Adventures in Groups, Part 3: A roadmap to surviving and thriving in groups

Previously in Adventures in Groups, we explored how groups can make us act strangely and make choices we wouldn’t otherwise make. I outlined a theory as to why that might be. Today we’re going to discuss what you can do when you find yourself in an unproductive, toxic, or crazy-making group.

While any group can fall in and out of the unconscious basic assumptions without warning and without intention, there are things you can do to figure out what might be going on, what unconscious processes might be at work in the group as a whole,  to find and regain your sanity and help your group stay on track to ‘getting thing done’ (what ever that is, even in fraught situations.

Take stock of ‘what’s happening to you’ Check in with how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. Try to focus on your own inner experience.

Remind yourself, everything that happens within you and the group is information. Everything you and the rest of the group say, do, and feel are more information about what’s going on, and gives you more data you can use to work through the problem. And what’s more, it’s experience you can use in the future, even if you can’t solve the problem you’re facing right now.

Name and describe. Try to describe what you experience and see happening in a non-confrontational or non-judgmental way as possible. “Everyone seems very upset right now”, “I’m finding it very hard to communicate how I’m feeling”, “I feel like we’re not listening to each other very well” and so on.

Try an intervention. By that I mean, try saying something about what you feel, see, or notice to be absent. If what’s going on is unproductive, potential harmful, or disturbing…then try something else. Something as simple as calling a 15-minute break can help reset the group’s interactions.

Let go of control. It’s always easy to see what other people are doing to contribute to a toxic situation, but not so much what we’re adding ourselves. If you’re the kind of person who tends to dominate conversations and enjoys attention (this is my personal tendency), then stepping back and seeing what happens when you relinquish control can be surprisingly helpful.


Speak up. If you’re the kind of person who tends to sit back and let others do the talking or take the reins, see what happens when you step forward.

It still might not work, and your group may be stuck in an unconscious basic assumption, or mired in constant hostility, or completely unable to get yourselves together and focus on the task, but you’ll have learned something about group behaviour, the group-as-a-whole’s behaviour and your own, and maybe you’ll be able to apply it in a different context.

If your group is doing fine, there are a couple of things you can do to keep your group strong:

Have a well-defined task. What is it exactly that you’re trying to do? Are you a work team, a music group, a book club? Make sure you’re all on board with what you’re trying to do and working towards it.

Agree on roles and responsibilities. When you all know who’s in charge of what, it’s easier to get it done and avoid hard feelings.

Regular check ins and debriefs. Keep asking, how are things going? Are there issues to address? Is anyone feeling upset, excluded, or overwhelmed?

Now that we’ve gone on this whirlwind tour of group madness, what’s your take? Have you ever successfully stopped a group from going off the rails?

Next time: Collaboration and its discontents – the ups and downs of horizontal organizations.

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