Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Power to the People - Getting the best out of groups part III

This article is the third of a four-part series exploring the underlying dynamics that affect these groups and providing insight into how we can be better group leaders. 

Learning style is an important influence on personality but so is power, for the simple reason that people thrive on feeling empowered.  Part of the reason for these differences in people’s personality is that we are all looking to feel satisfied and fulfilled.    

People come into groups with different backgrounds and strengths and at the same time wants to have a sense of empowerment.  When used for a common good, these needs and desires are a good thing as they provide the group with power.  This collective power provides the ability to achieve goals and for group members to feel fulfilled and satisfied.
When people join groups, because they each bring different traits, strengths and skills and aims, everybody performs different roles and fulfills different functions.  Some people come up with ideas, others have a knack for bring people together, some connect the group to other groups and others complete all the important administration tasks.   All these contributions are forms of power that people bring to give groups vital energy. 

Because people have a wide range of different personalities they derive power in different ways in-group situations.  Some people put all their energies into coercing those around them.  Other people focus on being experts in their relevant field.  There are those who use their personality to sway group decisions or others who use their connections to get what they want.  Understanding power dynamics within groups is helpful for any group leader.  It gives insight into why people might act the way they do and can assist leaders to be less intimidated by powerful people.  It provides the foundation to focus and use power for the benefit of all.  By harnessing collective power, groups can achieve much more than individuals can.  Forms of power in groups include but are not limited to:

Coercive power

Relies on threats, domination and bullying to inspire fear and awe in those subject to that power.  Coercive leaders are usually sticklers and adhere to hierarchies of power.
Connection power
Based on a person’s links with influential people/resources in or outside the group.  Leaders relying solely on powerful connections might not have great self-confidence
Expert power
Power derived from ones expertise, skill and knowledge to achieve authority and respect from group members.
Information power
This is power derived from ones access to information that others in the group perceive to be important.
Legitimate power
Power that comes from the position a person holds.  It is based on the rights a person has in the post they occupy.
Referent power
This is power derived from personality traits or charisma.

Reward power
This is power that comes from a persons ability to provide gain or reward to others i.e. money, resources etc.


So what can you do as the facilitator to make the most of the situation and become more effective in leading groups of people?

As the group leader, you are responsible for establishing and maintaining the culture and structure of the group.  This is the basis for the concept of ‘governance’ and combines both the intangible (cultural) and tangible (Structural) elements.  What I mean is that on one hand the leader sets the tone for the atmosphere of the group, the openness of conversations and the way people interact and relate to each other.  On the other hands the group leader also directly manages the systems people follow and the processes that people work through during group activities, to make decisions and carry out actions.

As the leader, if we are responsible for the culture of a group then is follows that for the group culture to be established, we must establish it.  Alternatively for an existing group, for a group culture to change, if we are a part of that culture, we must change first.  If we want to change the dynamics of a group that we are a part of, we first need to change our own perceptions. 

Changing a perspective of a situation requires we learn to see things differently.  To this end a fundamental part of changing the dynamics of a group is taking the time to put ourselves in other group members’ shoes so that we can see situations from their perspective, before deciding what to do.

When leaders present their ideas, others listen and agree…or at least that’s how it works in theory.  However, if it were that simple, more people would be great leaders.  All this talk about systems of governance sounds very lofty but it’s actually all around us and a part of all our groups no matter how small or large.


There are many different group leadership styles out there in our society.  You could argue that each group has a slightly different style.  But it can be helpful to define a few general categories within which different managers and organisations operate for ease of explanation.  To this end, I will identify three general categories that sit along a continuum. 

·      Authoritarian (Dictatorship)
·      Laissez Faire (Free market)
·      Participative (Democratic)

At one end of the continuum is Authoritarian rule, which is sometimes referred to as dictatorial rule, dictatorship, or a top down structure.  At the other end of the continuum is a Laissez Faire approach, which is also commonly known as a free market or capital system.  Somewhere in the middle is the democratic or participative management style.

Authoritarian dictatorship
In this system, leaders dictate strategic directions and what tasks are to be carried out, and managers also dictate how tasks are to be carried out, leaving workers to simply carry out required tasks as directed.  In a work context this is sometimes referred to as micro-managing.

Participative / democratic
In this system, managements role is to act as facilitator and provide guidance.  Decisions are based on collective understanding so workers are actively engaged to provide input into decision-making.

Laissez Faire / Free Market
With this system decision-making is fully decentralised.  Workers / subordinates make all their own decisions about what to work on and therefore choose their direction.  They have either considerable or full degree of autonomy in choosing and completing routine work activities.

Most management texts will explain that different management styles are suited to different situations and that the best managers need to be able to adjust their style accordingly.  This may be so, but it is also commonly acknowledged that democratically managed groups can produce high quality and high quantity work for long periods of time. While there is no universally accepted definition of democracy, equality and freedom have both been identified as important characteristics since ancient times. 

The term democracy came into existence following a popular uprising in Athens 508 BC through which a new style of leadership emerged.  The democratic process has been described as "not only a political system but an ideal, an aspiration, intimately connected to and dependent upon a picture of what it is to be fully human.  Many group members also like the responsibility and freedom and respond with cooperation, team spirit, and high morale. 

Whilst it’s important to be flexible initially when we enter a new situation, we should aspire towards a democratic style of leadership.  In this situation people have freedom of expression and self-determination, but also combined with a common direction and a strong sense of group association.  This aspirational ideal is what allows collective intelligence to best prosper.


The advantage that participative or democratic leadership and governance has over the other extremes is that it brings together and shares elements of both.  Creating a democratic group allows the freedom for group members’ strengths to flourish whilst also harnessing those strengths and driving them towards a singular purpose and collective goals.

Democratic decision-making requires genuine two-way communication that is honest, sensitive and open.  Democracy is linked to having the freedom and right to self-determination.  In a group situation this equates to the ability to influence and help determine group decisions.  Democracy is also linked to equality and the recognition that as equals we can all teach and learn from one another. 

With these ideas in mind, democratic leadership is a two way street and requires leadership qualities that combine an idealistic attitude with discipline and commitment.  A good example of this is being assertive.  To be truly democratic a leader needs to be able to communicate clearly and effectively, but also in a non-threatening way maintaining a calm and positive attitude.  This sounds simple, but in highly stressful situation, with people arguing or getting emotional and demanding different things of you, it can be quite a challenge.  It requires a very good awareness of yourself combined with considerable discipline.

Qualities of an effective participative leader


Being able to state and ask for something in a calm, non threatening way

Able to identify and understand another person’s feelings or difficulties
Accountable for his/her actions and completes all duties to the satisfaction of others
Able to control his/her own behavior and thing before they react impulsively to a challenging group situation
Having a positive attitude when a colleague or participant has a request or a question

Using participative leadership qualities to lead a group

  • Give group members the chance to get to know you. 
  • Find ways to learn about what group members aim to give and receive from their group participation.  Identify common values. 
  • Put energy into observing group members and the way they do things collectively. 
  • Set common objectives, and encourage group members to remember already agreed group goals 
  • Encourage all members to participate in group activities and keep this encouragement happening at all times throughout the life of the group.

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