The cost of incivility, territorial games, and trump

A person exposed to incivility (not a victim, just an observer) is 3 times less likely to help others in lab experiments.  His willingness to share resources drops by 50%  Worse, those who experience incivility first hand…

I didn’t call it incivility back in 1995, but the behaviors workers described as I gathered stories that narrated events behind organizational metaphors like “turf war,” “silo,” “back-stabber,” “pissing contest,” etc. sound awfully familiar.  This research described ten “territorial games” that seem to be correlated with “incivility.” If so, I think it’s worth talking about territorial games again because how we characterize a problem completely alters the solutions we invent.

If we call it incivility then the “cure” might sound like individual training to increase mindfulness and self control. All good, but I’m concerned that most people are in very short supply of the additional willpower necessary.  Not to mention the least civil do not seem interested in this kind of training.

If we look at the behaviors as a function of group norms, then the “cure” is to change the norms.  My approach is to provide a map of how groups end up with “default norms” then help the group collectively reflect and choose new norms by design rather than default.  Groups that share personal stories get there faster. It’s that psychological safety thing.

But what if the behaviors represent a sweeping cultural response to changes in the emotional tone of daily communications (perhaps the daily use of fear/uncertainty/threat stories to grab attention) then we have an epidemic on our hands. An epidemic that makes Trump’s incivility look “smart,” that makes people want to use the same tactics to protect themselves, and worse tells a story that civility is weakness even subterfuge.

No matter what we call these fear-based behaviors lets talk more about how we can make a difference, connect people back to themselves and each other.


5 thoughts on “The cost of incivility, territorial games, and trump”

  1. Annette –

    I think you are on to something here. In “The Power of 3, Lessons in Leadership” I describe one of the traits/behaviors that leaders must develop is the ability to “Drive Despair Out”, first out of your personal life and then out of your organization/community. History is replete with people who use despair to manipulate others. They are not leaders as I noted. They are purveyors of evil. Leaders don’t do that.

    You are right that changing a culture of incivility starts with the individuals purveying incivility and their “successful” experience reinforces the notion that incivility is the appropriate path to success. It is hard to get individual purveyors of incivility to admit that a change is needed and even harder to get an organization to recognize the need to change norms. It is somewhat like the old joke about psychologists. How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb really has to want to change.

    Since the essence of politics is using power to manipulate others, it is not surprising to me that this behavior occurs there. That is why I prefer not to get into politics, but I agree that Trump is using this tactic. However, he is not the first of either party to do so. Remember who was in charge of bimbo eruptions? Or the famous anti-Goldwater add with the little girl and the daisy with the mushroom cloud (perhaps before your time)? So there is plenty of “accountability” to go around (intention pun related to our previous Twitter exchange). It is not new with Trump. Sometimes it takes recognition of faults in others to see them in ourselves.

    Speaking of stories, there is one about the dear departed Miss Manners who got in a cab in NYC and wanted to go to Kennedy airport. The cabbie bemoaned the long drive and the fares he would miss waiting for a rider back to Manhattan before his shift ended. Couldn’t she pick somewhere else to go? To which she simply smiled and very politely said, “OK, where would you like to go?” Civility won the day.

    Your story about the African tribes and the blind brother-in-law comes to mind. Because they did to them what you have done to me (sorry if I didn’t get the quote exactly right).

    If there is anything I can do to help/support you in this matter, do not hesitate to call.


    1. Steve, thanks for your thoughts!! I wonder if individual change is the only way to approach this. What about group norms? I called my company Group Process Consulting because I’m interested in groups having the tools to “fix” themselves…or at the very least choose their own norms. I agree about abuse of power regardless of political party. But in practice I see the abuse explained away by the abuser as if they were “forced” into it by (point finger in other direction). Never talking to the person who started it taught me that looking for “who started it” is a big fat waste of time and a distraction. I use Trump as an example because he is current and overtly disdainful. In truth it’s disdain that I worry about from whatever quarter.

      I can’t separate politics from economics from social psychology from communication from technology…so power is a slippery concept if you don’t choose a context…and I don’t. It’s all connected and making it easier to talk about doesn’t help – it just compartmentalizes all the dynamics at play. I guess we can talk about the human desire to have control over one’s environment. That’s universal….and I think the distortions of how we now get information (as opposed to 20 years ago) have distorted our perceptions, emotions…and behaviors. No negative intentions needed. Sort of a garbage in, garbage out. “Fear in, fear out.”

  2. Let’s call a spade a spade. It’s plain bullying and framing on a large scale. And aren’t the persons you call exposed to incivility ‘the silent majority’, looking passively on humiliation and silently disagree, or mumble protest behind their hands? The on- watchers in the back of the schoolyard, afraid to stand up against the small(er) group around the bully? Then it looks like a huge challenge…
    It’s the fascination and ‘respect’ for the negative dominance that still fascinates me. When I was studying psychology a long time ago, I came across some interesting research in Kindergartens (I remember vaguely a Scandinavian country). One of the findings was that (dominant) bullies were feared by others, that they were indeed pushing and shouting. Another finding was that in these groups there often was another child who had a ‘silent’ (can’t find a better word), natural ‘dominance’, or should I say authority, without screaming. They were the kids the others turned to after being bullied, for consolation and even protection. They were also the ones the bully evaded or – when confronted with the other – turned away. They never had to fight the bully, neither physically nor verbally. It’s not so much that the bully stopped entirely, but is was restricted and there seems to be a ‘power balance’. My question would be: where are the ‘naturals’ now? And what was that ‘power’ they had?
    My knowledge and experience is more limited than yours (compared to you and others I am a late bloomer) but I would love to think along with you and put questions to the test in groups I’m working with.
    I hope you will soon find other story-workers contributing to this issue. I could think of some names I value.

    1. It looks like bullying, smells like bullying and feels like bullying…but calling it bullying is a trap. IMHO. Yes this is about power. Yes there are group norms that develop when a group member attacks others on a regular basis, sometimes it’s a nurturing parent type and sometimes that’s better than “Lord of the Flies” everybody for themselves. But if we use the word bully – we separate ourselves from any responsibility for sustaining the problem and blame continues the negative spiral to less and less empathy. I see the world in terms of objective (things) and subjective (human) systems. Root cause is never a good way to solve subjective problems. Root cause is a great way to characterize objective, linear problems made up of systems or things that don’t think for themselves.

      Looking for the root cause of low morale…means “who started it?” and even if you find the cause…you are dealing with humans who get defensive that they are misunderstood, reciprocating in kind, it’s just not a practical approach.

      For the ten+ years I was consulting on territorial games…I used the ten games to increase awareness of the unconscious, reactive, behaviors that ANYONE displays when they have been out drinking fear. The model is a derivative of transactional analysis and the goal is an “i’m okay and you’re okay” balance that I think is now represented by the term “psychological safety.” So YES! let’s look for ways to mine all of the interesting work we are doing and come up with solutions. The group process that has worked very well is 1. present the ten games to a group and ask “ever seen these behaviors?” 2. Pause. “How many of you have displayed these behaviors themselves?” 3. What if these behaviors are just human instincts – not malicious intent – just regular humans as screwed up as we are? 4. Metaphor maps – drawing the “mental terrain” of who is in/out for you, your group, your environment. 5. Lots of laughter – the drawings are hilarious – and God knows we need to laugh. 6. No one started it, but modifying our behaviors, us, here, now is one step toward rising above the amygdala and using empathy to connect rather than give in to the urge to protect. if you want to test this with one of your groups, let me know and I’ll share more detail.

      1. First of all, thank you, Annette, for sharing! I agree that calling someone a bully leads to separation and blaming, and as I tried to explain, it’s more the behavioral phenomenon and the (social) consequences that I’m interested in. We find that in other species as well :-).
        I agree with your reply to Steven Mays where you state that groups might have ‘tools to ‘fix’ themselves and choose (or find?) their own norms’ (and maybe values?). I also think I understand your opinion on ‘moving’ contexts and how we cope with that, or not, because our primal instincts interfere.
        We are trying out and testing (narrative) approaches and methods in our ‘Raising Strong and Resilient Communities’ project (, and facilitating (= not assuming, or imposing) dialogue, empathy, meaning- and sense making is the core activity in that. We do this in different European countries. We also try some of your approaches (and Cynthia Kurtz’s, to name someone else who inspired me). By the end of this year we hope to have results and a handbook / manual with conclusions and good practices (what worked well, when, where and how).
        We also develop courses within this project, and the ‘territorial game’ activity you propose would be very interesting to try in these as well. I have read something by you a few years ago and archived it. It’s time to look that up again… Everything that helps a community or group to cope with changing contexts BY THEMSELVES, is welcome. Again, I believe empathy, seeing situations and each other in perspective and (YES) humor/laughter are important ingredients (I’m als a big fan of Frans de Waal).

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