Let me paint you a picture. I’m sitting in a room of chairs set up in an open circle, with 25 other people.
No, it’s not group therapy (although at the time it felt like it!). It’s a group of mature age students joining together for their first class of a three-year masters program in Organisation Dynamics.
While we’ve already had basic introductions to one another and established a tentative level of familiarity, this class is our first formal learning encounter together.
The professor (who joins us in the circle), declares that our task, for the next 60 minutes, is to study the group dynamic as it occurs. This session will be voice recorded. There will be 10 of these sessions – one for each week of the semester. Our assignment will be to choose just 15 minutes of one session and write a 3000 word thesis on what was playing out in the group dynamic in that 15 minute segment.
That’s it. Study the group dynamic. As. It. Occurs. For one hour.
Time starts. Then…….silence.
Heart pumping. Seat shifting. Legs crossing and uncrossing. Palms getting sweaty. Eyes rapidly scanning then landing back on the carpet in the centre of the circle – which has suddenly become very interesting to everyone.
I’ve never before realised that silence could be so unbearably LOUD! My mind is non-stop chattering to mask feelings of deep vulnerability… “who will speak first? What is there to say? Should I ease the tension with a joke? What will that say about me? What if the joke is offensive to someone? I don’t want to speak first. But someone has to speak – or we’ll have nothing to talk about for an hour. What does that say about the group dynamic?”…on and on the internal dialogue went.
What this activity was highlighting was the actual existence of a group dynamic. The group dynamic is not something we usually see, but like a shadow, it appears when we shine the light.
Group life is deep, rich, layered and textured. Seeing a group as a whole, instead of the sum of its parts, helps us understand that groups have their own life. They are more than the sum of their parts, because of what is created when the parts interact.
Groups form primarily to perform a function. Play basketball. Create a strategic plan. Design a new product. Clean a building. Teach a class. Perform surgery. Celebrate a birthday. Usually, we let the task take centre stage, while the group dynamic quietly goes about its business, working its magic behind the scenes – raising and lowering the curtain on the main act.
But in our class, our task was to study the group dynamic. We had nowhere else to go. There it was, plain as day, terrifying in its nakedness!
Trist and Bamforth first wrote about the concept of two systems at play in groups in the 1950’s following their studies of men working in coal mines. They coined the term “socio-technical systems”.
The technical system includes the machinery, the technology, the proprietary process or intellectual property that results in the product or service.
The social system is the people and their inter-personal relationships that allow for collaboration and task completion.
I think about these simply as the work system and the human system.
The group dynamic is the interplay of these two systems. They are interlinked, whereby changes in one will automatically affect performance in the other. Furthermore, Trist and Bamforth observed that the effectiveness of the whole depends on the balance achieved between the work and human systems.
This explains why a new change to a system or process intended to improve productivity can have the opposite effect – because it is potentially disrupting the delicate balance in the human system of relationships required to operate the task. It may be, and often is, that a new machine or technology has to work below its optimum capacity in order to maintain a balance with the social structure of the group.
If you don’t play the group dynamic, it plays you.
An unhealthy group dynamic means that individuals in a group will waste effort and energy on self-protection instead of getting on with the task. The human system becomes the focal point of energy.
A healthy group dynamic is one in which the individuals feel safe to bring their full selves to completion of the task. The task becomes the focal point of energy.
It puts a new perspective on “workflows” – we’re talking about work flowing through a human system. If the human system is blocked, the work is stopped.
What that Masters class did for me was help me realise that the group dynamic is a result of the group and not any single individual. We all hold equal shares in group life. There is no single person at blame if the group does not function. There is only shared accountability.
There is also great value in giving groups the space to look at their dynamic, why the dynamic occurs as it does, and what they can both individually and collectively do to create a healthy one, rather than falling into traps. When working with executive teams – the first thing I do is hold the mirror up on the dynamic. How are they working together? How do they leverage strengths? How do they manage conflict? When are they constructive? When are they defensive? What roles are they each playing in the drama that unfolds?
By giving executive teams a safe space to explore these questions, they cut in place structures that support them next time the same thing comes up. These can be very simple things – like listing what trust looks like and agreeing to call it when trust is damaged in service to the group. Or spending 5 mins at the end of every meeting getting up on the balcony and observing how they behaved in that meeting. These methods are about generating a healthy human system that enables workflow.
And if you’ve been left wondering – how on earth can you possibly write 3000 words about a mere 15 minutes of interaction? You’d be amazed at the depth of every encounter we experience. We bring so much of ourselves to every moment; layers of experience; expectations of ourselves and others; assumptions and judgements that live in our subconscious. I learned to appreciate that there are multiple selves and the beauty is, we get to choose the self we project in any given moment.
So how can you act on this?
Ask yourself – what is the nature of your current group dynamic?
What traps are you falling into?
What are you doing to contribute to a healthy group dynamic?
How can you create the space where the group can understand it’s interactions better? Where are the blocks in workflows?
How can you speak to the needs of the group, and not to any one individual within it?
And, how can you let the silence speak?
If you’d like to find out more about the Masters of Organisation Dynamics – the program is now offered through NIODA www.nioda.org.au