“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.
- 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.
- Camouflage Game (Wild Goose Chase)
The new forms of this game have the potential to twist truth in ways that kill ideas that matter far more than just killing the research project described in the quote below:
“Hal was there only as a sophisticated untracker in groups. Untrackers get you going down the primrose path…you feel comfortable going…the whole way through. In order to avoid implementation of my [research] idea, Hal said it sounded great but ‘we need…to get the…clinical investigation committee to approve the scientific merit.’ And so on and so forth….What he knew [was] that if you have a bunch of fairly bright people…you can make it sound plausible…. what he said was absolutely right on target, but the intent…was not scientific merit. [It was to block the research.]
The term “untracker” is an excellent way to define a camouflage game player. This game is a common slapstick comedy routine. The Three Stooges played it all the time. One of them would point and yell, “Look over there!” and when the target looked in that direction the “untracker” could steal whatever he wanted while they weren’t looking. You may have played it yourself without malicious intent. It’s what siblings do to get the last cookie. But when the stakes are high, involving difficult truths, it’s not funny.
“It’s the wild goose chase. If they send you off on enough of them, you won’t think the thing to be hunted is in their territory. It appears so credible…’If I can get you away from my territory then I win.’”
From the original research in 1997, it was clear that most untrackers hid their misdirection in the camouflage of support: just one more additional step, an opportunity we should wait for, adding one more expert. Sometimes the tactic is to get a group to bite off way more than they can chew so they choke on their own good intentions before their program has a chance to invade protected territory. Frequently it works so well people really believe the game player’s insistent claims of positive intent.
Capitalizing on someone’s insecurity doubles the game player’s ability to create confusion. The goal is for emotions to hijack the rational mind. Calling attention to someone’s embarrassing past, a mistake, or asking in the middle of their presentation “what’s that brown thing hanging out of your nose?” is enough to steal momentum or stop a speaker dead in her tracks. The game player almost always pretends they are trying to help. In particular, to help us avoid some perceived disaster they intend to illustrate in vivid detail. Because the fastest way to misdirect attention is to find a threat and supersize it.
“So it ranged from discounting to actually creating perceptions of threats. A new program was positioned to be potentially dangerous to the welfare of the company in order to keep it from effecting the way a group of managers liked to do business.”
When game players point out multiple threats and escalate perceptions of dire consequences they can make a group so dizzy with confusion the group is much more likely to defer to an authority (usually the game player) to save them. This game incorporates the art of illusion – make the threat seem big enough and scary enough and no one has time to think or to do the hard thing.
Like all of the games, the Camouflage Game works because people participate. When we look “over there” and stop paying attention to what we know is true, we are the ones who make the game work. And the most susceptible groups are always those of us with tough dilemmas we can avoid indefinately every time we agree to “Look over there!” Rather than making hard decisions and making the painful sacrifices the situation demands we opt for rubber necking someone else’s disaster. I suspect this hasn’t changed.