A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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Productive Meetings

Part I

By Fred Gillette

A good number of us have attended neighborhood meetings in which one or more of the following have occurred:

- the meeting was late getting started
- there didn't seem to be any clear plan of action
- the group seemed unable to keep focused on
business at hand
- discussion was dominated by one or two people
- the meeting dragged on longer than it should have
- old material was rehashed
- there was no sense of having accomplished much
- silent vows were made to attend fewer of these in
the future.

It can be a very frustrating experience to expend effort, energy and time, yet fail to make expected progress. It is not just a lack of accomplishment that must be faced. It is a lingering distress caused by suspicion (well justified) that these dysfunctional activities and conditions will occur again.

Needless to say, these occurrences are not unique to meetings held by neighborhood groups. They occur in a variety of situations in which the intent is to organize a group effort. What's more, their causes are rooted in behaviors and predispositions which entail more than just conduct of meetings. That is, in order to have more productive meetings you will have to look at very basic tenants of group structure and behaviors. A problem with meetings will likely entail a fix that affects not only meetings but the basic functioning of the group in all of its activities.

While making references to general group process theory, we will concentrate particularly on the experiences and needs of neighborhood groups. We approach these situations from both the perspective of the leader and from that of the individual member. Before eventually advancing to the mechanics of tuning up an ill performing organization, it is best to give some attention to a theoretical background of just how these often-mysterious entities work and the proper behaviors of good leaders...and good members.

Leadership

All organizations have leaders, sometimes even several. Many organizations think that they do not. An organization that declares itself as leaderless nonetheless sees certain individuals emerging as de facto leaders. These are the people that are most vocal, have the most proposals and suggestions, or brought the coffee.

A disturbing aspect of leadership which may lead many to try to avoid the topic is that leaders constitute a special, separate class of membership. Much as a parent can not always be a pal while being a good parent, the leader must accept that while they are leading they must be willing to often take unpopular actions for the good of group survival and healthy development. The ability and authority to take such action is evidence of a power differential. This power differential, even if seldom exercised, is part of the awareness of all members of the group. It is an irrefutable point of inequality which puts leaders in a different category from those being led. It is often so difficult to accept this that often a leader will let their group flounder around in aimless disarray rather than wield the power necessary to maintain order and direction.

This comparison of leadership to parenting is going to be a recurrent theme of analysis here. We are going to use a theory of group development in which an organization is conceptualized in much the same way as one would an organism, both in development and in everyday life-sustaining activities. In this theoretical framework, the leader's role is analogous to that of parent. What follows then are four basic stages of group development: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. This is based on Bruce Tuckman's small group development model and Rudeen Monte's conception of group leadership as parenting. The stages are initially described from the leader's perspective, since this is the party most responsible for having some vision of what is occurring. It is, however, most useful for members to have some understanding of this as well.

Forming

This first stage of development is characterized by the group's need to develop trust...of itself and of the leader. Trust develops through the provision of nurturance. This group nurturance can be provided in a variety of ways. The giving of attention and expressed concern is primary. The importance of fueling early meetings with donuts and cookies is not to be underestimated. Nurturance is furthered by clear presentation of organization purposes and rules. Meetings should also be conducted in a manner that suggests that a leader is present and wholly conscious. New members or guests should be introduced. An agenda should be made public. The meeting's ending time should be announced, ideally, well before it arrives…preferably, at the beginning of the meeting. A wide degree of member participation should be encouraged. Individual conversations should be discouraged while business is being conducted. Someone should be tending to recording the proceedings, making clear note of policy decisions.

An important aspect of the "forming" stage is the development of some intimacy. This could be promoted by, for example, a phone number or email address exchange. Giving someone your phone number or email address is an act of some intimacy in this society. Eventually, the group begins to most often have the feeling that this is a place where pleasant things can happen and there are minimal chances of incurring physical or emotional damage.

Many new members may have joined some time after the group has gone through the initial "forming" stage. Nevertheless, most the good leadership behavior which characterizes this stage goes on, as new factors are introduced.

Storming

Once the group attains a trusting sense of cohesion fostered by dependable nurturance, all hell may then break loose. As with parent/child relationships, the confidence and sense of identity established during the trust phase gives the group such feelings of security and power that it believes that it may be able to do worthwhile things without the leader's careful guidance. There is much exploration of powers and testing of limits which come with this growing sense of group identity. Unless the leader is totally deposed during these turbulent times, it is best to continue to use whatever powers he or she retains to keep the swaggering entity on track. This includes activities such as keeping someone from totally dominating a discussion and insisting that already agreed upon plans be kept.

This would be a most disturbing scenario to a new member. If at all possible, join a neighborhood group during some other phase of development.

Norming

At this point the group is ready to provide a high degree of self definition. Rules for meetings are established or highly defined. Roles may be formalized. "Officers" proliferate. One of the most important tasks of leadership at this point is to assure that no one is getting left behind. It should be seen to that everyone is getting to participate.

Performing

Eventually, when these stages of development are played out, the group is left with but one desperate alternative, to get on with the purposes of the organization. The group that has been well led through the stages and has been allowed to truly experience them will now be ready to do some of the things that it wants to get done. The group that was improperly led may be left languishing in an earlier stage, or, more typically, may attempt to move into the "performing" stage carrying a kind of group neurosis which inhibits good performance. For example, think of the group which was never allowed to explore its power in the "storming" stage. The leader became frightened or angry with the expressions of independence or rebellion and responded with ever more suppressive or authoritarian leadership, inhibiting the development of the necessary degree of self confidence. When such a group is supposed to be at the performing stage, it may seem that nothing gets done unless the leader closely supervises every aspect of the activity. If strong leadership is then withdrawn, group cooperation or cohesion disappears and things mysteriously go wrong.

Exercising good leadership...the basics

The process of good leadership seems elusive and mysterious to most. Unfortunately, although we're all occasionally called upon to provide some degree of leadership at some times in our lives, few people receive any instruction in developing leadership skills. People are awarded supervisory positions or put in charge of projects with the expectation that they will somehow magically acquire the requisite abilities. This if often quite detrimental to the leader and to those being led. Although most of us muddle through, relying on instinct and memories of good leadership we have witnessed in the past, there is no reason why the tenants of good leadership should not be stated often for all that might benefit from them. Following then is the secret formula.

Leaders should:

1. Have a clear understanding of the goals of the group being led and their own personal goals relevant to the group.

2. Have knowledge of rules of conduct and limits which apply to this organization. In the case of the community organization this entails a good familiarity with the organization's statement of purpose and any procedural documents such as a constitution as well as some sense of the history of how business is normally conducted here. The latter should include knowledge of whatever factional relations may exist between different special interest segments of the group as well as special "personality" considerations such as chronically "difficult" members.

3. Have some knowledge of group process, that is, how groups evolve and function. The earlier outlined group development theory serves many well, but you may encounter other models which make more sense to you. Many theorists and practitioners have proposed models of group behavior. Most of these have vast areas of similarity yet with their own custom jargon. The most basic underlying tenant is that groups do come together and develop in certain predictable ways. To have some understanding of this is to better prepare you to lead a group toward fulfilling and productive action. It also makes weathering the inevitable storms much easier. Others have had these same experiences and many have lived to tell about it.

4. Give clear structure to meetings. Meetings are the most significant activity of most community groups. They deserve a certain amount of preparation. Do have an agenda developed for every meeting. This is simply a list of expected activities. It may be altered during the process of the meeting but it is a good starting point. Also, along the lines of structural considerations, have a meeting starting and stopping time set and made clear to all in attendance. The stopping time is subject to revision, based on unforeseeable circumstances, such as an unexpectedly difficult issue. Most members of community groups do not see their membership and participation as a major life priority. They have other commitments and urgencies in their lives and need to have clear expectations about the limits of their time commitments. Length of meetings is a key factor in considering whether to join a community group and deciding whether or not to stay in.

5. Provide good nurturance. Although this was earlier stressed as of primary importance in the early stages of a group's development, it remains of importance in even the most mature group. Also, as new members are taken in, their nurturance requirements deserve utmost attention.

Any new or prospective member should be made to feel as comfortable as possible. Make sure that their presence has been acknowledged and that they have whatever material which would make their understanding of this group easier, such as a copy of the group's statement of purpose.

Displaying good organization and keeping control of events is seen as good nurturance. This requires not only adherence to announced plans but sensitivity to developing needs. Be sure there is ample opportunity for any member to propose agenda items, at least at the beginning of the meeting. You then control the agenda progression and control time spent on items in order to insure that all items will be adequately covered. There are times, however, when an issue is of such unexpected complexity that more deliberation time is needed. As you see that other portions of the agenda are going to be in jeopardy, ask the group to give permission to extend discussion with the understanding that either other items will be postponed or stopping time may be altered.

Make sure that there is some sense of closure on an issue rather than just allowing discussion to run out of steam. Make sure that, if a decision is called for it has been arrived at using whatever method the group customarily uses, for example consensus or voting. If discussion is being cut off without a decision being arrived at, acknowledge this and indicate how the issue will be taken up again in the future.

Sometimes a meeting structure or process comes to be seen as ineffective. See to it that there are provisions for changing the operating rules and that these procedures are understood by all.

Such attention to details of group process can be interpreted as over- zealousness by some. It is part of those leadership behaviors which put distance between you and members. It is also absolutely essential for good, productive meetings.

There are whole courses and books and videos on group leadership. One would be hard pressed, however, to find any approach to management and leadership which is in conflict with the foregoing. Adherence to these basic principles will put you in a position of likely success. Not that it is easy or even always pleasant. It does get the job done and gives the group its best chance at achieving its goals.

Member responsibilities

Having noted the tremendous power and responsibilities of leadership, it should also be noted that members are not without powers...even the newest of members.

As a member, particularly a new member, you should make sure you have made your best effort to comprehend the information you've been given about the basic structure and functioning of the group. There will likely be some areas which need elaboration. It is not only in your interest to seek clarification promptly, it is a valuable experience for the group as well. Often there are aspects of a group's structure or procedures which have long been ambiguous and subject to varying interpretations. It is most often the new member who points these out. It is also a measure of the health of the group to appropriately respond to these. For example, meetings may be held at a time that imposes some scheduling difficulties for you. It may be important to you that you know start and stop times with some degree of accuracy. Although most groups are willing to state beginning times for meetings, they are reluctant to set limits (even though most members prefer that they be defined). It just seems like too great a degree of rigidity to some. Your raising the issue forces the group to think seriously about an important matter of basic structure. Even if the decision is to leave stopping times open ended, this may still be an area of conscious policy decision never before tackled. Further, your raising an issue is a demonstration of your seriousness about wishing to be an active part of the group.

It is appropriate to note that such participation could be taken to detrimental extremes. If a new member raises incessant questions and challenges many established procedures (formal or informal) the group senses a degree of disruption to its normal way of doing things with which it simply does not wish to deal. Regardless of the fairness of such a perception, you should be aware that a group that feels overly threatened by you will seek ways to nullify your membership. This can be through official channels or the often highly effective unofficial ones.

This brings us to the subject of unspoken rules. Sounds devious? In fact, it is quite common for a number of unspoken expectations, preferences and sanctions to evolve in group behavior, just as they do in everyday interpersonal relationships. And it isn't necessarily intentionally devious.

Say that a number of people in a neighborhood group happen to share many social and political assumptions. Although the group's statement of purpose makes no mention of a particular political or social inclination, this shared philosophy may be at odds with the inclinations of a new member. This is a time of serious reevaluation for the group. The new member may detect a secret agenda and call it to the group's attention. Then many coping options become available. The group may choose to deny it. It may admit it and attempt to redefine itself in a way which accommodates a wider range of views. It may pretend to be accommodating while making life miserable for the new member. It may outright admit its biases with a new degree of self awareness and toss out the new member. Or it may waffle through a series of flip flops. What is the member to do? One must first give attention to the ways in which the unspoken rules are conveyed.

It is most revealing to examine past minutes or newsletters, if available, to see what kinds of issues are being dealt with. Discrepancies between stated policy and reality may be apparent.

The next, and likely most valuable, source of information is the conduct of meetings themselves. What items make it to the agenda? Who decides what the agenda will be? Is it a single person or some kind of group decision? (Note: an agenda needn't be formal. Just think of it as the collection of topics dealt with at meetings.) How are topics dealt with? Is there discussion? Are varying points of view welcomed? Is there an attempt to accommodate diverse thought or is such diversity quashed? Do certain individuals tend to dominate meetings, making wide participation difficult?

In the kind of analysis necessary to get a truly in-depth understanding of an organization's health and functioning, you may have to collect observational and hard data over a length of time. If there do appear trouble signs such as discrepancies between stated purpose and actual behavior or if disruptive disharmonies are observed, it becomes your responsibility to take action. You must reveal your observations and the fact that you are concerned. You may directly state, or at least imply, that remedial action is needed. If the meeting environment seems to be one most inhospitable to your making such statements, you may have to tell the group's leader privately. It is, however, much more effective and preferred to state these things within the context of a meeting. You may have unknown allies for your point of view who will be relieved to hear these problems aired. You are at least forcing the organization to deal with a level of group process that any healthy organization must. That is, you are forcing it to consciously deal with its own self-understanding.

A primary tool available, particularly, to a new member is visibility. Ironically, new members are often unaware of the power that their newness confers. Most ongoing members are well aware of the feelings and predispositions of other long-time members. Attention and awareness may flag as people perform their anticipated "roles". When the new member speaks up, however, antennas are raised. There is a certain level of danger and excitement. What will this new variable mean to us? Is our meeting and our very way of doing business about to be horribly disrupted? Are we going to be challenged on group understandings of "the-way-things-work"? Does this new member see something that has bothered some of us for a long time but which we felt we shouldn't bring up? Even if your questions are not answered immediately or completely, they doubtless have an impact and may lead the group to new levels of clarification of its aspirations and actions.

In Part II, appearing in the next issue of Neighborhood Life, we’ll discuss
Organizational Repair and Maintenance



 

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