“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Zora Neale Hurston
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.
- Invisible Walls Game
“He would use the bureaucracy. He would tie things up in bureaucracy. He knew how to make moves and grab what he wanted and then tie it up so you couldn’t get it back. He would use the system…He would mislead people into thinking that he was being cooperative while he was doing this other stuff behind the scenes. He always put on the face of a very cooperative person, but he was a back stabber.”
The Invisible Walls Game is a broad catch-all bucket of highly creative yet secret (well…deniable) ways to stop the progress of an idea while pretending to support that idea in public. One subject reported that a game player agreed to share information and then buried the needed information within a mountain of data and printouts.
“[They] completely disallowed any useful information to come out for me to take back and use as a program. The people in that meeting , therefore, accomplished not allowing the program to be started.”
Of course, not all walls are inherently bad. Good fences make good neighbors. A “wall” is not a game until a group decides they no longer need/want to be a good neighbor.
One Big T Truth about being human is that, to survive, we must balance the paradoxical benefits of connections and protections. Too much emphasis on protection erodes connections. Too few connections and we cannot solve problems that require collaborative effort. Every decision to protect has the potential to erode a connection and vice versa.
Twenty years later, the word “bureaucracy” in the quote above can also describe new technology-run administration systems (new forms of bureaucracy) with built in walls that prevent unauthorized acts of connection/generosity before they can happen. For instance in healthcare, systems increasingly redefine face-to-face interactions as unnecessary and thus avoidable expenses. Kiosk check ins, website based communication and automated telephone systems effectively wall off any chance the providers I need will have to waste time on a healing smile, a shared joke, or an expression of empathetic connection. Some territorial game players are even proud of how these walls keep resources out of the reach of anyone outside their circle of moral concern.
Everyone knows that some walls are good, even vital, but the territorial game of Invisible Walls (not so invisible lately) specifically describes behaviors of a core group that hoards resources needed for collective actions. If it’s not a game (legit protection) it isn’t an invisible wall.
In the 3rded. of The Story Factor (Fall 2019) there will be more about how individuals, groups and institutions use stories to define who is and is not within their “circle of moral concern.” Shrinking circles mean fewer connections. And when the desire to protect causes us to neglect the care and feeding of vital connections required to solve problems too big for our tribe alone– we are playing games with our future.
- Strategic Non-Compliance
“There was clearly an executive who would ‘roger up’ on everything but then do his own thing. He would agree on the way things would be done in a meeting and then go out and do as he damn well pleased.”
“So they would say they were going to do something and then not do it. The effect of that was that I didn’t get the information that I needed to resolve the problem, I didn’t know until it was too late.”
“They drag their feet by saying they will run a test and then they won’t run the test. Some other important priority came up and they couldn’t get on [it.]. For months and months they would never get the data.”
Have you ever brought up a tough issue, heard “Okay, we’ll get right on it,” but felt deep in your bones that this person or group was simply buying time and had no intention whatsoever of “getting right on it?” Unless they meant they’d get right on undermining your approach. In a group pressed for time, a promise to act or superficial agreement effectively halts further discussion and buys a game player enough time to kill the idea or let it die a languid death in the “too hard” basket.
“You get all five divisions together, they promise to work together and they act like the CEO calls the shots. Thay all walk out of the room in complete agreement with him collectively. The pretend and go along with it…They just say one thing and do something else…When they go back to their five regions it will be ‘the hell with everybody else.’”
Strategic Non-Compliance is a tactic that buys time by convincing you that you don’t need to keep trying to influence others because if they can convince you that you’ve already won, then you will shut up. It reminds me of the fake handshake where the other person suddenly removes their hand to smooth their hair and you feel like a goober with your hand out and more than a little bit humiliated. (a double play with the indimitaion game)
However this is not just something “other people” do, we’ve all done it. (spoiler alert: all of us play all ten games at one time or another) The first time you told your parent “Okay, okay, I’ll do it,” and went right on not doing it – you played the strategic non-compliance game. You didn’t have malicious intent. You intended to do it, but you said yes primarily to get Mom, Dad, or the boss to just go away. That doesn’t mean that when people say “yes” they don’t mean it. But good intentions can fade pretty quickly.
“He wasn’t aggressive with it. He was passive. He didn’t say, ‘This thing is not going to work.’ He said, ‘This will work; I’m all for it; we have to do it; we have to make sure it is successful. I want to make sure it is successful”…Just let me train these people and when they are ready to go they we’ll move along to the next step.’ So he agree in principles but yet his behavior was that he delayed it as long as possible.”
As long as we play these games and then protect ourselves with plausible deniability: “I meant to, but…Oh, I must have forgotten…I depended on you to remind me….oh darn did I miss the deadline?” we stay blind to the unconscious ways we defend ourselves from having to face tough truths that require personal sacrifice. If territorial impulses are part of human nature (and I think they are) there is no way to drive out human impulses to be territorial. These ten games will always be part of our shadow selves. The point is, that like any shadow – these territorial impulses need to be examined and understood in the light of day if we have any hope for finding big picture collective solutions.
- Information Manipulation Game
Tweak the numbers and you tweak the decision. Edit video and you edit context. Control the narrative and you control what information seems relevant. Truth is the first casualty whenever we assume that everyone manipulates information so we have to as well….since “that’s how the game is played.”
“Their response [when tweaking numbers] is that they’re doing what the system allows them to do. They feel, ‘I’m within the rules. I’m applying the rules to my benefit but I’m still playing within the rules.’”
When we characterize work, government, or other personal interactions as a competitive game we invoke game “rules.” As long as politics is considered a battleground, war rules apply and truth is the first casualty. Why not review the rules with Sun Tzu’s Art of War? The battle metaphor is a disaster for truth seekers. In a war/game, withholding information, promoting disinformation, suprise attack and active misdirection are not just acceptable but honored as good tactics. Whenever I facilitate high-level budget meetings, I always ask the question – how do you calculate your budget requests? Eventually I hear, “we figure how much we need and double it, or add 30%,” or whatever distortion each group’s norms justify. When I ask:
“How can we possibly make good decisions if our norm is to lie to each other?”
…it is usually the first time the group has asked themselves this question. The resulting conversations reveal the obstacles we impose on ourselves every time we characterize a budget meeting as a battle or a game. We play by rules that guarantee to distort our collective understanding of Big T Truths. Truth is the first casualty the minute we unconsciously expect there will be winners and losers, because it means that helping the other side tell the truth is the fastest track to becoming a loser.
Granted our judicial system wouldn’t work if lawyers were asked to collaborate – but there is no reason this adversarial approach should be our primary method for seeking Truth. While there are laws about sharing information in the judicial system, few lawyers call attention to evidence that helps the other side. An adversarial system for seeking truth incentivizes a battle mentality that rarely assembles various points of view into one big picture. We limit our truth to the one who wins, rather than the one who has the most integrity, experience, or good intentions.
“Another example is where data can be selectively manipulated. That’s a strong word for what I’m describing, but I’ve seen instances where selective use of data can basically get you to a different conclusion. They are protecting their own territory. The conclusion they are going for – let’s assume we are looking at a particular feature on a product – it’s a strong desire from one group in the company to have this feature. Another group…may not feel it’s that important…It becomes a judgment call. You are adding cost, adding weight. The one that wants the feature will tend to collect data and present data that would enhance the attractiveness of that feature. On the other hand, other people will be tweaking the numbers the other way.”
People (and now, algorithms) that assemble, interpret, format, and relay information into “meaningful” chunks edit out what seems unimportant (from their point of view) in order to feature what is important (from their point of view).
“So you’ve got a subculture that is trying to go for their optimum, which is counter to the big-picture good…What actually happens in the interchange from human to human is that they refuse to look at the big picture. They tell you flat out in a meeting… I’ve made the request that we look at the big picure and their response back [to me] is that they don’t get measured to do that, not paid to do what. ‘I’m only measured on meeting this objective and that’s what I’m talking to you about.'”
Any “fight” for truth means welcoming truths we dont like as well as the truths we do like. Denying unpleasant realities doesn’t make them untrue, it only distorts our ability to find solutions. That’s what I meant when I titled my last book “Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins.” I didn’t mean to suggest it was a guide to crush someone else’s truth with a truth you like better. I thought it would be obvious to those who study storytelling that the real wins are only found in Big T Truths. I guess I need to keep working on that.