3.10.2010

An Alien Nation

It's easy feeling alienated when one gets carried away, either consciously or unconsciously, with one's rat race pace. There's so many responsibilities to keep track of and be productive in these days. it's often during a lull that we realize we've become disconnected from friends and family, or favorite pastimes...what about a special/favorite TV show?

It's not unusual to come to this sort of sense of clarity when one is tired and has made some space to try and reboot or step off the rat race treadmill for a while. It's at these times that we feel we're kind of running on the side or behind a group or another person, versus running with them. This just happens, there's no right or wrong really.

So what is this alienating feeling? This feeling of either being caught aback or of not being well-integrated to groups or projects or things? Google provides a myriad of definitions, all indicating a feeling of separateness from others. Which is not always a bad thing, mind you. It's good to keep objective and see the big picture.

Alienation has been a topic in communications (don't alienate your audience!), in HR and Management (the classical theory of employee motivation), and in sociology and psychology (feel disconnected, apart)...even in theater there's a concept of alienation.

Many individuals chose to keep themselves separate socially, philosophically, and by other means periodically, temporarily, or on a semi-permanent basis in order to maintain a counter-culture perspective and philosophy (Goths, anarchists, etc.), or even to stimulate their creative juices. This is especially noted in some creative types such as artists, writers, scientists, and designers. These groups enjoy the solitude to work out their plots and projects, and also the ability to rejoin a larger group of peers to help share their work and obtain positive reinforcement.

There are a variety of reasons for individuals to feel alienated suddenly, and not be able to trace why or when this started. Some individuals who travel often, who move often, or who suffer from depression or other cognitive issues are sometimes more likely to experiment these sensations of alienation and separateness, and relate a negative emotion to this experience. Though some initial discomfort is natural and should be expected, it's important to not allow the negativity to pervade the initial integration experience--yes this most often happens when there's corporate change or a move to a new location.

Easy examples of when alienation comes into play in interpersonal relationships, are new students. They end up in the outcast role when they move to a new school district, almost automatically and have to earn their right to be integrated. Sometimes students who haven't had a chance to identify trends and behaviors at the new school don't blend in immediately. They really don't need to change they way they are, just understand the rules and sort of act like they're playing along. Many times, kids are flexible enough that they identify processes and behaviors they wish to internalize and do so.

Another example is a new or reorganized employee who realizes too late that a new workplace, department, or working environment and the related culture don't mesh with their own perspective and working style. This is a hard one to massage, but there's plenty of opportunities to make it a win-win.

Essentially, there's some sort of "a-ha" moment when the party realizes there's a disconnect when they land in a new or unfamiliar group, when they enter a new project, when they move to a new neighborhood/school. The steps they take after the realization is the important part.

Most people are able to adjust internal and external factors to help minimize the disconnect. They just get a sense of what to fix so there's less of a discomfort. Some others really don't care about the disconnect and enhance their individuality--not minding a "sticking out" position within their group. Some make too much out of the difference (limelight hoggers?) and over-highlight it to create a stir in the group...sort of mash up the pecking order and unspoken hierarchy. Though a fresh and individualistic approach can always be a positive, if the group is able to leverage the opportunity into a win-win.

Then there's "the others," those who may not immediately identify a best course of action and may experience overly negative emotions when having to interact or be integrated into a new or unfamiliar group. These are the individuals that concern and intrigue me. This is where the thinking outside the box can address a personalized prescription to help diminish the dissonance. After all, not everyone analyzes and reacts to situations in the same way. There are no real Robert's Rules of Order when it comes to integrating a new person emotionally into a new situation.

These "others' may perhaps not know how to shorten the initial distance between themselves and others (or vice versa) and face difficulties reacquiring a sense of comfort within this group. Why do some public school students act completely antagonistic against their teachers, to end up eventually bonding deeply with them by the end of their school career?

I worry about those who make a conscious decision to remain frozen in indecision. Sometimes the easy button is hard to argue with.These can be recluses and individuals who exhibit eccentric behavior either as part of their personality (just goes by a different drummer) or due to a cognitive issue (diagnosed or undiagnosed).

This is why it's important for groups to implement welcoming and incorporation mechanisms within their processes. The initial investment can only translate into a positive domino effect in the longer term. Either formal or informal, these types of processes will help establish a space for the new participant, which involves respecting the initial discomfort when they get accustomed to the new situation and the new group gets accustomed to them. Social and emotional differences may still need to be worked through with time.

It's important to allow for a learning curve and mutual understanding and learning. These processes are also great to help teach already-existing group members patience and understanding, and be allow them to share their expertise in something similar to a mentoring process, with the new people.

These types of interpersonal dynamics make observing people and groups so interesting for me. There's so much that can be learned from spoken and unspoken communication and interaction. Do you ever stop and think about your own approach to a new coworker or student?

How do you help shorten the discomfort when you first interact with a new group? How does your group help new members get integrated?