Thursday, July 4, 2013

Power to the People - Getting the best out of groups, part 1

This article is the first of a four-part series exploring the underlying dynamics that affect organisational and community groups to provide insight into how we can be better group leaders. 
Wouldn’t the world be boring if we all had the same thoughts, aims, dreams and aspirations?  We would have nothing to talk about!  Whether you agree with that idea or not, the reality is that people have differences and within any group there is generally a wide range of personalities that results in a variety of interactions.  This article is the first of a three-part series exploring the underlying dynamics that affect these groups and providing insight into how we can be better group leaders.

As we go about our normal day-to-day activities and weekly business, we all merge into and out of a wide range of formal and informal group situations.  Each group of people seems to have a unique dynamic and this is partly because within each group there is unique mix of personalities.  For example, in my basketball team alone there is the joker who likes to be the centre of attention, the debater who has strong opinions about things, the tireless worker, the convincer, the old-hand, the know-it-all, the all-around nice guy.  This influences how we play together as a team. 

This is just one example.  In addition there are our family groups, our social groups, the groups we encounter at work or via associations that we are involved in and the groups that come and go at events we attend and trips we go on. 

Sometimes leading groups is fun and easy and rewarding, but sometimes leading groups of people can be hard work!  Have you ever had to facilitate a difficult group of people in a class or workshop setting?  Or have you ever had to lead a group of people through a difficult and stressful situation?

If you can answer yes to either of these questions its perfectly normal.  If your answer is no, you will most likely do so in the future.  The modern working world requires many of us to lead groups but what causes groups of people to become hard work?  Sometimes it occurs because of difficult and stressful situations.  Other times people in the group can simply have mood swings or clash with each other.  Sometimes as the leader we might even be setting a group culture that is causing people to become stressed.  But before we explore this idea too far, lets consider the different ways that people can be difficult.

Because people have a wide range of different personalities, within any group of people there are many ways that different people be difficult?  For example there is the Know It All, the Talkative person, the Suspicious person, the Angry person, the Silent person, the Curious person, the Indecisive person, the Fussy person and the Rude Person...just to name a few.


The Know It All
Is never wrong, likes to show off about who and what they know.  Can be well informed
The Talkative person
Often proud of what they know, enjoys chatting a lot and likes having an audience
The Suspicious person
Might not trust people easily and may need time before they let down their guard and are friendly towards you
The Angry person
Very emotional and is not easily satisfied with explanations or your side of the situation
The Silent person
Prefers to be let alone and does not easily information about themselves or their needs
The Curious person
Loves information and likes to ask lots of question

The Indecisive person
Usually finds it hard to make a decision

The Fussy person
Can focus on small details and at times seems unreasonable in their demands
The Rude Person
Often insensitive to the feelings of others and they can be very impatient

Can you think of anybody you know who fits into one of these categories?  To understanding how to manage difficult personalities it can be helpful to appreciate why people can be difficult.  There is great value in this for any group leader or facilitator, whether that group is a small committee or a large community group.  By taking the time to learn about what makes people act the way they do, we can learn how to work together more effectively.  This in turn can help us achieve greater goals and make our lives and work a lot easier.  So why do people think and act so strangely some times. 

Our experiences in life have a powerful influence over the way we think and act.  Whilst we are not robots that act without thought, we don’t always think about why we do things the way we do.  Many of our day-to-day habits occur outside of our conscious awareness.  If we are ever asked to explain the reasons for our actions, we might remember experiences in life that explain the reasons that we think are important.  Our understanding of the world or what we ‘believe’ is often influenced by our experiences throughout our life, often in our formative years…this is particularly true in how we relate to other people.

In his autobiography ‘The Elephant to Hollywood’, the actor Michael Caine talks about an experience while growing up in London during World War II.  He described a fire drill one day when for some reason the mouthpiece in his gasmask blocked.  He couldn't breathe and keeled over in a dead faint through lack of oxygen.  He explained how he was sent home in disgrace, as though he had let the British down, and this one experience left him with a burning sense of injustice and a lifelong loathing of the smell of rubber. 

Before we are even born our personality has already been influenced by our parents who pass on certain genetic predispositions.  Once we are born, from our earliest recollection we are filled with different ideas and expectations from those around us including our parents and siblings and friends.  We learn to find our place in the world and how thrive or survive in our family group, then as we grow by other people and groups we become involved in.  We are influenced by our experiences at school thanks to our teachers and groups of class mates and at play by our groups of friends, but our perception of the world is also influenced by the way we walk and the way we talk and how it all compares to those around us. 

As we grow, we are constantly learning and are further influenced by people in our wider community and the culture we experience in the society we are born into.  All these experiences give us certain opinions of what is good or bad or right or wrong.  We learn particular perspectives about what is easy and what is difficult.  We form friendships with people we get along with and maybe not those that we find annoying or difficult to deal with.  Over time these learning’s become established in our thoughts as beliefs and habits.

Eventually these opinions and perspectives might seem to become ‘the reality’, but the real reality is that they are actually learnt beliefs.  To put it another way they are learnt judgments.  In fact, the very concept of ‘judgment’, deciding if something is good or bad, or right or wrong is actually a human construction.  The idea would cease to exist if an asteroid hit earth and we died out.  Somebody wise once said that a glass is neither half full or half empty, its just a glass with water in it.   

Once we truly understand this idea, we start to appreciate that believing certain people to be difficult, is actually just our opinion.  It might be your opinion or another person’s opinion, or it might be an entire groups opinion at one point in time.  Either way it is a judgement that you or others have made based on your perspective of the situation.  As a Greek philosopher Epictetus once said ‘People are not disturbed by events, but by the view they take of them’. 

Somebody else involved in a situation with us might have a completely different opinion or judgement of a person’s actions and reactions.  In another time or place their actions might have different meaning.  When considered in the context of the world they live in, their actions might be quite reasonable.  If we want to change the way that people act, we first have to change our perception of how they are currently behaving. 

This idea can be a valuable one for group leaders to take on board, because it give a leader the flexibility to change their relationship with people that are supposedly ‘being difficult’.  Anybody wanting to change or improve the dynamics of a group will benefit from this.  In this regard it can be useful to reflect on the power of communication in dealing with ‘difficult people’.  If we can change our perception of a person, we can change the way we communicate with them.  Then it simply becomes an experiment or a game!  Try a different approach and see how they respond. 

Whether you are leading a community group or an organisational team it is important to appreciate the qualities of leadership that people respond well to.  Great leaders are always very good communicators and this is partly because they have good self-awareness.  Great leaders understand that communication is defined by the response they get and that great communication is a two way process and a partnership.  Applying this to our own situation, it is important to understand how our perspectives can influence how difficult people actually are.  In this respect leadership actually starts from the inside out.  By learning to ask ourselves the hard questions and work to change our perspective of difficult people we are working with, we put ourselves in a better position to work more effectively with them or assist them to become less difficult.  

1 comment:

Steve Finnell said...