Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Beleaguered Bully

I was recently working with a community that has been around for a while, and they were struggling (as many groups do) with how to work constructively with distress when it erupts in meetings. That's a familiar request for me, and I was happy to be available in case conflict popped it's pointy little head into the room. While things proceeded more or less without drama during most of my visit, the wheels fell off the wagon in the last 30 minutes of the final plenary. Not only wasn't there time to deal with everything that spilled out, we also didn't make the progress we were hoping on the topic that was suspended when the conflict erupted. Ufda.

While this makes a poignant story in its own right, what inspired me to write about it was what happened in the debrief after the meeting, when I was sequestered with seven members of the group who were interested in looking more closely at how the community has been functioning and what could be done to effect improvements.

First let me give some additional back story. The group has existed as a stable community for many decades, and has a considerable number of long-term members. That's a strength. A handful of these long-term members are also characters, with all the idiosyncrasies and range of personalities that you might imagine. In some cases, there are long-term hurts between long-term members that have never been resolved. That's a weakness.

Worse, in addition to the direct distortion that occurs whenever a person hears a statement from someone with whom they have unresolved conflict, there are the stories the rest of the group members tell about those who have not yet been able to find a way to forgive and move on. Thus, if Adrian and Robin are both still carrying upset about an interaction they had years ago that didn't end well, it is likely both that Adrian will be hyper-vigilant about what Robin says, and that others will also be reactive to Robin as well—not because they are taking Adrian's side, but because they have come to expect provocation from Robin.

Mind you, this mix of backdrop dynamics exists (in some form) in most long-term groups, so nothing I've said so far makes this group stand out.

Now let's return to the plenary. Continuing with the pseudonyms I employed above, we were working on the issue of whether the community wanted to grow. Early in the conversation one member, Jesse, stated that even limited growth would have impact on wildlife and the carrying capacity of the land. Shortly after that, Robin stated that though s/he was pro-growth s/he wanted to make certain that whatever was agreed to was something that Jesse was at peace with. Then all hell broke loose.

A number of people (we didn't have time to find out exactly how many) were triggered by what Robin had said. The first one to speak was Sandy, who characterized Robin's statement as "emotional blackmail." Essentially, the objectors inferred from Robin's statement that a) Jesse's views on growth mattered more than the views of others; and/or b) that Robin didn't trust the rest of the community to take Jesse's views into account (even though the group operates by consensus).

Listening to all this as an outside neutral party who didn't have a dog in the fight, it wasn't hard for me to hear what Robin had actually said in a neutral way. That is, there is nothing wrong with the desire to hold Jesse in mind when reaching a decision about growth. The reactive folks were projecting onto Robin a desire to hold Jesse above others. The fact that it may turn out to be true is not the point. From a process standpoint, I believe it's better for the group to be current in reactions, and not project trouble based on what's happened in the past.

There is an important difference between being vigilant about good process, and looking for a fight. I am not suggesting that people be naive about Robin's tendency to be provocative. Rather, I am suggesting that they keep working to see the potential good in what s/he said. In this case, it would have cost the group nothing to have spun Robin's statement as support for the laudable goal that everyone—including Jesse—be at peace with any group decision about growth. What's not to like about that? If, later on, Robin strayed from that innocent interpretation and was observed starting to play favorites, then would have been the time to blow the whistle.

Now let's return to the debriefing. The seven community members were eager to discuss the choices I made when working with Robin and Sandy in the plenary. In part, they were amazed that I could so readily access a non-nefarious interpretation of Robin's impassioned speech in support of Jesse. As we continued to unpack both what happened and how it was seen by the other seven—none of whom included Adrian, Robin, Jesse, or Sandy—it became clear that all seven found it difficult to imagine that Robin's statement might have been innocent.

And that's what I want to focus on today: how a group can fall into the trap of developing stories about people with challenging personalities and styles, whereby those people are seen as caricatures more than as living breathing humans who don't always do things the same way and are capable of change.
This phenomenon of pigeonholing difficult people is not helping. And it's all the more sobering when it's being indulged in unconsciously by the folks most motivated to look at how the community is functioning. Yikes!

In the community I'm writing about, both Adrian & Robin are seen by many (at times, not always) as exhibiting bullying behavior. That is, they're both perfectly willing to push for their views about what's best for the group and have thick enough skins to withstand group disapprobation for their tactics. In their view, being able to take the heat is part of what makes them effective.

While I think that their view on this is seriously flawed (both are intelligent and valuable members of the community and I think they'd both be much more effective if they bullied less and worked more to acknowledge and work creatively with the views of others), I don't advocate that either become wimps. It's an advantage for the group that they're both willing to say what they think. The hard part is that they're perceived to be making it harder for others to say what they think, and that's a problem.

Overall, it's my view that if the community is going to turn this around, they'll need a systems approach, where everyone sees the role they're playing in continuing the dynamic. Pretty much, everyone will fall into one of three categories:

Category A) Those who habitually display challenging behavior and don't appear to be motivated to acknowledge it (much less work on ameliorating it).

Category B) Those who label the people in Category A as problem children, and then get protective for the group whenever those Type A personalities wade into the conversation.

Category C) Those who are passive in the face of dysfunction. This includes both those who skip meetings, and those who attend but disappear when the sledding gets tough.

What this community needs is more bridge builders and fewer people assigning labels.

• • •
As messy as all this sounds, the end of the plenary was actually more complicated than I've told you. I hadn't yet revealed that Robin lashed back at Sandy right when it was time to start wrapping up (and there's was literally no time to work the dynamic); or how Adrian was furious with the group for allowing Sandy & Robin's exchange to "derail" the growth conversation (thereby cleverly using strong feelings in an attempt to pressure the group into not focusing on strong feelings in plenaries). I'm telling you, working as a process consultant is rarely dull.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This commentary hits my community's nail on the head. I would appreciate Laird going into more detail about the objective characteristics of bullying behavior (well studied by social scientists in the last decade)so they can be distinguished from behaviors which are assertive and appropriate. Here there are members who define as "bullying" points of view they do not agree with. It is used as a strategy to discredit the point of view and focus on presumed characteristics of the messenger. In addition, there are some women who almost invariably define men who disagree with them as "aggressive." Some discussion of gender politics would be welcome in these blogs but rarely appear. Why is this?