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?