The Psychology of Sheep

Have you heard the story about the weird chicken? Well, here goes.

There once was a farmer who had a large flock of chickens.  One spring, he noticed one of the new chicks wasn’t quite fitting in,  He didn’t look like the other chicks, he didn’t sound like the other chicks, and he didn’t act like them either.  The chick, as he began to grow up, also noticed something wasn’t right. Try as he might, he couldn’t make himself be like the others.  The other chickens were mostly polite, but they noticed too.  Even the farmer saw that this bird was not turning into a very well-behaved or tasty-looking chicken, and he worried that the other chickens, and his reputation, were in danger because of the weird chicken.

One lovely afternoon a stranger passing by the farm struck up a conversation with the farmer.  The stranger noticed the weird chicken and took an immediate interest in the bird.  He offered to buy it.  The farmer, thinking of no other use for the chicken and seeing the stranger was a bit daft but friendly, agreed.  The stranger took his new feathered friend to the edge of the tallest cliff in the region, held him up high and gave him a little push, saying …

“Fly, eagle, fly!”

And the eagle flew.   Turns out he’d been blown into the chicken yard during a windstorm as a tiny eagle chick.  At first he was terrified and unsure of himself, but eventually he found other eagles.  He rejoined his tribe, happy to fit in at last — fully spreading his wings, hunting rodents and using his sharp beak and talons to their full potential — all things he was meant to do, but discouraged from in the chicken yard.

My guess is that many probably relate to this story and are eagles among chickens looking for their true tribe.  I definitely relate, and made the error most of us make — thinking others are like us.  However, I am now beginning to notice that there are plenty of eagle chicks who would just rather stay with the chickens.

Allow me to explain.  One of the people who reports to me at work was someone I was friendly with for years before I became her boss.  She always seemed to have some kind of struggle.  As the manager of her department she had a really hard time because she had no support from her boss and felt abandoned.  Then she stepped down and took another position in the department.  She confided in me how hard this role was too — no support, no motivation, no inspiration from her bosses — and her colleagues were also hard to work with.  A year ago this month, she cried in my office about how frustrated she was, and how she was thinking of quitting.  At that time I knew plans were in the works for me to take on leadership of her department, so I encouraged her to hang on.  “The organization needs you,” I told her, “You have so much to offer!”  As usual, she was very grateful to me for our trusting relationship and my empathy and support.

I was excited — once she found out I was going to be her boss, she was going to be excited too!  All she needed was some guidance and ideas from someone energetic and organized, with expertise in her field — me!  Together, we were going to do great things!

Four months later the leadership transition was announced in a department meeting.  She was there, and had been briefed days before about the impending changes.  For reasons unclear to me at the time, she quietly left the room at some point during the post-announcement group discussion, unable to “control her reaction” as she later explained.

Since then, this person, who I might have called a friend, has turned out to be the most manipulative, toxic, gossipy, lazy member of the team.  At first I thought it was my fault.  A new manager after all, I thought maybe I was doing something to cause this behavior.  I tried more contact, more structure, more concrete deadlines and clearer accountability.  I experimented with letting some things go and giving freer rein.  Despite lots of help from HR and my mentors, nothing I did seemed to make a difference for long, or at all.  I just really needed her to do her job and was to shocked to discover she wasn’t doing it, and hadn’t been for some time.  The disturbing gaps in her work performance even included things that put us at risk as an organization.

To date, she has been written up twice, suspended once, coached multiple times, and earned a non-passing performance evaluation.  She has contributed excessive absences, low productivity, missed deadlines, lack of follow through, troubling lack of documentation, inappropriate emails, and a number of poor or careless decisions requiring damage control.  Her responses to my efforts to improve her performance have included filing two grievances against me — one with the organization and one with the EEOC — for discriminating against her due to race.

I still believe that people co-create situations and that no one person is ever to blame completely for conflict or interpersonal problems.  Therefore, I know I helped create this situation.  However, I also now believe that I have done nothing wrong.  I am not the racist, demanding, oppressive boss from hell she believes me to be.  I am just requiring her to do her job, not letting her off the hook, and not buying into her victim persona.

And that’s where I went wrong.  I thought I was the friendly stranger rescuing the eagle chick.  I was prideful.  I thought, “Oh, these poor folks having to put up with all this bad stuff.  Once they get me as their leader, all will be well!  We will become an awesome department full of fulfilled, happy people, and they will be so grateful to me for fixing things!”

You see, the same thing has been happening with the rest of the team.  Like their colleague, for years they have complained and expressed frustration about the way things were.  Now that I am starting to shape things into what I thought was our shared vision of excellence, high performance, and greater efficiency, most of them have been fighting me all the way.

Here’s what I finally realized — if a person is unhappy in a situation, complains about it, and stays there, that negative situation is meeting their needs on some level.  If they really wanted things to be better or different, they would have either changed things or left.

Of course, this is not conscious, and to point this out to someone in this situation would likely provoke indignant howling.  But if a person is invested in their identity as a victim, even though they may say — and believe — they want things to change, they will fight to maintain their victimhood and rail against attempts to change.  We still need control after all.

This isn’t to say that the kindly eagle rescuer has no value or purpose.  Having someone come by, pick us out of the flock, and show us our true selves can be a powerful and life changing experience.

But we have to decide to flap our wings instead of clinging to our chicken identity and dashing to our deaths on the boulders in the canyon below.

Please pardon the switch in animal metaphors, but this is what I call the psychology of sheep.  Sheep (unlike chickens) are herd animals.  They follow each other compulsively — even off cliffs and to the slaughterhouse.  They get very anxious about being separated from the herd.  They are highly social and aware of each other, and like to stay together.

The psychology of sheep is one of mindlessness, of conformity, of blind following along.  It is a psychology of victimhood and powerlessness.  The psychology of sheep is sleep.

This is not our birthright, it is learned powerlessness.  I still believe we are all eagles.  We are all unique, vastly powerful and immensely creative beings.  But as eagles in sheep’s clothing (!), we decide it is safer — because it sometimes is — to blend in, to become small, to blame someone else.  Graduating from sheepdom requires (as one of my teachers called it) the Religion of Radical Responsibility.  To claim our power is to claim responsibility.  We take responsibility for the state of our lives, our health, our jobs, our relationships, our nation, our planet.

Terrifying indeed.  It’s so much easier to be a sheep.  Asleep.

One of the ways I have bought into victimhood in the past was my false belief that people in authority positions must know more, and better, than me. Therefore, I could abdicate certain knowledge and responsibility — leaving these in their capable hands — and also blame them when things went wrong, and righteously try to convince them to change.

I have learned a terrible secret.  Many, if not most, people in power positions are equally afraid and convinced of their powerlessness!  We are sheep following sheep.

This might be another reason for my team’s resistance:  I am not a sheep in a sheep organization, and it makes them nervous.  Or it makes them angry — my friend-turned-toxic-employee is probably rightfully indignant that she is suddenly being asked to do good work, when substandard work has been acceptable for years.  I made the mistake of trying to be an eagle in a sheep organization.  Just who do I think I am anyway!?

As a good friend and colleague once said to me, in analyzing our workplace:

Sometimes people breathe toxic air so long they think it’s normal.  They think the abuse and neglect is normal.  It feels normal to hurt like that.  People adapt to dysfunction to the point where it’s seen as desirable or preferable to change.  The results are negfests, learned helplessness, and resistance.  In our organization, function often follows form, the letter of the law is emphasized over the spirit of the law, and the adventure of academia spars with the risk averse bureaucracy.

I still believe people are not sheep.  I don’t believe we need a shepherd — noteworthy that this is one of the more powerful symbols in Christianity — nor am I interested in being a shepherd.  In my job, it has felt for months like “my employees” either want me to just be a sheep or a shepherd.  But I am not interested in reinforcing false dualities.  I am not interested in running around waking up sheep or forcing them to separate from the herd.

I also do not want to be a sheep — because I’m not — but as a non-sheep it is exhausting trying to exist in a herd, especially when it’s heading for a cliff. I can’t seem to break away from the crowd due to the force of their momentum, yet if I stand still I’ll get trampled.

I think for now the bird metaphor is a better fit.  I know I’m an eagle amongst chickens, I’m just waiting for the right moment to fly.  In fact, one image I play with during the day as I walk down the drab institutional hallways of my place of employment is to picture huge angel-like eagle wings opening with a loud feathery snap behind me like a skydiver’s parachute, brushing the walls on either side of me as I glide to whatever adventure awaits me next.

How about you?

In lak ech,

Jaxsine

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