Monday, January 16, 2017

Power in Cooperative Groups, Part 3: You, and an Established Group that is Not Committed to Cooperative Culture

Today I am continuing my blog series on power in cooperative groups:
Part 1: Yourself
Part 2: You and a New Group  
Part 3: You, and an Established Group that is Not Committed to Cooperative Culture
Part 4: You and an Established Group that is Committed to Operating Cooperatively

The subject of today's focus is the situation where you are committed to cooperative culture but the group in question is not. To be clear, it's not that the group has expressly declined to be cooperative; it may never have discussed it (or only given it cursory consideration, such that the de facto culture of the group is not cooperative).

(As it happens, this phenomenon—creating an internal culture that is far less cooperative than you'd expect from looking at the group values—is endemic among intentional communities. In fact, it's one of the principle reasons I get steady work as a group dynamics consultant, because unleashing competitive dynamics in the thick of would-be cooperative culture is like letting a fox loose in the hen house—it gets bloody real quick—even when everyone is dressed up to look like poultry.)

Assessing How Cooperative a Group's Culture Is 
Consider this series of diagnostic questions:

1. When the stakes get high, are meetings more or less a battlefield over which the fate of issues is decided, with winners and losers? 
2. Is it risky to reveal inner doubts or moral anguish because it will be seen as weakness? 
3. Is it savvy to line up allies before an issue comes up for consideration, the better to steer things in a productive direction once the meeting starts?
4. Are members cautious about how information is shared because of concerns over how it might be misconstrued, or leaked in embarrassing ways?
5. Is the expression of distress seen as loss of self-control, or perhaps interpreted nefariously (as in crying or getting angry to manipulate outcomes or to control what gets discussed)?
6. Is there a significant emphasis placed on meetings being efficient (to dispose of issues quickly)?
7. If Member A finds Member B's group behaviors challenging, is Member A more likely to discuss that with Member B, than with Member C (who may or may not have the same issues with Member B)?
8. Do new members report that they feel welcome, and that they were well oriented to how things work in the group?
9. Do standing committees regularly offer new members an orientation about what they do and how to get involved in their area?
10.Is there clarity in the group about how it will work with emotional input?
11. Does the group ever discus how power is distributed in the group, and how it would like it to be distributed?
12. Is the performance of people who fill manager roles regularly evaluated?

The more you answered questions 1-7 in the affirmative (or questions 8-12 in the negative), the less likely you are to have developed cooperative culture. The point I am trying to make is that what you actually do counts for far more than what you say you'll do. You don't just claim cooperative culture; you have to build it and sustain it, one practice at a time.

So the scope of today's blog covers two kinds of groups: a) those that have cooperative values but not cooperative culture; and b) those with progressive values but with no aspirations of developing cooperative culture.

How Power Is Accrued in These Groups 
(Note that this list is similar to the way that power is accrued in cooperative culture, yet there are significant differences.)

—Through being unflappable (not being knocked off center by distress in others)
—Through being firm (though not ruthless—compassion helps, but you don't want to be perceived as a softie)
—Through brokering successful coalitions
—Through being discreet when in possession of delicate information
—Through being an effective advocate in plenary
—Through being a gracious winner (no rubbing it in) as well as a gracious loser (no whining)
—Through not discussing power (if you have it you needn't discuss it)
—Through completing assignments well, on time, and within budget
—Through demonstrating a knack for creative problem solving when encountering curve balls
—Through not letting personal issues get in the way of group performance
—Through doing above and beyond what was asked for (over-performing)
—Through being steadfast and steely in your resolve

The principle challenge in this dynamic is figuring out what's possible in the way of purposefully shifting the culture of the group toward being more cooperative without explicit permission do so.

What Can You Do a Guerrilla Social Change Agent?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Consider this set of potential action steps:
—Volunteer to facilitate when you're not a stakeholder on the agenda

—Volunteer to take minutes when you're not a stakeholder on the agenda (the summarizing done by a good facilitator is essentially the same skill that a notetaker relies on when summarizing comments—one does it orally, the other in writing).

—Agree to head ad hoc committees where the composition appears volatile. Someone good at bridging and working even-handedly through differences can make a measurable difference in productivity. If the mandate is unclear, you can get that corrected with alacrity.

—When in discussion and people are mishearing each other, wait for whoever is running the meeting to help out, but if they fail in the attempt (or worse, fail to see that an attempt is needed) it's an opportunity for you to offer a bridge that gets things untracked.

—If someone is having trouble feeling heard there is a chance for you to step in with a concise summary that captures both the essence of their meaning, and why it matters to the speaker. Trust me, you will not be vilified for this initiative (even when you don't get it right you'll earn partial credit for a good faith attempt).

—If someone goes into nontrivial reactivity and you reach out to make a connecting statement that acknowledges what they're feeling (without judgment) and captures what's at stake, you will be universally loved (for having successfully deescalated a minefield without ducking the issue).

—You can totally shift the energy in the room by offering a solid connecting or summarizing statement that sensitively represents the views of someone you disagree with (most don't believe that's even possible).

You'll undoubtedly notice that all of the above suggestions are ways in which you can make a positive contribution by focusing on the "how" rather than the "what." If you are not attached to outcomes it gives you considerable wiggle room with respect to how business is conducted, and people will pick up on things going more smoothly if you're effective in your efforts.

The beauty of this approach is that all the above suggestions can be attempted at low risk (when was the last time you recall someone getting called out for being covertly cooperative?). They are tactics aimed to grease the wheels of conversation and, in aggregate, to help nudge the group culture more in a cooperative direction. In addition to deescalating the tension that frequently infuses and stultifies plenary conversations in not-so-cooperative groups, it will subtly work to instill authenticity and civility in the culture. 

Who knew that subversion could be so pleasant?

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