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The mess of forming groups

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

The "unfinished business" with my MSc group..

We were 17 and the task was to organise ourselves into 3 groups of 5 or 6. It's a simple task and we have done it many times during the last 1.5 days. Easy-peasy... This time, however, the self-inflicted or perceived stakes were high for many: we would spend the next 2 years with the other 4-5 people, who will become your learning set to support, challenge and grow with you to graduate with an MSc in People and Organisational Development. Some got really anxious about not being selected, some couldn't sleep, some shared "horror stories" of how hard this would be. I was curious and wanted to trust the process and the group: after all, we are all adults, have lots of combined experience in this field and we all chose to be on a program like this, so I assumed a much higher level of functioning in the group along with a large bucket of self- and social- awareness.

The process began, the facilitator nudged us to do a quick constellation based on geographical location, which was quite fun and got us moving, gave us a couple of other considerations and left us to it. So, people started throwing out ideas on what to do next, some said they didn't mind how we do it and some expressed or were visibly anxious about not being chosen. I suggested to explore ways in which we are all different, so we could consider creating groups based on various aspects of difference. I read many research papers about how diversity creates much better performance, learning and therefore engenders creativity and innovation. Surely this was a no-brainer...

My suggestion was ignored as someone has said something else and the group had been led into a new direction. Loud voices started to appear expressing their concerns about what they want or don't want. I sensed the heat building up in the circle and in my stomach - what is happening here? We were stuck, both physically (not moving from our positions for what it felt like hours) and in thought process. So, I suggested again, with a slightly louder voice, to consider all the ways we are different and what might be important to us. We started listing geography, age, gender, sector and I would have liked to add OD experience. I suggested to sort ourselves quickly into 4 groups based on sector: independent, private sector, public sector and non-profit. We started moving ourselves into 4 corners and got as far as the independent people standing in 1 corner, when someone else talked over the process, so we stopped and got stuck again. The direction has changed and we were no longer doing what we started.

I got really frustrated.. How is this possible? How disrespectful was that person to just interfere like that? And more to the point of my frustration: how do they dare to interfere with their own agenda when I am trying to create a win for the whole group, create awareness, so we can all make informed choices together, for everyone's benefit. We only spent a day and half together, we have not had a chance to actually meet everyone, so surely getting to know each other more and fast would help all of us. Unfortunately, personal agendas have taken over the process and there was no facilitator to call this out.

When you chose your group based on likes/dislikes or by going for your favorites, you are using your own biases, your judgements you made in the first 10 seconds you met them. This is exactly how you create the feeling of exclusion in teams and systems, which is what most people were worried about, not being chosen. So, in my mind, this was going to achieve the total opposite, create the feeling of not belonging or exclusion. I wanted to make sure that people don't feel that way, especially those who are non-natives (being one myself, so I know very well this feeling). Inclusion and the feeling of safety - it has become another really important value to me having moved around pretty much every 2-4 years in my whole life into new schools, groups, cities, companies and having been an expat in the UK for 18 years. You only understand this feeling if you have ever been excluded and, if you extrapolate to our outer world, look at where Britain has just arrived by not making informed choices and creating exclusion.

So there I was, triggered! Big time! I was frustrated! I cannot stand people pushing their own agenda and likes/dislikes to the detriment of others. It is one of my strongest values and the reason why I left the corporate world, having seen how much toxicity this type of behavior creates in organisations and all around us in the world and our environment. And here it was: I was talked over (which felt like I was actually "walked over"), disrespectfully and felt my opinion didn't matter. How do you dare to just talk over me like that? What gives you the right to think that your own opinion is worthy of more air-time than mine? And what about the voices of all the others who didn't even speak up yet. Was I not clear enough with my intention? Could I have done something differently? I am a warrior, fighting for inclusion all the time.. I should have called this out but I was standing in my own frustration and was taken over by my emotions. I caught a couple of eyes who were on the same page with me, but they didn't say anything either. In hindsight, this would have been a good time to actually talk about the emotions, express them clearly to the group, so it could be heard. The content wasn't heard but perhaps the emotions would have been more useful or powerful. I wish I could have managed my emotions better and wasn't triggered so much.

A little later on I have tried to bring my point about inclusion back in again, reasoning didn't work when emotions run high, so the same thing happened: a couple of loud voices have taken over the whole process, there was talk about pulling names out of a hat or using our star signs, which also didn't land as the strong voices of 3-4 people were now ruling the group. I gave up and sat down on the floor, feeling beaten up but still paying attention. At this point I have withdrawn from the conversation and decided that I will just do whatever the group decided and will make sure that the non-natives feel included, so I will chose at least one of them to be with. I also wanted to make sure there is at least 1 man in my group and I was hoping the process will be over soon as I didn't want to be part of it any more.

Eventually we ended up moving towards the people we wanted to be with so, I went to the only Asian male participant, 2 ladies followed and 1 more man. There we were, 5 of us, the group was formed. The other 2 groups also got together, one of which ended up having only Brits.

2 of the loud voices came up to me after the session, apologized and checked in if they have contributed to my visible frustration and if I was OK. I appreciated this gesture, I confirmed that they did trigger me, I reassured them I was OK and that I will deal with my own baggage.. Having reflected on this tho, I realised that this needed to be addressed in the group, not only with me, 1:1. What happens in a group belongs to the group and my voice was 1 of the voices that managed to speak up but I am sure there were many others who were also triggered during this process. We have not addressed these feelings in the group and when I did want to bring it up on the last day, we were running out of time, so I didn't.

We spent the next day with our newly formed learning set, 3 men, 3 women, 1 Asian, 1 Hungarian, 4 Brits (some with Irish & Scottish blood). I had the privilege to listen to 5 people's life-stories and it became clear to me just what diversity we all bring to the table. It became clearer to me how I can serve the group and how they will help my learning. It is exactly the right group for me right now and we will make the most of our learning and time together. We are also the only group that has space for 1 more, so we will be able to invite and include someone else later on.

Using Tuckmann's group stages, we are forming and moved into storming and note yet move out from this phase. Emotions are high and have not been addressed yet. Read more here.

From my Org and Relationship System's Coaching (ORSC) training, I have a couple of points of learning to highlight:

A system has the potential to change when you reveal itself to them. You can do this by, for example, naming what's not being said, describing the emotional field, naming your feelings. I wish I was able to do this and will pay more attention next time.

You need to listen to all voices of the system (especially the marginalised, unpopular ones). That's where the seeds for change are. It would have been great to go around the room, 1 by 1, and allow everyone to express their needs and wishes for the group selections. Cliches like "We cannot meet everyone's needs!" are generalisations and therefore not true. How do you know that? Who said that? If we don't know what people want then we will not be able to meet their needs. So, how about we listen and give it a try?

All voices are part of the system and belong to the system. So, no side conversations! What happens in the group stays in the group, so I will bring this up in our next residential. We have unfinished business that we need to address together until we feel we resolved it and learnt from it.

And finally, my own conclusion, which is a humanistic view: we are all learning and we are all at different levels of self- and social awareness. I started this blog by saying that I was curious, trusted the process and assumed high level of EQ and social intelligence in a group like ours. It's not that we don't have them, it just that it all went out of the window pretty fast by emotions running high and not being able to manage them. I think the more emotionally aware you became during this process, the better it is. This is the work that needs to be done during this MSc, so we can help to heal ourselves, each other and with that, help to heal the world. Let's enjoy the mess and help each other to grow.

In the meantime, reflect on your own emotions, triggers, what went well, what could you have done differently, notice your patterns, write a blog / journal to unpack yourself, so we can address our unfinished business together.

Until next time...

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