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The Silence of Shunning: A Conversation With Kipling William

Shunning is an act of control and aggression, with powerful consequences.

I’ve written a number of pieces about mobbing, which is group bullying against an individual. Yet one of the most painful aspects of mobbing may be the least discussed—the deliberate ostracizing and shunning of a person who was once a member of the group.

In the workplace, ostracizing a coworker means excluding them from the social events, work activities, committees, and decision-making that make work meaningful and provide the resources and opportunities necessary to succeed. Shunning a worker goes a step further by ignoring the worker’s very presence, and sometimes even their efforts to simply speak.

In families, a family member may be shunned or ostracized by a single person—the angry spouse, parent or child who refuses to speak or engage with them—or they may be shunned by the entire family—something that happens to many gay children when they come out, or can happen to a family member who leaves the family religion or political affiliation or marries the wrong person.

Some religions—such as Scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and even the Amish—have formal policies to shun those who question or leave the religion. And in communities, a person or whole family can be shunned for having the wrong skin color, supporting the wrong political candidate, or painting their front door the wrong shade of yellow.

In short, shunning is a common practice that many people have suffered or perpetuated, yet it is surprising how little attention has been paid to this ubiquitous form of aggression.

One person who has paid attention, however, is Purdue psychologist Kipling Williams. In his book, Ostracism: The Power of Silence, Williams suggests that shunning and ostracism are particularly prevalent in the workplace when a worker has reported wrongdoing, because it is more difficult to prove retaliation when the aggressive act is a non-act. Yet the power of that non-action to wound a worker is profound, as Williams’ research has shown.

Williams has studied ostracism for decades, and has created a game of cyber-ball, in which research participants sit at a computer and toss a ball back and forth with unknown players. When the ball is no longer tossed to them, and they can no longer interact with the unknown players, the results have been remarkably consistent—within minutes of being excluded from the game, feelings of control, belonging, self-esteem, and meaningful existence are reduced.

This sense of loss holds true across all personality types, and is even found when participants know it is a computer they are playing against, and not a real person (something most anyone can relate to if they have tried getting Siri, the automated personal assistant, to pay attention to what they are saying).

In a recent conversation, I posed several questions to Professor Williams, and his answers illuminate just how challenging it is to control the human proclivity to shun as a form of punishment. “I think that when people read the literature, they become a little bit more aware. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that that sort of thing could have severe consequences.’ ... But I don’t think that you can eliminate it. On the other side of this same coin, if somebody knows how powerful it is, and they want to hurt somebody, knowing how powerful it is motivates them to do it ... Letting people know how bad it hurts doesn’t just get rid of it.”

So just how bad is shunning and ostracism? Williams has found that people who are ostracized suffer deeply, including the obvious loss of self-esteem and depression, but also including physiological symptoms such as ulcers, suppression of the immune system, anxiety, psychosis (in prolonged isolation, such as prisoners kept in solitary confinement), and a loss of feeling valued or having any meaningful existence. But perhaps more troubling is the rage that is associated with being ostracized.

People who are ostracized may not initially realize what is happening, only having a vague sense that something is wrong, that maybe people are mad at them, and they are often unsure of their perceptions and wonder if they are imaging it. But once it is undeniable that they are being shunned, their pain first intensifies, then turns to anger and rage.

People feel rage when they have lost all sense of control, and no one will intervene to help them, while going to great lengths to keep the person excluded and deprived of control. Moreover, the human need for inclusion and recognition is so great that when a person has lost all sense of control over their social environment through shunning, they may resort to anti-social acts of aggression just to regain it. And so I asked Williams if shunning someone for bullying behaviors might have the unintended consequences of escalating their aggression.

“They might become retaliatory to get a response. They might escalate what they’re doing just to get someone’s acknowledgment, even if it’s a negative response. We can see that with a lot of the interviews we do; when people get the silent treatment from their partners it can lead to violence. Basically they don’t even care if their partner doesn’t like them, because what they’re doing is trying to get their partner to notice them. So they’ll keep poking and jabbing them or throwing things or saying things more and more hurtful just to get them to say something.”

Yet the targets of workplace ostracism are not necessarily “bullies;” if anything, ostracism is itself a form of bullying. “One of the advantages to bullying through ostracism is that it’s a non-behavior and it’s harder to get in trouble for not doing something . . . It’s certainly a more disguised form of aggression.”

What, then, can management do to prevent workers from being ostracized, if it increases the suffering of the target, and increases their potential for rage or violence? Williams points to whistleblowers as people who are almost always shunned, with up to one hundred percent of respondents who have engaged in whistleblowing experiencing shunning as a result.

“It’s interesting but one of the rules about how institutions react to whistleblowers,” he says, “is they aren’t allowed to relocate them, or they can be sued. But in some ways, I think it could be more humane to be moved to another unit. Of course, being relocated can have a stigma, but I think it’s very difficult to maintain your productivity [when being ostracized] without some distance.”

He continues, “I think that if upper management is aware of the powerful effect of ostracism in the workplace and elsewhere, when someone makes the complaint, then they might intervene and do something about it, make a change, bring people together, arbitrate, mediate, whatever... if management is aware that it is painful and hurtful and has these psychological and physiological, emotional and behavioral effects, they might use other intervention strategies, and suggest to people who are having conflicts, that that’s not a way to deal with it. You need to talk it out. You need to see that person’s perspective, and to see that this is not a good option, this is not a healthy option. If managers knew this, they might be more proactive and come up with alternatives.”

Yet management is often at the helm of ostracism, encouraging it in order to force an employee out. Indeed, Williams recognizes the human proclivity to ostracize as a way to enforce order and maintain control over subordinates. “Anthropologically this has been done for eons; burdensome members of groups are ostracized. And it’s that threat of ostracism that everybody knows about that keeps people in tow, and is the glue of civilization, so it’s functional. But almost everything that’s functional can be abused. There are times that somebody is so obstructive and burdensome that ostracism is an answer. I would prefer sort of an explicit form of ostracism, where the person is told what’s going to happen, rather than it just sort of happens without explanation.”

On the other hand, targets of workplace mobbing well know that a worker need not be obstructive or burdensome to feel the full force of shunning; indeed, I would argue that most workplace shunning is aimed not at the worker who has been the most disruptive or aggressive, but at the worker who has most displeased management—often for valid reasons, such as reporting misconduct or expressing an unpopular view. In these cases, the natural response of the target to feel anguish followed by anger, may lead otherwise peaceful and mentally stable people to appear anything but peaceful or mentally stable. Indeed, shunning is a form of “crazy-making,” which so damages the target that it can take years to recover and rebuild a social and professional life.

What, then, can targets do? In addition to the obvious suggestions of finding social support elsewhere, get a pet or bond with the one you do have, and remind yourself of your strengths, Williams points to an unexpected action: Become decisive. By becoming decisive in small matters outside the shunning environment, such as choosing which movie to go to with your partner, targets feel a small sense of control. The more a person who is ostracized takes control of their life in small matters, the more confident they will feel in their social world.

“There are many ways to get a sense of control. One is to become aggressive and violent, but that’s not a very good way to be in control. But you can gain control through being decisive and directing your course through knowing what you’re going to do and what’s going to be helpful to you.”

But the most important thing is to maintain bonds with people. “Social support, I think, is probably the number one thing; you don’t need to have a ton of friends ... what you really need is one or two people ... just form strong social bonds somewhere and then you can distance yourself [from the ostracizers] a little bit, think of the workplace as a sociological experience ... it distances you a little bit from the pain and allows you to be more analytical about it ... it’s not going to get rid of the ostracism; it’s still going to be awful to be around them at work, but it gives you something to look forward to.”

And that’s something that targets of shunning need to remember. No matter how awful it is, there is always something to look forward to, and that is the world beyond the ostracizers. Make no mistake, shunning is not a noble act. It is an act of aggression, and can be every bit as damaging, if not deadly, to the person who is targeted—and it damages those who engage in shunning, because the longer they maintain it, the harder it is to end it.

So if you’ve been a member of the crowd shunning a person who failed to please your leader, rethink your “non-actions” and reach out to the person you’ve erased and are so painfully hurting. And if you are a person who has been shunned, don’t turn to your ostracizers for approval. Move on to a kinder, gentler environment, where you are valued and treated with the humanity you deserve.

I recently released a new, 216-page ebook on Amazon called “Mobbed! A Survival Guide to Adult Bullying and Mobbing.” In addition to discussing shunning, it features several chapters on what you can do to control and cope with mobbing, as well as a detailed look at how and why mobbing happens.

Illustration by Anton Hout, ©2013, all rights reserved.

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