It Doesn’t Look Like Progress

“I can’t believe I need to explain that to this group.”

I might be tempted to mention where I most recently heard that phrase, except that I’m sure I’ll hear it again before long. That’s because it’s a very familiar complaint, one that comes up in a lot of groups. I can recall saying it myself a few times and I imagine that most of you have heard it at least once. If not, well, either that’s a problem or you’ve been incredibly lucky. Odds are, it’s the former. All too often, when that sentiment comes up, it’s seen as a problem for the group.

As Terry Pratchett once wrote, “the strength of the individual is the group and the strength of the group is the individual.” Put another way, groups can be very effective at getting things done. The right group with the right people can achieve great things and be a joy to be part of.  The flip side, of course, is that the wrong group or the wrong people can make for a horrendous experience. How does a group become one of those really effective, “feels great to be part of” teams?

I imagine that some of you are thinking, “Well, isn’t that Forming, Storming, and all that stuff?” Well, yes. But does that tell you anything? Tuckman’s model of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing) describes a process of relationship development over time. It sounds very clean and neat when described on paper or in a talk, but the reality is fairly messy. The “I can’t believe I need…” questions are an example of that messiness.

For groups to be effective, or, put another way, for two or more heads to be better than one, everyone needs to get at least near to the same wavelength. Group members must go through the process of figuring out what everyone actually thinks about a topic. Again, this sounds very neat and simple, but the reality is anything but.

The tendency is for each member of the group to assume that what everyone wants is what they want. Together with that tendency is the tendency of each individual to assume that if no one is asking questions then everyone else must know the answer and that they are the only ignorant person. For those who like technical terms, we’re talking about False Consensus and Pluralistic Ignorance.

If the group is around long enough, and the members are invested enough in the group, at some point someone realizes that some attitude, belief, or value that they took for granted and assumed that everyone else agreed with turns out not to be so universal after all. At that point, if that person is invested in the group, they might very well express some variant of, “I can’t believe I need to explain that to this group.”

The presence of that statement represents a developing awareness in the group that they are operating with, if not a false consensus, at least an untested consensus. In fact, even when everyone more or less agrees with the broad concept, each individual will tend to view the details in very different ways.

How the group responds to the statement determines what happens next. The best-case scenario is that the statement triggers subsequent discussion that enables the group to develop a real and robust consensus. That new consensus may or not be precisely what members thought going into the discussion. On the other hand, if the group responds by shutting down the speaker, that’s a bad sign: the group is not ready to accept that there is a great deal of variation in how members view a topic or that members may not even agree at all; group members don’t have a strong enough relationship to accept differences along that axis. Should the group respond to “I can’t believe…” by just flipping over to the new point of view, the situation is not much better. The group is substituting one illusion of consensus for another, but not doing the work of learning to address substantial differences (some groups can’t even handle trivial differences without dissolving into pointless argument, which is even worse).

So, if you’ve never heard anyone express the sentiment that they can’t believe they have to explain something to the group, that probably means your group is stuck. On the other hand, if you find that you can’t believe that you must “explain that” to your group, be happy. You’re making progress.



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