Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

The Art of Shunning

Last fall, one of my former students, who is in a leadership position in the Navy, reached out for advice on how to handle one member of his team being shunned by the rest. Here’s our email exchange (which I received permission to share):

Dr. H,

What are your thoughts on shunning, intentional or unintentionally doing so? Should we work against it or try to extend as large of an umbrella as possible? Is it our responsibility to reach out and include people who do not engage with the group? Let me know your thoughts, kinda stuck in a dilemma out here with someone who is being unintentionally/somewhat intentionally shunned by the group. Missing your leadership training and your company.


Here’s my reply to James’ email:

Hey James.

I’ve always been deeply interested in the topic of shunning. It was something I had to confront in La Ceiba. I did my best to treat everyone fair but not the same. Yet, at the same time, I found myself gravitating to those (like you) who made me better. I found myself giving less of myself to those who were unable or unwilling to take the initiative. I reduced my availability for those in the group that held the group back with their tone, words and body language. Maybe if I was wiser at the time, I would have done something else. I have mellowed quite a bit since our time together. However, there is a part of this that I think is instinctive to humans. I did not want to be around negative energy. I wanted to become better and be fulfilled by being around you and the others like you. Yet, I had a responsibility to everyone. Where exactly to draw the line?

Wise leadership is a constant process of living in the tension — running with the group, being alive with the group and then stepping away from the group and checking in with the individual that is sitting on the outside. Too much running with the group is selfish. You have a responsibility to the entire team. Too much time with the individual who is unwilling or unable to contribute harms the group. You’ll have to draw the line somewhere. And, you’ll have to do regular check-ins with yourself and judge for yourself whether or not you are striking the right balance. Talk with others in similar leadership positions and judge their words and actions against your values.

Having said that, there were some students that I decided to leave behind. There comes a point when the mission required all of our attention and that required all of our focus on those who were willing to perform — that is, those willing to cross the threshold into a life that is committed to high performance.

Those who got left behind witnessed but did not experience the love and energy and camaraderie on the other side of that threshold. They witnessed but did not experience what they could have had if they had made the choice to contribute fully. They did not get to experience the joy of being part of a high functioning, selective, get-it-done group of humans. And, let me tell you, there are few things more wonderful to experience as a human.

James, you have been tasked with leading a team and doing what you have to do to create the conditions for the above to occur. You do this for yourself and for your team. Seriously, being able to experience this is one of the most beautiful, fulfilling things we do together as humans.

So, is leaving others behind who will not or cannot commit shunning?

I’m not sure shunning is the right word. I did not leave anyone behind for being who they were. I left them behind because of their unwillingness to perform. If that’s shunning, then maybe its “performance-based” shunning. But it cannot be stated strongly enough how sensitive group dynamics are to an individual member who will not (at this moment in their personal development) perform at the highest level that success requires of the group.

We will never know how difficult it is for someone to cross the threshold into a life that is committed to high performance, how hard it is to be asked to do something that they may never have been asked to do, conditioned to do, taught or expected to do. Indeed, more than likely, this person has been conditioned (all of their life) to do the opposite of what you are asking them to do. If you decide to leave them behind it’s best to strive for leaving them behind without adding to their difficulties. That is, when it comes time for them to cross another threshold at a later point in their life, they will meet that threshold without additional trauma, difficulty, and emotional challenge. They will meet that moment with a sense of “I do not want to miss another opportunity”.

Not sure how to do this other than with you letting them know that you understand how difficult it can be to cross a threshold and showing loving-kindness to them. Now, having said that. I’ve seen threshold crossings initiated by yelling and getting in someone’s face. From the outside it looks brutal. But sometimes that’s what that person needs to cross the threshold, experience what’s on the other side and learn that they could do what they thought they could not. Which direction do you take? I think your approach has to match up to that person’s level of resilience:

“Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb

How do you know whether your actions will extinguish or energize? Not sure. It is an art form. But you reaching out for advice is evidence of your sensitivity and intention to do what you think will move this person forward.

James, where are you going? Where are you leading us to? What world are you trying to bring forth? Your one-on-one interaction with this person should be shaped by your answers to these questions. Try to look beyond your daily or long-term objectives as a member of the Navy. The individual who is being shunned; their life has intersected with your life for a reason. How do you want to take advantage of this opportunity?

I know I really have not answered the question regarding shunning. Any answer is contextually based — that is, it depends. Such is life. We live in the tension. But these are all of the things that I think about when confronted with a person who is unwilling to commit.

Good luck. Love. — dr H


I’m writing a book on my pedagogy called Rewild School, blogpost-by-blogpost. This is one of those blogposts. You can learn more by visiting Rewild School.

Thanks. — shawn


Photo by Alina Sopova on Scopio




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Shawn Humphrey

Shawn Humphrey

the blue collar professor

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