your might, keep working on understanding the root of the problems that caused the Human Debt and unpick its components so you can work on all of them, reemphasise the importance of the Human Work and make it become part of the day-to-day and find your way back to purpose and meaning. together. Talk therapy, behavioural, dialectical, you name it. A massive enterprise. Consuming, costly, hard but ever SO necessary.
Then you can only hope the love is still there and we can all avoid a second and much more painful Great Resignation.
Related: The Monster HumanDebt of Banking