Group dynamics in learning situations. How the mood of a group can change and how this can affect overall attitudes and success.

Understanding the dynamics of groups is like sailing. It’s predictable to an extent, generally manageable, occasionally becalmed with the chance of sudden devastating storms.

As with sailing, you usually know where you want to get to, but the route can involve an awful lot of tacking backwards and forwards if the wind is against you.

And it’s always wise to wear a lifejacket.

A lot of training’s delivered in groups, in workshops or seminar sessions, and the ‘mood’ of the group is something that the trainer learns to read instinctively. Yesterday i was talking to a group about a ‘Train the Trainer’ event, a session where we train people up to be trainers for a particular project, and we were discussing how long it takes to do this. There is, of course, no fixed rule, but there is a common journey that people go on; from familiarity with the subject at a conceptual or intellectual level, through to learning the methods and techniques for training it, through to thorough competence, which comes from being able to read the group, respond to challenge and effectively manage the experience.

There are no short cuts to competence. With any new subject, you need to understand it fully yourself, then build up the repertoire of phrases and techniques to train it with. Any half way competent sailor can cope with bobbing about on the bay in a gentle breeze, but as the wind picks up, it’s experience and ‘the knack’ that counts. Learning to read the sea, spotting patterns on the water that indicate currents, where the wind is coming from and, in my case, where the sandbanks are…

Certainly you can shorten the experience, but you simply won’t be as well prepared.

Within group contexts, people often take on different roles, and these roles can be dependent upon the context. With ‘change’ projects, where something is being changed from what they are used to, it’s not uncommon for the instinctive reaction to be resistance. This is a challenging one to deal with, because often the change is positioned in terms of ‘doing things better’, with the implicit underlying assumption that you weren’t doing things well before. When people have gone through lots of change, as is quite common in large organisations these days, they also develop a healthy resistance to the process. One lady i work with has a file on her desk of all the times she has had to re-apply for her own job over the last decade or so. It amounts to around twice a year, so you can understand why the first reaction to change is reticence.

Being able to read the group and spot the underlying trends is something that only comes with experience, but being able to do something about it is harder. Sometimes it’s possible to engage directly with the minority who feel most strongly, try to draw out concerns, fence them, talk it through and agree to put them to one side. Sometimes it’s not. Whichever is the case, it’s important to recognise the dynamics at work.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s possible that a group with lots of enthusiasm and interest will hijack your agenda and take the learning down their own path. Keeping an appropriate distance and focusing on the role of ‘guide’, listening to the flow, but trying to keep it within the parameters or framework of the discussion we want, is the role of the trainer.

Whatever the mood of the group, it’s important to acknowledge it. This might sound obvious, but if you don’t allow people to express their views, they are likely to disengage. In a recent project we carried out some post workshop review and found that a significant number of people claimed that part of the workshop wasn’t relevant. Somewhat surprisingly, they also found it interesting. In post course interviews with this group, it transpired that it was because the thing being trained related to an area of the business that they simply didn’t interact with. Nobody has asked them, on the day, what they thought the training would mean for them. Nobody had picked up on the fact that people were disengaged, possibly because they were still interested (it was, after all, an interesting subject, in the abstract), so in development terms, it was wasted time.

Engaging with the group, reading the mood and responding accordingly is something that is second nature to experienced trainers, but something that we should never underestimate. Reading the weather is a skill, but if we get it wrong, it’s no fun for anyone.

If you’ve got any stories or thoughts based on your experience around this, please feel free to share them.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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1 Response to Group dynamics in learning situations. How the mood of a group can change and how this can affect overall attitudes and success.

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