A team in which individual leaders are working hard and doing their best but feel like the context makes it too hard for them to meaningfully affect change.

A society in which polarities are so entrenched conflict between groups is on the rise.

A family in which the same unproductive patterns play out over and over again and yet change is elusive.

Any of this sound familiar?

Last month, I noted my learnings and reflections from a transformational leadership development program I had facilitated and shared that I was reflecting on the following questions that the leaders I interacted with had raised: How do I lead in severely broken group dynamics? How do I practice transformation in dire political contexts? Fundamentally, how do I intervene in a context where the group dynamics are hard? Over the past month, I have had three opportunities to delve into these questions. I spent time with Dr. Stephen Schuitevoerder, where we examined the deep psychological dynamics of group life and how to facilitate or lead in that context. I then had the opportunity to observe a group with a long-standing history and well-entrenched dynamics, working through difficulties. Third, I had the opportunity to discuss some current thinking in Dialogic Organization Development with Dr. Gervase R. Bushe. Dialogic Organization Development is the form of Organization Development that is best applied to adaptive problems. That is, problems that are complex, with no single answer or known solution.

Throughout the month I was reminded of the fundamentals of group dynamics and theory. In groups, patterns emerge, issues of rank, power and politics are present, individuals take on psychological roles that members consciously or unconsciously grant them permission to be in and development hinges on the ability of group members to make unconscious patterns conscious, engage in straight – and safe – talk about their own patterns, and transform in ways that better serve them and their purpose. As Dr. Schuitevoerdor puts it, change requires groups to cross the invisible boundary or edge between their known ways of functioning into the unknown realm of new and emergent possibilities.

Here are some things I have gleaned from my learnings and dialogues as well as my practice in complex adaptive systems that I offer as food for thought for facilitating/leading through difficult group dynamics to higher functioning and development.

Throw out models: In all three dialogues last month, we had the same conversation. A singular focus on models becomes limiting in the face of complex problems that require adaptation. As Ronald A. Heifetz’ work has taught us, in the realm of adaptive problems, one size does not fit all. While models give us cognitive frameworks to understand the world, they become limiting in the face of situations that are unpredictable with unknown solutions. The emphasis then to emerge from complex, difficult group dynamics must be on process.

Focus on process: Dr. Schuitevoerdor’s work in process consulting is about engaging a group in the process of understanding their dynamics and crossing their edge into new ways of interacting and working together. This form of groupwork requires skillful facilitation. It requires first and foremost the willingness of the group itself to authentically engage in a change or transformation process. As Dr. Bushe aptly summarizes in an in-press article*, for groups interested in developing, the emphasis in transcending their complex adaptive problems and difficulties lies in high inquiry and engagement of its members.

Welcome the disturbance: For any group to be willing and ready to transform, they must first be willing to engage transparently and head-on with their disturbances – the impetus for change that either highlights what is no longer servicing them or signaling what they can become. This can be seen as a challenge or opportunity. Of course part of the experience of group dynamics is that what some see as a challenge, others will see as opportunity. Often, groups then choose to ignore their disturbances and differences until their environment becomes too tension-filled for status-quo to continue.

Examine and move the Elephant: Moving a team forward from difficult dynamics to development requires examining the proverbial elephant in the room – not simply naming the elephant. Think of the times that a leader of a team you’re in has named ‘the issue,’ or when the vocal sibling has voiced their dissent or the dinner conversations about what is not working in society. Imagine those moments going one step further to a real discussion of why, and then even further to what action(s) might make a difference going forward and then further still into who is willing to do what, by when. Patterns do not shift in groups until some(one) chooses to do something differently. This of course, is the most difficult realm of groupwork. The ability of a group to genuinely talk about issues for the purpose of progress, without getting stuck, and actually taking action to move forward.

Cross the edge: Once a group is committed to change and sets it in motion, crossing the edge from where they are to where they are going can be fraught with landmines. Old troll voices will arise, dysfunctional patterns will resurface. Conflict will escalate. The enthusiastic pioneers may get discouraged. The holders of legacy and power will refuse to step aside for new ways to emerge. Here, groups must continue to welcome the disturbances, and name, examine and shift them. This is the transition time between systems when it is easy to give up but giving up is the wrong choice for groups here. Crossing this edge, although difficult, is the difference between being stuck in a cycling pattern and wining the prize.

Keep the prize in focus: Fundamentally for any group to succeed, they must remember why they are a group in the first place, what their purpose for being together is and what their long-range game is. They must focus on the prize and recognize that developing their capacity to work through difficulty is the first step to achieving their purpose, developing and thriving. This, of course, assumes that said groups are interested in thriving. What difficult group dynamics call us to is examining what choice we want to make – staying embedded in conflict-driven, strenuous dynamics or creating thriving workgroups, families, communities and societies. This work is easier said than done for sure, but the choice is ours to make. If what your group is doing is worthwhile, it’s worth fighting for…because when people get together, we create extraordinary things.

Gervase R. Bushe (2017) Where Organization Development Thrives.