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Discontent With Process and Content: Part I

There is a course at Teachers College, Columbia University called Practicum in Change. This course takes on an ambitious group project each semester. Thirty or so eager students pursuing an MA in Social-Organizational Psychology come together to form a consultancy and work on one consulting project. The project is usually fairly small and well bound, and the students exceptionally smart and eager to perform. There are more than enough capable hands to complete the project and to complete it exceptionally well. This is why the project is so ambitious: There are more than enough hands. Imagine: 30 capable consultants all working on one, well bound project. How do you create room for 30 voices? And believe me, these voices want to be heard. In order to bring some semblance of order, there are certain structures set up. First, all students are required to have taken a course in group dynamics. Second, process consultants are provided for the class. I was a student and subsequently a process consultant for this class, and each role was one of the most challenging yet educational experiences I have had. So, when I was asked to teach a class at Baruch for students pursuing an MS in I/O Psychology, I was excited to replicate a number of elements from that class. The class I was going to teach focused on data collection and analysis using SPSS (since renamed PASW), however, and not group dynamics, so I decided not to cover process, and to forgo process consultants.

Have you ever been in a meeting where no one seems to be listening to or understanding one another? What about a meeting where people interrupt one another and conflicts bubble up? How about a meeting where the discussion keeps going, endlessly, with no decisions in sight? Those meetings are the reasons people deride meetings in the first place – a meeting to set up another meeting, right? Well, these were the sorts of interactions my students were having regularly. These problems were the result of poor group process (that is, how things get done, as opposed to what gets done, which is called content).

My class had all of the same group dynamics issues of the Practicum in Change class, but with none of the support. Thirty highly intelligent, highly motivated consultants vying to have their voices heard working on a project that could have been accomplished by a group of three, all without the expert guidance of process consultants.

Egg all over my face.

Eventually it became apparent I would have to step in and act as a process consultant. Now, it’s not easy to convince a group feeling heavy time pressure to suspend working on content, even for five minutes, so it was difficult to get their buy-in for a process conversation that promised to take a significant chunk of time. In fact, as I took over the reins it felt like the class was on the verge of mutiny.

As a leader, the ability to manage group process is an immensely valuable skill. It can mean the difference between productive meetings that lead to motivated group members pursuing a single goal or frustrating meetings that leave people with a bad taste in their mouths looking forward to the expedient end of a project, for better or worse. In my next post I will review how I started the process conversation with my very frustrated and skeptical group.

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