How to develop a healthy group
By rob hopkins 8th April 2016
To be successful at Transition, you need to be successful at working together collaboratively as a group. A group that works well together is a joy to be involved in, it runs smoothly, gets things done and members feel fulfilled and nourished through their work together. That is not to say that it won’t be challenging at times, but a resilient and self-aware group will be able to work through its challenges in a constructive way. Alternatively being involved in a group that is not functioning well can be frustrating, not a lot of fun, exhausting – and often leads to burnout.
Whilst it may feel like there is some magic art to working together successfully, actually a lot of it is about breaking free from our tendency to push uncomfortable group dynamics under the carpet and instead put the time and effort into:
- Understanding the stages that groups tend to go through as they develop
- Putting structures and processes in place to support collaborative working
- Cultivating the self-awareness, compassion and resilience needed to transform our own unhelpful tendencies in groups.
First a quick little story.
Once upon a time, there were a group of people who were worried about the planet and climate change and wanted to make a difference. They heard about this thing called Transition and decided to come together and form a Transition group in their community. Initially it was great, there was loads of enthusiasm and everyone involved was really friendly and cooperative. They held some great events and even set up a food growing project. This all happened easily, they didn’t have a decision making process because everyone agreed. Meetings were a bit chaotic but they got stuff done and everyone seemed to be moving in the same direction.
Then about a year in, everything changed, it was like people had become possessed by a dark force. Meetings that were once a joy to attend often ended in arguments, people constantly challenged each other about how the group was run and it was hard to get anything done. This was a challenging time and upsetting as people who were friends began to feel like enemies. Some people stopped coming to meetings and the group began to feel like it was falling apart.
The group decided to hold an emergency meeting to decide what to do. Tensions were high and it was clear that people had a lot to say about how the group was being run, what it should do and why it wasn’t working like it used to. Someone suggested they sit in a circle and take it in turns to share their feelings without people responding immediately. This slowed, and therefore calmed things down and allowed people to be more considered and less defensive and confrontational in how they responded to other people’s sharings. People started to be more honest about how sad and fearful they felt about some of the relationship dynamics and about their fears, sadness, anger and despair about the world more generally. Once one or two people shared in this way, others were more able to talk more honestly about their feelings. There was a palpable shift away from blame and frustration and towards compassion for each other and their burning desire to help bring about positive changes in their community. Suddenly the group was feeling united again and able to begin thinking constructively about how they could learn from their experiences and operate more effectively in the future.
The group realised that when everyone agreed, it was easy to make decisions, but this had resulted in some crazy decisions and currently they seemed unable to agree on anything. They agreed to have more structured meetings and to research and agree on processes for making decisions and navigating conflict. The compassion and sense of unity they felt as a result of sharing their feelings more honestly led to them exploring some Inner Transition exercises and learning how to get better at offering and receiving feedback to each other to help people in the group continue. They also decided to do a visioning exercise together because there had been disagreements over the direction of the group. They agreed to review all these changes in six months time.
Six months later the group was operating well, they still had disagreements but they could deal with them, meetings were much more productive and they were achieving a lot in their community. They decided to dedicate a meeting every six months to look at how they were working together as a group and at this meeting they looked at what was working well and how they could improve things. It had been a challenge getting to this point, but the group was much stronger because of it and they had a renewed focus and energy – and they all lived happily ever after.
Of course this is a gross simplification and creating healthy collaborative groups is one of the greatest challenges of our times, but investing the time and energy into these three aspects of group-life could well be the make or break of your Transition Initiative.
1. Understanding the stages groups tend to go through: Forming, storming, norming, performing
Research into group development has highlighted 4 phases groups tend to go through called forming, storming, norming and performing. This story highlights each phase.
In the forming stage of a group it often it feels like the group is great, everyone gets on, decisions are made easily and the sun is always shining. This phase is great for many reasons; the project is new and exciting; people just want to do stuff; and most importantly everyone is on their best behaviour and wants to appease their new found friends and make a good impression. Life seems like a dream.
Then slowly the dream ends and rain clouds appear as the group enters a storming phase. People have become more familiar with each other, our best behaviour is just too hard to maintain and people feel more comfortable to state their point of view even if it offends others. This phase can be very challenging as emotions and conflict tend to be high, disappointment can set in and people may start to leave.
It is really important to remember that the storming phase is a natural progression and not to give up.
The stuff that comes up through the storming phase provides vital information for us in terms of understanding the underlying problems we need to address if our group is to flourish. Rather than pushing this under the carpet, at this stage we need to become curious and try to zoom out and become reflective about the situation. This can be a tricky to navigate if the group has not established processes and structures early on to navigate conflict and turbulence. A group that can skillfully manage the storming process will become much stronger as a result and will then enter the norming phase.
The norming phase is when groups integrate the learning from the storming phase and realise they need to invest time and energy to put in place structures and processes to support the smooth running of the group – and hopefully become more willing to explore our own unhelpful tendencies in groups and start to cultivate compassion around this, rather than simply blaming others and/or ourselves.
Groups that respond to the storming phase by developing supportive structures and processes and committing themselves to cultivating self-awareness, compassion and resilience are then much more likely to excel in the performing phase – like a well tuned athlete, playing to its strengths, addressing its weaknesses and regularly reflecting on its progress. We have developed a great process for doing this called the Transition Healthcheck.
Increasingly Transition groups are seeing the wisdom in prioritising the time early on to raise awareness of these four stages of group development and to explore how to; run our meetings; make decisions; navigate conflict; cultivate self-awareness, compassion and resilience; and co-create a joint vision for the group.
2. Group structures and processes: transitioning from hierarchy to collaboration.
If healthy collaborative groups are so essential to creating an equitable and life-affirming world, why then do they tend to be so challenging? The reality is most, if not all of us have grown up in hierarchical and patriarchal family units, education systems and work places. All we know is hierarchy and so we have become conditioned to operate hierarchically. We are like parent-less children within this Transition: unsure of what we are doing and mostly without elders around us to learn from.
It is essential therefore that we take the time to gain the skills, knowledge and experience required to create the healthy, creative, nourishing, thriving and transformative groups our hearts know are possible – and which our collective future rests on.
Our relationship with time and efficiency and the good old Work Ethic means we are not very good at prioritising this ‘development time’. It is essential that we take time out from the ‘doing’ to reflect, analyse and plan what we can do to optimise our groups.
Hierarchy developed for a reason: it simplifies things by tending to concentrate power into the hands of a select few whilst controlling and silencing the contributions of the many. When we move away from this controlling model of power we open ourselves up to immense complexity – a true reflection of the complex and diverse universe we are part of.
Collaborative groups therefore need to include structures and processes to support us to navigate through the complexity and chaos we unleash when we remove the constraints of hierarchy. We need to develop a shared purpose, vision and agreements to make explicit all the assumptions we individually hold while agreeing on how and why we want to work together as a group. We also need to skill-up around communication, facilitation, decision-making, conflict mediation and the cultivation of self-awareness, compassion and resilience.
3. Cultivating the self-awareness, compassion and resilience needed to transform our own unhelpful tendencies in groups.
It’s easy to blame others for the problems in our groups. However the reality is, as well as the wealth of positive contributions we all make in our groups, we all also contribute to challenging group dynamics. Whether we show up as the one others feel disturbed by, the one who chooses to push conflict under the carpet or the busy one getting burnt out or making others feel guilty about not doing enough – we all have our own tendencies in groups that are not so helpful.
The resilience and effectiveness of our groups relies heavily on our willingness to explore our own unhelpful tendencies and to cultivate the compassion needed to create healthy and diverse relationships with ourselves and others. Whilst this can initially feel a bit scary and often gets a bad rap for being self-indulgent, the reality is, not only is self-awareness essential to the effectiveness of our groups, but on the whole life almost always becomes so much richer and our relationships so much more nourishing and enjoyable when we take the plunge and start to explore the parts of ourselves we have learned to push away and be in denial about. And it is these parts that tend to manifest as unhelpful tendencies in groups. Cultivating a culture of offering and receiving feedback within our groups can be a really useful starting point for cultivating self-awareness and compassion and deepening our relationships and trust.
The most successful Transition Initiatives tend to be those driven by groups of people actively seeking how best to work together collaboratively, who trust each other, have clear decision-making processes and tools to deal with conflict and disagreements without falling out and who spend time ensuring that their relationships are working well.
In light of how inexperienced most of us are at creating healthy collaborative groups, seeking support around this is really important. We at Transition Network – along with a growing number of others, have developed several guides to help with this learning process:
How to get and keep people involved in Transition
Inner Transition exercises
Offering and receiving feedback
We will be creating, sharing and signposting you to more support resources in the near future so watch this space …