The Case of Two WhatsApp Groups Management of Self & the Other: Intimacy, Vulnerability, Power, and Competitiveness

Preamble

I have been privileged to be a member of two very active ‘WhatsApp groups’ – each group deriving its identity from one’s education with an elite business school in India.

Each group comprises of senior leaders, men and women, who head or run large organizations or strategic functions – the average experience in management would range from 25 to 27 years. There are members in both groups who are well heeled, and extremely well read, who have worked with global and local companies, and who have displayed leadership to reach wherever they are today. Both groups are largely dominated by men in terms of sheer proportions.

However, my experience both as a member, and as an observer of the two groups has been very different, and this has left me intrigued and often puzzled. This blog becomes an attempt to understand the ‘network’ processes that vitalize or challenge a group. I would like to build on my diverse and unique experiences within each group, to present some thoughts on ‘networks’ and how these get imbued by themes of intimacy, power, and competitiveness. I would also like to explore the coping processes, unconscious largely, that all of us as members deploy to manage these themes. The writing of this blog is influenced by subjectivity, though I would be often tempted to refer to numbers and objective data.

This blog is not about judging, comparing and evaluating, or even labelling individual members, groups, and business schools. There are no salacious details here, in case you are curious or searching for sensational tidbits.

 

Context & Background

The first WhatsApp group, that I would be referring to, and which has been labelled as ‘Wimwi-ans” was set up when most of us discovered WhatsApp just before we got to meet for our 20-year re-union way back in 2014. WImwians allowed us to connect from all over the world, and there was an initial excitement of discovering our new looks – flaunting our expanded waistlines and contracting hairlines etc. The first few years were all about nostalgic sharing of photographs, snippets, and some self-deprecating narratives. However, all of us concurred that the Wimwian network ought to also be used for knowledge sharing, perspectives building, and other idealistic goals, lest the network get reduced to sharing blasé jokes and ribald anecdotes.

The second WhatsApp group, hereby referred to as “Learners”, was set up five months ago where many of us pursuing a executive doctorate got together, with a similar intent towards knowledge sharing, new perspective building, and other idealistic learning goals. What stares at each of us is a lonely research journey in our respective diverse goals in the coming years, and a need to find some belonging and a shared platform to put ideas and thoughts together. Most of us, just like Wimwians, are not academicians but practicing managers and leaders.

You as a reader would have discerned some of the immediate differences and even made some judgments that I would like to challenge:

  • Ostensibly, Wimwians sounds more like an old Boys network – that is energized by nostalgia and belonging, whereas Learners seems to be more focused, purposive, and goal oriented, energized by a shared purpose.

Well that has not been my experience thus far.

For example, certain Wimwians are extremely passionate in sharing new learnings and perspectives. Many Wimwians offer new insights on history, international and national politics, economics, and other fields of enquiry. The nature of themes are broader, and even people like me, who find themselves on the fringe of the capitalist world are able to find a voice.

What actually catches my attention is that the nature of belonging and intimacy has not really been worked with or invested into. I suspect many of us carry the same relatedness that we had in the campus, and thus there is some resistance to see each other in a different light at an emotional and subjective level.

  • Ostensibly, Learners need to be more collaborative and interdependent, whereas Wimwians don’t…

This is also not my experience, for there seems to be very little interdependence, at this stage, between the members of this group. Each of us is working in diverse arenas – from governance to blockchains to ethics in corporations. There are times when I feel that the Wimwians are more interdependent for many have shared interests including share markets, industry trends etc.

  • Ostensibly, Wimwians have a legacy where members known each other for multiple decades, and Learners don’t…

Yes and no. As stated earlier, we might be captives of past judgments, and often the legacy runs counter to possibilities of new relatedness and new relationships – however this is a differentiating factor impacting group relations within the Wimwian group.

The age of the group is a differentiator that cannot be ignored – you may be quick to interpret the age and link it with the formation of teams – forming, norming, storming etc., but I am reluctant to translate a social network to a team.

Key Differences

The following table attempts to capture certain processes and themes that differentiate one group from the other, and which as stated earlier, are intriguing trends.

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Key Likeness / Similarities

  • Both the groups are at ease with masculine processes – structure, date, objectivity, analyses, confrontation, and drawing of boundaries. Men and women are at ease with using structure, logic and reason to work with all themes ranging from management problems to environmental solutions to running countries.
  • Both the groups do not see Intimacy as a key objective or a desirable experience of being a part of the network. By Intimacy, I refer to investing into expressing and working with mutual vulnerability, openness, and sharing. While, the Wimwian group has expressed a need to be open and to be able to share, it has been difficult for the group to translate this into action. There are very few instances of a member demonstrating vulnerability and the group acknowledging it with grace and empathy.
  • Both the groups seem to have difficulties with endorsing feminine processes of nurturing, intuition, surrender, and creating an emotional infrastructure for self and others.

If I was to bring in a postmodernist perspective, and look at what does not get shared (Silence or Repressed), the following themes stand out:

  • Both network groups have chosen to remain silent on ‘Exile’ and ‘Banishment’ … I guess both the groups subscribe to Hotel California – there is a boundary that you can never cross. I tried exiting one of the group, but was brought back in by old friends. There is almost an unstated sorrow of having to tolerate each other, without the privilege of exiling or banishing the Other
  • Both the networks do not engage with dialogue on Political and Ethical stances. In Wimwian, the stances become zones of conflict and stone-throwing at each other, and in Learners – these are politely ignored in the name of collaboration. Ethics are reduced to inane idealistic stances.
  • Both the networks do not offer spaces of expressing and or working with ‘personal fears’ or personal angst, that lay beneath stances and postures. I think one of the mythology that all of us as senior managers and leaders subscribe to is that ‘thou ought not have angst’.
  • Both the networks are not able to create spaces where reactivity and catharsis is valued or legitimized. These hide behind cleverly crafted intellectual arguments and defenses. Sometimes we behave like adolescents unable to either express love towards each other or hate towards each other.
  • In both the networks, there seems to be a denial of differential ways of relating that may exist – say through language, sexuality, community, state – and thus all clique and clannish processes never really surface.

 

My Intrigue

 I began this blog stating my intrigue.

As you may have inferred, my sensing of the two groups is that both are remarkably similar in terms of member demographics, skills and competencies, and yet one group is more hedonic than the Other.

  • Is this difference that I refer to, more a function of time – that time, instead of healing, also creates rupturing and differences, and in many ways creating a sense of staleness that slides towards agonic mindsets.
  • Is this difference that I refer to, more a function of ‘logical collaboration’ – where the Learner group seems to be experimenting with rational interdependencies. There may come a time when the deep lacunae of emotional infrastructure would render the group equally agonic so to say, once the initial excitement of collaboration dies out.
  • Just like the Wimwians are unable to express and legitimize feelings of love and empathy towards each other when the network acts as an agonic network, maybe the Learners are unable to express feelings of rivalry, envy, and competition when the network is predominant hedonic.

Those of you who are reading this blog, and are a member of either of these networks may have a different point of view and I would love to hear about it.

CONCLUSION

Most networks should ideally serve three functions:

a) Interdependence (at an Instrumental level) – sharing and exchanging ideas, knowledge, learning and perspectives.

b) Spaces for Catharsis – Safe spaces that allow for expression of anger, frustration, angst and fear, without being judged or evaluated; and a space that allows members to move on.

c) Spaces for Renewal and Replenishment – Spaces for intense dialogue that offers new understanding of self and the Other with insights and new energies.

However collaborative networks such as the WhatsApp groups that i talked about, also have to deal with the shadow of such groups – which means that the third objective of renewal and replenishment cannot happen, unless we work with feelings that otherwise linger below the surface and leak all over in intense times. The feelings of vulnerability, angst, rage, envy, and emptiness deserve a legitimate space too to make a network more intimate and not just a mechanical arraignment of knowledge nodes.

Given that such networks (WhatsApp groups) have no managers but have to deal with processes of self authoring and leadership, these networks become the space for learning and experimenting.

I would definitely invite you to consider what is happening in your Network.

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