managing group dynamics

Building an Interpretive Community; The Challenges and Reality of Managing Group Dynamics

The past few articles have developed the theme of cultural stagnation and the interpretive communities that can jumpstart our transformation toward a more aware and compassionate global society. While these groups offer important long-term visions, building and managing a community of activists requires more than a mission statement. 

In writing about these topics, I have come to reflect that while personally I have experience in leading organizations and activist movements, I don’t want to give the impression that I have the final answers in creating the perfect proactive transformative communities. In fact, perhaps it is the feeling of frustration in seeing that well-meaning groups, both those that I have managed and those that have inspired me from afar, sometimes fall prey to an unhealthy energetic field—let’s call it the community biofield–that has motivated me to write on this topic. 

This post is not so much an outline of definitive solutions for how to maintain a healthy and dynamic community biofield, but a way to spur an honest conversation about the reality of managing and leading transformative collectives. When we can be aware of the challenges that we might face, we can then be better prepared with tools and stamina to stay committed even in times of adversity.

Nurturing a Healthy Biofield Within Transformative Communities

Gathering together a group of like-minded individuals passionate about social change often gets off to an inspiring start with the many leaders that heed the call of social justice, environmentalism and community activism. Our current cultural and environmental crisis certainly isn’t because of a lack of passion for a cause. The challenge lies in the reality of maintaining momentum and cohesion within these dynamic groups.  Just as we require energy and good health to function at an optimal level as individuals, our interpretive communities also rely on a biofield that is in good, working order. To maintain this cohesion, however, is much easier said than done.

Being part of a well-functioning biofield connects each of us to an energetic buzz when meeting and working together, necessary to keep everyone in the flow. This is what spurs us on when challenges arise. Unfortunately, sometimes this energy can take a darker undertone.

Ongoing transformation and evolution of a community can be difficult once patterns and prevailing views have been set. Just think how hard it is to quit a habit as an individual; as a community, this is even more challenging. From personal experience, this can happen as the group grows in numbers, but also can occur if the community has stagnated in communication and/or vision. 

What I’ve learned (and am still learning) is that it is critical for the leader(s) of any community to stay aware of the group dynamics. As more people join a movement, a welcomed sense of diversity unfolds, as does an increase in personality types and perspectives. This brings a new level of creativity to problem-solving, but can also cause dissonance in the energetic flow. 

Visualize a pool with a handful of swimmers at a local gym who’ve all be going there for years, keeping up a similar pace, doing laps, knowing how the others prefer their turns, what speed they maintain and when they start or stop. The water is a relatively calm surface of understanding and each swimmer has space to maneuver with everyone moving in the same direction. 

When that same pool begins to fill with more enthusiastic swimmers, the environment can change. It’s not that each person doesn’t appreciate the benefits of doing laps or of staying active, it’s that the water begins to get a bit choppy with so many people trying to find their space at different rhythms. Frustration can arise, and even the passion for the experience can falter. Cliques might form between the faster swimmers, tensions mount, and before you know it, what started as a community enthusiastic about good health through pool laps can instead become a bit of a battle ground for ownership.

Have you ever experienced this situation as a leader or as a newcomer to a community? It can be disorientating and disheartening.

Properly managing a successful community requires thorough communication from the very beginning and at consistent intervals in the group’s evolution. As management consultant Peter Drucker once said: “The most important part of good communication is to understand what isn’t being said.”

I don’t have an answer on the perfect method for communication, or what exercises result in the best cohesion of a group’s framework. What is important though is setting aside time for periodic sessions when the goals of the community are reviewed, as is the group’s dynamic. This can help clarify the intentions of the group and set everyone up on the same wave flow. 

Maybe the mission statement has been interpreted differently from one generation to the next, or perhaps it is as simple as restating who is responsible for what task, or even why a process takes place that is founded in experiences not shared by every member. Simple dialogue is just one stepping stone for managing a diverse and growing community biofield.

Taking Initiative to Maintain Community Coherence

Inevitably though, challenges do arise while participating in an interpretive community. If there are “toxic members” making the biofield sick, or individuals that have separate agendas, it’s important to explore ways to remedy any challenging relationships that might compromise the group’s mission and efforts.

Extrapolating from our own personal practices and contributing our knowledge to the larger community is also a key to creating positive group relationships, as is getting honest with ourselves in our own commitment (both physically and energetically) to the cause. Exercises in deep listening, shadow work–both as individuals and as a group, and an ongoing re-examination of the community purpose help to affirm that the mission and vision of the group are not operating under separate agendas.

Supporting Strong Leaders Within Our Community Dynamic

Stepping into a leadership role to launch a new project or initiative requires a clear sense of the mission, desired outcome and action steps to get started. There also needs to be a healthy dose of passion and commitment to stay the course when times get rough. Challenges don’t mean failure of a project or community, as long as ongoing communication and reflection are part of the process. Just as clarity in the vision is critical to creating and managing a healthy group dynamic, so is having a sense of what the personality of the group exudes, understanding the most effective form of communication for your community and outlining who’s involved in major decision-making processes.

To do this requires someone in a leadership role that has an understanding and passion for the group’s efforts. It seems recently that having a strong decision-maker or point person is considered passé as new communities emerge. Without a positive and supportive leader, however, chaos can seep into the group and opens it up for inefficiency and diluted efforts. A lack of strong leadership only seems to create a vacuum for other ambitious personalities who might not be qualified, or who have a different agenda, to step in and take charge. 

I’m not saying that a leaderless group or movement isn’t possible. In fact, that was my ideal for a few social movements I had envisioned. In reality, however, what I’m experiencing with this ideal is that holocracies sound great on paper, but we are lacking solid, sustainable examples of how this looks as a successful approach within an interpretive community. However, if you know of any well-established organizations creating real, positive change and that have thrived on this approach, please share in the comments below. 

In his book “Reinventing Organizations,” author Frederic Laloux describes a refreshingly new approach to managing organizations, but the examples of success stories are somewhat limited and inconclusive, with very little mention of the not-for-profit world. Laloux extols the virtues of group leadership from the bottom up, but I find that this has its challenges when the group dismisses the experience of those in decision-making positions.

On the other hand, there has been plenty of hierarchical abuse in the past. We have to look for a middle ground on developing leadership. We are in this pendulum effect now where one side is saying hierarchal top down leadership is bad, and bottom up, committee – organized space is the way forward. In my opinion, the answer is somewhere in between.  To play off of Rumi’s famous quote on fields, “Somewhere out there between hierarchy and holocracy there is a balanced biofield of community – I’ll meet you there.”   

Finding Middle Ground in Community Leadership

Keeping a community biofield healthy cannot simply rely on the passion and best intentions of interlacing groups of committees to steer the course. This is particularly relevant as new members join and the group expands. There is value in new perspectives offered by diverse and fresh members, but there also needs to be respect for the wisdom of those who have life experience in the work. All too often we see in organizational development that the wisdom of institutional experience gives way to the naivete of the latest, albeit unproven, great idea, which sometimes may not work out that well in the real world.

Fresh ideas and energy are essential to evolving a transformative group, but it is equally important to see that there are mundane but critical day-to-day tasks involved if an organization or project is going to have a lasting legacy—one of the most important being able to ensure that the group has the financial resources to survive. This is why I take my hat off to those ready and passionate to step into a leadership role within any transformative community or organization. This is also why I want to open up this dialogue about managing group dynamics – not to dissuade anyone from taking the leap into a leadership role, but to encourage more people to join the cause with an informed sense of the adventure that awaits. For interpretive communities to thrive, we must be looking for sane answers to nurturing both a healthy community biofield through positive group dynamics, alongside supporting those in leadership roles within these movements. 

A Holomovement of movements is emerging, but we are lacking the longevity in leadership to pull it together. The sense of urgency to establish a way for community groups to merge and join forces can’t be overstated. The positive reality is that currently we have many social action movements working independently toward a greater good. Unfortunately, when we try to bring them together to build momentum for a global shift, crumbling group dynamics, lack of resources and faltering support for leadership can impede progress.

I still hold out hope for our success. Finding inspiration in the words of Adam Crabtree and his book “Evolutionary Love and the Ravages of Greed,” all of us as leaders can return to his wisdom to help us find clarity and strength during times of challenges. 

“The work begins with the recognition that we are not really a multiplicity of “I’s” who have to find a way to pool our resources, isolated little “I’s” that, in loneliness and desperation, need to find each other and form bonds of common purpose. The truth is that there is only one “I” that acts through us all. There is only one “I,” the “I” we find twinkling everywhere in the great tapestry of interconnectedness that is the world of humanity. It precedes us and continues after us. We need to discover that the “I” is already there, the consciously active factor in an indestructible, ever-changing, ever-evolving web of relations.”

Perhaps, all we need is to return to a group song we all share, joining in a thunderous rally cry that we all resonate with to maintain good health within our community biofield.  There’s really something to be said about getting out of our intellectual and analytical mind and into the group song within our interpretive community group dynamics. As a leader of a movement or group, this needs to be constantly reinforced to bond the group.

This blog post might not offer any solid answers, but hopefully the conversation it spurs is founded in a sense of optimism that we can support one another in this singular moment in our history. Sometimes, well-defined solutions aren’t the way forward anyway, and for now, maybe it is remembering our collective song that will give us momentum in this ongoing transformative movement. This notion is beautifully described by French novelist Muriel Barbery in writing about the experience of singing in a choir:

“Every time, it’s a miracle. Here are all these people, full of heartache or hatred or desire, and we all have our troubles and the school year is filled with vulgarity and triviality and consequence, and there are all these teachers and kids of every shape and size, and there’s this life we’re struggling through full of shouting and tears and laughter and fights and break ups and dashed hopes and unexpected luck – it all disappears, just like that, when the choir begins to sing…. So when they sing a canon I look down at the ground because it’s just too much emotion at once: it’s too beautiful, and everyone is singing together, this marvelous sharing. I’m no longer myself, I am just one part of a sublime whole, to which the others also belong, and I always wonder at such moments why this cannot be the rule of everyday life, instead of the exceptional moment, during a choir. When the music stops, everyone applauds, their faces all lit up, the choir radiant. It is beautiful. In the end, I wonder if the true movement of the world might not be a voice raised in song.”  – 

I may be preaching to the choir here, so please share your experiences in leading or being a part of a healthy community biofield. What steps did your group take that we can all learn from and possibly apply?

Share your comments below to help start an honest dialogue to support one another as we participate or manage or own interpretive communities, as we collectively seek ways to sing the same song together in establishing the right community spirit for sacred activism.

Feature Photo by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.