The Four Horsemen of Business Failure

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Stephen Balzac

The ghosts of voices fill the halls. The sound of the air conditioning only makes the emptiness more intense. Walking through the deserted building, it’s easy to mistake the little sounds, the sudden squeaks, the unexpected hums, for signs of life. But there is no one. The building is empty, the employees are gone. In the distance, at the edge of hearing, there is perhaps the fading echo of hoofbeats.

A year before, the building was bursting at the seams. Every office was filled. Cubicles were springing up like mushrooms in the hallways. The company was considering a move to a larger building. However, the signs of future problems were there.

Six months before, the bustle and hum of business continued nonstop. It was Silicon Valley at the peak of the high-tech boom. People were there all hours of the day and night. There were snores from staff who had collapsed on coaches after being up all night. Staff had put in long hours.

The signs of troubles coming were there too. Four horses, closer now. Listen…

“Are you man enough to solve this?”

“You don’t have what it takes to work here.”

“You just wrecked this release!”

“This isn’t my fault. If you’d listened to me, we wouldn’t be having trouble!”

“Who came up with that brilliant idea?”

“Don’t bother me, I’ll fix it myself.”

See the closed doors, the ear buds in every ear. Hear the lack of conversation over lunch, a room full of people, each one alone.

Hear the hoofbeats, growing louder, coming closer.

The end came swiftly. The product release did not go quite as well as hoped. The blaming, the finger-pointing, the denials, followed quickly thereafter. When the first few people quit, managers just shrugged and said, “Good riddance to those troublemakers. They didn’t care anyway.”

In one sense, the managers were correct: By then, those who quit did not care. Not any more. They had stopped caring long since, as had the managers. That’s the problem.

Sharp words were spoken, sharper words returned. People left.

“What’s wrong with you? Can’t you handle criticism?”

“Hey, don’t be so thin skinned!”

The building emptied, the company died.

The hoofbeats are outside. Do you recognize those four riders?

No, not War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. Nothing so melodramatic.  These four horsemen are smaller, more mundane, but no less dangerous. They are the four that shatter teams and destroy businesses. First identified by psychologist John Gottman, they can show up wherever people are working together. Their names are personal criticism, contempt, defensiveness and withdrawal. Look at each one, remember him.

·         Personal criticism. When criticism is personal rather than objective, it attacks the person and not the idea. It undermines trust and creates anger. The natural response to feeling attacked is to attack back. Internal combat destroys team cohesion and leads to defensiveness. Be wary of the person who makes everything a personal attack: “I’m not sure if this will work” is met by, “Are you questioning my competence?” Transforming objective criticism into personal criticism prevents discussion, analysis and effective problem solving. As a dominance game, it can be quite rewarding to the individual, but highly destructive to the group.

·         Contempt.  Contempt or scorn or disdain destroys trust and cooperation. As soon as one member of a team treats another as worthless, it closes off the team to member ideas. It becomes clear to the team that input is no longer welcome. Once that happens, the team steadily reduces the resources it has available to solve problems and accomplish its goals. Once the habit of contempt is established, it is very hard to break.

·         Defensiveness. When people feel they have to defend themselves, solutions to problems aren't offered. Fingers may be pointed, and blame may be assigned. The actual problems get forgotten or ignored.  Defensiveness causes mistakes to compound on mistakes. Defensiveness and personal criticism feed off one another, destroying constructive communication.

·         Withdrawal. Working at home is one thing. Withdrawing is another. When employees don't work together, they show they don't care about the team. And, once they no longer care about the team, they still work but solely to get a paycheck. It takes an amazing opportunity to lure away employees who care. Quitting is the ultimate form of withdrawal and contempt for an employer.

Argument, debate, questioning--all these are important to the life of a team. The best teams are those that know how to fight well. But when the four horsemen join your team, the arguments are personal, the debate is endless and the questioning is ineffective or nonexistent.

The building will not remain empty for long. Soon enough the halls will once again fill with voices engaged in argument, debate, discussion. Will you hear the hoofbeats coming? What will you do to overcome their impact?

About the Author(s)

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Balzac is the author of The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development and a contributing author to volume one of Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play. His latest book is Organizational Psychology for Managers.