A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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Productive Meetings - Part II


Organizational Repair and Maintenance

By Fred Gillette

Many of the basic activities which can effect and define the proper functioning of a group were covered in Part I. We will now approach the task of repairing ailing organizations by identifying the dysfunctional situations most common to meetings and by giving you some suggestions as to how you may effectively deal with them, be you a leader or a member.


The Windbag

Very often some aspect of a member's behavior that once seemed to be a minor irritant can become quite a serious concern. The group windbag who may have once seemed a harmless idiosyncratic may come to be seen a truly serious disrupter of process. This particular example deserves elaboration since it is one of the more common and most ineffectively dealt with of group problems. Either through volume or duration of participation, someone often comes to wield far more than their fair share of power. There may be a number of reasons for this occurring. The person may be greatly respected by the membership. They may have difficulty expressing themselves quickly and efficiently. They may be self centered egotists totally oblivious to the feelings of others. At any rate, it is a big problem for leadership. It requires a firm degree of control and an often painful recognition of the separation of leaders from members. This is also an area in which leaders often fall short. They would rather figuratively die than exert the amount of power necessary to reign in a disrupter. In fact, if left unchecked, this kind of dysfunction can lead to a group's death, or at least hopeless stagnation.

A regular member has the first option of using existing structure to attempt to remedy the problem. They can insist that their views be heard. They can ask that discussion of a particular item be time limited. An almost-sensitive disrupter may take the hint and back off somewhat. Although requiring some delicacy, it may be possible to talk to the disrupter outside of the meeting about your difficulty with their behavior. The problem is, of course, that someone hostile enough or un-self-aware enough to cause such disruption in the first place may be slow to acknowledge any problem. They may simply define you as the problem. After all, no one ever complained before. From the member's perspective, often it becomes advisable to discuss this situation with the leader privately. The leader will appreciate this less direct challenge to her or his ability to lead and may be receptive to suggestion. The leader may have to become more forceful in controlling the offending member. If this doesn't seem to work a member may have to be more forceful in stating their concern. They may express their concern for the group's well being and even the effect of these persistent difficulties on their continued membership.


The Clam

A much less recognized form of group disruption than boisterous dominance is silence. This is most obvious in a small group. Anyone who consistently defers from participation arouses the usually unspoken question, what are we doing wrong? Why is this person so uninvolved? It may just be their natural shyness. More often, it is a sign of some problem. And if more than one, once-active member displays this behavior, their silence becomes deafening.

It is first the leader's job to notice when someone consistently defers from participation. They may encourage the member in a variety of ways to become more active. The leader may assure the member that their views are important and periodically ask them what they think about various issues. If the leader is ineffective at bringing someone into participation, a regular member may be able to do some good. If the leader isn't bothering to ask them what they think of various group issues, the member may do so themselves, preferably within the meeting context. They may, in a variety of other matters, attempt to involve the shy member and engage them. Beware of a chronic lack of response though. Withholding of participation could also be an attention getting or even a hostile tactic. Limits must be set on outreach efforts expended less this piece of social work become a drain on other vitally needed group activities.


Tardiness

Another potential source of trouble is the failure to adhere to agreed upon schedules. The person who comes late for meetings, if accommodated by the leader, creates a disharmonious situation. If a meeting is held up to wait for their arrival, those who came on time are, in effect, penalized for their promptness. One person ends up controlling the amount of time they were tardy times the number of people waiting. As a responsible leader or member you can first make sure that you are not an offender. If someone else is and the leader is overly accommodating, another member must ask that the agreed upon schedule be adhered to. Tardiness is often a form of passive aggressive behavior. The perpetrator can claim innocence of any direct hostile act while still effectively "getting" someone. It isn't the regular member's job to deal with the root causes of such hostility. It is within their rights, however, to try to make the offensive behavior which effects them, cease. The group's leader or the offender's therapist can take it from there.


Diffusion of Energies

When business is getting overwhelmingly boring there is often great temptation to divert oneself to some other activity. Most common in group process, little unplanned subgroups can form while the leader is attempting to deal with a troublesome agenda item. This usually occurs in the form of a quiet side conversation commencing. This can be most subverting and end up even lengthening the meeting. It also undermines the leader's authority. A good leader will quickly react to this, first stopping any disruptive subgroup activity and then, usually, making some adjustments. Perhaps too much time is being given to some agenda item. Maybe there should be sanctioned subgroup activity, allowing more than one matter at a time to be handled by different small groups. (More on this shortly.) It may be, however, that some member is really starting a side conversation to purposely subvert the leader's authority. At any rate it is a behavior which must be stopped and if the leader seems unresponsive, a member may have to ask the leader to take some action. Usually all that is needed is for someone to voice the observation that things seem to be bogging down, or that there is some desire to move along to another agenda item. In the case of weak leadership, a regular member may also have to ask offenders for more quiet.

An extension of this may be the formation of subgroups outside the context of meetings or group activities. This can actually be a stimulating and healthy outgrowth of group membership. The existence of such subgroups can promote new friendships which go beyond anything having to do with the group yet which can return strength and energy to the group. There is also the possibility, however, that some sub groupings arise in resistance to some aspect of the group. Maybe a desperate faction is feeling that it needs to start a movement to change some aspect of the organization. They are forming an unsanctioned subgroup because they feel unable to effect change within the normal functioning of the group. Should this be the case, for the health of the group, either the leader or some member should make public the observation of what seems to be happening here. There should be an attempt to deal with this openly and in a group meeting. The faction may be accommodated or perhaps they need to go off and start their own group. At any rate, the organization cannot afford to long maintain internal warfare... unless this happens to be a collection of those who seem to find such activities exhilarating.

Many of the problems rising from the diffusion-of-energy syndrome can be traced to inadequate attention being given to some natural divisions of labor within a neighborhood group. These organizations often have members with widely varying interests. The more politically involved members of the group tend to concentrate their attention on city politics and development issues. Those focused on communication issues give more importance to web sites and newsletters and other media of mass communication. The social engineers and sociologists among us give attention to community-building events such as neighborhood history presentations or neighborhood walks. There are also those that have a special interest in arts or social events. The differences among these factions are ignored at the peril of the organization. While a general membership meeting may attempt to accommodate full expression of all of these interests, some, invariably, get inadequate attention or else meetings grow to such insufferable complexity and length that attendance plummets. The only answer, short of restricting the group's scope of operations, is to organize subcommittees. Although basic sanction and direction is given at general meetings, most of the organizational work in these special areas is conducted at a separate time. Representatives of the subgroup provide the vital link to the main body of the organization. Efficiency and wider participation result. No more general meeting time is given to discussions of font or beverage cup sizes.


Unauthorized Plan Changes

Another form of common passive-aggressive behavior is changing an existing plan. For example, the group arrives at some consensus about how they are going to conduct some sort of activity. An activities committee is charged with putting the plan into action. Somewhere along the line a substantive change is made in activities without consulting the group. It is obviously something significant enough that the rest of the group should have been involved in the change. This can have extremely disruptive consequences. There are those that will feel betrayed and trust may erode. There is suspicion on the part of the leader or others that there are secrets or deep disagreements that are not being acknowledged. Yes, there are sometimes honest misunderstandings about what the authority of a subgroup is. More often people know that they are pushing hard and likely overstepping their limits. Another good example of this kind of behavior occurs when a newsletter is published that represents a minority viewpoint, although it is presented as if it is group policy. Those who control the newsletter have certainly overstepped their mission if they have misrepresented the group.

The prime responsibility of an involved member is to see that there is some understanding of the limits of subgroup or autonomous activity. When plans are being made, ask for as much clarity as is practical. If you are on a subcommittee, make sure you know what it is you can and can not do. If you see others going beyond their bounds try to push for an immediate airing and resolution. These things get worse with neglect.


Burnout

Burnout is a chronic feeling of physical or mental exhaustion brought on by giving more than you can afford to give of yourself. It is not uncommon among members of any long-running group. It most often affects those people most thoroughly immersed in organizational affairs. It can also affect those who don't appear to be overextended but, for whatever reason, feel overwhelmed with their organizational obligations. Since the onset of burnout may not be apparent until it has fully enveloped someone, it is best to try to create an organizational environment in which the likelihood of its occurrence is minimized. As is often the case with a variety of maladies, prevention is much cheaper than the cure.

To begin, the organization should not accept the situation of some member or members routinely taking on taxing chores. There can be no simple formula for what constitutes dangerous overwork. You'll have to use some intuition. The leader, particularly, should periodically review jobs and duties to see that an inordinate amount of responsibility does not fall on one or two people. All jobs within the organization such as editing the newsletter, chairing sub-committees and particularly official positions should have limits to length of service. Officers usually have one year terms. This should also apply to other support jobs. The open-endedness of commitment to some responsibility may also be the chief factor in discouraging acceptance of such responsibility. There must be a way to serve for some specified time and then step back from that service without incurring the stigma of "quitting". If a job appears to be a life sentence, escapees won't look back. When a person does leave a position or job, they should get some recognition and thanks for what they have done.

Don't let anyone become "indispensable". Any job or duty should be within the skills and capabilities of more than one person. Begin necessary training if that does not seem to be the case. There is less likely to be a timely passing on of a responsibility if there are no eligible receivers.

A group's leader or member cannot be responsible for assuring that no member ever overextends himself or herself. There is some responsibility on the effected person's part to let it be known that they are approaching their limits or that there are unfair expectations being placed upon them. Perhaps the overwhelmed person may have been suddenly overcome with rapidly changing conditions in their life outside the organization. Sometimes, for reasons that may never be clear, a person simply needs to step back from their routine for awhile. Although some will never return, many will benefit greatly from a sabbatical and return with renewed energy.

Resistance to Growth and Change

Change is often somewhat traumatic. It is usually, however, a healthy thing for a group, within limits, to allow expansion and inclusion of diverse points of view. Remember your experiences of trying to become assimilated into this group? As an assimilated member, watch carefully how your group accommodates other prospective members. What happens as a new member approaches the group or attends his or her first meeting? Are they given some special recognition? Is there some effort made to solicit their reaction to this organization and its process? If there are not adequate efforts, you may be able to help. Anyone can provide mentoring experience to a prospective or new member. You can ask them about themselves and make it clear that you are willing to help them understand this organization. If there seems to be a tendency by this group to reject or scare away new members, the group should have this called to their attention.

Similarly, new ideas may face unreasonable resistance. Any member can call a group to task for failing to give respectful attention to suggestions for new ways of doing things.


Most power, however, continues to lie with leadership. Any regular member, after doing what they can to bring up disturbing issues within the group context, may need to deal directly with the leader. Perhaps there is no adequate procedure within this group for dealing with new ideas or problems. The member may have to ask the leader to be put on the agenda in order to explain their proposal or concern in detail…or to question the very process of growth and change within this organization.

In summary, getting meetings to be more productive usually entails dealing with some basic issues of a group's overall functioning. And, as you have probably noticed, tinkering with the structure and group process of the neighborhood organization is largely dependent on leadership which is understanding and cooperative. Any lack of cooperation, however, is not necessarily indicative of a lack of interest. As we have noted, leadership is something for which most of us have been ill prepared. Those getting the job usually have had no job training. Once on the job, the leader may be slow to recognize her or his limitations. Although difficult to pull off with grace, it may be necessary for a regular member to suggest that the leader acquire some needed skills. There are leadership classes given in various settings. Perhaps the leader could just be slipped some relevant instructional material. If all else fails, the troubled member should consider giving some support and encouragement to the next prospective leader. Perhaps it is themselves.



 

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