Back To Basics Executive Coaching Series – The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

My name is Sari van Poelje I’m the CEO of Intact Academy. We give training programs for coaches and consultants all over the world, from beginner coach to team coach to organizational consultancy. My other business is Team Agility. I am an Agile Business Innovation Designer: I help companies innovate their business more quickly than their products. 

One of the tools I use is Transactional Analysis. We’ve been doing a series on the various concepts, and now we’re talking about psychological games. Psychological games are unconscious, non problem-solving patterns of behaviour that lead to a known pay-off. Games are the thing that costs organizations and marriages most, and affect our quality of life. 

As an executive coach I frequently dealt with people who want coaching to become a better leader or to help change the organization. Often by the fourth or fifth session they become a bit pensive, and tell me their marriage isn’t going so well either. Of course in real life private life and work life isn’t that separated. The patterns you have at work very similar to the patterns you have at home. 

One of the things that cost businesses the most both psychologically and financially is the fact that people play psychological games with each other. 

One of the things the Gottman’s talk about [1] is the relational patterns that get people into trouble. They can predict how long couples will stay together by measuring transactional patterns. His work doesn’t isn’t only applicable to marriages, but also or your relationships at work. 

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse at Work

  1. Criticism: Gottman talks about people who constantly criticize each other, we call that racketeering in transactional analysis. Constant criticism gets people into what we call a plus/minus position. One is the Persecuter and the other is the Victim. At a certain moment, of course, people don’t take it anymore, and so the roles switch and the game escalates. That’s usually the reason couples divorce, or leaders derail. 
  2. Defensiveness: If your partner says “You ‘re always on your computer, you’re preparing your work for tomorrow. We’ve got a lot going on, with a young family and we were in love. Where are you?” A defensive response might be: “You don’t understand. We could never have this lifestyle if I didn’t work so hard.” This leads to redefining and discounting, and not actually addressing what’s happening in the dialogue. 
  3. Contempt: Contempt is when you say, for example, “Oh, you’re always or you’re never….” When you show contempt you don’t respect the other person equally. In TA you are showing that you feel that the other person is not okay or in any case that you are more OK. Constant contempt or the expression of contempt is one of the predictors of a breakdown in a relationship both in marriage and at work. I remember when I was the talent development director at a company and I asked why Peter, who was very good at his job and had been doing it well for a long time, hadn’t been promoted. One of the board members said, “Well, you can’t promote Peter, 20 years ago he dropped a screwdriver in a machine. Those machines cost £20 million. So we can never promote him.” For twenty years this poor guy who dropped a screwdriver in the machine when he was 19 hadn’t been promoted. 
  4. Stonewalling: A very clear sign of gaming in a relationship is stonewalling. You can tell by the amount of relational bids people make whether the relationship is good or bad. Children naturally make relational bids, “Oh mommy, I love you,” constantly looking for touch, both real and symbolic. If a relationship is really good between adults you see a lot of relational bids too. When a relationship breaks down, you see that the amount of relational bids goes down dramatically.


These four horsemen of the apocalypse are the portals into a psychological game or are signals of ongoing games. If you want to break through you have to start at the highest level of discount – see the previous article for more detail. 

[1] The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship ExpertPaperback, May 16, 2000, John M. Gottman, Nan Silver


Published On: March 16th, 2020By
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