From the diary of a facilitator: on group dynamics and leaning processes
1 February 2014
A fascinating area in the work of any organizational consultant, especially KM consultants, is instructing learning teams and communities. Some teams gather and learn under the title of "new knowledge development"; others act as part of a KM solution implementation process for edge users or constructing a team of content experts meant to formulate a vision and shared tasks.
Facilitating groups may seem like a firmly defined task with clear stages. However, my experience has shown that group dynamics undercurrents affect the task and process. A good facilitator, merging experience and theoretical knowledge can recognize and direct existing dynamics so team goals are fully attained quickly in an enabling, comfortable team atmosphere.
Teams as organisms (rather than an array of individuals)
A dynamic team facilitator sees beyond the collection of workers that share some properties and concentrates on another central factor present in the room: the team as whole. The team is an organism to be considered apart from its components.
Teams, as all individuals, feature their own character, will, emotions, urges and even survival instincts. As soon as group facilitator views teams as single organisms they observe the group's behavior. What is this "creature" dealing with? What are its interests? In what stage of development is the group currently? Is it focused on the task or dealing with other matters?
Stages of group development
Groups as wholes are usually analogized to babies or children going through phases throughout their lifetime. For teams to reach the stage in which they can work and efficiently focus on the task they must go through several phases not unlike a newborn that most evolve before it reaches its productive, mature state.
Another aspect this analogy presents is the child-parent relationship which manifests in facilitator-team relationships. The two are similar in their transfer from an initial stage in which the group highly depends on its facilitator for survival through a teenage-like stage in which groups rebel against their facilitator and develop independent, productive function. Assuming the initial stages and transition go smoothly, the relationship can become both fertile and mutual.
The importance of identifying typical group development processes and their stages
The aforementioned analogy suggests what may result in focusing on the individuals rather than the group as a whole, ignoring the existence of said "child" with its own life and interests. While the facilitator may be dealing with some individual issues, the group/child is going rancid, scared, angry and testing its limits. The facilitator might face a metaphorically kicking and screaming team and remain oblivious to the problem.
Operative implications for optimal instructions
We must view the discussion as a "the collective group" via stories, opinions and perceptions offered by the different members through which we can hear the group as a whole. The collective "child" is speaking to us through the different perceptions and is reflecting the collective state. What is the group currently dealing with? What is it thinking of and is it diverting it from its work tasks? What content cannot be expressed explicitly?
If we opt to analyze the collective psyche we may be able to accompany it throughout its evolution process until it reaches its productive maturity stage. The alternative might lead us to a confronting and even disintegrating group. The group's goals might be only partially reached or fully reached for a price too high (assuming it isn't buried under a variety of excuses).
Examples based on true cases
Background: a group of 16 participants meant to formulate a uniform procedure for work team management in 30 different chapters scattered throughout the state. Organization management senses that despite "organization spirit" affecting each chapter, each chapter is led by its manager as he/she sees fit.
This is their first meeting and team members arrive gradually. The team is comprised of senior management, 2 chapter managers, professional managers and two external observers appointed by the relevant governmental branch (and is not organization members).
I start out by requesting each participant to introduce him/herself as well as their position; I then explain the team's goal.
Me: "I'm so glad and excited. We are going to meet for 10 weekly sessions, 3 hours at a time, in order to construct an accepted, uniform chapter management procedure"
Ronit: "I must say, chapters offer such different services that it seems impossible to create a uniform procedure".
Gil: "I think that any resulting procedure will be so generally phrased it will be practically irrelevant".
Yael: "yes, but it seems that there is some sort of common denominator that can serve as the basis from which the procedure can then branch out".
What is happening to the team? What can the facilitator do?
This is an example of a birth process all groups must go through, in which its initial form is generated. This task is far from simple considering the complicated situation involving a heterogenic, diverse group with a limited common denominator which might be the root for its participants discussing the theme of acceptation vs. rejection.
Most people are naturally thirsty for a relationship with the facilitator and group as we all crave for acceptance and belonging. This need also raises a fear of rejection. Some raise their wish for acceptance by speaking of collective success, similarities and partnership. However, the tension is tangible. Is there any point to this birth? Will I be accepted and can I contribute to it safely?
For a group to focus on its goals it must be emotionally available to this task and not remain preoccupied with threatening content. Therefore, the facilitator's job at the moment is to lower the tension and assist in attaining cohesion. First, he/she must see that the group doesn't disband despite the forces calling for just that. The facilitator must be aware that at this point the group is incapable of containing such a conflict and dealing with it independently. Therefore, a conflict should be avoided actively.
Facilitators should be aware of behavior that promotes commitment and a sense of belonging: this can be achieved when each member expresses commitment to participate in the process by depositing something into the group. This goal can be promoted by encouraging the discussion regarding definitions and call on the silent participants to participate as well.
Working as a group involves more than the explicit content such as goals, stages and official positions; it includes dynamic content related to emotion and relationships. As facilitators, we are responsible for planning, studying, identifying and reacting to said dynamics so that the team may function efficiently and successfully attain its objectives. This is a rewarding position if performed successfully, just like parents viewing their child growing, testing its strength, occasionally rebelling and finally successfully reaching mature independence.
I wish you pleasant group experiences!