Monday, September 22, 2014

Managing Naysayers from the Sideline

In all groups beyond a certain size (eight?) you expect to see a gradient of involvement in the work of the group. While you expect some people to move in and out of involvement over time (varying by project, or by room in the their life to devote to group needs), there will naturally be some segment of the membership that's rarely involved to any significant degree. I'm not saying that's what you want; I'm saying that's what you'll get.

They don't show up to most Work Days, they skip out on committee assignments, and they rarely attend community meetings. If they kept to themselves and seldom contributed to community conversations it wouldn't be that big a deal—and some of the less involved are like that, more or less ghosts. But the more challenging version of the chronically less involved are those who want their viewpoints taken into account, even though they're often late in sharing them and seldom put their hand in the air when the call goes out for volunteers willing to help make things better.

In short, these are folks who insist on their rights, yet seldom show up for the responsibilities with which those rights are paired. It's a problem. 

To be clear, people are not stupid by virtue of being less involved. People who do little work can often be brilliant (or at least cogent and valuable) in their contributions to group issues and it would be foolish for groups to automatically close their ears in proportion to the speaker's level of contribution to the group's work. Nonetheless it can be galling when people feel directed (or hamstrung) by the demands of the less involved—especially when those contributions come across as ill-conceived, misinformed, selfishly motivated, or stridently delivered—and that's where I want to shine the spotlight today.

In this essay I'll offer a list of ways that there can be confusion about what's going on and remedies for it. If you intend to pull the tough love card and uncouple the obligation of the group to incorporate member input when that input comes from those not meeting their responsibilities to the group, it behooves you to be scrupulous about making sure you've done all within your power to clear up misunderstandings about what those responsibilities are.

A. Making sure prospective members understand the deal
Not all groups are diligent about explaining up front that the right to have your input taken into account is joined at the hip with the responsibility to extend that same courtesy to the viewpoints of others. If you come across as strident about what you want yet are not perceived to be working constructively what others have to say, it won't be long before you're deficit spending out of your social capital account. 

To be fair, it can get tricky in that being heard can be a prerequisite for some people's willingness to listen, and if people on opposite sides take that same attitude a stalemate is inevitable. Who gets listened to first? 

In any event, it's important to lay this understanding out clearly in the beginning. If you spring it on people for the first time when you want to hold their feet to the fire, it will not go well.

B. Making sure everyone knows when topics are being discussed and the appropriate window in which to offer input
This is about having and following a standard for announcing meetings ahead of time and making clear what topics will be discussed, so that interested parties can reasonably make plans to attend, or otherwise see that their input is delivered in a timely way. Complaining about people giving late input rings hollow when information about when the conversation is going to take place is obscure.

Further, when you take into account how common it is for people to miss meetings, you'd be well advised to regularly offer a defined opportunity for reflected input before closing the door on when it's OK to comment. 

Note: In order for this to work well you need good minutes (that go beyond recording decisions to include the rationale behind them) and a solid understanding of how minutes will be posted so that everyone knows where to look.

C. Making clear the difference between personal preferences and what's best for the group
Groups may want to hear personal preferences, yet are not obliged to accommodate them. On the other hand, they are obliged to take into account factors that everyone agrees are best for the whole.

It often makes a big difference if the group commits to training new people in the culture of cooperation, which teaches us to move away from survival of the fittest and toward what's best for the whole. If you're not careful about membership selection or don't invest in training the new folks, you're sowing the whirlwind and at risk of having things gummed up with a plethora of personal preferences.

Hint: Group-level concerns can be tied to group values and mission. Look for those linkages to validate the appropriateness of input.

D. Understanding the difference between identifying factors that need to be taken into account, and problem solving
One of the common ways that groups can get bogged down is when they're ill-disciplined about distinguishing between identifying what factors need to be taken into account, and figuring out how best to balance them. The first phase is expansive, during which advocacy is fine (even encouraged). The second phase is entirely different. It's contractive, and you're wanting participants to lay aside stump speeches and focus instead on the best way to bridge among the various group interests in play.

When groups fail to develop a culture where this distinction is understood, the plenary tends to vacillate between identifying factors and problem solving, with the inadvertent result that members can be inappropriately shrill (because they're speaking from advocacy) when others in the room have already moved on to the more creative and conciliatory phase of problem solving. Thus, participants deemed inappropriate may simply be confused about where the group is in the conversation and contributing where they can, as best they know how.

Strong, skillful facilitation can make a big difference here, making clearer where the conversation is at and what kinds of input are welcome.

E. Being clean when delegating authority
Sometimes late reactions to proposals expose problems with delegation. People may not be happy with who's been given a managership (or assigned to a committee), may feel that people are exceeding their authority (or attempting to), or may simply misunderstand that delegation has happened because there's sloppiness in minutes or the way they're distributed.

Thus, the person objecting to proposals or actions from the manager (or committee) may be complaining after the train has left the station, when the root of the concern is not that the train is in motion, but that the complainant believes they should have been given a schedule or had a say in who was on the crew, what the train's route would be, and whether it was a nonstop or a local.

These ambiguities can be cleaned up with sufficient care in how delegation happens and holding high standards for transparency, yet a lot of groups stumble over getting this right.

• • •
The overarching theme in the points I've enumerated above is that it's essential to conduct business with impeccable process before considering the serious step of disallowing someone's input on the grounds of late arrival, or because it's coming from someone demonstrably out of account in insisting that their views be respected when there's no evidence of their having extended to others what they're outraged about not receiving themselves.

I realize that I'm focusing on a situation groups would rather not be in. Unfortunately, it's a lead pipe certainty that you will be (providing only that the group is large enough and lasts long enough). I offer this with the idea that it's a better strategy to have a map through the swamp then to keep searching for ways to avoid it, or to sit on a rock and wring your hands.

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