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Perhaps one of the more challenging aspects of facilitation in both traditional and virtual environments is managing the group dynamics. Because no two groups are ever alike, I’ve found that a “one size fits all” approach is usually not the best tactic.
Most courses at Langevin are facilitated by placing participants in small groups. In our virtual workshops, we use breakout rooms to simulate small group work.
Over the years, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected when it comes to the dynamics of a group. Some groups bond very well and others, not so much. Some groups need more coaching and guidance, while others are more independent. Some are filled with dynamic personalities, while others are comprised of more introverted, reserved individuals. Keeping these differences in mind, I try my best to manage each group on a case-by-case basis.
One approach I’ve found helpful in managing group dynamics is the Tuckman Model. In the mid 1960’s, Dr. Bruce Tuckman, a psychologist, devoted a large part of his research to the study of group dynamics. He published a body of work entitled “Tuckman’s Stages” which focused on the nuances of group development. Dr. Tuckman suggests that groups experience various stages of development in their quest to work together and achieve their goals.
This is the first stage, also known as the polite, exploration stage. If the group members don’t already know each other, this is usually the time when they are extremely polite, a bit tentative, and even cautious of one another. At this stage, most participants are not trying to become the star pupil. Most are usually thinking to themselves, “What’s expected of us?” or “What’s this person like?”
In a virtual classroom, build in ice breakers at the beginning of the course to allow your learners time to get to know one another. Keep the icebreaker questions casual and not too personal. For example, you could show a map on the whiteboard and have participants place a star where they are located and then share one thing that makes their hometown famous. You could also make the questions course related and ask learners to share what they think makes training successful.
This is the conflict stage. By now, the group members have gotten to know each other and may feel comfortable disagreeing with each other’s ideas and opinions.
In a traditional instructor-led setting, I’ve seen this stage get somewhat heated, so careful monitoring is required. Observation is also necessary to make sure group members don’t get rooted in conflict and unable to move forward. If this occurs, you may have to facilitate some mediation tactics to move the group along.
In a virtual setting, create opportunities for small group work early in your session. While learners are in the breakout rooms, the facilitator and producer should monitor each room and intervene when necessary to move the group forward.
If roles and responsibilities aren’t clear, individuals might begin to feel overwhelmed or frustrated by a lack of progress. To avoid this in a virtual setting, assign a scribe and spokesperson ahead of time.
Tuckman suggests the storming stage is necessary for the growth of the group, as it can be an opportunity for the members to learn valuable lessons regarding tolerance and patience.
This is the accommodation stage. The group members learn how to manage each other and find tactics to work around their frustrations. In this stage, the members work toward the success of the group’s goals. They may “agree to disagree” or put issues to a vote, where majority rules.
As a facilitator, I keep a watchful eye during the norming stage in both the traditional and virtual learning environments. I want to make sure the group’s accommodation efforts are done with tact and diplomacy. I was once part of a group where bullying occurred in this stage. What appeared to be accommodation was nothing more than an aggressive member exerting dominance, and submissive members succumbing to the pressure simply to “keep the peace.”
By providing tight time constraints, verbal and written time reminders, and guidelines on how to provide feedback within a group setting, you can help prevent some of the more aggressive behaviors in the virtual classroom.
This is the ultimate stage. The performing stage is where goals are met, and tasks are accomplished. Here, the group members are comfortable and knowledgeable enough to find patterns or tactics that contribute to the success of the group.
Sometimes this stage is positive and constructive and at other times it’s tense and uncomfortable. However, if discomfort does occur, the members have usually determined ways to either work through or around the distress.
Allow opportunities for learners to capture, document, and share learning points with the other attendees. Also, ensure you are building in reviews and reflection activities throughout the training. The best time for reviews and reflection activities are after a module/lesson is complete, at the end of the session, at the beginning of the session if it is a multi-day session, and at the end of the entire course.
Although not part of the original Tuckman Model, the adjourning stage was added in 1977. This phase involves dismantling and breaking up the group once all the tasks and goals have been accomplished.
The adjourning phase has a heavy post-training significance. As facilitators, we want to encourage the group members to network and keep in touch with each other once they return to their respective jobs. Often, group members can serve as resources and allies to each other once they get back to the workplace.
Thanks to Dr. Tuckman and his model, managing of group dynamics might prove to be less of a challenge. Facilitators, best of luck when applying his research and theory to your groups of training participants. Also, keep us posted on how it has benefited you in your virtual or instructor-led classrooms!
Managing group dynamics is just one of the many skills you’ll practice in our New Trainer’s Survival Skills workshop. Creating a great climate for learning, as well as techniques for reading a group are both covered in our Instructional Techniques for New Instructors workshop. Don’t miss these opportunities to fine tune your skills!