Three sharply-dressed passengers sitting nearby on an early morning flight were sufficiently loud, articulate and interesting for me to overhear their conversation. Mid-level managers in a high-tech industry, I figured. Over the next 50 minutes they repeatedly agreed they’d be more effective and happier if their staff, colleagues, senior executives and clients would behave better, just get out of their way, or be different people. Definitely a co-ruminating group: regurgitating and re-heating partially-digested complaints, chewing them over and again not to resolve but to awfulise them.
Co-ruminating groups are more prevalent in some organisations than others. They can form anywhere at any time at all levels of seniority, in pairs or larger arrangements, no matter what the group’s original purpose for gathering. The usual theme is consensus that we-the-participants could – no, would – be more successful, fulfilled and achieving if it wasn’t for those appalling other people who variously impede our progress. Wherever these groups exist we can be confident that certain things are going on in their members’ lives and that certain conditions are present in their organisations.
If you have to talk to a lot of people about the same problem, you probably don’t want help. You want attention. [AA]
This doesn’t just waste time: it kills time by spreading distortion, anxiety, negativity, helplessness and hopelessness. Co-ruminating groups sap strength, tenacity and resilience rather than encourage those qualities.
Very many people have developed habits of joining-in and sometimes reveling in negativity, complaint and gossip. Co-ruminating groups serve these habits well, each participant adding to each others’ sense of righteous indignation, possession of talents that are undervalued or overlooked, and their fruitless struggle against malevolence and stupidity.
People who suffer from unjust hierarchical impositions, bureaucratic aggression, disrespectful treatment or other unkindness in the workplace and elsewhere should find allies to support one another where necessary. But co-rumination doesn’t support constructive progress. It encourages self- victimisation, the opposite outcome of intelligent, enabling support.
People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]
Support and activist groups are different
Participants in a constructive (intelligently enabling) support group are compassionately challenged and supported by their fellow members to practice self-responsibility; to thoughtfully define their problems rather than complain about the absence of solutions; to establish and begin methodically eliminating the causes of their problems. Members remind one another that:
- Self-responsibility begins with recognition that we are responsible for our own lives and happiness;
- This requires willingness to generate all the causes of all the effects we want to experience;
- Wisdom begins with understanding our own part in creating the problems we face;
- If we need others’ cooperation in pursuit of our goals, we must provide them with reasons that are meaningful in terms of their own interests and needs;
- Telling people how awful they are simply makes them more recalcitrant (unwilling to cooperate).
Members of a support group ask of their issues and concerns, “What exactly has happened: what are the facts?” “How are we creating or perpetuating the problem?” “What else is causing it?” “What could we do about it?” “Where and when will we begin change?” and “How can we best support each other’s progress?”
Co-ruminating group origins
There are many reasons for the existence of co-ruminating groups. Some parenting practices, conventional schooling, the predominant arrangement of power in organisations, the seduction of self-victimisation and the tendency for misery to enjoy company, all contribute. Social media do much to ensure they flourish.
Some parenting and schooling practices take too much responsibility for development away from the child. (Much like many workplaces, more senior people set the targets, curriculum and criteria of competence. They design the agenda, control the resources and input, measure progress and issue pass/fail judgements.) The consequences include, to one degree or another, irresponsibility, inability to self-assess, learned helplessness and negative expectations of power and control. When individuals take these into the life of hierarchical organisations, the organisational politics (the arrangement and use of power), especially those aspects that operate against self-responsibility, are intensified.
Our reactions and attitudes to the situations in which we find ourselves are entirely within our power to control. We can start by learning to understand our own part in what we find unsettling or challenging about our circumstances, by finding answers to this question: What am I choosing to believe, think, feel or do that contributes to this being a problem for me? In our answers lie the power to change negative situations. Through this process we can become better self-managers.
We might make attitudinal changes by learning more about our thinking and thought processes, and by altering unhelpful tendencies. For example, instead of giving away more personal power than is asked for or required, (something that co-ruminants do), we might establish exactly what it is we have traded in return for paid work, hold the boundaries represented by that agreement, and teach others to respect them.
The focus of co-ruminating groups often includes what it is about organisations that cannot be controlled or immediately influenced: the hierarchy and its natural consequences, for example. It would be more realistic to acknowledge and accept the things we have no ability to influence, and learn to become more skilled so as to have more influence over matters or to better share power. We can monitor and improve our relationship-management, collaborative, work-sharing and problem-solving practices, especially those to do with confronting conflict, resolving differences, giving feedback and requesting behaviour changes. We can learn and implement better relationship-management practices.
These (and many other) steps towards progress require no-one’s permission but our own.
We’re just about as happy as we make up our minds to be. [Abraham Lincoln]
If you’re a manager or leader, start here
As a manager or leader, you can do much to neutralise the effects of co-ruminating groups by methodically empowering and enabling their usual participants. Increase the delegating you do. Learn more about developing cohesion, real teamwork, and how to increase commitment through increasing collaboration. No-one enjoys being left out of decision-making that affects their daily existence or their future. Minimise this tendency. Maximise involvement in problem-solving, decision-making and planning wherever possible, to maximise commitment to solutions, decisions and plans.
De-mystify your management, leadership and decision-making processes by making them transparent and therefore less anxiety-provoking. First clarify them for yourself (a major step for many managers and leaders) and aim at consistent application.
Make it easier, safer and more constructive for others to provide you with feedback on the quality of your management and leadership practices. (Get in touch if you need simple, safe processes for this.) Reduce others’ fear of giving you direct and honest feedback, by learning to become a better, less defensive listener.
You might help strengthen others’ ability to give constructive feedback by making appropriate tutoring, coaching and development programmes available to them.
As a manager or leader, you have a good deal of autonomy and influence over the creation of more positively encouraging environments than those represented by co-ruminating groups.