Resources for healing a troubled community group
January 7, 2016 9:03 AM   Subscribe

Trying to heal conflict and build shared, stable and inclusive leadership in my troubled hobby group. I have high-level one-to-one people/communication skills but no experience wrangling groups. Your resources appreciated.

I belong to a nonprofit community group of people who come together frequently to participate in a shared activity we all enjoy fairly intensely -- let's say social dance. Due to the non-hierarchical nature of the activity, there is no inherent need for a single leader. There are a very few tasks to be done for which some community members' specialized skills are necessary (teaching, for instance), but most are things anyone with moderate adulting skills and/or a have-a-go ethos can manage (finding venues, maintaining a web presence, treasurer etc.) Similar groups elsewhere manage to run things successfully without a designated leader, instead governing themselves via a committee of anyone who's interested and committed enough to take part.

Our particular group, on the other hand, has a de facto leader in the form of the person who founded the group. Over the past year or so, however, as group members have gained in skill and autonomy, formed solid friendships with each other and become less reliant on his wisdom, this leader has been behaving increasingly problematically and narcissistically -- obsessing about having exclusive control of things, backseat-managing supposedly delegated tasks, insisting on exaggerated deference to his authority, flying into a rage at perceived slights or conspiracies, bullying and vilifying particularly talented and enthusiastic group members whom he perceives as threats to his supremacy.

Understandably, our community is beginning to founder. N00bs are put off by the tense and unhappy atmosphere; established members are drifting away; gossip and indirect communication abound; the folks who previously would have contributed the most effort to the activities of the group have been demoralized, which means of course that more and more responsibilities have reverted to the hands of the leader. Our once-happy community is fragmenting, solely because of the activities of one person.

Fortunately, because the group is not completely within the control of the leader, we have been able to confront him about his unhelpful behavior and he has agreed, provisionally, to step back and hand over the running of the group to the rest of us. I will be involved in this transition, because I care about this community and I love the people in it, and I want very much for it to be successful and sustainable.

My particular skills are counseling skills: facilitating conversations, providing alternative communication strategies for conflict and holding space for difficult feelings. However, my focus is mainly one-to-one and I now need to learn some skills, fast, for healing and rebuilding communities and groups.

We need to open up the group to collaborative leadership, hold meetings that are structured, safe and productive, discuss where we want to go from here, agree how we want to run things, give people a space to vent potentially difficult feelings, and all in all find our new identity as an equitable community run by and for its members. We also need to give group morale a shot in the arm. I would love Mefites' reliably excellent recommendations for reading (either books or websites are great). Resources pertaining to congregations are particularly welcome.
posted by stuck on an island to Human Relations (4 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator and Getting to Yes were required texts for a college class I took on Negotiation and Conflict Management. They are both research based. The second is shorter, so a good way to get a quick and dirty overview, the first is meatier, so lots of good info but it will take more time to read and digest.

I will suggest that you make an effort to acknowledge the founder and all they did for the group. This was their baby and it wouldn't exist had they not made it happen. Give some kind of small gift, acknowledge in front of the group that "we all owe a debt of gratitude to Founder for all the hard work they put into making this happen and we appreciate that letting go is hard to do, yet they have graciously agreed to hand over control"...or something along those lines.

I would also try to determine what, specifically, motivated Founder to do all they did. What need does this group meet for them? Is there any way you can help them get that need met so they have an easier time letting go? (Do this part privately, without an audience.)

After starting the meeting with acknowledging and thanking your Founder, it might be good to go on to a brainstorming session. Do a little reading on this process. The correct way to do this is to NOT censor any ideas at the brainstorming stage. Just write down all ideas, no matter how crazy. Then edit and make judicious choices later.

If handled well, this can be a relatively unthreatening means to let people do a little indirect venting without fear of consequences. If the first part of the brainstorming session is done correctly, it can help establish a precedent that "it is okay to express yourself honestly in this group and we will decide later what to do with the information, so you do not need to walk on eggshells." That would be my actual goal of having a brainstorming session: to set the precedent that "you may speak freely in this group" and give people some experience with actually doing that. The fact that you can say anything and we just write it down and do not judge it takes a lot of power out of words, and thus removes a lot of fear of saying something. Because there is an explicit agreement that we will decide later whether or not to act on said idea. That provides mental breathing room.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 10:49 AM on January 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

A few suggestions.

1. A book called "Leadership for the Disillusioned". While is is ostensibly about leadership, it is mostly about achieviing autonomy and power to people in groups. Also, guess what? You're a leader now.

2. People bond over eating together. People bond in working on a shared challenge. Is there some kind of task that helps the group, and needs the group to tackle it, like fixing equipment, or cleaning up a training space, or cooking food for a fund-raising stall at a market? Something simple that doesn't need central direction to get a satisfactory result? Get them together, let them work on the thing together, make sure there's food to eat afterwards.

3. This is a tough time for that "de facto" leader. They probably feel that they are the person who succeeded in bringing the group to where it is and are responsible for the development of the people who are now able to teach and at a high level. This person is now challenged with stepping back and creating the space for the group and its senior members to develop further. And this stepping back is part of that leader's own development as a leader, as a human being even. So yeah, they need some love and reassurance and some assistance: maybe this is where your own counselling background can really make a difference.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:17 AM on January 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

So yeah, they need some love and reassurance and some assistance:

This is true, but the main reason to give them some love is because if you do not, you are telling all other members "This is a group that does not appreciate your hard work and will not respect you. After you put in the hours, we will steal the fruits of your labor, piss on you and make you out to be the bad guy."

Graciously and sincerely acknowledging and thanking the founder is step one in healing the group and establishing that "This is a group that will appreciate your work and respect you." You need to establish that if you expect to have people do volunteer work and not have this just devolve into all kinds of shitty back biting and carving out niches of control for their own personal reasons.

In addition to the college class mentioned above, I have attended other kinds of training relevant to doing something like this.

Best of luck,
posted by Michele in California at 11:25 AM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I run a lot of group processes for work. A fair bit of what you describe sounds like it might actually best happen using your one on one skills -- especially some of this more delicate morale-building. I'm not sure what you need to decide as a group. But the fewer meetings, the better. In my experience, about 65% of group leadership is having good individual relationships with the people in the group so that (a) you already know how everyone feels, (b) they feel seen and valued even if they aren't comfortable speaking up in front of the larger group, and (c) they'll bring concerns to you rather than just drop out.

I don't know any reference materials on this, but it sounds to me like you have good instincts. The best advice I can offer about planning meetings is to run through it in your head, really trying to visualize how it will go -- everything from what individuals will say, to who will arrive late, to the awkward silences that certain questions will provoke, to the group's physical needs (e.g., that everyone will be tired and need water in between dancing and meeting). Play around with the agenda in your head until you feel like it will go well.

If it's helpful, I can share how I might move forward in this situation. It might not be, given my lack of information. (I'm assuming you have a relatively big group, like 12 people or more. If there are just 4 or 5 of you, my advice would differ. And I am inventing a lot of facts.)

I wouldn't try to do a group sharing session early. The first post-Bob meeting will set the tone, and you probably want the tone to be can-do, inclusive, light, fun, and focused on "dancing." I find that when meetings are dominated by people venting, the group vibe can turn negative and turn away the people who just want to dance and have fun. A few of your core people might need to vent, but I'd assume there is a second tier of people who wants to avoid drama altogether.

I'd think about who that core group is, maybe by thinking about what roles need filled. I'd call these folks up. Call Sue-who-drifted-away and see if she wants to go back to handling the treasury (etc.). Let her vent her feelings. If Sue, Joe, and Maria are the three core people who will likely do 90% of the work, talk to them all one on one and even consider getting together with them on the side first. Then call anyone who is on the fence who you really want to stay engaged; let them express their frustrations, that others are feeling this way, and that you've talked to Bob about stepping back and hope they'll stay involved because you really enjoy their skills at the two-step. Hear their thoughts about what they want out of the dancing club. Again, so much of this is about one-on-one relationships, so if you can find affection for these people before calling, it will come across. You might suggest your core people do the same -- call the people they like. (That'll minimize your workload but risk creating factions -- Sue's friends, Joe's friends.)

Once you have your core people on board, I'd have your "meeting" as part of the next dance, if possible (unless you think people will feel left out of planning the dance). I'd suggest everyone arrive maybe 20-30 minutes beforehand. (I think you'd need less, depending on how long introductions will take, but I'm assuming people arrive late?)

Here's how I'd structure that meeting. I'd get people in a circle. "Hey, thanks for coming! I suggested we all meet because as most of you know, Bob is wanting to step back and hand off some of his duties. [Probably thank him for his years of hard work, unless people dislike him so much that a whole cohort will get really disgruntled by this.] I'm glad all of you could come early so that we could talk briefly about what needs done, who will do what, and how we all want this group to evolve over time. Actually first, does everyone know everyone? Why don't we go around and introduce ourselves, and maybe say how you got into dancing. For instance, my name is Sam and I actually got into dancing when I worked at a food cart at the Renaissance Fair in high school." Go around the circle for introductions.

"Okay, great. Most immediately, it seems like we need a treasurer, someone to handle refreshments, and someone to set up our next dance. Is anyone up for taking those on?" Hopefully Sue and the other people you already called about these tasks now volunteer, or if they don't, nominate them. You're modeling dispersed leadership, so give them space and hope they'll talk for a minute. ("Yes, I'm Joe, and I'm happy to bring refreshments. I was thinking about bringing two containers of punch and four kinds of cookies, and we all pitch in $2 apiece to cover costs. What do people think about that?")

After that, say something like "I know there are some ideas about ways the group can evolve that are floating around. I know we wanted this to be a short meeting, so we probably only have time to begin that conversation today, to be continued in our next few meetings. But I wanted to ask, does anyone have thoughts on that right now?" Someone will probably vent about how it shouldn't suck like it has in recent days. Agree without blaming Bob, like "yes, that makes sense, and that's why we're trying to spread out the workload a little better among all of us." Someone will probably say whatever mainstream idea is floating around. And assuming you don't get derailed in lots of venting, hopefully someone suggests something totally novel, like a Maypole dance -- "oh great, Marsha, let's talk more about that next time. Would you be willing to take the lead on a Maypole event? Anyone want to help Marsha?" (Getting other volunteers gives you an idea of whether anyone else likes Marsha's idea. But since you want new energy and morale, I'd err on the side of welcoming the idea.)

Then I assume you might have one or two important decisions to make, so after a few minutes of open-ended discussion, return to business. E.g., "okay, the last thing we need to decide is when we want the next dance to be. We've been meeting on three month intervals -- should we stick with that? If we're going to dance a Maypole, and it's already January, maybe our next dance should be in early March. Yes? Joe and Sam, as the refreshment and logistics people, does that work for you? Okay, great! And based on what we heard today, it sounds like people would really like that to be [dominant idea that came up, the one you know everyone agrees with] and to be a bit less [sucky] than a few past dances. Should we meet a few minutes before again to handle business, or do you guys want business meetings and dances to be separate? Okay, we'll do that. I'm happy to either chair again at the next meeting or to rotate chairperson duties, so let me know if you'd like to chair next time. Alright, any last thoughts? ... Then let's dance!"

I don't know how often you meet, but after you succeed in a meeting that quickly U-turns away from bad Bob toward positive group leadership, I'd have a meeting that does encourage more of the visioning. Maybe it opens with people introducing themselves and trying to sum up what they'd like from the group over the next year. Then you could tackle 2-3 key questions.

Anyway, I know I have little context, so I'm sorry if that novel wasn't helpful. I do think you'll be able to figure it out based on the kind of sensibility you're showing in your question. Good luck!
posted by salvia at 7:11 PM on January 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

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