Most managers wouldn’t admit to it, but I suspect that one of the reasons why team development sessions are not scheduled as often as they should be is because leaders are afraid of the ‘dumping syndrome’. Dumping. That analogous phenomenon that occurs when a group of people congregate and then proceed to spew forth negativity, critique and bemoan that state of affairs in their team, company, city or country. It happens around the dinner table, in corporate passages, at the coffee machine and most notably in facilitated conversations. Dumping syndrome induces all kinds of anxiety for managers. You know this anxiety is acute when, in a briefing, the team leader tells you he doesn’t want the session to be a ‘bitch & moan’ session. This is in the first instance an acknowledgement that the leader knows that there is reason for the likely dumping that the group will partake in, but secondly, that the leader is afraid of how such dumping will derail the purpose of the team session. The former is a justifiable anxiety, but the latter is often unfounded. Isn’t it interesting how early the dumping occurs in a group conversation? In fact, it is often the very first thing a group does, whether or not the conversation is constrained by an agenda. We’ve noticed how prodigious this phenomenon is in our own work, where we use complex facilitation techniques to surface narrative in unconstrained conversation processes. One of the heuristics I’ve developed as a facilitator is that the dumping syndrome WILL occur, but that it also often needs to happen before a group can move towards more constructive conversation. It seems to be a form of catharsis. I’ve now discovered a reason behind the syndrome and believe it or not, it’s root lies in neuroscience. We seems to be wired as humans to be negative FIRST. Here’s a quote by David Rock:
Clearly the threat or avoid response is not an ideal state for collaborating with and influencing others. However, this response is the default situation that often occurs in teams. Due to the overly vigilant amygdala, more tuned to threats than rewards, the threat response is often just below the surface and easily triggered. Just speaking to one’s supervisor, or someone of higher status is likely to activate this response. Thus it is much easier to cause aggravation (activate an avoid response) than it is to help others think rationally and creatively (the approach response). Many psychological and brain studies now support this idea, showing that the avoid response generates far more arousal in the limbic system, more quickly and with longer lasting effects than an approach response (Beaumeister, 2001). This discovery that our brain is inherently attuned to threatening stimuli helps explain many disquieting parts of life, from why the media focuses on bad news to why people are self-critical. It also points to the need to understand the social nature of the brain and proactively minimize common social threats.
In my mind this research in no way justifies, nor excuses, a generally negative approach or viewpoint on behalf of individuals or groups. Rather, it helps us as facilitators and leaders understand the proclivity for groups to engage in the dumping. One point I’m wrestling with however is the belief that the way you start a group is very influential on how the rest of the discussion pans out. The fear of allowing the dumping to occur is that the rest of session will be much the same. My experience is on the contrary though. Some of the most successful sessions I’ve been a part of we’re characterized by intense dumping to begin with, but we’re then followed by amazing breakthroughs thereafter. I’d be interested in hearing your opinions/experiences.