Or … Making Group Discussions Really Work.

Simon was looking particularly glum when I bumped into him recently, and it didn’t take long to find out the problem.  He had been detailed to lead the monthly get together at work; to receive reports on progress, analyse activities and seek solutions.

“That doesn’t seem too bad” I remarked, puzzled at his obvious reluctance, “it isn’t as if it’s a formal meeting with points of order and all that stuff!”

But it turned out that there were some problems; one member seemed reluctant to participate; another wanted to dominate discussion and others saw it as a chore rather than a chance to add value to their work.

Of course management by teams, or coordinated action (synergism) is nothing new.  It has been an option of choice for many companies and its appeal is worldwide; and it is true that we can be more effective as a group than we can be alone.

However, like all things, it needs some thought and knowledge to allow all members of the group to participate effectively; and I am sure that we all know about meetings where one person hogs the discussion or where there seems to be no direction and no real reason for the meeting – and where we are all only too happy to cut it short and get onto more important things.

And yet – the value of group discussion and group decision has not changed.  The collective mind can be far more innovative, can see more clearly and can – if guided properly – arrive at far more successful actions.  But it must be guided, and often it is not.

So let’s recap the value of engaging in group discussions – why it was that back in the 80’s it caught our attention and was adopted with such avidity.

 Information – knowledge is power, and by keeping people informed we are empowering them.  Regular updates about the company or the project leads to a better understanding of the importance and relevance of the task.

 Objectives can be clarified – we need an understanding of what it is exactly that we are aiming for.  If we do not understand the real target or the objective we do not recognise that we have achieved – or more importantly – when we have failed to achieve.

Commitment to the objective is fostered by unity of purpose, and group identity with the task.

 Innovation comes from enthusiasm which itself is created from commitment. Bouncing ideas around is an energy building exercise which can produce a much larger number of ideas than doodling on a pad by oneself

Team identification – from school yard to work place there are always groups, either self-created or work-related.  We do not need to be one of the ‘In Crowd’ – but there is a sense of status from being part of a recognised group. The importance of group identity is the reason that they often differentiate themselves by how they dress, and how they behave.  The Scout and the Biker are no different in their identification with their chosen group from the distinctive ‘uniform’ to their accepted code of behaviour.

To be recognised as a member of a successful team gives a sense of personal pride.  Such emotional attachment is what companies tap into to improve their business.

So there are a number of effective outcomes to creating work teams, and the benefits have been demonstrated.

But equally, teams are composed of individual people with their own little agendas, their own characteristics and whenever two or three are gathered together we need to watch the dynamics.

It is the role of the Group Leader to take all these dynamics and create (hopefully) a harmonious whole. This demands meticulous preparation because you cannot just walk into a group meeting and hope things go well, they will not. 

People need to know what the purpose is, what the options are and what they need to contribute.  In short, they need an agenda, an action statement or a plan – call it what you will.  Without it any discussion will descend into chaos, wasting time. Busy people resent having their time wasted and will come to avoid these meetings whenever they can.

So first – a plan!  Then: – when to hold it?  The best option is in the morning when people are often more alert and their attention span is not being eroded by the problems of the day.

After the time – what about the place?  Yes, it’s probably in the same old place that is always used, but could it be moved?  A change of location can take the group out of their comfort zone and often the energy is doubled.  And how is the seating arranged? Even if we are only left with a rectangular table, try to avoid the seat of power arrangement, a group should be led not dictated to; so if you are the leader with this kind of table why not take a seat half way down one side?

With everyone seated it is time to remind the group of the purpose of the meeting, and if necessary lay down some guidelines – how long each may speak for instance.  It is surprising how succinct we can be if we know we only have two minutes to add our point of view.

The group leader needs to encourage the reluctant, to control the over effusive and to add their five cents worth last.

And finally it’s the leader’s role to summarise the discussion, remind those who have tasks to complete and warn the group out for the next meeting – only then can they then heave a big sigh of relief and go get a hot cup of coffee!

The role of a manager has changed in the last three decades and discussion has taken the place of demands.  While this gives the employee a much greater input into their work it does take time and responsibility to organise the mechanism of such a management style.

When we get it wrong it is a waste of time and energy and generates resentment and reluctance to participate.

But when done well it becomes a channel for energetic enthusiasm which can have amazing effects.

Michele @ Trischel

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