The Wheel of Disillusionment: What it is and how it destroys relationships

A few years ago, an ED colleague called me up, upset and frustrated. Her team had started mobilizing against her. What had started as a misalignment in priorities spiraled out of control, and now staff were having clandestine meetings. The once-friendly office was cold, to the point where staff would no longer say hi when she entered. When she tried to ask for feedback, the attempts were rebuffed, leaving her hurt and confused. Morale was at an all-time low, and she thought about quitting daily.

Another leader, in another city, was in a similar situation, but with a particular member of his team. A firing of a problematic staff member who had been close to this team member started a chain of events. Now all his actions and motives were suspect. Even the simplest thing—closing the office door to accept a phone call—was interpreted as a sign of malice. Other staff who had no issues with him were now being pulled into the drama, and a narrative was building that he was prejudiced against certain ethnic groups, which was deeply unsettling to a leader of color at a social justice organization. A faction that agreed with him on the firing formed to support him, and the tension between the two groups threatened the mission.

Meanwhile, similar dynamics were happening between two great organizations that I know. A misalignment of, and lack of communications upfront regarding, values and priorities resulted in tensions between the groups as they tried to collaborate on a project. A narrative was formed, and one group’s every action, including attempts at a “clean slate” and renewed relationship building, were met with suspicion.

These dynamics happen so often in our work that I have recognized a pattern, which I am going to call The Wheel of Disillusionment, and it is a destructive, terrifying force that we need to recognize and understand so we can mitigate the damage that it wreaks on our sector. This cycle is different than regular conflict because there is usually a clear power differential. It happens to people who are white, of color, of different gender identities, new to the work or decades-long activists. I am writing about it here with the hopes that it might help you if you are stuck this situation, or it might be useful to know so you can avoid it. Please keep in mind that these are just preliminary thoughts, based on observations, not scientifically tested, and they may change as I get feedback and think about it some more.

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