Groups (Rick Curtis)

This material is the Group Development and Leadership Chapter from the Outdoor Action Program Leader’s Manual written by Rick Curtis, Director, Outdoor Action Program. It may be freely distributed for nonprofit educational use. However, if included in publications, written or electronic, attributions must be made to the author. Commercial use of this material is prohibited without express written permission from the author. Copyright © 1995 Rick Curtis, Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University.

An Effective Group

*    Has a clear understanding of its goals: overall and immediate.
*    Is flexible in selecting its procedure as it works toward its goals.
*    Has achieved a high degree of communication and understanding among its members. Communication of personal feelings and attitudes as well as ideas occurs in direct and open fashion because it is considered important to the work of the group.
*    Is able to initiate and carry out an effective decision-making, carefully considering minority viewpoints and securing the commitment of all members to important decisions.
*    Achieves an appropriate balance between group productivity and the satisfaction of individual needs.
*    Provides for sharing of leadership responsibilities.
*    Has a high degree of cohesiveness (attractiveness to its members).
*    Makes intelligent use of the differing abilities if its members.
*    Can be objective about reviewing its own processes. Can face problems and adjust to needed modification.
*    Maintains a balance between emotional and rational behavior, channeling emotionally into productive group effort.

Achieving a Cooperative Group Structure

1.    Members must interact, give and receive help from one another, and share ideas, information, and resources to help accomplish the group’s goals.
2.    The group goal of getting the task done at the highest level possible must be accepted by everyone, and members need to develop commitment to the group goal.
3.    Because the possibility exists of different group members doing different sub-tasks, groups may divide the labor in various ways to accomplish their goals.
4.    Rewards, if any, must be based upon the quality and quantity of group performance, not individual performance.

Basic Stages of Group Development

There are several basic stages that new groups go through as they move to becoming effective as a group. These stages parallel the Situational Leadership Model (see above) and as shown in Figure 9.4, different styles of leadership tend to work best at different points in the overall development of the group.

1.    Forming (Getting Acquainted) – This first stage is characterized by a sense of uncertainty and awkwardness and perhaps anxiety. Participants may be unsure of what to do and how to do it. The “rules of the road”-group norms and standards have yet to be defined and participants are eagerly looking to find out what is okay and not okay. This phase often shows as tentativeness or even some anxiety on the part of the participants. Leaders need to set the tone for group behavior, activities, and interactions (see Establishing Group Norms below). Most people are polite as they try to put their “best foot forward.” The result is a superficial level of harmony and cooperation. This serves the purpose of getting the group started and off the ground in terms of motivation and commitment. Members may tend to verbalize how close they feel to each other, and may develop quite a group spirit due to successful task accomplishment. Leadership at this point should be a combination of High Task/Low Relationship (Telling) in terms of teaching skills and establishing norms moving to High Task/High Relationship (Selling) to get everyone involved and interacting in the group.

2.    Storming (Struggling Forward) – This next stage is characterized by individual assertive behavior which may result in some group instability. Participants have begun to feel comfortable enough with their new environment to take some risks in revealing more of their personalities. Each person wants to feel a sense of individual importance and influence on the group – “finding a niche.” This becomes more evident as increasing responsibility is shifted to the group as they move into moderate levels of maturity. The Leadership style which may be most effective are High Task/High Relationship (Selling). Leaders should not be surprised if some conflicts develop in the group at this stage. This is part of the natural process of the group becoming self-sustaining.

3.    Norming (Becoming Personal) – This stage is characterized by a growth of affection and establishment of personal relationships. Participants will begin to take responsibility for resolving conflicts and strengthening friendships. The Leadership style which may be most effective is Low Task/High Relationship (Participating) since the group is competent regarding tasks but needs assistance and support in terms of relationships.

4.    Performing (Working Together) – This stage is characterized by harmony among group members. Participants look outwards to see how other people in the group are doing to make sure all are supported. Decision making and problem solving will be shared within the group. At this stage the group is mature enough to attend to its own needs both in terms of task and relationship matters. The leadership style which would be most effective would be Low Task/Low Relationship (Delegating).

5.    Transference – This final part of the group process is essential in making sure that the trip is not remembered as “just a fun couple days in the woods.” It is important that participants be able to transfer the things which they have learned about themselves and being in a group back to their regular lives. This is accomplished through the debriefing process discussed in below in Transferring the Experience.

Figure 9.4

Establishing Group Norms

Establishing norms is an important part of the first stage of group development, letting people learn “the rules of the road.” Many of the group norms that we use in OA are actually underlying goals for the experience (like group cooperation, minimal impact, etc.). Group norms can be established in three ways:

*    Stating – telling/explaining to people how to behave, e.g. this is how to wear a pack.
*    Modeling – demonstrating behavior for others to adopt, e.g. leaders picking up trash along the trail.
*    Importing – bringing in behavior customary in other social situations, e.g. people will going off into the woods for privacy to go to the bathroom.

These methods often must be combined in order to work effectively. For example, if you want to reinforce minimal impact camping practices you will need to state it as a goal, explain how to accomplish it, and model the behavior. If the leader simply tells people to pick up trash along the trail, but then walks right by trash without picking it up, the participants become confused as to the norm and may assume that the instruction was merely lip service. Remember, at the beginning of a trip, participants may not know what to expect and may not have previous experience in the outdoors. Direct demonstration is the best way to get things across in this early stage. Before the trip goes out, think about what sorts of group norms you want to convey to the group before leaving campus as well as what things you will need to cover during the trip. Below are some examples of things to present to the group.

Norms to Present Pre-Trip

*    Group Cooperation (everyone needs to do their share)
*    Minimal Impact Camping (idea not specific techniques)
*    Safety
*    Substance Free trip

Norms to Present During the Trip

*    Challenge by Choice
*    Good Communication and Listening between group members
*    Debriefing
*    Respect for Others

Group Decision Making

During the course of a trip, there are a number of decisions that will need to be made by the whole group. These might include things like where to camp, which route to take, whether to rest for the afternoon or do a side hike, etc. Group decision making can be a powerful learning and growth tool for the group. It can also be a place for conflict to develop. The first thing to determine is whether it is a decision that can and should be made by the group, or with input from the group, or is it a decision to be made solely by the leaders. Obviously some issue, such as those that involve safety, will be made by the leaders. To present such a decision to the group suggest that they have authority to make the decision, and if the leaders disagree, they must countermand the group’s decision. Also some decision-making can lead to splintering the group. Both of these can lead to bad feelings by the group members and damage the positive group spirit and interaction leaders have worked to facilitate. Avoid this problem by thinking ahead and determining what decisions are appropriate for the group to make. It may be better for the leaders to make the decision from their status as authorities, that to give the decision to the group and have the process lead to negative outcomes. Leaders will also need to decide if they should be involved in the decision process, or “sit it out.” Sometime the presence and perceived authority of the leaders can slant the decision making process. However, in certain situations, this can work to your advantage as a leader. Making good group decisions involves a process, which the leaders may have to state or model as a norm for the group to follow.

Decision Strategies

*    Authority Decides – In this case the decision is made by the leaders by virtue of their role of being responsible for the trip or by some person determined to have the greatest knowledge about the topic. This process can be very effective when the individual(s) have significantly more knowledge than the other members of the group. It is also very efficient in terms of time. In some cases, getting feedback from the group may be essential for the leaders to have all the facts in order to make a good decision. For example, if the leaders have to decide about changing the route, they need to know the physical and mental state of all the participants. The most common scenario for this decision making process is a safety or emergency situation. Here the leaders need to take charge of the group. Keep in mind that some individuals, even though they may be the most knowledgeable, may not be good at making decisions. Making effective decisions is a skill that all leaders should develop. If things seem to be breaking down and a decision is not being made, you may have to move to another method.
*    Majority Vote – In this case members of the group are polled and the option that receives support from the greatest number in the group is chosen. This strategy works well if everyone agrees to be bound by it, and if everyone feels they have a chance to express their viewpoints and needs. However, it can lead to splitting of the group. Once again leaders should evaluate if this method will be a positive or negative experience for the group.
*    Consensus – This is the most effective method of making a group decision in terms of members feeling included. Consensus decision making means reaching a decision that all members of the group are willing to support at some level. In order to reach this point, everyone in the group must be given ample time to express their view and time to express their disagreement with other’s views. Through a process of negotiation, the group moves to an idea that everyone can place some level of support in. this process can take a great deal of time and “perfect consensus” is almost never reached. Make sure that you have the time before embarked on this as you approach. It is counter-productive to start with the consensus process and then have to give it up to make the decision some other way because you don’t have enough time.

In all of these strategies it is important for leaders to model good listening and communication skills. Leaders may need to act as facilitators for effective communication through such things as asking people not to interrupt others, quieting dominant members of the group, and asking quieter members to speak up.

Group Decision Making Process

1.    Set goal(s) & prioritize them
2.    Brainstorm options for achieving goals
3.    Evaluate the different options and examine how the options meet the goal(s)
4.    Determine the decision-making strategy to be used (see above)
5.    Decide on an option using one of the following criteria

  • Best serves highest priority goals 
  • Best serves all goals 
  • Serves goals without creating any negative outcomes 
  • Creates the least negative outcomes

[Category:Group Dynamics and Activities]


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