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what your band or team can learn from borderline personality disorder and group-house syndrome

On August 27th covering , , , ,

This study from Baylor has been making the rounds. I recommend watching the short videos in the sidebars. It’s a good study, even if I think the researchers miss the best implications.

They focus on one aspect of Borderline Personality Disorder: people with this condition have a very hard time judging what is fair in a give-and-take situation. They will often feel persecuted and deeply unsafe. They will genuinely feel they are getting the short end of the stick, even when others have made huge concessions. Others perceive them as hugely selfish.

My point is not to diagnose your bandmates or fellow hackers/entrepreneurs with a personality disorder, satisfying as that may be. If you don’t know what this disorder is, don’t worry. My point is to shed light on the group-house syndrome.

You know how in group houses one person will buy more of the beer/milk/coffee, another will deal with the landlord/ cops/ health department, another will handle the utilities, perhaps someone will take out the garbage, and occasionally someone might cook or clean something? Everyone feels they are doing more than their share and will harbor resentments. This will make them feel entitled to cut corners, and the whole place will go to hell and everyone will feel wronged.

This happens in the kinds of groups I’m interested in: performing ensembles, startups, professional partnerships, etc. These can evoke some borderline-like reactions as people with different contributions have an excellent memory for their contributions but hazy recollection of what everyone else is putting in the pot. This will kill the whole enterprise in no time, and it’s a good way to wind up in court suing your former best friends.

Psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy, cited in the above article, emphasizes what he calls Mentalization in treating borderline personality. This involves fostering a richer capacity to imagine the mental states of others, as opposed to simply reacting to them. This is a good principle to use with non-borderline people as well to head off group-house syndrome. But first you have to notice it’s happening.

Here are some simple recommendations for preventing a toxic mess from killing your creative team or music ensemble:

  • Notice resentments and address them before they fester — agree to this ahead of time.
  • Set a group norm or reviewing who is contributing what at a regular business meeting. People forget what others are doing.
  • Take resentments seriously: if a person believes they’re being wronged, they’re probably sincere even if they’re incorrect — so don’t retaliate.
  • Invite the person who thinks they’re wronged to explain how they see things — maybe they’ve been working on things others don’t know about.
  • Instead of insisting about all the things you’re contributing … ask them to tell you how they see your contribution.
  • Ask them to say what they think would make things more fair.

And finally — if things aren’t resolving and you have that sickening feeling that things are going badly — bring in a neutral outsider before real damage is done.

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