Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Crisis in Cooperative Leadership

In the past year I had the opportunity to attend an intentional community retreat where the group started off with half a day of check-ins, going slowly around the circle giving everyone four minutes to share how the last year had been for them. As the group had a population north of 50 (in quantity, not age), there was a lot to absorb.

When listening to close friends, I pretty much already knew what they were going to say, but there was a lot of filling in the blanks when the speaker was someone whose life was not so familiar to me. As an emotional snapshot of the community it provided a valuable once-a-year glimpse of the whole. As might be expected, the gamut was large—everything from outright misery to bubbling over with joy.

But the thing that stood out most for me, as an experienced observer of cooperative group dynamics, was that the people filling leadership roles were overwhelmingly reporting overwhelm. Uh oh.

While this manifested differently for different leaders, there were themes:

—Feeling inadequate in the role
A number of people agreed to take on a leadership position as part of a team and then felt swamped by the volume and intensity of the workload. Recognizing that they weren't pulling their weight, they felt guilt and shame. There was also some deer-in-the-headlights dynamics where the people in over their heads reported a tendency to go stupid in team meetings (which didn't encourage them to do it more).

—Trying to keep too many balls in the air
Some leaders seemed fine with individual roles; there were just too many of them and they were falling behind. While the people in this category mostly knew that they were overfilling their plate at the time they said "yes," they did it anyway because they were asked and felt a strong sense of civic duty. This phenomenon is not so much about a person feeling that they alone can fill a role well, as that someone needs to step forward and their agreeing to it eases pressure on others. (The poignancy in this is that it's an example of caring for the group in a way that undercuts self care—read not sustainable.)

—Accepting roles that are needed but not enjoyable because no one else will do them
While similar to the previous point, in this dynamic the person knows going in that the work will be a slog—not because of an oversubscribed dance card, but because the work itself isn't that appealing. This is taking a hit for the team, generally to avoid: a) hiring outside (both to save money and because of the perception that an inside person will better understand group culture, group politics, and interpersonal nuance); b) asking someone else (who is either less willing or less able) to do it instead; or c) doing without. 

While playing the Little Dutch Boy can be a form of heroism, it can also lead to martyrdom (not to mention dyspepsia).

—Reporting tension because of a personal investment in the way things are done
One of the things that upped the ante in this particular group was the fact that it had been working hard in recent years to figure out a better way to make decisions and had invested a lot of time in a new organizational structure. Not surprisingly, everything didn't run like a gazelle right out of the gate and the architects of the new system reported anxiety about shortcomings after all that investment. Kind of like watching your teenage prodigy double fault on her opening serve at Wimbledon after all those years of tennis lessons.

—Anguishing over the schizophrenia of being in authority over peers
Even when the group is crystal clear that it wants to delegate responsibility to individuals to manage certain functions in service to the group—to the point of hiring them to do the job—that doesn't mean that everyone will relate to this role in the same way. The ambiguity is not so much about unclear job descriptions as it is about some people resisting being overseen (I don't need you looking over my shoulder or asking a bunch of nuisance questions) while others were embracing it fully (Just tell me what to do). In addition to the trickiness of navigating such mixed signals, some managers were additionally reporting that other members were simply not responding to their inquiries—all of which added up to managers feeling exposed and unsupported. Oy vey.

• • •
The most sobering aspect of all this is that the community I'm reporting on is one of the most savvy I know when it comes to group dynamics. Gulp. Obviously, the Communities Movement still got a good distance to go before we can claim to have developed sustainable models of healthy cooperative leadership.

The good news is that it's consistently in our sights. The bad news is that it's not yet consistently in our homes.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Perrachione said...

Well written Laird! (as usual) I think the issue here is that a community is made up of people. And people aren't perfect. So a community isn't going to be perfect. Individuals have different viewpoints, based on their upbringing, outlook, desires, goals, interests, etc. - and these viewpoints aren't always going to mesh well. Individuals also have different levels of self-reflection and self-awareness, different levels of how/when they get triggered, and different levels of awareness to identify that they ARE triggered. People also want to say yes - to help out and contribute (and I'd guess that this is especially true in an intentional community setting, where community members have, by definition, taken on an interest in living in community with others and thus balancing their individual needs with the needs of the community). And as long as all of these things are at play, you're going to have challenges - including discord, overwhelm, and failed expectations (both folks failing their own expectations as well as folks feeling that others have failed the expectations they had of them/the job).

What intrigues me most (and I know it intrigues you too) are finding the ways that communities successfully navigate these dynamics. And you've written some about this in the past. While probably too ambitious a project - and also probably too hard to quantify - I would find it fascinating to collect data from intentional community members vs. those of us living in a more traditional society. It would be interesting to see if those in community function with more awareness of those around them and their impact on the planet, whether there is a greater experience of understanding and forgiveness, while also finding ways to measure overall satisfaction with life, and the overall sense of overwhelm one has regarding the "larger" life issues (e.g. political coming to mind).