May 2008


We will end next week (finals) but today is officially the last day of class. You could enter the wikicreation of our class through the homepage, or you can come in through the lens of any number of individual characters who composed the group. All I can tell you is that our group is full of “functional people“!

“…being confused or having vagueness constantly only forces us to do more. We don’t need a teacher or boss telling us what to do, we actually have the skills to take the initiative ourselves.” (moses84)

Peers introduce each other in the comments that follow.

I want to introduce a new concept used in sophisticated group relations analysis. Valence is a term borrowed from chemistry, it serves as a metaphor for what we can witness happening relationally among members of a group. “The electrons in the outermost shell are the valence electrons--the electrons on an atom that can be gained or lost in a chemical reaction.”

Bear with me (I’ll draw on the board during class): valence electrons are the ones that establish bonds between atoms – so, just imagine “yourself as an atom.” Like an atom, you have certain (chemical) properties which draw you into relationship with certain other kinds of atoms while repeling you from forming bonds with certain other kinds of atoms. The thing about these attractive and repulsive forces is that they are – to an extent – outside of your control; they are tendencies or proclivities that draw you into particular configurations. We’ve been using the term “role” to label the tendencies and proclivities each of you has demonstrated within our class/group-as-a-whole.

As you have been reflecting on the feedback from your peers, and comparing what they witness of you with what you experience of yourself (remember the Johari Window) – one kind of conclusion you might draw is if you have a valence for reacting to particular circumstances in a group’s dynamic in a characteristic or habitual way. For instance, take the label I gave myself and nearly half of you confirmed in my Johari Window: complex. I am always drawn to the knotty place in a group’s process, to the moment of conflict when differences and disagreement are most salient.

Perfect example? When Mike objected to the Group Assessment Worksheet, arguing that (I paraphrase), “it would have been better if we had done this all along, week-by-week, rather than now, looking back.” I asked what was happening, Aly identified storming….do you remember how we returned to that topic? I brought it up again! Eric would probably argue that if I was a better leader I would know NOT to revisit the sore point, instead I would guide you around it somehow, so that we wouldn’t lose the time and energy of working things out. Instead, I – possibly like a moth to a flame, a dog to a bone? – sensed the percolation of discontent and chose to engage it. Got a bit tweaked in the process, too (!) but, in the end, we made some more progress: some of you decided to embrace the option of completing the final three assignments (well) in order to guarantee yourselves an “A” in the course. The rest of you remain subject to a decision-making process among yourselves: although I would also suggest that you clarified these stakes some more as well. Several proposals are now on the floor, including:

  • everyone gets the same grade
  • everyone present gets an A
  • 50% peer evaluations and 50% teacher evaluations
  • certain assignments are credited and others are forgiven

Notice how you orient yourself to this debate, be aware of the role you fill, of the bonds you are being pulled toward (those that feel ‘natural’ or ‘commonsense’) and also notice those ideas or emotions that you reject out of hand. Anything ‘automatic’ at this stage is worth interrogating. Are you being a functional or dysfunctional member of the class/group-as-a-whole right now? What functional roles are you contributing? Are these the ones we need, right now? What is the task that needs to be completed?

The test assigned last week, to which students are now posting commentary and expansions, was predominantly a self-assessment, however embedded among the True/False questions based on “Functional Roles of Group Members” by Kenneth D. Benne and Paul Sheats were a few that have scientific authority rather than simply being a matter of opinion. These are numbers 1, 6, 8, 9, 13, 16, and 17 (all the T/F are posted in Online Portion B).

Not surprisingly (given our US cultural context and its particular hierarchy of values), but somewhat discouraging from a teacher’s point-of-view :-(, the item which most students marked incorrectly was #6: “Members are more important to groups than leaders.” Eleven of twenty indicated that this statement is false. Does this mean they did not read Benne and Sheats’ carefully? Have they not been paying adequate attention to their own behaviors and experiences with each other in class? Or is the value system so deeply embedded that the answer is reactionary: from the gut without consideration?

“The functions to be performed both in building and maintaining group-centered activity and in effective production by the group are primarily member roles.” p. 53

In other words, the students who answered this question incorrectly are still caught up in the fallacy that ‘membership’ equals ‘followership’ (in which following is given a negative value). The next most commonly missed question was #17: “My personality and the role(s) I play in groups are the same thing.” This is false. Six of twenty students indicate that they have not yet learned to separate their personality from their roles.

“…trainees are inclined to make little or no distinction between the roles they perform in a group and their personalities. Criticism of the role a group member plays is perceived as criticism of ‘himself.'” p. 59

The matter of separating self/identity/personality from role is particularly crucial because it is one of the most common sites of resistance in a group. Resistance itself can either serve the group productively – for instance, in the storming stage – or can impede the group, being entirely self-serving. Someone who is caught up in self-serving behavior can become a functional member of the group by addressing and altering their behavior. Sometimes there are dynamics in the group that elicit self-serving behaviors; if these root dynamics can be addressed (e.g, see the various dimensions in the stages of group development) then these particular members can play absolutely vital functional roles for the group-as-a-whole.

Next, there was some confusion concerning #9: “If I am in a group, I am either a functional member or an un- or dys-functional member.” Only three of twenty students still (apparently) believe that there is an opt-out option of non-presence or no influence, but this is patently false. If you are there, you matter, whether you want to or not. You can matter for good or ill, but presuming that your presence (or absence, when you are expected to be present) makes no difference at all is selfish thinking. Likewise, two students indicated that that they do not have to take on multiple roles if they are a member in a group (#8). I suppose it is possible for an individual to only have one role in a group, but I don’t think anyone in this group (nor most human beings) are so limited as to only be able to fulfill or offer one role alone. In fact, the concept of role flexibility should inspire a dedicated group member to develop as much range in role as he or she can, and to practice switching roles as situations and developments demand.

A few items that I am interested in for assessment that have no necessarily ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers are numbers 14, 19, 21, and 22. The word “sensitive” was used ambiguously, with a negative connotation in #19 (too much sensitivity to criticism about your functional role performance leans toward the self-serving agenda) and a positive connotation in #21 (being “sensitive to the operation of member roles in our class/group and …sub-group teams” – which is desirable). The ambiguity may have confused some students’ responses. Seven students admit that they are still “unsure how to diagnose role requirements needed by my sub-group team” (#14), and (possibly the most honest answer), one student confessed that only sometimes is she/he “aware of and conscious about my own proficiency in different functional roles” (#22). I would suggest that these two skills not only belong together, but they are the subject of lifelong learning.

In the replies that follow, students are to reflect on how their test results illuminate or otherwise enable them to add more insight to the blogposts they’ve written about the mass of peer feedback received in Class #13, the second to the last official class of the semester.