Ten Games #9: The Shunning Game
Any time there were meetings called at the strategy level, he would ‘inadvertently’ not contact this person… a number of meetings were scheduled at the exact same time as this particular executive’s staff meetings.”
“There was a lot of whispering and things going on. I’d walk back there to hand someone something and, all of a sudden, the conversation would completely stop and the atmosphere would get very tense.”
“His response when I would ask him questions was to say, ‘I’m working with so-and-so on that – what do you need to know for?’… and I’m his MANAGER!”
Technically all ten games are tactics of exclusion. However, the Shunning Game packs a psychological punch that damages a victim’s self-regard and destabilizes their equilibrium. There is a reason the Amish use shunning to reject members who question Amish beliefs. It works. For any group dedicated to controlling perceptions there is plenty of new technology that automates shunning, blocks access, and disables the stories of individuals who don’t fit some preferred narrative.
Don’t get me wrong. We are talking about two sides to a paradox here. On one side, any individual with a big collaborative vision needs a strategy for ignoring critical voices that mean harm. Caring too much about the voices of those who do not share our values is a recipe for failure. Those of us who value collaboration and empathy need a “thick skin” to reduce our sensitivity to rejection and mockery – but go too far and thick skin becomes routine insensitivity and a counter-productive lack of empathy. It suppresses moral qualms about hoarding resources or refusing safe harbor to the less fortunate who end up labeled “out-group.”
Shunning is not always intentional. Privileged people often don’t even know they shun less privileged voices. They treat dissenting voices like bothersome gnats dehumanizing these voices with metaphorical bug spray. Deliberate shunners on the other hand, actively set up gatekeepers, block entry, and rig communication pipelines.
Shunning feels personal to the victim, but not the perpetrator. In the worst cases the shunning game translates to bullying, mockery, public humiliation, systematic exclusion, and cruelty. New and supposedly impersonal “efficiencies” that dehumanize communication, treat humans like numbers, or block the voices of dissent deliver a personal experience of shunning that creates a viscerally powerful personal impact. Victims of shunning either shut down or lose their ability to think straight.
The human body interprets social isolation as dangerous to our physical survival. The body actually treats isolation like a mortal threat: distorting the immune system, increasing inflammation, and mortality rates. See, we crave human contact for evolutionary reasons. Humans need to belong to a collective in order to survive.
Almost everyone has suffered the impact of a personal rejection. Perhaps you enthusiastically reached out to engage, collaborate, or offer the gift of your attention – and your presence was overtly or covertly unwelcomed, unrecognized or even mocked. It hurts enough to fuel a wasteful kind of anger that is vindictive – not to mention prompting hours of time spent coming up with a perfect come back (guilty) that will never be delivered.
Like most paradoxes the best solutions are found between the extremes. If you are being shunned, seek out regular connections with those who share your ideals. Recognize that most shunning is a defensive ploy rather than a personal rejection. If we let shunning drive us crazy it steals our energy. It is much better to stay sane and minimize the impact of shunning. Reclaim your time to think strategically about how to best regain your place at the table.
And finally, contemplate the idea that the person shunning you might think you started it. If they felt ignored first, the game was on. Test the tactic of asking their perspective, apologizing, and reconnecting. You will find this method works far more often than you expect. Your ego won’t like it, but this tactic is actually a minor risk. Over the twenty years since Territorial Games was released I’ve heard countless stories from people who successfully set aside old grievances and reclaimed a relationship that ended up better than the original relationship before it was broken. Hemingway was right, we often end up stronger at the broken places.