Looking at the gridlock in Congress and the failing leadership of our president, I have been reflecting on the relationship between decisions and results.
It’s hard to think about the wisdom of the hive when we see Congress’ ineffectiveness. Their group process also has aspects of dysfunctional groupthink, indiscriminate blaming, and the avoidance of responsibility. It’s a case study of what not to do and a model that we’re saddled with. It leads me to recall my experience of other groups where people talk endlessly, but find it hard to actually get something done. Saying something in a group seems to be therapeutic, and people have a sense that if they say something moral or right, then they have acted, and they relax. That is what Congress seems to be doing this week.
A good starting point for deeper understanding of a better way begins with the culture of the group, especially vis-a-vis what constitutes success. In Congress, legislators are beholden to a home community—not each other. In their world, the criteria for success is getting elected and re-elected so being in this group requires doubt and suspicion—having both eyes constantly looking back over the shoulder. There used to be more privacy in Congress, so the reps had the power to define what they were doing. Now what they say and do is subject to review and commentary on a daily basis. It’s easy to be a critic or pundit—pundits have less responsibility and zero accountability. But it is clear in this current situation that personal agendas are more important than finding a shared solution.
Turning away from the spectacle, I think of what I can learn about group action from this negative example. The lesson for me is that we need to think about collective action as more than just having the right to make democratic or collaborative decisions. Decisions and deliberations are not ends in themselves, but pathways to effective action.
Another common approach to effective action that seems to be a bit more effective is the addition of an empowered or servant leader. The leader’s role is to listen to the voices in the group, reflect on possibilities, and then decide and implement. The leader is the “sensor” who reads the group and comes up with a good decision. This puts the responsibility to balance opposing voices inside one wise person. It is a common way to break grid lock. The people elect a leader to do this for them.
I want to propose a potential model for group action that might help a less fractious group move from dilemma to collective thought to action. It preserves collaboration and puts it in context. I see group action having three phases—the group has to know which phase it is in. In each phase, the group has a different sense of its task. The three phases together are the path to group or team results.
Phase 1: Collaborative Dialogue or Debate. The group allows each member to speak and share personal views, desires, and interests. All the voices are heard and the group does not even try to move toward closure. This can be a lengthy process so a group facilitator who can help move things along is very useful. The group itself is asked to listen, but there is no burden on the individual to hold back from stating what he or she needs to say. At some point, the group agrees that all voices have been heard and are on the table, and they shift focus and mindset.
Phase 2: Adopting a Systemic Mindset. This is a task that groups find difficult; in fact, many groups ask a leader to do this for them. The task is for all the group members—if not the leader—to now adopt a mindset where all the voices are considered, and each person asks the question, What would be a fair and reasonable way for this group to move forward taking into account all voices, but also what is reasonable and workable? In boards and governance groups, this is called the “fiduciary” mindset, as it is premised on moving outside of narrow self-interest and considering the most responsible and best path forward. This shift seems impossible for Congress to make and they do not accept the legitimacy of their leaders to help define this. When people speak out in this phase, they’re asked to consider decisions and paths that work for everyone, not just for themselves. Possible paths are explored and considered, and several alternatives may be outlined. The group moves toward determining its decision.
Phase 3: The Implementation Mindset. The decision is not the end and this is another mistake groups often make. They decide and expect that somehow their will shall be done. But we know that there are all sorts of other considerations that emerge such as unexpected consequences and unconsidered complications. So now the group undertakes a process of defining how it will implement the decision, what must be done, what resources are needed, and what other stakeholder groups have to be consulted among other things. No group decision can be implemented in a vacuum or independently. In this action-planning phase, the decision may be questioned, reconsidered, or refined. While an implemention team or administration group can be empowered to take this step, there should be links or even a reconvening of the decision-making group to consider effective implementation. This is a stage where groups that have made a decision feel thwarted or undermined when, in fact, the reality of the implementers is different than the context of the original decision making group.
I believe that this three phase model points a path forward where a simple model of democratic decision-making breaks down. Any suggestions?