Working in groups

Working in groups can be rewarding, exciting and creative. It can also be frustrating and unproductive. Many people think you have no way of influencing which you get. You can influence your group, as a member and a chairperson, so everyone feels positive. This note explains how.

What happens in groups?

People do a Task.

People work together to do a task. The task could be to sing a song, to solve a scientific problem to select 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 have training to do it competently in their field.

People use a Process

However, people in a group are working together. If this is to work, they need to use methods that are appropriate. 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 will be productive and satisfying. If people have to compete to speak so no one listens then building a common solution is impossible. This is a destructive process.

People can help to make a good process. They might bring a quiet person in to the discussion, suggest a break if people were tired or even express their frustration directly.

Process work is difficult because it is unfamiliar and not usually taught. It feels quite scary sometimes. You are not throwing rocks but helping in a very practical way. If you wish, you can encourage process interventions in the groups you lead or attend.

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 but they do colour behaviour.

If someone has an idea ridiculed by another member of the group, then he or she will be unlikely to support easily that person’s sensible proposal later. Having an idea ridiculed makes most people quite angry. It is very difficult to be sensible when you are angry. Similarly, if a group’s leader is very 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 any one else feel the same way?”

Facilitating Groups

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. He or she often wants the team to develop from this experience and the individual members 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 just 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 his or her own feelings when things are stuck. “I am fed up with our negative tone. I would really like some positive suggestions to move things forward”.

The group member as facilitator

This can be more difficult. You do have the job of contributing the best you can to the task of the group. You can contribute to the process and feelings too. As a member you will not have formal authority for the process of the group.

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 him or her think about the group. This can be outside the meeting.
  • Bring someone in “Can you say some more on that?
  • Listen to everyone, ask clarifying questions
  • Express her or his own confusion, “I’m confused about what we have just decided. Can anyone help?”

The consultant as facilitator

The consultant is outside the group and works with it occasionally. He or she can be objective because the consultant’s life and history are not bound up in the group. Inevitably the consultant will be ignorant of important nuances that influence members because of their shared history. The consultant will try to work at the level that is right 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 own process. Provide models and methods to do this.
  • Observe your own processes. Only intervene if you ask or if you are very stuck.
  • Develop the process skills and awareness and 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 very important for the success of all organisations. These principles of effective group working apply to all relationships at work. They apply within teams in Departments, between teams inside and outside departments and at the highest levels too. They are the keys to customer relationships. They deserve attention.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick