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Group Work: Who’s in and who’s out?

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

I page through the business section of the New York Times on a regular basis, and I very often find material there that is relevant to mediation and facilitation. Nearly every business requires collaborating in groups, and as Phil Gilbert, general manager of IBM Design, recently pointed out in his New York Times piece[1] this can be a major strength, contributing enormously to brewing up new possibilities. But only if the group work is done well, in a way that allows everyone’s ideas to work their way into the conversation. What does this entail?

“[G]etting the best work out of a team isn’t about silencing the loudest person. It’s about getting everyone involved to explore every angle, bring all ideas to the surface and collaborate on a path forward.”[2] There is an important insight here: bringing all those ideas to the surface doesn’t just mean there are things you shouldn’t do because they silence people. Pulling everybody’s perspective into view is an active process. It takes strategy and intention. It’s something you have to plan to do before you can reap the benefits of getting together a team to problem solve or innovate.

Facilitation is all about intentionally cultivating rewarding synergies. Facilitators and mediators make the art of these processes their life’s work; it’s our modus operandi, our “M.O.” – and perhaps with some added urgency, because we know group work that silences participants can do more than inhibit innovation. It can also cause conflict. Below are some insights and strategies from facilitation that augment Gilbert’s exploration of inclusive group work.

Every Voice

“It has been my experience that the biggest impediment to getting people to think about what’s possible – instead of what is not possible – is the difficulty in exposing everyone’s ideas to the broader team.”[3]

There are all sorts of barriers to getting everyone’s ideas on the table, and they aren’t always obvious. The idea that a space can just be declared “open” is folly: there are inevitably underlying sticking points for people around the table. As Gilbert notes, organizational hierarchy can play a big role, or maybe some people work better in different mediums. Not everyone loves to literally voice their ideas, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have them, and it doesn’t mean you don’t want them in consideration while you strategize. Even more delicate are the ever-present challenges of personal antagonisms and stylistic differences amongst a group.

Gilbert also points out that groups with a lot of experience together are likely to be better equipped with trust, empathy, and knowledge of each other, making it less likely that individuals are going to sit quietly on their thoughts without expressing themselves during group work. But in the business world, the faces around the table inevitably change.

“[W] hen your organization is in the midst of transformation…you are faced with teams of people who don’t necessarily have the shared experiences that enable them to behave well together. Team dynamics can easily get in the way of good ideas, and the loudest voice often wins.”[4]

This is true, and it’s one reason why developing techniques to “hear all the voices” is so important: there is just no way to always insure that you’re always going to have a group that reliably ‘gels.’ But we should also recognize that long standing groups can end up suppressing ideas, too. People can get stuck when they know each other too well, and fail to listen deeply. Habit can stifle open engagement as much as novelty, and this is also a ripe opportunity for someone’s discomfort to fester over time and blow up into conflict. So whether you are working with the volatility of transformation, or the potential stagnation of stability, thinking through group collaborations from a facilitator’s perspective is always vital.

Strategies for Synergy

I want to emphasize two key concepts to keep in mind when working on participatory group collaborations. This could be your brainstorming strategy meeting, such as in Gilbert’s article, or it could be a group meeting to deal with something more contentious, such as a conflict or an intra-group problem. The first is that a person’s willingness to share is inevitably connected to their perception about safety in the group environment. The second is a constant awareness of which type of shared experience you’re dealing with: a lack of shared experience, a surfeit, or a mix amongst the group. The two are interconnected, and they play off each other in different ways.

There’s a whole litany of reasons why someone might not feel safe voicing their ideas. It could be the organizational hierarchy: unless there is an explicit invitation in place, it can be difficult as an underling to take the risk of putting your idea up for scrutiny. Negative past experience with someone in the group could stifle someone’s willingness to speak up; someone might fear retaliatory responses. If someone habitually feels unsafe and remains silent, they might not be able to participate even if there is a theoretical “safe space.” For those individuals it will take very intentional steps to reintroduce some confidence, gain their trust and allow for their participation.

In his article, Gilbert describes a strategy of group innovation involving brainstorming periods, multiple mediums (verbal, written, digital), and breakout times. These are all great ways to create a multitude of spaces, where everyone is likely to find somewhere that their ideas can comfortably emerge. It is always helpful to lay ground rules at the beginning of a meeting that set the terrain for egalitarian exchanges. If it’s a big group, breaking out into smaller idea sessions is key; it’s very common to have difficulty voicing ideas in a large group. Passive strategies, such as the use of index cards which only a neutral party reviews and feeds into the group memory, can help provide anonymity if it’s needed to get the freedom and creativity flowing.


[1] Gilbert, Phil. “Hearing Every Voice in the Room.” Published in The New York Times, Dec. 7, 2014. Print edition, page 10. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/07/jobs/how-ibm-brings-ideas-forward-from-its-teams.html?_r=0

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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