How to help your group work better
Working in groups can be rewarding, exciting and creative. It can also be frustrating and unproductive. As a member and chairperson, you can influence your group so everyone feels positive. Many people think you have no way of changing what you get. You can.
What happens in groups?
People do a Task.
People work together to do a task. The task could be to sing a song, solve a scientific problem or choose a new computer system. People do things to move the task along. They might make a suggestion, offer an idea, ask for or offer information or opinion. Working at the task level is usually familiar, and people often have the training to do it competently.
People use a Process.
However, people in a group work together. If this is to go well, they need to use appropriate methods. These methods are the group process.
A process where everyone makes their best contribution, everyone listens, and people build on each others’ ideas to produce a solution is productive and satisfying. Creating a common solution is impossible if people have to compete to speak, so no one listens. This is a destructive process. It demotivates people and you will probably not get a good outcome.
People can help to make a good process. They might bring a quiet person into the discussion, suggest a break if people are tired or even express their frustration directly.
Process work is unfamiliar and not usually taught. It feels pretty scary sometimes. You are not throwing rocks but helping the group succeed. You can encourage process interventions in the groups you lead or attend if you wish.
People handle their own and other group members’ feelings
People have feelings about each other and themselves when they work together. These feelings are not often expressed directly, and they colour behaviour.
Having an idea ridiculed makes most people quite angry. It is tough to be reasonable when you are angry. If someone has an idea ridiculed by another group member, they probably will not support that person’s sensible proposal later easily. Similarly, if a group’s leader is dominant, people may find it hard to make suggestions even if the leader asks for them. Domination may reduce people’s self-confidence and make them scared to contribute.
You need to express your feelings if you feel confused, upset, fed up or irritated and the group is stuck. You can say, “I am feeling fed up because we are stuck. Does anyone else feel the same way?”
A facilitator helps the people in a group work together well. Anyone can do this.
The group leader as facilitator
The group leaders’ job is to get the task achieved. The leader will want the people to work well together too.
The group leader can:
- Carefully clarify the objective of the work, so everyone knows what the task is.
- Set up a simple process so everyone can have a turn to talk. One way is to give everyone two minutes each to talk about the topic while everyone else listens.
- Establish an agreement that if anyone is uncomfortable about how the meeting is going, they should say so.
- Review the meeting at the end. What did we do that worked? How could it be better next time? Do this after every meeting.
- Express their feelings when things are stuck. “I am fed up with our negative tone. I would like some positive suggestions to move things forward”.
The group member as a facilitator
You will not have formal authority over the group process as a member. You will want to help with the group’s task. You can still help with the group’s process and feelings.
You can choose to use your personal authority and act just because it is right. This will feel risky but can be immensely satisfying. If no one does anything, the group will remain as it is.
The group member can:
- Suggest a process if the present one is stuck.
- Listen to the chairperson and help them think about the group. This can be outside the meeting.
- Bring someone in. “Can you say some more on that?
- Listen to everyone, and ask clarifying questions.
- Express their confusion, “I’m confused about what we have just decided. Can anyone help?”
- Say how they feel: “I’m frustrated about how we work together. Does anyone else feel the same way?”
The consultant, as a facilitator
The consultant is outside the group and works with it occasionally. They can be objective because the consultant’s life and history are not bound up in the group. Inevitably the consultant will be ignorant of nuances that influence members because of their shared history. The consultant will try to work at the right level for the group and build some trust initially.
A facilitating consultant can:
- Lead the process of the group by providing model processes and problem-solving tools that the group can later take on and use.
- Help you and observe and think about your process. Provide models and methods to do this.
- Observe your processes. Only intervene if you ask or if you are very stuck.
- Develop the process skills and awareness of the members in individual and small group sessions.
- Help you learn from your day-to-day experience of work and working together.
The issues above are crucial for the success of all organisations. These principles of practical group work apply to all relationships at work. They apply within teams in Departments, between inside and outside departments and at the highest levels. They are the keys to customer relationships. They deserve attention.