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Group Dynamics

Back to the Skills Toolbox

The Muppets personified excellent group dynamics

At its most basic level, a group usually has two major goals:
..........1. To get things done
..........2. To get along as a group

To be a successful group, you need both of these things. If you don’t get much done but have a great time partying, then you’re an awesome bunch of friends but you’ll never organize anything. On the other hand, if you get a lot done but are always really formal and polite, or secretly hate each other, it won’t be long before you’re burnt out and sick of being part of this group, no matter how much you accomplish.

How your group is structured and how it functions will play a key role in your eventual success or failure. Think critically about your organization and discuss it as a group – what’s working and what isn’t? What could you do to address these issues? How can you build a stronger organization that’s more effective? Some of the information below should guide you.

Characteristics of Strong Groups Continuity and Involving New People
Group Norms Getting Stuff Done - Democratically
Group Structure Commitment
Leadership: Responsibility vs. Power  

Characteristics of Strong Groups
List courtesy of SEAC

1. Maintaining democratic group dynamics, actively fighting racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism both within your group as well as through the work you do.
2. Having clear campaign goals and a plan for getting there
3. A concise, compelling, and consistent message
4. Recruitment and leadership development incorporated into everything
5. Having depth and breadth of ongoing activities
6. Clear decision-making process and structure
7. Skills trainings incorporated into campaigns
8. Periodic evaluation of group, goals, campaign activities, and principles
9. Have fun and celebrate often
10. People get involved at different levels. A strong group has a structure that allows for this.
11. Everyone leaves the meeting w/ something to do

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Group Norms

Lay out the ground rules for how you will be working together. This way, you all know right from the start what to expect from one another and can avoid a lot of unnecessary conflicts. You should work on the group norms as early as possible, and make sure that everyone has a copy, or post them up at your meeting space.

Some questions to think about include:

Meeting Norms
..........• When, where and how often will you meet?
..........• Do you have any rules around attendance?
..........• What should members have prepared before each meeting?
..........• Will there be time for both work and relaxation?

Working Norms
..........• How will you share the workload?
..........• Will there be deadlines to meet?

Communication Norms
..........• How will you keep in contact with each other?
..........• At your meetings, will you follow an inclusive, anti-oppressive, anti-discriminatory communication style?
..........• How will you encourage quieter members to share more and louder members to listen more?

Duties Rotation
..........• Who will be facilitating meetings (will you rotate?)?
..........• Who will be taking minutes?
..........• What other duties will people need to take on?

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Group Structure

“We want structures that serve people, not people serving structures.”
(May ‘68 graffiti)

Deciding how your group should be structured can be difficult. Do you want to be highly regimented, with officers and a chain of command, or amorphous and egalitarian? Analogously, do you want your meetings to be festooned with strict parliamentary procedure, or to be boIsteroUs, cHaoTiC affairs?

There are many types of organizational structures (pdf)

Here are some desirable characteristics to consider when designing a group structure. Your group, and its meetings, should be conducted in a way that will:

..........• Get things done.
..........• Be fun.
..........• Welcome involvement of new members.
..........• Welcome involvement from people with varying levels of commitment, and various points of view.
..........• Make all people feel comfortable to speak up, propose new ideas and projects, etc.
..........• Respond creatively to new issues and situations.
..........• Encourage and empower people to become confident, powerful activists.

It’s easy to see where this is going: a good group will be effective, fun, and open, and make its decisions in a democratic, participatory way.

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Leadership: Responsibility vs. Power

A leader is best
When people barely know that she exists,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him,
Worst when they despise her.
‘Fail to honor people,
They fail to honor you;’
But of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’
( Lao Tzu)

In almost any group, certain members who know the most, do the most work, or have the most resonant speaking voices will be perceived as “leaders” and other people will look to them for guidance. This is bad if it makes others follow passively; it is good if it makes people feel confident and excited and encourages them to speak up and take action. This kind of leadership means communicating a sense of excitement and purpose to a group and thereby empowering everyone.

There is a difference between responsibility and power. There are legitimate responsibilities that need to be filled, and your group can designate certain people to fill them and call them “officers” if you like. However, nobody should be getting ordered around. Remember that you’re in a voluntary organization. People will do, and do well, just what they want to do. A good leader keeps that dynamic going, not with power over his or her fellow members, but by sharing power with all of them. A good leader serves the group, not themselves.

Whatever leadership means to you, it’s vital that you practice it in a way that encourages others to become leaders, rather than filling a niche “at the top” and excluding them. This can happen even without an official hierarchy. If you’re not careful, a relatively unstructured group can become dominated by a few unofficial leaders.

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Continuity and Involving New People

People graduate and move on, and you don’t want your group to fall apart when they do. It’s important to maintain your group’s continuity, so that it can build its power and experience over the long haul. There are two ways to do this: constantly involve new people and make sure that skills and connections are possessed by the group as a whole rather than any one individual.

Um, not that new

Here are a few suggestions for building your group’s long term health:

Pass your skills and experiences on to the rest of the group. Give presentations at meetings describing the local press, how to write a press release, how to reserve a room, how the administration works, and stories about major past campaigns. Take your skills seriously! These things are learned, and you can teach them to others. Everyone shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Run things in a way that is transferable to others. For instance, take good notes on everything you do so that others can pick up where you left off. Don’t keep things in your head (unless you’re donating your brain to the group when you leave).

Maintain a good archive of the group and its activities so that people next year will be able to read about what you did. This could be a newsletter, a scrapbook, folder, annual report or a website. Include all your past posters, newspaper clippings, pictures, meeting minutes and so on. This can give the group a great feeling of accomplishment at the end of the year.

Write down a list of useful contacts among the faculty, the administration and the community. Call it a “human-resource file.” Don’t let these vital contacts disappear with you.

Designate successors a semester in advance and train them. Have them attend key meetings with you so they can get to know the people they’ll be working with. Having overlap between old and new people help makes the transition smoother, and keeps skills and information from getting lost. For instance, if there are two co-chairs, elect one in November and the other one in April.

Tell stories to communicate the spirit and flavor of past campaigns (Ex.: “Back when I was your age, they tried to build a nuclear power reactor on campus, but we showed them. . .”).

Give new people opportunities that will help build their confidence. Encourage them to engage in public speaking, coordinating projects, and facilitating meetings as soon as (or before!) they feel ready.

Empower new people by giving them meaningful tasks early on. Here’s an example from the article “Organizational Development: The Seven Deadly Sins,” by Andrea Ayvazian of the Peace Development Fund’s Exchange Project (Amherst, MA):

“I joined a community peace group in 1980 that had been together a long time,” Ayvazian writes. When I first got there, I did not understand what was going on. They were talking about events that had happened a year before, what had worked and what had not worked and that information all went past me. Not until I had been to about four meetings did someone notice I had not said much. At the end of that fourth meeting this person asked if I would appear on a call-in radio program in three weeks with another member of the group. She helped me prepare for it and, although I still felt quite green about the issues and did not say very much on the show, I was buoyed up by her confidence in me.

Passing the Torch

One campus group was successful at passing the torch by incorporating a de-facto by-law into their constitution. While its elections were open to any member seeking office, it was understood that anyone seeking election should not be entering his or her senior year. This allowed for a more effective transfer of power, with the exiting officer available to the group as a ready reference.

”After the show, having publicly represented the group, I felt very involved with it. I felt that I had done something important.” Giving newcomers that kind of meaningful task early on is what groups need to do to keep new people.

Note here that a more established person deliberately helped bring the new person in - this kind of “buddy system” can be a good model. Andrea goes on to point out that, ”Even if you did something three years ago, somebody new in the group may have a new turn on it, or may want to head it up differently.” It does not help to respond automatically with, “We did that.” Treated in this manner, new people feel both they and their ideas dismissed. Instead, evaluate the idea with the new person: “This is not a good community for Christmas balls—we think.” But try to resist making absolute responses.

A key issue here is trusting that those new people can do a good job. You just have to help them start out, give them the information they need, hang around for a while in case they need help, and then let go. If you’re having trouble letting go, consider the fact that in a democratic, ongoing process no one person is ever in control of the group.

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Getting Stuff Done - Democratically

Some common forms of decision-making structures (pdf)

Everyone involved in your group should have a say in what it does, especially about projects they themselves are working on. You don’t want a class division between decision-makers and workers. You don’t want to create an elite that will alienate new or less experienced members.

As soon as your group has two or more members, you should begin distributing responsibility. Everyone, including you, should have certain projects assigned to them, but no one should be overwhelmed. Each person should know their role, should be clear about its beginning and ending, and should know how it fits into the group’s larger plans and goals. Find out what each volunteer’s personal goals and talents are and how much they can do, and try to assign tasks accordingly. Never allow someone to think they are not useful or not needed.

A good way of delegating tasks is to form several working groups led by members of your core group (i.e., coordinators). Coordinators will be responsible for running his or her working group and keeping track of all the members that want to help with that group. By creating more leadership roles within the organization, you create more opportunities for leaders to develop - a primary goal of every successful campaign.

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It sucks when people say they’ll do things and don’t. Generally people do this because they overestimate how much time they really have. In fact, someone who does a small amount of work reliably is more useful to a group than someone who commits to too much and then falls through. So how can you get people to commit reliably?

dfsgd• Be honest and open about how much you are asking for. If you are committing to something be straightforward about how much time you are willing to give.
dfsgd• Sign people up with their name, phone number and email. Remind them at the end of the meeting what they’ve committed to.

Organizers and coordinators should make themselves available and accessible. They should check up on people gently but not guilt-trip them. If people feel comfortable enough to say, “Hey, I don’t have as much time as I thought I would,” you won’t get any nasty surprises. Make it easy for them to do whatever they can.

When large numbers of people are working independently on something (i.e. doing outreach to schools, approaching small businesses or groups, working on separate projects, etc.) it’s nice to have a “buddy system.” This way, people pair up with friends or other peoples who live close to them. They can talk to each other every couple days and say, “So how’s it going?” to motivate each other. Play with ideas like this to help motivate people.

Finally, remember that the more specific the task is, the easier it is to get people to do it. If you tell them the bus leaves at six, they’ll go. If you tell them there might be a bus but you’re not sure yet, and they should call so-and-so if they’re interested, a lot of good people won’t get around to it. If things are really up in the air, sign people up and get back to them with the information later.

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The international student campaign to hold Dow accountable for Bhopal, and its other toxic legacies around the world.
For more information about the campaign, or for problems regarding this website, contact
Shana Ortman, the US Coordinator for the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.
Last updated: April 30, 2008


"The year 2003 was a special year in the history of the campaign for justice in Bhopal. It was the year when student and youth supporters from at least 30 campuses in the US and India took action against Dow Chemical or in support of the demands of the Bhopal survivors. As we enter the 20th year of the unfolding Bhopal disaster, we can, with your support, convey to Dow Chemical that the fight for justice in Bhopal is getting stronger and will continue till justice is done. We look forward to your continued support and good wishes, and hope that our joint struggle will pave the way for a just world free of the abuse of corporate power."

Signed/ Rasheeda Bi, Champa Devi Shukla
Bhopal Gas Affected Women Stationery Employees Union
International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal