The Broken Stair

Before the holidays a close friend of mine relayed an analogy that has been knocking around in my head since then, regarding interpersonal relationships.

He said every group has a broken stair. I looked confused.

He explained.

Everyone has that one person in the group that’s a broken stair. You know that it’s broken, so you avoid the step, and you get used to avoiding it. You still know it’s broken, but because you can still go about your day you never get around to fixing it. It may even bug you but you and everyone else, just never really  enough to do anything about it. People who are really bothered stop coming over. Sometimes you warn newcomers to watch out. Sometimes it’s a big joke.

Until someone gets hurt.

Every group has a broken stair. A toxic, or even abusive person that you have ignored and circumvented for so long that you forget about their behavior until someone gets hurt. You choose to forget.

Let’s say it’s not your responsibility to fix it, so you complain to the person whose responsibility it is (every group has a leader, sometimes it’s everyone, but someone is responsible). They can either fix it, ignore it, or tell everyone to avoid it.

The sad thing is, if they ignore it and you fix it yourself, it’s pretty likely that the person who is responsible will blame you for challenging their authority. It was theirs to deal with, and they needed more information! Or they needed to consider all sides! Or they had a plan you just couldn’t understand! You saw a problem, you fixed it, now you are the bad guy.

However, if you are the person responsible, fix the stair.

If you run a martial arts club, a gym, or you just have a social group: Fix the problem. Don’t avoid it. Don’t tell the people who complain (the people invested enough to try and improve things) not to worry. They are worried. They are right to be. Eventually someone will get hurt.

Here’s the thing, if you are leader you are always actively modelling behavior. If you don’t deal with problems, you create an environment where people don’t see those behaviors as problematic anymore and that directly impacts the make-up of the group and the well being of everyone.

Here’s the point*:

Do your fucking job. If you don’t want to do the job of a leader, don’t be a leader. Leadership is brutal. Being welcoming is brutal. Being fair is brutal.

The second you start ignoring the broken stair, you have failed as a leader. You can be a mess in any other aspect of what you do, you can be a royal fuck up, but your first responsibility is not to be a shit bag. Your second responsibility is not to excuse the shit bags.

After that, you can worry about rep schemes and study material. You can worry about logos and type-face. You can worry about being respected when you deserve it.

*(if there really is one)

It’s come to my attention that the phrase “the broken stair” is often used to describe consent issues. I am referring here to a broader issue around toxicity, boundaries, and abusive behaviors, however issues around consent and sexual harassment are definitely included in what I am discussing, and often those behaviors are all inter-related. 

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