“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Zora Neale Hurston
“Powerful alliances” is a territorial game humans have played from the beginning of time. But when people start treating friends and natural allies like bargaining chips to win a territorial game in ways that silence others – they cross a line. It is human nature to cultivate connections with people who seek the same goals we seek to use their power, a voice, or connections to step in when they can help. Back when I did the original research, technology had yet to invent platforms and industries to dedicated to automating powerful alliances. The gig economy has forced many people to treat friends like assets. It makes me sad. But it’s not new. The minute work life is characterized as a battle then accumulating allies, spies, confederates, pawns, re-tweeters, likes, links, and moles reduces friendships to bargaining chips.
The chickens are coming home to roost. Blindly recruiting other people to play games on your “tribe’s” behalf as a way to silence, disable, or crush perceived opposition is effective but there are consequences. Once friendships are stripped of intimacy, loyalty, kinship, moral solidarity, and empathetic feedback and replaced with economic reasoning and score-keeping we lose the social glue that holds us together.
The game called Powerful Alliances is the best example of how a territorial game can be used for good or evil (although game players always believe they are on the side of good). A big picture view of politics today shows tight groups of liberals and conservatives deploying every powerful alliance they can to “win” battles that can never be decisive. The fatal flaw in pursuing wins instead of balancing continuums is that choosing one “side” or the other prevents the healthy toggle back and forth between contrasting but vital moral paradoxes that work best in tandem. Territorial game players dont seem to understand there are no “wins” involving paradoxes of human life (safety/freedom, individual/group, relationships/rules, etc) that could possible be decisive without dire consequences. Worse, it divides the resulting “tribes” to the point alliances are no longer moderated by social norms of discretion, dialogue, compromise and deep trust.
People who “mobilize” their friends into contacts for economic advantage don’t intend to contribute to the global loss of social trust we now experience, but they do. Like everyone else, I hope to attract powerful alliances too. But only with people who genuinely think my work makes a contribution to the collective wellbeing of us all. Likewise, I will continue to share and promote your work when it speaks to my soul and helps us lead the business and political environment back to collaboration, mutual respect, and reciprocal generosity. It’s all I care about. If I can help, let me know.
But please let’s stop reducing human relationships to “contacts” – it’s killing unconditional generosity and cultivating cynicism we cannot afford.
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.
“He would sometimes use humor to put him down. He’d make comments like ‘Well let’s stay strategic here,’ and that implies that his comment was something less than strategic. We’d laugh, but you know, they were direct put downs.”
“They would ridicule the sincerity of the fans of the new consultants. They would make them sound gullible. Saying, ‘Well that sounds pretty damn bizarre to me. What relevance does it have? You guys are turning into groupies for God’s sake.’”
Those who play the Discrediting Game undermine the reputation and credibility of their “enemies” with actions that can be as subtle as a raised eyebrow all the way to blanket character assassination. This game has been around forever but it used to be kept under control by social norms. Digital media has reframed what was a “nuclear option” into a daily habit. Previously, the non-verbal feedback of face-to-face interactions meant the majority of us were far less willing to demonize people we knew we desperately needed to create mutual wins. It felt stupid. Our emotions warned us that it was dangerous. Now we have evidence that demonizing others (just to win) felt stupid for very practical reasons.
“People were just harassing them completely. They would say, “Why do we have to listen to this? They used names like Krauts, Frogs, etc. for whomever. They were swearing…The effect was that they didn’t listen to what the person was saying. They distracted people that were listening …They effectively cut off anyone’s ability to receive whatever data was coming from the Europeans. They pulled in anyone within earshot from listening to whatever was happening. They brought in people who typically might have listened but who now share those viewpoints.”
If there is one abuse of storytelling that concerns me most it is the desire to control a narrative by discrediting other points of view. Once an accusation sticks there may be a relative bump in trust for the accuser compared to the now demonized party, but the lost trust isn’t replaced. It is transformed into distrust and yet one more point of view is marginalized or even silenced. The robust influence of multiple points of view dissipates and our reservoirs of trust simply begin to run out. The daily habit of demonizing rather than forging connections has created escalating accusations and fear stories, distracting everyone’s eyes from working together on shared solutions to shared dangers like climate change, systemic poverty, and war.
When businesses and politicians play only to win, they siphon energy from our ability to play together. Pretending that life is a game to win has channeled far too many resources that used to build trust to game behaviors that tear trust apart. To frame politics as a battle is to recruit strategies from the “art of war” – surprise attack, sabotage, diversion, to “kill with a borrowed knife” and a whole host of strategies that might be appropriate for war but have the effect of breaking every norm we need for peaceful existence to the point that everything feels like a war. Just because some people are bored with peace, doesn’t give them the right to turn business and politics into a war where character assasination is a winning strategy.
- 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.