They shake your hand and say they’re so glad you’ve joined the team. You have an impressive title, a shiny new badge to enter the building, and the passwords you need to start your first tasks. Now what? Well, according to EVERYONE, the rest is a confounding mystery. We are on-boarded into groups for about as long as a surfer is on-board a wave. Not long enough!
As our human lives have gotten relentlessly cerebral, we are not nearly as connected to our own survival instincts. Moving about the world and relating to others is a bit like driving in a blizzard. You can’t see where you are or where you’re going, but you keep your foot on the accelerator and just focus on the few feet in front of you. Is it safe? Nope. Is it sustainable? Certainly not. I’ve got troubling news: groups that operate in the dark aren’t safe or sustainable either.
Whether we are are adding a new member to a work team, starting the school year leading a group of children new to that classroom, or moving into a different neighborhood, assimilating to a group we don’t know is serious business. There are, of course, the practical aspects of getting our physical bearings and learning how to run our lives. We orient to unfamiliar spaces, learn new routes, familiarize ourselves with the general rhythm of things. All the while, there is this undercurrent of interpersonal uncertainty and caution coursing through “us” and “them.” We are hardwired to encounter new mammals and to very quickly assess friend or foe, and we are all prepared to do what it takes to stay safe.
We’ve all seen those bizarre and usually blurry YouTube videos of the hunters taken down by angry deer. In some depictions, they are being chased and scrambling to get away. In others, the hunter’s camo-clad body has seemingly become a pile of helplessness in the dirt as he is struck into submission by rapid-fire hooves. It’s an odd sight because we’re not used to seeing prey animals like deer in attack mode. But all mammals, regardless of our placement on the food chain, will do what we need to protect ourselves, our young, and our groups.
When something or someone new enters our sphere of safety, it’s a perfectly natural response for our guardian instincts to flare up. In the case of the hunter and the deer, the relationship issues are quite clear! When the encounter is human to human, there is tremendous ambiguity. But probably most impactful is our lack of awareness we experience an unsettling of our safety which upsets our whole nervous system. So lost in thought, self, ego, devices, and the hustle and bustle of life, we are orienting to new people all the time but we are disconnected with how much this dysregulates us. As a result, we are profoundly under-committed to slowing our interpersonal dynamics down a bit so we can, well, simply get to know each other. Imagine that, the real work of relationships comes first!
It’s fascinating to talk with groups and teams and hear about how they onboard employees. There’s the common work lunch with the group or 5 pm margaritas on a Friday. There’s an HR orientation and perhaps a one-on-one meeting with the boss to discuss some immediate goals or prep for the team meeting. But the real conversation, the one that counts, is missing. What we are truly wondering right out of the gate is: Who are these people? How are they going to treat me? How should I treat them? What is the best way to get along so I don’t get alienating or hurt?
Humans do relationship building backwards. We jump into tasks, into the doings of life and work, and we’re off and running. We’ll run like that for a long long time. And then, inevitably, we run straight into trouble. We’ll hit a relationship issue, some painful zone of conflict and offense with another person or with a group, but by then, we have no context or template for how to work through an issue. We haven’t practiced the nitty-gritty of relationship and we don’t really know the essence or core of each other. So we’re left with limited choices: avoid the relationship, suppress our feelings (also known as “stuffing it”), or we head for the hills and we run away from the situation completely. Groups with this patterning often have a low hum of conflict always present, which erodes a sense of safety AND requires a surprisingly large amount of energy to exist in. Unresolved conflict, whether it is loud and in-your-face or silent and full of mystery is incredibly stressful. No one wants to tip-toe through a live minefield knowing something is about to blow.
When we look to the natural world for answers, they are, as always, so very simple and straightforward. Horses have this group thing mastered. We recently integrated a miniature horse (named Princess, of course) into our herd of typical-sized horses. Other than one of our horses, the rest had never seen a mini and this little thing must have been quite an oddity to them. Her differences were certainly an issue, but more than that, it was the unknown of her as an individual personality that set the usually peaceful herd reeling.
They had no idea what place or role she would play with the group and how she would impact the culture of the herd. They have a good thing going and they want to preserve that, of course. What they did to cope and adjust was obvious and really common sense when you think about it. They spent about two weeks doing the following:
Assessed and adjusted by creating space so they could get to know each other slowly and without getting hurt
Spent one-on-one time getting to know each other
Gave HUGE amounts of feedback in order to share personal preferences, shape relationships, and teach cultural norms of the group
Allowed the space gap to close gradually so they could experiment with relating in proximity
Returned to physical space when needed
There was a lot of interpersonal drama during the on-boarding; however, at the two week mark, it seemed the cultural orientation was mostly complete. They had taught the new miniature but threatening Princess the rules of their herd, each member had shown her how he/she wanted to be treated, and Princess had allowed them to learn about her and her needs. Horses are incredible energy conservers. They never know when they are going to need energy to run from predators or travel long distances to forage for food. They can’t afford to spend their calories and fuel on drama and conflict. They do the relationship building when needed and then they move on.
What would it be like if we put it all out there from the very beginning?Here is who I am. This is what triggers me. These are strengths that I love in myself and the weaknesses I’m working on but still hold me back. Here is what I’ll need support with. This is what scares me. This is the part of me you’ll see when I feel threatened.
I’m not sure if it’s being middle-aged and caring just a bit less about how I am judged, or if I’ve spent enough time hanging out with horses, but anymore I just like to put it all out there. There’s a sense of freedom when we’re not hiding parts of ourselves from others. If I’m going to show up in a group and be part of it, I want to know I can be myself and that others are trying to do the same. I want to know we can work through things honestly and openly. After all, we are social beings who survive and thrive because of our relationships to others. Our relationships ought to take priority. At the end of the day, it’s our relationships that matter most.