Beware of vicious circles

The term ‘vicious circle’ is one that is often used, but its significance is not always appreciated or fully understood. This is a pity, as it is an important and useful concept, and vicious circles are far more common than people generally realise.

So, what exactly is a vicious circle? Basically, it is when one thing (let’s call it A) has a negative effect on another (B), and then B has a similar negative effect on A, leading to an exacerbation of A and its negative effect on B. And so it goes on, from bad to worse, the negatives of A and B reinforcing each other. The technical way of putting this is that a ‘feedback loop’ has been set up. Some feedback loops are fairly minor and trivial and do relatively little harm. However, some can be very serious and highly destructive. For example, personal or professional relationships can break down, leading to a range of significant ‘knock-on’ problems. Imagine Sam gets annoyed with Chris, so becomes uncommunicative, rather than dealing with whatever the problem was. Chris is annoyed that Sam has become uncommunicative, and so becomes equally uncommunicative in return. This makes Sam even more annoyed, creates a tense and difficult atmosphere and makes life difficult all round. The result is the classic outcome of a vicious circle: the situation not only goes from bad to worse, but also becomes entrenched – with each round of response it becomes more difficult for either Sam or Chris to break out of the cycle. It can therefore continue for weeks, months or even years, doing more and more harm. Long after the original source of annoyance has been forgotten, the vicious circle is continuing to do a great deal of harm.

One of the harmful effects of a vicious circle is that it can affect not only the people directly involved, but also those around them. For example, if Sam and Chris were family members, their vicious circle could have a detrimental impact on all the other family members, and may even lead to family breakdown. If they were co-owners of a company or senior managers in any organization, the net result could be highly problematic for staff and indeed for the organization as a whole and all its stakeholders.

Being able to ‘tune in’ to vicious circles (preferably sooner, rather than later) is therefore a highly desirable attribute to have. So, there is much to be gained from thinking carefully about vicious circles and doing whatever we reasonably can to address them. For example, in situations where there is a conflict, working out whether one or more vicious circles are involved (and it is highly likely that there will be) can be a very useful way forward. This is a skill that can be developed over time, but it begins with making sure we are – and remain – aware of how vicious circles arise and operate.

What can be even better than resolving vicious circles is to find ways of turning them into ‘virtuous circles’. This is where A has a positive effect on B that in turn results in a B having a positive effect on A. instead of going from bad to worse, things go from strength to strength. Of course, creating a virtuous circle is not always possible and rarely easy. However, we should be careful not to rule out the possibility. It involves the same skills as addressing vicious circles, but taking them to a more advanced level – again something that can be achieved over time. The key, of course, is ‘tuning in’, being sensitive enough to work out what is happening, rather than just letting things pass you by.

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Dr Neil Thompson

About the Author:

Neil Thompson is a writer, trainer and consultant who has published several best-selling textbooks. He edits THE humansolutions BULLETIN, a fortnightly e-zine. For a no cost subscription go to http://www.humansolutions.org/bulletin. He also tutors the online learning community, The Avenue Professional Development Programme: http://www.apdp.org.uk.
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