Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Making Wood Badge Work

As much as we generally despise working in groups, there’s no way out of it. Group work, whether the group is a classroom full of students or smaller groups within a larger group (be it a class, a Scout group, a teaching group, etc.) is unavoidable. Learning how groups work, however, can help us as facilitators and group members know when to guide and when to step back to let the group work on its own. 

In Wood Badge training – adult leadership training offered by the Boy Scouts of America -- we talk a lot about the model of group development proposed by psychology professor Bruce Tuckman in 1965. He proposes teams go through four stages of group development:
  1. Forming. In this stage, the group is getting to know each other, trying to sort out roles and responsibilities. Enthusiasm is high, but productivity is relatively low.
  2. Storming. In this stage, the ideas start coming out, but as there is little unity of purpose, conflicts arise. Rival factions may form. Enthusiasm starts to drop while production slowly begins to grow.
  3. Norming. In this stage, the team’s rivalries ease. They agree upon rules and values, and know what their individual contributions will be. Enthusiasm and productivity increase.
  4. Performing. In this stage, confidence and motivation increase alongside communication, collaboration and respect. Enthusiasm is high and productivity is high.

Some groups move through the early stages (forming and storming) faster than others. Some may skip the storming phase completely. Some may never leave the storming phase. Some groups may reach the final stage and then revert to an earlier stage as conditions change. What can cause conditions to change?
  • A new member is introduced to the group.
  • The group leader is somehow unable to perform in that role any longer.

What can we do as facilitators?

The best thing to do is to talk to the groups firsthand, before any group work is needed, about Tuckman’s stages of group development. Facilitators can prepare groups for the various stages, pointing out along the way, “Okay, you’re in the storming phase right now. You’re going to have differences of opinion. Keep looking for ways to resolve your differences.” Facilitators may decide to step in to, for example, help clarify roles and responsibilities or to help the group see the good points and bad points of proposed ideas. The best thing we can do is to offer fresh perspective, and then to step back to see how the group reacts to those perspectives. We do not take over. We offer suggestions and then step back to ensure the group comes up with the solution that best fits them.

In conjunction with group development, it’s helpful for facilitators to recognize how leadership works.

In their book “The Invisible Gorilla,” psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons outline a study in which research discovers that leaders tend to be leaders not because they’re competent, but because they were the first to speak up. They say (emphasis mine): 

They became leaders by force of personality rather than strength of ability. Before starting the group task [solving a series of math problems from the GMAT test], the participants completed a short questionnaire designed to measure how “dominant” they tended to be. Those people with the more dominant personalities tended to become the leaders. How did the dominant individuals become the group leaders even though they were no better at math? Did they bully the others into obeying, shouting down the meek but intelligent group members? Did they campaign for the role, persuading others that they were the best at math, or at least the best at organizing their group? Not at all. The answer is almost absurdly simple: They spoke first. For 94 percent of the problems, the group’s final answer was the first answer anyone suggested, and people with dominant personalities just tend to speak first and more forcefully. 

So in this experiment, group leadership was determined largely by confidence. People with dominant personalities tend to exhibit greater confidence, and due to the illusion of confidence, others tend to trust and follow people who speak with confidence. If you offer your opinion early and often, people will take your confidence as an indicator of ability, even if you are actually no better than your peers. The illusion of confidence keeps the cream blended in. Only when confidence happens to be correlated with actual competence will the most able person rise to the top.

So what does this mean for us as facilitators?

Inevitably, group work leads to two basic conflicts, communicated to us most likely through a private email:

Our leader isn’t doing his/her job.
My team members aren’t doing their jobs.

The first invariably comes from team members. The second, from team leaders. Going back to what Chabris and Simons say in their study, we find the answer to each question.

The answer to both questions is this: Get to know your team members.

Recognize first of all that the leader’s competency may likely lie in their confidence and your trust in that confidence. They’re not necessarily natural leaders. They need input. But not just any kind of input. They need gentle, persuasive input. If, for example, you’re worried your team leader isn’t managing group meetings effectively, suggest to them a way to organize meetings in a way that shows you’re not taking their job, but wanting to lift a burden off their shoulders. Present a plan and then ask, “What do you think?”

For team leaders, knowing the abilities of each team member is key in getting things done. Assigning the job of contacting team members to the quietest person in the group may not be the best idea, while handing the job to a gregarious person would be better. Some team members will be self-starters and will resent constant reminders. Others will need those reminders, many more than you feel necessary. They may need verbal reminders, Or written reminders. Or a reminder to come from a different team member with whom they have a better relationship.

This is a daunting task given the rush of things we have to complete in our courses, and is why I’ve chosen this as a long-term goal as I continue teaching at BYU-Idaho. But this at least gives me a framework on which I can build.

I write more about their “Invisible Gorilla” studies here.

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