By Lakeisha Harrison
Over the course of my life, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of many groups and teams. Be they formal or informal, professional or extracurricular, as a team member or a leader, each situation taught me invaluable lessons about how groups function and how I function in them. These lessons have grown me into a better leader, but most importantly a better person.
The first lesson about group dynamics is to understand what type of group you’re in. A collective functions differently from a top-down hierarchical model. A newly forming group operates in very different ways from a well-established group with longevity. The second lesson is to understand your place in the group. Not know your place…understand your place. There is a difference. The former seeks to stifle, silence, marginalize and contain you. The latter informs, contextualizes, and can empower you.
Not know your place…understand your place.
In my own experience, the key to both of these fundamental understandings when forming or entering a new group has been to observe. Sometimes quietly, sometimes while simultaneously being out front and vocal. If you do not take time to observe the inner workings of the group, the people in the group, the circumstances surrounding the group, and the targeted stakeholders of the group, it can limit your ability to maximize the effectiveness of the group and your work with it.
Relationality is critical. This includes and goes beyond relationships. Do you understand how the members of the group relate to each other…how the group relates to the members…how the group relates to external forces? These are all intersections that create connectivity across multiple dynamics that impact and inform the group’s work. A wholistic assessment of the group can help determine the success of the group itself and your own success within the group.
I had to learn how to first recognize the marginalization and who was acting to marginalize me.
As an African-American woman, I inherently approach group work and leadership from this intersectional perspective because my positionality within greater society necessitates it. For example, I have often found myself situated within a group as a team member, but functionally relegated to the status of an outsider. In order for me to achieve success in those circumstances, I had to learn how to first recognize the marginalization and who was acting to marginalize me. Once I understood this, then I could use my observations about the other intersections of the group to find ways to move myself from the margins to being fully included and valued within the group. I had to be agile. By doing so, I was able to transform not only my relationship within groups, but the other relationships within groups, and thus the group’s success.
How was I able to do this? First, I had to know and be honest about my own limits, capabilities and boundaries as a person and in relation to the group. On the flip side of that coin has been knowing my strengths, assets, and boundlessness. Second, I built and cultivated relationships within and outside of the group with those who were in positions of authority and influence. And…I built these relationships based on the quality of my work and my work ethic. I knew my worth and I demonstrated it. Third, I learned how to leverage the influence of higher-ranking people and/or those with authority who were positioned outside of the group. Where I encountered obstacles, they removed or ushered me around them.
I knew my worth and I demonstrated it.
So, read the room. Understand personalities and predicaments. Understand skill sets in relation to the group’s purpose and project objectives/outcomes. Transformation occurs when the group’s work is fit for purpose. Group buy in is necessary in order for the group to remain focused on doing work that is fit for purpose. Everyone must be working toward the same goal, which means that everyone must know what the goal is. There must be consensus. One of the main things that gets in the way of a group’s ability to perform well is a lack of buy in.
I have heavily used the word “understand” throughout this article. That is intentional. So often group failures and individual failures within groups occur due to a lack of understanding and misunderstandings. Mutual understanding of and agreement on the group’s purpose and outcomes is critical to success. Indeed, “understanding” is critical to whether a group is able to be transformative in its efforts. If there is no mutual understanding, the group may be transformative alright, but not in a constructive way.
When people know their humanity is valued above and beyond all things, they will go above and beyond for the group.
In closing, the foremost characteristic of the successful groups I’ve been in has been a collective respect for each person in the group. Affirming the humanity of each person is fundamental. When people know their humanity is valued above and beyond all things, they will go above and beyond for the group. When people trust that their human dignity is safe, it frees up space for them to bring the best of who they are to the group. Sincerity, respect, appreciation and basic kindness go a long way. These soft skills build trust that can open up a group to transformative engagement and long-term success. Though it is not always easy, it always works.
I met Lakeisha virtually when we participated in a panel discussion on diversity in foreign affairs hosted by George Washington University a few months ago. The breadth and depth of her experience and wisdom, which so impressed me at the time, are apparent in this article.