What would compel someone to be so rigid, inflexible and exclusive with their thinking that they end up disrupting discussions and alienating themselves from groups?

I noticed these unhelpful and disruptive behaviours from someone in a group ideation session recently :

  • Shutting down exploration and collaboration:
    • Staying judgement and evaluation.Inability or unwillingness to engage with an idea, to build upon and evolve it. “This is wrong. This won’t work. I disagree with this.”
    • Quickly dismissing input; often not even letting others finish speaking. “I already know that. I don’t agree with that.”
    • Asking for ideas only to immediately judge them as inadequate. This changes the collaborative constructive discussion to a Q&A or decisive oral examination excercise.
    • Making passive attacks to demean and belittle others. Asking to attack, not to discover. “Do you know what the White Hat is? So what is it?” Using obscure academic references to intimidate. “Dr so-and-so and Prof so-and-so said this and that [so I must be right.]”
  • Derailing trains of thought and interrupting creative flow:
    • Focusing on and caught up in pedantic details. Insisting on seeing the bark when the groud was contemplating the forest. “You are using the wrong definition of that word” where the meaning of the word is incidental to the discussion. “I do not believe in introversion/extroversion” when the discussion was merely using those concepts as analogies.
    • Constantly making unreasonable and out-of-scope demands of the group. “It is not useful to talk about that. I want to talk about my needs.” And persisting with such behaviour after it was pointed out that the purpose of the discussion was not to solve their specific problem.
    • Hijacking/interrupting discussions by being deliberately obtuse and argumentative by declaring closed statements. “We should not use adversarial analytical models” – right after they finished telling another participant that their comment was wrong.
    • Making every idea a black and white, right or wrong argument and decision; so as to jeopardise the safety of expression. The inability to deal with gray is the inability to be creative, or in this case the inability to even engage in a convivial conversation.
  • Excluding/attacking alternative thoughts or even slightly tangential segues:
    • It is my way or the highway. Holding a vehement conviction that what they know is the only valid approach and every alternative is a mortal threat. Listening to leap into defence as the default reaction to new thoughts. “That is wrong/invalid.”
    • Not able to hold (let alone incorporate) other viewpoints unless they are completely and absolutely aligned with their own viewpoints. Not able or willing to hold simple paradoxes even for the duration of a discussion.
    • Hear just enough of a viewpoint to judge it heresy and immediately leap into defense and shut down. “If it doesn’t fit my worldview it is not safe.”
    • Making negative and judgemental declarations that serves only to reinforce their resistance. “I do not believe in divergent or convergent thinking” when these words were simply used to explain another context.
  • Making it about them and their own needs instead of the group and the group’s agree outcomes:
    • Repeatedly demanding that discussions focus on their specific needs, and that opinions fit with their worldviews, that outcomes must suit their specific situation. Acting like a client when they are not the case.
    • Projecting their internal inadequacies to the group, and quick to label others a argumentative when they were the ones starting tangential arguments.
    • Constantly making references to their achievements, and how those entitled them to judge others as wrong.

This was fascinating to watch, and very frustrating to have to have to contend with. This person’s behaviour essentially diminished the effectiveness of the whole group. It garnered them a lot of personal attention, but at the expense of a lot of group resentment and frustration.

Underneath it all, there would have to be powerful underlying drivers that are perpetuating these behaviours. They must suspect the negative effects of these behaviours, even if they are yet unable or unwilling to name them.

If I have to guess at these fundamental drivers:

  • The fear of being hurt could drive us to attack first. The world is out to get us. So we’d better fire first so they know I am well-protected. We must clearly indicate that we have our defences up and are already watchful for attacks.
  • The fear of being excluded could drive us to exclude others first. Are you with us or against us? If we sow discontent and disagreement in the group then everyone will become too distracted to attack us.
  • Poor self esteem could also cause us to feel threatened by others, and so it drives us to constantly drive discussions back to ourselves so we can reiterate our achievements and importance, for our reassurance.  
  • The need for psychological safety could drive us to become unhelpfully sensitive to attacks. Every and any deviation from our strongly-held belief/worldview is a threat.
  • The entanglement of our identity with a specific belief system could make us really defensive of that system; lest our identity come under threat from an alternative system; or even an alternative interpretation of that same system.

Many of us, including myself, have some of these drivers at differing levels of intensity. So this post is not about demonising one person, but rather highlighting these drivers to hopefully increase our respective self awareness.

A rigidly closed mind, driven by fear, and powered by a domineering aggressive personality is a deadly mix guaranteed to derail any group ideation efforts. If only we could learn to channel these strengths in positive constructive ways!

The really jaw-droppingly astounding thing about this situation was: this disruptive closed-minded person was actually a practising lateral thinking expert!

Image: Freight parcel via Shutterstock.