Collective unhappiness creates social glue.
You know how when you’ve had a bad day, you call up a friend or somebody that is one hundred percent reliably on your team? Finding the closest person you think will listen and perhaps even commiserate with you when you’re unhappy at work is like that “phone a friend.” Before you even know it’s coming out of your mouth, your venting, criticizing, sabotaging, or any number of truly unhelpful behaviours.
Instant gratification comes when the other person nods their head or shares a similar experience about that person or agrees with you that “this place stinks “or generally gives them lots of attention.
When a sense of community doesn’t find a soul, this is the fertile soil in which bullying, incivility and conflict can grow.
I had a cool insight from a book I’m reading. It’s not a business book or even self-help; it’s a novel. (It’s a good read. You may want to put it on your summer reading list.) I digress. It’s called “The Lying Game” by Ruth Ware. A story about four friends in private school who banded together by coming up with lies and gave each other “points” for when people believed them. The story picks up years later when they’re adults, and they aren’t sure what lie created some form of devastation. So that’s what makes the plot interesting.
As these accomplished women come together in a reunion of sorts, triggered by this negative incident of the past, they are nostalgic for their relationship and proud of how their game brought them together. They begin to realize it was actually the very thing that kept “THEM” so very separate and isolated from others.
They were proud of their clique, and they didn’t need anybody else but each other in school. They’ve stayed friends granted disconnected ones, and the deepness of their connection was one that they were all proud of. Even though it meant they ignored others’ greatness, let alone recognized and valued it.
Until a lie was so big that they began to question if it was worth the lies they told that functioned at the time as bonding, they knew their lies frustrated or hurt other people. Over the course of the book, they begin to realize that maybe the lies actually hurt themselves most of all.
Bullying, silos, and “us/them” thinking is not only toxic for the person on the receiving end. It also sets a trap for us.
Unhealthy conflict sucks the air out of healthy team conversations, stokes the fire of mistrust (“if they’re saying this about them what do they say about me when I’m not here?”), and kiboshes commitment to the relationship. It makes compliments feel cliche, appreciation unappetizing, and recognition unbelievable.
What to do when others gossip to you?
If you’re like me, you detest being part of unhealthy gossip and you cannot let conflict go “hoping” it will get better. You may wonder what control you have over stopping it. You may even have had an epiphany in this article, that gossip creates social glue, and finally have an answer to why it happens in the first place.
So what do you do when you find yourself suddenly in a conversation with gossip, criticism, conflict and divisive behaviour? What do you do when it’s clear to you that what you’re hearing is clearly an unaddressed conflict that if left unaddressed, will make that relationship turn ugly and fast?
It’s tempting to see it as “between them”. However, your silence may in fact fuel the fire. It may even stoke it by not saying anything. The sheer fact that you’re hearing, granted not by design, one person or group’s view, you may be viewed as taking a “side”.
I know, total bummer. Unfair. Stinks. And, I think we can all recall a time when sadly, that is exactly what happened.
The longer we stay unneutral, the higher the wall build.
Even if there’s some small part of being, at that moment, part of being on the inside, more connected and united with another person, consider if the wall it’s building is what you want. This is particularly true to keep a close eye on if something they say resonates with a past conflict, resentment or frustration you’ve had and maybe not addressed or even admitted to yourself.
Let’s say you’re feeling undervalued and that there’s favouritism. Perhaps you’ve withdrawn a little as a result. You may have missed an opportunity to be part of the bigger picture, to be part of the collective, to add value. You have a choice: commiserate with that other person about how you too have felt this, or ask yourself if there is a way that together, you can tear down walls and resolve conflict? Rather than add another brick to the wall.
How Compassion for Others Is Compassion for Ourselves
If you were trying to address a wall you didn’t realize was there or had built so high, empathy and compassion are essential. Empathy for those who feel upset, empathy for people who don’t know others are upset, empathy for how uncomfortable and isolating it can be to be misaligned with others.
We look at a relation strain with compassion, as it is inevitable, we can see it as an opportunity to bring others into the fold, perhaps reinvigorating hope that a sense of “us” can be restored and dampening any desire to process pain and frustration through bullying, incivility, and gossip that act as master wall builders. In fact, the person who has the best chance of stopping walls from building up even higher is someone who feels like they aren’t always understood, don’t fit in, undervalued, yet sees this fellow person as a partner to tear down the walls rather than an ally to direct precious energy into further creating it.
It requires coming, intentionally, from a place of understanding and belief in shared humanity. In faith that everyone prefers to be civil and connected and collaborative. What if we assumed we wanted to be empathetic and compassionate and deal with conflict rather than assume that others don’t?
What if we looked for glimmers of greatness rather than evidence of differentness?
As the old adage goes, there’s one thing you can always change, and that is how do you think and behave in a situation. Between one “side” and the “other,” there’s lots of room somewhere in-between. You don’t have to be neutral, right in the middle dead centre. You probably don’t want to find yourself inadvertently teetering too close to the edge of one of those sides. After all, it is at the tail end of that continuum where bullying, silos, and incivility live (like we discussed last week).
The more you can make the case of the social glue closer to the middle of this continuum, the more people will follow you there.
In case you missed it, check out Part I of this blog post, Bullying Cliques and Silos: What They Have in Common and Divides Us All