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I was watching a popular TV programme last week – Breaking Amish – and was struck by the power of ‘shunning’.  For those who don’t watch Breaking Amish, the Amish are a religious fellowship in the US which uses shunning as a form of social punishment.  In essence, the Bishop instructs his parish to not talk, acknowledge or interact with a rule breaker (there are other aspects as well) for a period of time with the intention that they repent their wrongdoing and return to the church. 

What the TV program shows is that shunning is a powerful form of punishment which can divide families and friends.  While the intention is to maintain the order and rules of the church, it can also force people to make life-changing decisions about their links with their community and family.

It is important to recognise that no physical violence is used – those that are shunned are simply unable to participate in the normal social relationships of their organization. Yet it is this lack of social interaction that makes shunning so powerful a threat / punishment.

It strikes me that shunning is a formalised example of social rejection and one which any member of an organization – religious, profit making or any other – risks when they act against the perceived interests of their group or leader. 

But shunning or any other form of social rejection only works when the whole community takes part.  The minute that any reasonable part of the community or organization decides not to take part in the action – sometimes as little as one person can make a difference – then the power of social rejection is significantly undermined. 

The reason that shunning is such a powerful threat in the Amish community is that the Bishop has significant position power, one based on their ability to guide their followers into the promised afterlife.  Most organizations, even with highly charismatic leaders, don’t have such a hold over their members but while there is little research as to why employees will ‘go along with’ or even ‘encourage’ the workplace rejection of whistleblowers, it is clear that the fear of change is amongst them.

When organizations think about how whistleblowing is so often a cry for help from an employee who doesn’t know how to express their concerns, they should also reflect on how the actions and behaviour of only a few key individuals can significantly change the dynamics of how the organization responds.  Inclusive behaviour from leaders, whether from those with formal titles or from those who don’t, is a powerful force that can take a conversation from ‘awkward’ to ‘inspirational’.

Creating a courageous workplace need not be a major transformation project.  Sometimes simply starting is the hardest part.