One against the many? Changing the culture of groups

Not for the first time in recent years I spent some of the time at the Transition Dreaming Circle advocating the design of some training to support individuals in making change in their groups.

As a trainer I regularly find individuals coming to open workshops searching for some ideas on how to change the culture, habits and dynamics of their group.  I also frequently work with a specific group and hear the anguished cry of “the people who most need to be here haven’t turned up”. Sometimes the need for change is urgent – groups are on the verge of collapsing for lack of new people, but seem incapable of attracting and then holding onto newcomers. Sometimes groups are functioning but it’s a painful experience for anyone sensitive to group dynamics.

Can we really expect individuals or minorities to turn around their group on the back of attending a single workshop in facilitation skills, or effective meetings or consensus decision-making? To me the answer’s a resounding “No”.

So we need another layer of learning, as a stand alone session or woven into the fabric of our other training. That layer needs to help people understand the obstacles to change, and how to make change attractive to groups.

So this post is an invitation to share ideas around creating that layer of learning. It’s a problem faced by all groups and networks of groups. A few of my own thoughts follow, which I hope to develop over coming weeks and months.

  • Is the group the real problem? All this  talk of groups needing to change is potentially very arrogant. Often I just encounter a single person who thinks the group needs to change. It’s worth supporting them to check that this is the right group for them and that their expectations of the group are reasonable for a group of its kind. Is there work to be done around the role they play in groups?
  • Understanding the problem. Any individual or minority wanting to make change will only fully succeed if they understand the situation that they’re trying to change. They then have the difficult task of getting the group to understand the situation.
  • Empathy v judgment. By the time an individual gets so frustrated with a group that they’re spurred on to take action to make change they may already be finding it difficult to empathise with those they see as needing to change. Blame may have crept into the equation. It’s easy to assume the worst – that those needing to change like the group the way it is. And worse, that the poor group dynamics serve some selfish, even devious, intention on the part of those same people.
  • Safe space to change. In reality people in dysfunctional groups are often unhappy but simply don’t understand what the problem is, or don’t know how to go about changing it. A lack of change shouldn’t be confused with a lack of desire for change. However, even if that desire is present, the dynamics of blame and pressure may set off defences that hinder change. So we need to support our changemakers in creating safe spaces for change to happen. Trying to impose change will only create a different negative dynamic.
  • What’s in it for them? One way to create a safer space for change is to ask yourself “What’s in it for them? why should these people, this group, change?”. For some it may be enough to articulate ‘noble’ rationales – to demonstrate that more campaigning activity may happen if things change, that more people will be reached and catalysed to action. Other people may be convinced by more personal arguments – you can spend less time in meetings, you can safely shed some of the burden of responsibility, you will still be respected and valued as an important part of the group.

So a few opening thoughts and the beginning of a framework for a training session: reflection on the personal role in groups and how we might contribute to the problem; developing empathy – understanding the problem from the perspective of those we might see as ‘the problem’, creating a safe space for change; in part by asking “why should they change?” and then communicating all of that in an accessible and supportive way…..

Let me finish by reiterating the invitation to share your ideas and experiences. Thanks.


7 thoughts on “One against the many? Changing the culture of groups

  1. Great stuff matthew, lots of interesting food for thought there. This is a very quick response but I’d add one more thing which kind of goes along with what you’re saying and adds a dimension. One very helpful way to work on this is to work at group problems at an intrapersonal level before addressing a whole group. This is a classic ‘Process Work’ method based on the idea of ‘deep democracy’, understanding that we are all part of the same psychological ‘field’ and so what I see in another person (or indeed a whole group) may also be found within myself if I take the time to reflect. Thus, someone coming to a workshop on ‘how to change my group culture’ could first work on understanding what exactly it is about the group that they find troublesome, and then find that element within themselves. This can help to (a) naturally increase empathy and understanding for the ‘problem culture’ and (b) leads to creative ways to engage with that culture that don’t simply ‘polarise the field’ further (or in laywoman’s terms, ‘get people’s backs up’). Finally the individual may find where they are (often unconsciously) contributing to the perceived problems in the group and facilitate their own development around the issue – this indirectly affects the whole group, sometimes without even having to try! I’ve frequently practised this method for dealing with trouble and found that after the intrapersonal (‘inner’) work, the problem seems to just disappear. People start acting differently without any outer work at all. Just the way you walk into a room can constellate all sorts of issues and changing your own attitudes can very quickly ease up a situation. The ‘inner’ of ‘field-based work is more my bag but I love to read about your ideas on the more concrete, practical front, where I have much more to learn!

  2. I like Emily’s contribution as I also have dabbled in process work. I think there’s also the outer or meta – what does the cultural discourse contribute to group dynamics? Do we act out the relations in the wider culture? Are we focussed on what’s right, instead of what do ‘we’ want to do, or can do? And do we just have to accept that a minority position (let’s face up to the fact there are few western mass movements) keeps us in the realm of enacting spectacles, rather than being revolutionaries?

    • I agree that we do act out the relations of the wider culture, usually unconsciously – and that is especially true for activists because we are so strongly tied up in our identity as being different/ideal that it can be harder to see where we reproduce the patterns of the culture we are critiquing. But I don’t believe we are condemned as a minority to only enact a spectacle. By getting conscious of these patterns we can transform them within our activist/marginal cultures, and from there engage with the wider world in a transformed way. It aint easy! (It’s always easier to project the entire problem onto the mainstream.) But it isn’t impossible either.

  3. Hmm, I guess my concept (or label!) of the “smugosphere” fits into ‘Blame may have crept into the equation. It’s easy to assume the worst – that those needing to change like the group the way it is. And worse, that the poor group dynamics serve some selfish, even devious, intention on the part of those same people.’

    And certainly I am a polariser! But how long do you give a group to do the change work, when you see it churn (and usually burn) many newbies, and never seem to do anything effective, beyond sustaining its own sense of martyrdom and specialness?

    I will track down the things you’ve cited Emily, they sound interesting indeed!

    • Love your term ‘smugosphere’ Dwight – yes it is polarising! And funny – a bit of humour can work wonders can’t it? The ideas are all classic Process Work, which you can find at (UK – warning – site about to be updated by my colleagues) or (USA). Or just google it. Happy to talk more about it any time. I’ve long been interested in the process of burn-out in activist worlds, and the issue of sustainibility but I don’t have masses of experience working with grassroots orgs etc. I’m a recently graduated process worker but a lot of that is psychotherapy – but I love group and organisational work. Anyway quite a few of us are popping up in Transition circles because the ethos is very similar.
      all the best,

      • Btw Matthew, I spoke with my colleague Sue recently about this area of interest you are holding and we both think it would be great if you can get some discussion going on a Transition network site so all transitioners can contribute – unless you already have? I must confess I’m not a big blogger so I haven’t been on any transition network discussions yet – but this might get me going. We’ll also raise it as a possible topic when Gary Reiss comes back in May – again he’s making space for looking at process and Transition, and focusing more on conflict work, some of us may be contibuting something to that too.

      • I’ll dig around and see what’s already being blogged/discussed in Transition circles. If there’s nothing out there, I’ll see what can be started and report back here or in a new post.

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