By now we’ve all noticed how folks act out and behave aggressively a lot more online than they ever would in person. We see it everywhere: Trolls on Twitter, hate-speech on Facebook, and vitriolic comments on blogs and media articles.
Of course, there’s still the good-old standard: flame emails.
I once received an email in response to an article about the gender wage gap. The subject of the email was “You are an idiot,” and it included similarly refined comments such as “you are a moron” and “are you really that stupid?”
It was written by Nicki Gilmour, CEO of The Glass Hammer, Evolved People Media, and Evolved Employer.
Let me explain why this sort of thing is happening more and more.
Years ago we built a fence around our property and let the dogs run free inside. What we didn’t expect is that our otherwise well-trained mutts started to guard the fence line, barking at anyone and everyone who passed by on foot, on wheels, whatever.
Even worse, they started misbehaving. They didn’t listen to our commands and became somewhat aggressive at times. So we brought in a trainer and learned that, when dogs are given too much room to roam – room they perceive, for whatever reason, is theirs to protect – they become stressed and fearful.
That’s why they were acting up, acting out, or whatever you call neurotic dogs that don’t behave the way you want them to behave.
Turns out that people and dogs are both pack animals with more or less the same ancient limbic system that governs our response to emotional stimuli. We have the same sort of survival instincts that govern our behavior in the face of perceived threats that make us fearful.
Consider this. When we lived in caves, our spheres of influence were very small. We only interacted with those we came face-to-face with. With the exception of the telephone, that situation remained intact until Web 2.0 turned the Internet into an interactive media where you or I can theoretically influence a billion people.
Now we’re all in each other’s business. Our perceived spheres of influence are enormous. And, while we’re not aware of it, that’s increasing our stress which, since the source is new and unknown to us, we interpret as anxiety. It’s part of our ancient survival instincts that are millions of years old. And, just like the dogs, we’re misbehaving, as a result.
The funny thing is, leaders and executives have been dealing with that sort of situation for ages. It’s called “organization.” Instead of feeling stressed because we have hundreds or thousands of employees and enormous companies to run, we have a relatively few number of direct reports and some layers. It works quite well.
Granted, there’s a downside. Too many layers make companies bureaucratic and sluggish and leaders who are too far removed from “the masses” become out of touch with the realities of society or the business, as the case may be. That’s why leaders need to strike a balance between flat and bloated organizational structures.
That explains why our newly expansive virtual spheres of influence are not working out so well for most of us. Most of us don’t see the world the way executives and leaders do. It also explains why alternative organizational structures with democratic workplaces and no bosses will likely be similarly problematic.
Unlike dogs, we humans do have more highly evolved frontal lobes capable of overriding our ancient limbic systems, but that’s not nearly as easy to do as it sounds, since the latter uses powerful neurotransmitters to reinforce “survival” behavior and secretes powerful hormones like adrenaline and cortisol during perceived threats.
And that’s why some of us are not nearly as evolved as we think we are.
Image chefjancris via Flickr