Leaders Build Relationships by Avoiding Contempt

Perhaps it goes without saying, but it is important to note here: positive behaviors build relationships and negative behaviors destroy relationships. We’ve discussed in this blog the 3:1 feedback ratio. This ratio says for every piece of negative feedback you give, you need to give three bits of positive feedback. Of course, the positive and negative feedback doesn’t happen during the same conversation. Also, a main requirement is that a positive relationship has been built first.

Dr. Gottman recommends a 5:1 positive to negative interaction ratio. Interactions include any positive behaviors such as smiling, a token of appreciation, or a water cooler chat about your upcoming vacation. Each positive interaction is like putting a deposit into your relationship bank, and each negative interaction is a withdraw. Therefore, keep a positive running balance in your relationship bank.

The Second Horsemen: Contempt

Even though contempt is the second horsemen, it is the deadliest. Whereas a defensive comment may withdraw a dollar from your relationship bank, an act of contempt will remove five or six dollars. Contempt is flat-out meanness. According to Dr. Gottman, contempt “conveys disgust and superiority, especially moral, ethical, and categorical.” Simply put, contemptuous behaviors say, “You are beneath me.”

When I was a teenager, contempt was my go-to response to my parents when I didn’t agree with them. I had a Ph.D. in the under-my-breath mutter of “Whatever,” complete with an eye roll. Both of these are forms of contempt. Other contemptuous behaviors are:

  • Sarcasm
  • Sneering
  • Huffing
  • Name calling
  • Hostile humor
  • Mimicking
  • Personal jabs

Even when these behaviors are done behind someone’s back, the attitude of moral superiority strengthens, paving the way for more contempt.

Antidotes for Contempt

There are two basic antidotes: BSAaFWYW and building a culture of positivity.

The first antidote, using BSAaFWYW, turns negative thoughts into needs. Instead of placing blame on the other person, you convey how you feel and what you need. Remember, you cannot control the behavior of others, but you can control your own behavior and response.

The second antidote is long-term. Building a workplace culture of positivity means modeling positive behaviors toward others. It is intentionally using the 3:1 ratio for feedback and the 5:1 ratio for positive interactions. Keep your relationship bank with your peers, direct reports, and managers in the black.


“You were late to the meeting again. Do I need to buy you a watch or something?” (Contempt)

“Hey, it’s really important to start meetings on time, and we can’t do that until you get there. We value your input. Would you please make sure to arrive on time from here on out?” (BSaAFWYW with positivity)

“This is a mess. A complete disaster. It looks like a five-year-old created this.” (Contempt)

“I’m not sure this is your best work. Can we find a time to go over it together?” (Positive culture response)

Building a workplace culture of positivity, inclusion, understanding, and high expectations stops contemptuous behavior before it begins.

Thanks for reading,


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