What relationships got to do with software consulting?

Nov 30, 2022

Dr. John Gottman, a leading scientific researcher on relationships, has been able to predict, with over 90% accuracy, whether a marriage would fail. His research points out that failure is due primarily to the prevalence of two or more bad behaviors in that relationship. He called these behaviors the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling (Withdrawal).

This made me wonder how this could extend to other relationships, like work relationships.

Let’s consider the ERP software consultant. They simultaneously work within multiple relationships across multiple organizations, and the health of these relationships can make or break projects, companies, careers, and even lives.

When work relationships are healthy, the consultant spends more time working on value-add activities and less on administrative, repetitive, or other CYA activities that detract from work delivery. They are energized and motivated to work creatively, stay longer, and invest in others.

Wouldn't the opposite be true?  Unhealthy or toxic relationships debilitate and deplete the energy and motivation to participate or engage in the community. This costs time and money and sucks life.

How would we evaluate whether these behaviors exist in our work community? Here are some questions that might help.


Dr. Gottman states, "Criticism involves attacking someone's personality or character - rather than a specific behavior - usually with blame." 

Identifying issues and problems is part and parcel of being a consultant, so we walk a fine line between criticism and presenting issues to be addressed while offering advice. So, it matters that we continuously and mindfully evaluate our focus, attitude, and reasons for our responses. How we present our findings and suggestions is critical to effecting change without harm or injury.

When we identify problems, issues, or errors, do we respond with annoyance or caution - evaluating whether we have the complete information? Do we focus on the process or people’s character? Do we speak of what we’ve observed or talk about what we assume about our team?

Do we rush to think negatively of that person or seek to listen and understand?

Is our default position “we are correct, and they are wrong”?

Do we make snarky comments in uncomfortable situations?

Criticism is different from "complaint"; criticism is global, while the complaint is a "specific statement of anger, displeasure, distress or negativity."


It is said that contempt is a consequence of pride - not the good healthy feeling we get from work well done - but the dark, egotistical kind that elevates the self to a point where we seem to worship ourselves. We behave as if we are the center of the universe, and everyone else exists to ensure we retain that position.

Do we feel superior when we work with others who are not as knowledgeable as us? Not as skilled, not as articulate as us?

What’s the tone of our emails and voice? What’s our body language saying?

Do we ignore correspondence because it didn’t come from someone high enough on the org chart? Is the title not impressive enough?

Do we think less of someone who is different from us?

When we visit our clients, do we spend all our downtime speaking with highly titled ones and not bother to learn the names of those we consider not at the right level?

Do we see our direct reports as “not good enough” or as students?

Do we acknowledge that we are all students?

How prevalent are disrespect, sarcasm, mockery, snobbery, and gossip in our communication?

We all suffer from some level of negative pride, and it is almost impossible to see it in ourselves.  Seeing it in others is easy! We need the strength of vulnerability to glimpse it in ourselves and the courage to fight the tendency to maintain the status quo. But it is worth it, as it is in giving that we receive.



Devolving from contempt, we may get defensive if we feel our central place in the universe and our pride is being threatened. We lose sight of the real problem and avert our eyes to defending ourselves.

 How do we handle negative feedback, which says we’re not perfect? Do we feel attacked and feel a strong need to counterattack?

What if the client says they are not satisfied with our work delivery? How do we react?

What happens when we receive an email that causes us to sit back on our heels? Do we get mad? Send a cutting response or a well-heeled email explaining how THEY misunderstand us.

Do we receive input as an opportunity to see our blind spots and strengthen our values, or are we hell-bent on protecting our reputation?

When we succumb to defensiveness, the problem is no longer central; we plop ourselves in the center, then build a moat with strong defenses, protecting that center. The real problem, therefore, doesn't get fixed or takes longer to fix.


Withdrawal or Stonewalling

Stonewalling is when someone shuts down and refuses to interact. Isn’t it said the three rules for great relationships are “communication, communication, communication”? No communication means death by starvation.

Do we ignore emails or phone calls because we can’t figure out what to say? Do we hope that if we ignore that email, the client or teammate might forget we sent it?

Do we spend more time ruminating on possible excuses rather than facing the issue?

Do we have unpleasant or negative feedback that we will not address? Are we having banal conversations instead of the critical ones swirling in our heads?

Do we send that email to the client immediately before you go on vacation, knowing we’ll be “Out Of Office” when they respond? Are we hoping the situation will be resolved before we return?

Do we leave for vacation and not update others or hand over tasks in progress?

Are we ready to abandon the relationship because we haven’t found a way to have that difficult conversation?

Do we ask to be removed from a project because we don’t know how to address a problematic situation?

These negative behaviors can be eliminated. Tools are available to help the consultant address and navigate various work relationships and situations. Some consultants may need trained therapists or clinical psychologists, and we should encourage those to pursue this kind of help. However, others may need a holistic approach with a coach and mentor to help navigate these conditions. That's where The Jennifer Starns Group comes in. 

 At The Jennifer Starns Group, we partner with other Microsoft partners to help software consultants thrive in all areas to excel in the industry, community, and their lives. Connect with us at