Tough Topics in Cooperative Groups

Not all topics are created equal. In the context of cooperative culture, some topics are much tougher to get at than others.

Here are half a dozen that I encounter regularly. These are by no means all, but they're representative. If your group consistently handles any two of these well, you're way ahead of the curve. (If not, I'm available for hire.)

I. How Power is Used in Cooperative Groups
Groups need to understand—and be able to talk authentically about—how power (influence) is distributed in the group.

If the group has not done foundational work to define healthy models of leadership, it is fraught with danger for members to admit that they have power or are available to fill leadership roles.

Members of cooperative groups tend to want the power gradient to be a shallow as possible (ostensibly in the hope of getting away from the power abuses all of us have had bad experiences with in mainstream situations, whether it be family, church, school, or workplace), but wishing doesn't make it so. Power is never distributed evenly, and you can't reasonably work constructively with a thing you can't talk about openly.

Groups need to distinguish good uses of power (generally speaking, it's when people use their influence for the good of the whole) from poor uses of power (using influence for the benefit of some and at the expense of others) and to develop the chops to be able navigate the perception that a person did not use their power as cleanly as he or she thought they had. That moment is particularly tricky.

Hint: If your group hasn't yet defined what qualities it wants from leaders, and what constitutes healthy uses of power, have those conversations now! Just bumbling along in the fog is not a strategy; it's a train wreck.

II. Limits of Diversity
No group can be all things to all people.

While all groups have some level of diversity among their membership (surely you weren't expecting clones), and most embrace a common value supporting diversity, it is a nuanced question just how much you can handle of any particular stripe of diversity—which manifests in a bewildering array of sizes and colors.

And it's worse than that. While few groups get around to an in-depth conversation about what they actually want in the way of diversity, I have not yet met the group that's developed a culture robust enough to give voice to the desires of those of how want more of a thing (in the name of diversity), only to encounter others in the group who report feeling stretched to the max. Now what?

You need a strong web of caring relationships to sensitively navigate that conversation.

III. Accountability
In most groups there will be a mix of people who favor low structure and people who favor high structure—with a healthy sprinkling of folks in the middle. Those at the low end prefer minimal rules and a high degree of personal discretion, coupled with personal responsibility. They want the flexibility to make nuanced determinations on a case-by-case basis.

Those on the high structure end favor spelling things out to relieve the anxiety of uncertainty. If the standards are well-articulated than you know at all times where the boundary is and it's easier to relax. You'll know what's expected and when you've done your fair share.

The bad news is: nobody's wrong. People at both ends of this very human spectrum have to figure out how to live together. One of the key tests for this is what happens when Member A has the perception that Member B has broken an agreement or failed to come through on a commitment. (Hint: If you believe this problem would be eliminated by high structure, think again.)

Note that I didn't say that Member B had done anything wrong; I said that Member A thought Member B had done something wrong. In situations like this most groups prefer that Member A discuss this directly (and hopefully cordially) with Member B in a good-faith attempt to resolve this concern as cheaply as possible. But what if Member B isn't interested in hearing feedback from Member A—either because of the content or because of the delivery?

Does your group have in place an explicit agreement that members are expected to provide a channel for receiving critical feedback from other members about their behavior as a member of the group? Few do. Yet you can see how much mischief can result from accumulated grumblings that never get cleared. Yuck.

The next thing you know, there's a call for accountability (we can't let those bastards get away with this; they're ruining the community!). This can polarize the group in a blink.

Whenever there's the sense that someone has neglected a duty, done slipshod work, or acted in their own interest instead of the group's, there needs to be a conversation. You need a group culture strong enough to hold that conversation and to keep its focus on repairing damage to relationship; not on determining who's right and how many lashed should be meted out.

Sanctions come only at the end of the line, when all else has failed.

IV. Standing up to Bullying Behavior
This is a special case of the previous point, yet one that obtains frequently enough to get its own mention.

Bullying is about intimidation. It's accomplished through size, facial expression, crowding of personal space, belligerent attitude, tone of voice, volume, persistence, and through threats and retaliation. It's pushing others out of their comfort zone to the point where they shut up or leave the field rather than continue to voice concerns or opposition.

It needs to be stood up to and not allowed to control the conversation, yet that often adds up to meeting the bully with behavior that mirrors theirs—which tends to be distinctly uncomfortable in the genteel world of cooperative living. Sadly, many good people would rather exit or tolerate bad behavior than stand up in the face of it.

The challenge is to be both firm and compassionate. It's not about ganging up on the bully (which runs the risk of sliding into vigilante dynamics), and it's not about mud wrestling on the plenary floor; it's about interrupting the behavior as soon as it arises, and changing the focus to what's unacceptable about the process before continuing with the topic that the bully was speaking to. You cannot afford to allow bad process to run unchecked.

V. Being Selective about Members
Many groups shy away from discussing what qualities they want in members—not because they don't have preferences, but because it's unseemly to be viewed as favoring some over others. Mostly, I think, this is a misinterpretation of a core value of anti-discrimination.

It's one thing to be scrupulously fair on matters of race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc—all protected classes under fair housing laws—yet it's an all together different matter to be blind about a person's communication skills (when assessing membership potential) or their management skills (when considering them to mange a major construction project). The former makes sense from the standpoint of making strides toward building a more just world; the latter is just plain shooting yourself in the foot.

While you can make the case that almost everyone could benefit from living cooperatively, not everyone has the capacity to do it well and you can only make so many silk purses out of sow's ears. It's hard enough to navigate the intricacies of cooperative living with people who "get it"; why complicate matters by working with random volunteers? Doesn't it make more sense to be deliberate about who joins the group: about who is asked to do certain tasks?

To be clear, I am not saying that groups shouldn't commit to creating opportunities for people to learn the skills needed to take on group roles; I'm only saying it's a poor bargain letting unqualified people fill slots simply to avoid giving them the assessment that others don't think they're ready.

In the case of group membership, it's a frightening risk having little or no discernment about who joins the group, and then trying to get them out later once you've discovered they're a poor fit. In the case of making committee assignments or filling manager slots, the more important it is that the job be done well (or is a high trust position), the more crucial it is that you select well to fill it. The stakes are too high to trust to chance to meet your needs.

What all this adds up to is the importance of developing a culture in which it's OK to be discerning, and it's OK to let others know that you don't think they have what the group agrees is needed. Pretending people have what it takes when they don't is a very dubious foundation on which to build a durable culture.

VI. Working Constructively with Distress
Face it. We come out of a mainstream culture that does not do well with distress (outside of a therapeutic setting), and we bring that inability with us into the cooperative experience. Unfortunately, as human beings, we also bring distress.

Once nontrivial distress is in the room (never mind how it got there; it will come) you really only have two choices: pay now or pay later. Let's look at what happens with each of those options:

—Dealing in the Moment
If you're willing to engage with fulminating distress, then a few things need to be put into place ahead of time: a) you need explicit buy-in from the group that there's permission to go there (seeking permission in the dynamic moment is a nightmare; it has to be done ahead of need); b) you should determine a menu of options that may be used to work with distress, so that folks know what they've signed up for; and c) you need to develop the internal capacity to understand and sensitively employ the modalities on the approved menu.

In my view if you're going to go down this road—which I recommend you do—then you need facilitators who can do two important things:

• Be sensitive to energy shifts so that distress can be recognized and attended to as it occurs. This can mean shifting on a dime, suspending the topic in which the distress erupted, to focus on the reactivity and getting the person (or persons) deescalated to the point that the group can productively return to the original conversation. This is an important criteria in that the skills needed to manage a conversation deftly are almost completely unrelated to the skills needed to work distress well. So asking facilitators to be able to do both can be a tall order.

• Be able to discern when it's an effective use of group time to work distress, and when that's happened sufficiently that the group can productively return to working the topic that was suspended in order to attend to the distress. This is a sophisticated balancing act that calls for the facilitator to be able to accurately read how upset people are (both the person who was initially in reaction, and those around them) and when the group's attention can productively shift off the persons in distress.

—Setting Distress Aside
When you make this choice you're rolling the dice. The good outcome is that it's possible that the person in distress can work through their feelings on their own and come through the experience OK, with no toxic aftereffects. I'm not saying that's likely, but it's possible.

Unfortunately, the downside is pretty big. All of the following can happen:

• The person in reaction may not be able to manage deescalation on their own. For as long as significant distress continues you have to expect they're experiencing significant distortion. That means they aren't able to hear accurately what's being discussed; they are essentially lost as a functioning participant, perhaps for the remainder of the meeting.

• Often, when one person is enduring unaddressed distress, there is blow by on those around them, who are significantly distracted by it. Thus, the focus of many people can be impaired when one person in distress is not getting help.

• When group members observe others not getting help (when they go into distress), the message is that it's not OK to go into distress. This leads to suppression, which makes it that much harder to know what's happening when quashed feelings start leaking and someone starts behaving weirdly.

• Even after the meeting you can't count on things settling down in a balanced way. Sometimes, upon reflection, hearts get hardened rather than softened and the group gets that much more brittle. Not good.

• Maybe you're thinking that if the group sidesteps working with distress there's that much more time to work the issue in which the distress arose. Yes, but it tends to be a bad bargain if the room is infected with significant distortion. How good can those decisions be? How good will the buy-in be if some people aren't hearing well?

Taken all together, I'm question whether you can afford the compound interest when you defer payments on distress.

Many groups avoid working distress in the moment because they have no agreement in place to do so, or no confidence in the skills of their facilitators to handle it constructively. Don't let that be your group.