On finding a safe place…. making groups work

I have been a member of many groups in the last few years.   Some,  I thought made a difference.   They provided a sense of belonging and an avenue to talk about important things.  They were part of doing something that mattered.   Some didn’t work.   In fact,  some never worked.   They either became dominated by one or two voices or became places where personal attacks were frequent and even expected.   Some were just irrelevant.   After a while it became clear they were just not about doing anything that seemed important or mattered to me.

The failure rate at least in my experience is regrettably higher than the success rate.   Groups,  it seems to me,  are much easier to mess up than to build up.

Someone once told me that the first error was thinking of a group as a thing rather than a process. Groups are a process and like all processes seem to have predictable steps or stages.

One description I heard I particularly liked. Groups, according to this idea develop through in four stages or through the resolution of four challenges :

1. “Formin” …. The process of recruiting and developing interest and participation.

2. “Stormin” ….. The growth pains of the group. The inevitable conflicts that many groups never handle, that leave members with pointing fingers and plenty of blame. It is when many feel attacked and much of the group seems to be about power and control. It is the iceberg that leaves too many groups as if the Titanic.

3. “Normin” …… It is where groups decide how to live with each other. It does not mean conflicts stop. It does not mean group is never hard. It does not mean group is never dangerous. It means it is safe. It means that my agreement with anyone person is not a measure of my worth or character and that I can disagree without that being seen as a personal attack or group emergency. It is the process of how a group decides it can be a safe place. Some groups can tolerate more conflict than others. No groups can long tolerate a lack of safety. Dangerous groups die. The people with power may hang on longer than others but they atrophy and die.

4. “Performin”….. This is when the group works at its best. By committing to a process they value in the previous step they make possible the product they seek, the reaching of group goals they value possible in this stage .

A note. I don’t know that any of these stages are one and done. Sometimes because of changes or events groups destabilize and find themselves again confronted with old challenges.

I think for a group to survive it must matter to the people in the group but it must also have a degree of safety that makes it tolerable. As a bottom line it must be worth the effort.

Some groups try to do this by a commitment to product. People must use a certain language, they must believe in certain things and deviance from this is seen as threatening and inappropriate. Orthodoxy or political correctness is expected. The idea is that this group is for people like us and if you are not a person like us you probably don’t belong. Safety is enforced by exclusion.

Some groups try to do this by a commitment to process. It does not mean they don’t have expectations about content. They do. All groups do. It means their ceiling is above ground level and not only can they tolerate diversity, they want it and expect it. Their bottom line agreement is about how people will treat each other and what they can expect as a member of the group. They do not accept personal attacks as legitimate comment. They value listening. They think the assumption of the value and dignity of other group members only makes common sense if they expect to be treated the same way.

They want each group member to come to believe 4 things and believe if group members believe these things to be true the group will not only survive each other but be enriched by their mutual connections.

They hope people will come to believe :

1.There is something in this group for them .

2. That they have something important to give to the group. They contribute and matter.

3. Someone cares. They matter as people. What is important to them is important. There is nothing to prove…. Nothing to earn. People care.

4. Being part of the group is safe. You will not be attacked, disregarded, or scapegoated.

I think much of what is said here applies not just to groups but to any human relationships or even larger communities.

Much is about safe places and not much happens without it.


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