One against the many? Changing the culture of groups

Not for the first time in recent years I spent some of the time at the Transition Dreaming Circle advocating the design of some training to support individuals in making change in their groups.

As a trainer I regularly find individuals coming to open workshops searching for some ideas on how to change the culture, habits and dynamics of their group.  I also frequently work with a specific group and hear the anguished cry of “the people who most need to be here haven’t turned up”. Sometimes the need for change is urgent – groups are on the verge of collapsing for lack of new people, but seem incapable of attracting and then holding onto newcomers. Sometimes groups are functioning but it’s a painful experience for anyone sensitive to group dynamics.

Can we really expect individuals or minorities to turn around their group on the back of attending a single workshop in facilitation skills, or effective meetings or consensus decision-making? To me the answer’s a resounding “No”.

So we need another layer of learning, as a stand alone session or woven into the fabric of our other training. That layer needs to help people understand the obstacles to change, and how to make change attractive to groups.

So this post is an invitation to share ideas around creating that layer of learning. It’s a problem faced by all groups and networks of groups. A few of my own thoughts follow, which I hope to develop over coming weeks and months.

  • Is the group the real problem? All this  talk of groups needing to change is potentially very arrogant. Often I just encounter a single person who thinks the group needs to change. It’s worth supporting them to check that this is the right group for them and that their expectations of the group are reasonable for a group of its kind. Is there work to be done around the role they play in groups?
  • Understanding the problem. Any individual or minority wanting to make change will only fully succeed if they understand the situation that they’re trying to change. They then have the difficult task of getting the group to understand the situation.
  • Empathy v judgment. By the time an individual gets so frustrated with a group that they’re spurred on to take action to make change they may already be finding it difficult to empathise with those they see as needing to change. Blame may have crept into the equation. It’s easy to assume the worst – that those needing to change like the group the way it is. And worse, that the poor group dynamics serve some selfish, even devious, intention on the part of those same people.
  • Safe space to change. In reality people in dysfunctional groups are often unhappy but simply don’t understand what the problem is, or don’t know how to go about changing it. A lack of change shouldn’t be confused with a lack of desire for change. However, even if that desire is present, the dynamics of blame and pressure may set off defences that hinder change. So we need to support our changemakers in creating safe spaces for change to happen. Trying to impose change will only create a different negative dynamic.
  • What’s in it for them? One way to create a safer space for change is to ask yourself “What’s in it for them? why should these people, this group, change?”. For some it may be enough to articulate ‘noble’ rationales – to demonstrate that more campaigning activity may happen if things change, that more people will be reached and catalysed to action. Other people may be convinced by more personal arguments – you can spend less time in meetings, you can safely shed some of the burden of responsibility, you will still be respected and valued as an important part of the group.

So a few opening thoughts and the beginning of a framework for a training session: reflection on the personal role in groups and how we might contribute to the problem; developing empathy – understanding the problem from the perspective of those we might see as ‘the problem’, creating a safe space for change; in part by asking “why should they change?” and then communicating all of that in an accessible and supportive way…..

Let me finish by reiterating the invitation to share your ideas and experiences. Thanks.