Saturday, July 13, 2013

Group Works: Group Culture

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Context segment there are eight cards. The fifth pattern in this segment is labeled Group Culture. Here is the image and text from that card:

Groups tend to develop their own culture over time, based on knowledge, beliefs, practices and behaviors their members hold in common. Awareness of shared culture builds trust, cohesion, and a sense of safety among the members, thus furthering collaboration.

I love the image for this card, both because the reflections off the glass in front of the party create an additional sense of motion (which life is often like) and because it's clearly a celebratory meal of the Red Hat Society (that I first wrote about last Dec 18, From Purple to Indigo to Green).

While there's no doubt that groups tend to accrete their own culture over time, the trick of it is to be intentional about that culture rather than just drifting blindly into replicating whatever habits are brought to the group by its pioneers.

This applies to meeting culture, dinner table culture, greeting people on the path culture, whether it's OK to knock on someone's door without an invitation after 8 pm culture, whether you pick up your dog's poop when you take Fido for a walk culture… you name it.

To be fair, a good bit of culture is minor and essentially arbitrary (like shaking with the right hand—so long as your bathroom hygiene ensures that both hands are equally clean—or even whether you shake hands at all instead of, say, head nodding or bowing when you greet someone). That said, if you lack mindfulness there's risk of slipping into us/them culture—such as laughing at inside jokes—that leave baffled those not among the Illuminati.

In a group dynamic this precious culture that reinforces cohesion and trust can be a barrier that's difficult and mysterious for newcomers to penetrate. If you're alert to how this can inadvertently happen, then members can pro-actively step forward to put guests and visitors at ease by explaining group norms and practices (such as whether you're supposed to be silent at the dinner circle and not schmoozing with your neighbor).

What is familiar and comforting to insiders may be off-putting (or even bizarre) to visitors and prospective members. Why not help them out before the newbie puts their foot in it?
• • •
I got into some tension recently when discussing community norms with respect to visitors who expressed serious interest in membership. My view was that we owed them a conversation toward the end of their visit during which we'd inquire whether they were still interested and, if so, we'd give them a read on:
o  How members had responded to them, making note of anything that seemed a concern.
o  Whether we wanted to encourage their potential membership.
o  A likely pathway that would work for us to continue that exploration (such as whether to visit again, when, and for how long), assuming that there was a positive response to the previous question.

Others preferred to leave all that open, so that members could spontaneously encourage prospectives to visit again if they felt so inspired, with the idea that new members tend to work out better if they have one or more champions in the community. If there was no advocate, then the invitation would not be extended and the members would be saved from a potentially awkward conversation where we dashed someone's hopes.

While I think there's truth in the analysis that new members are more likely to work out if they have internal support, I think it's brutal asking visitors who are self-identified member candidates to figure out on their own the subtle signals of whether the existing membership is interested in supporting their candidacy. Putting it on them (after having declared their interest before they arrived) is placing them in an awkward position with no cultural context to help decipher what's happening, and I think we owe them a straight answer.

To be fair, this dynamic is compounded by my often being on the road and therefore not reliably on hand to manage the potentially awkward conversations that I'm advocating. Thus, people who are reluctant to make the commitment may well be the ones who will have to carry it out, and that's not landing well.

Fortunately, part of my community's culture is that we slow things down when we bump up against a clash in values interpretation like this. We keep breathing, keep talking, and keep believing that we'll eventually find an approach that all can accept. That's the part of group culture that I like best—even if no one has a red hat.

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