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

[Image description: Three cute fluffy yellow ducklings. One is on the ground, while the two other ducklings are standing looking at the duckling on the ground. They all seem to be friends. Image from]
Hi everyone. This week’s post is long and a little serious (despite the picture of ducklings). But before that, a couple of quick announcements. First, PLEASE VOTE!!!

Second, I’m doing a Facebook Live this Tuesday, November 6th, 12:30 to 1:30pm PST, to update you all on what’s been going on with my organization, Rainier Valley Corps, and to answer any questions you may have. I think people sometimes forget that I am an executive director of a capacity-building-focused social justice organization, so I’m going to try to host these conversations quarterly. They might even inspire me to comb my hair more often.

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. If there is a “toxic work environment,” it is likely because the office is embroiled in this Wheel. But it also happens in shorter engagements, such as a retreat or seminar. 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 my observations, not scientifically tested, and they may change as I get feedback and think about it some more.

Below are the stages in the Wheel of Disillusionment. But first, some vocabulary.

Idealized Party (IP): A person or organization who, through their formal position, status in the community, or claims of expertise, is unconsciously idealized, meaning that they are expected to know the latest terms, concepts, and “best” practices and never make a mistake. These are usually organizational or community leaders, facilitators/trainers of a workshop, and whole organizations. Some people and orgs become idealized because they have proven themselves through their work, such as a community leader who has engaged in years of activism; this earns them credibility, but unfortunately it also means that they may develop an inability to see certain things, and yet their every mistake is magnified.

Disillusioned Individual (DI): An individual or an organization, usually with less formal power and privilege than the IP. They may be staff at an organization, attendees at a workshop, or a smaller organization. They usually start off on a positive or neutral relationship with an IP, oftentimes excited to work with a particular leader or organization.

The Seven Stages in the Wheel of Disillusionment

[Image description: Graphic representation of the Wheel of Disillusionment. It’s seven circles, one for each stage, connected by arrows. Created by Vu and his very limited graphic design skills.]
Stage One, the making of mistakes or perception of it: The IP is shown to be imperfect. Maybe they used the wrong terminology or outdated concept, didn’t frame a conversation or workshop right, didn’t check in with enough people, made a decision unilaterally when the DI or rest of the team expected consensus, or otherwise did not live up to the expectations consciously or unconsciously set upon them. The IP, usually having more formal power, is expected to behave in an idealized way, so when they make a mistake, it is jarring and can start the cycle of disillusionment. 

Stage Two, the triggering of trauma: The mistake triggers some trauma in the DI. The trauma comes from the content of the mistake, but also possibly from events that happened in the DI’s history years ago. A relatively simple or otherwise simply irritating mistake or misalignment of priorities may be significantly amplified by childhood or other historical trauma, or other variables that may or may not be consciously recognized.

Stage Three, the formation of a clique: The DI forms a clique with colleagues of similar identities or viewpoints for support and validation. Sometimes this group can be very helpful, if it serves the role of advising the DI to proactively solve problems. Unfortunately, oftentimes the group starts reinforcing common values and cultures, creating factions and dividing people. Sometimes colleagues who originally had no issues with the leader or organization are pulled into this group. 

Stage Four, the creation of a narrative: Through the clique, a narrative is formed about the leader or organization—for examples, that the person does not believe in equity, that they were hired because of a fluke or favoritism, that they are prejudiced against certain groups of people, that the organization is mired in systemic oppression, that the person/org is simply clueless about certain important things that should be obvious, or that they have nefarious agendas.

Stage Five, the selection of evidence: Once the narrative is formed, evidence that confirms it is accepted and actually sought out, and any that may run counter to it is dismissed or reframed to support the narrative. Even simple, normally harmless gestures are interpreted to fit or not fit the narrative. The PI at this stage may try to be helpful, to attempt to strengthen the relationship, but even these efforts may be seen as manipulative.

Stage Six, the coordination of actions: This involves concerted efforts to address the issue: ambushing the IP with a surprise group meeting under the guise of a different agenda, going above them to their supervisor or board of directors, refusing as a clique to participate in activities proposed by the IP, talking directly to funders or the media, or just disparaging the IP to external colleagues, among other tactics. Some of these actions may be helpful in resolving the problem, but many are simply punitive.

Stage Seven, the stonewalling of feedback and relationship-building: By now, the IP is probably confused and alarmed. They try to find ways to ask for feedback, to repair the relationship. These requests are met by extreme reluctance, or are fraught with tension—“we can only meet if there’s a board member present”—that direct honest communication is almost impossible. Due to the stonewalling, the IP remains unclear or confused about what they did wrong, and so they continue to make the same or new mistakes, thus continuing the cycle, which quickly becomes a terrifying spiral.

Breaking out of the Wheel of Disillusionment

The stages in the Wheel can happen in different orders and in varying degrees. The stonewalling of feedback, for example, often happens throughout all the other stages. A stage may be bypassed on occasion. Stages 3 and 4 often reinforce each other, as a clique helps to form a narrative, and that narrative strengthens the clique. Same goes with Stages 4 and 5, where selective evidence reinforces the narrative, and the narrative filters out what evidence is valid. 

In whatever order or patterns these stages take place, the end results are rarely good. Illusions are shattered, trust is broken, a toxic environment is created, and someone usually has to leave the organization for healing to take place. The damage to the leader or organization, and also to the disillusioned individual, can last for years. What is sad and frustrating is that both parties are usually good people/organizations who have the same goals in mind, and the pattern can severely damage the good work that has been done leading up to this.

This Wheel of Disillusionment is incredibly pervasive. At any point, any of us could become the disillusioned individual, the idealized party, or a member of a clique formed by a disillusioned individual. Unfortunately, it is not easy to break out of this cycle, and the further along in the cycle, the more challenging it is to end it and get relationships back on track. There are no easy solutions, but here are some general recommendations to prevent yourself from getting into these dynamics, as well as to try to get out of them if you are caught in them. (Special thanks to RVC’s Managing Director, Ananda Valenzuela, for helping me formulate some of these recommendations):

To prevent yourself from getting caught up in the Wheel:

Create a culture of learning, feedback, and direct communication: Giving and receiving direct feedback is hard, but it is important to do so consistently. It helps to ingrain feedback into organizational culture. For example, at my organization, we talk about feedback all the time, and we are reminded to solicit feedback from one another on a regular basis. “Hey, do you have any feedback for me this month?” makes it easier for colleagues to give us feedback, and taking initiative gives us a sense of ownership, which makes accepting the feedback easier. We, and I personally, still struggle with it, but it has become a lot easier, as we talk about it all the time at RVC. Here are some great resources on giving and receiving feedback, from the Social Transformation Project:

Stop triangulation as soon as you see it happen: Triangulation is when we talk to other people about a problem instead of giving feedback directly to the individual we have tensions with. In certain situations, it can be helpful as a way to gather perspective, advice, or even support to bring this up directly, but often the triangulation spirals out of control. Practice giving feedback directly; two good resources are Radical Candor and Courageous Conversations. If you find yourself the party that’s being pulled into a situation between two people (or teams or orgs), listen empathetically, but guide the person to bring the problem up directly with the party with whom they are having the issue.

Make time to discuss values and priorities: This is particularly important when organizations try to collaborate. If your org values action and expediency, and a partner org values community input and consensus, then there will likely arise conflicts that may spiral into disillusionment. The same goes on the individual level. If you value organizational stability, and thus you focus on fundraising and build infrastructure, but a colleague values an organizational grounding in equity and insists the org spends less time on fundraising and more on related trainings and conversations first, there will be conflict. It is important to discuss individual and organizational values and come to some tentative agreements before major decisions are made. As an example, here is my org’s one-page list of values and associated actions, including preventing the formation of cliques (#8 under “Community”); it has been extremely helpful to ensure we don’t step into the Wheel. 

Build relationships: When we have strong relationships, it is harder to get caught up in the Wheel of Disillusionment. Unfortunately, again, many of us go too fast, by-passing the trust and relationship-building phase, and then when things happen, there is little room for the benefit of the doubt or a chance to clarify. Meet one-on-one with new team members, or with leaders of partner organizations. Have a group dinner before serious negotiations take place. Prioritize these activities. It is much harder to repair a broken relationship than to spend time in advance developing it (Not that it’s hopeless; it can be done, but it’s more difficult).

Frame, de-idealize, humanize: Let people know upfront that you are not perfect, that you will make mistakes, that you welcome feedback, and that it is OK that they make mistakes too. For instance, when you are leading a training, or when you are having a one-on-one with a new team member. This helps to de-idealize you, your organization, or the relationship or partnership. It does not immunize you from the Wheel, but it does make it harder for people to be disillusioned when you preemptively dispel the illusions. It also makes it easier for people to give feedback directly, which prevents Stages Three and Four (forming of cliques and building narratives) from taking hold.

To break out of the Wheel:

Recognize where you may be wrong: If you are caught in the position of the IP, with people seemingly hating you, it is easy and understandable to be defensive. But try to acknowledge where there may be validity, where you may be wrong, and where you could do better. The open acknowledgement of this helps to diffuse tensions and allows people to feel heard.

If you are the disillusioned party, examine where your frustrations may be coming from. It may be because of misalignment of values, disappointment in reality not meeting expectations, or because the IP is actually just really horrible. But it may also be because of traumas that may have happened in your or your organization’s past, possibly even years prior, that may be influencing your current interactions.  

Openly discuss these dynamics: It may be helpful to call attention to dynamics taking place. Humans and our interactions with one another are complex, and many of us may not realize what we are contributing to. The Wheel of Disillusionment is just one simplified model that cannot explain every conflict, but it can be helpful as a tool. In working with a recent conflict, I brought this concept to a well-respected leader who had become disillusioned. Instantly he realized not only was he stonewalling feedback as the Disillusioned Individual, but that he himself was stonewalled in another situation where he was the Idealized Party. Meanwhile, I myself recognized that I was contributing to the problem by having joined a clique instead of helping to de-triangulate. Here is a quick one-pager summarizing the Wheel, in case it’s helpful.

Bring in an outside mediator: When you’ve reached the further stages in the Wheel, it is hard, if not impossible, to break out of it without bringing in a skilled mediator or facilitator. Having a neutral external party can help to bring new perspectives, focus everyone on the common vision, and relieve tension, necessary for rebuilding trust and relationships. Be careful whom you bring in, though, as I’ve seen some external parties taking sides, basically joining the clique formed in Stage 3. Sometimes, when things get really awful, it may be necessary to engage legal experts.

Take preemptive actions: In certain situations, the IP is really awful, and feedback has been directly provided with no results, and actions such as going to the board are justified. In other cases though, it is the opposite, with the disillusioned individual bearing a bigger responsibility for the prolonged conflict. The IP is should take preemptive actions, such as warning the board, consulting with HR experts, documenting everything, and giving a heads up to funders, major donors, and even the media in case they get contacted.

Terminate the relationship or partnership: On occasions, when both parties are committed to making it work, the Wheel can be broken, and in some instances, the experience may actually strengthen the current as well as future relationships or collaborations. Sometimes, though, the only way to break out of the Wheel is if either parties (or both) leaves. In certain circumstances, the entire clique might need to be let go. This is can be painful and legally difficult, and racked with guilt and self-blame, but I’ve seen leaders and organizations rebound and be successful afterward. Sometimes, however, it is the IP that is the problem, especially after multiple attempts at direct feedback have led to nowhere, and that person or organization may need to voluntarily leave, or board members or others may need to step in to remove them. 

In summary, the work we do is complex, and more so than in other fields, we must interact and collaborate with fellow human beings to address a host of entrenched societal issues. Due to the serious nature of our missions, conflicts will naturally arise, and we may not even be aware of how we may be solving or furthering the problems. I’ve seen the pattern described here a few dozen times now, happening to leaders and organizations of all different backgrounds, and when it goes on for months or years, it results in terrible consequences that end up hurting the communities we’re all trying to serve. The Wheel of Disillusionment is just one tool, but I hope it may be useful as you continue to do this difficult and important work.  

Be a monthly patron of NAF and keep posts like this coming.

Donate to Vu’s organization

Write an anonymous review of a foundation on

Subscribe to this blog by entering your email in the widget on the right of this page (scroll up or down)