Last week I wrote about finding a group of people that you are comfortable with and who help you to fulfill your desires, goals, and ideals.  This week I want to talk about a reality that we all face – the work group.  Work groups differ from social groups in that you don’t choose your group mates, they are chosen for you. And you often spend more time with your work group than you do with your self or your family.  So, let’s look at groups and consider group dynamics (note the relationship to the word dynamite).

Working with groups is, well, working with a bunch of individuals.  And individuals are very different.

You often find yourself in a group that works toward a common greater goal but where the individual’s activities are quite different, with varied roles and varied people with (ideally) complementary skills.  Having complementary skills means you will have a mixture of individuals that by nature will not find it easy to work well in a confined area together because the complementarity means the individuals have different temperaments and therefore distinct needs, diverse methods and means for working, and very different ideas of their ideal workplace based on their role.  And often you are chucked in a room with these entities in our new knock-down-the-walls and open plan-it system.

Here’s an example of one such office:

Bertrand is gregarious.  He loves to meet and charm new people.  If a stranger walks into the office by chance, usually to use the photocopier, he normally invites that stranger to sit and have a ‘get-to-know-you’ chat.  This occurs especially when he has down times of flagging energy, which for Bertrand happen twice of a morning and three times of an afternoon for an hour and a half each flag.

Bertrand shares an office with five others  in a space where each has a desk, a swivel chair, and just enough room for a narrow lane of access down the middle.  There are cardboard file boxes under the desks because there’s no room for a filing cabinet and they’re not even close to being paper free because their computer systems often slow to a halt.  The previously mentioned photocopier was placed at the far end of the room by some unseen, unknown office planner who has possibly been replaced by a robot by now, since robots will have an innate sense of where things should go in a proper (robot) world.

Facing Bertrand is a makeshift barrier of books and A4 cardboard storage boxes piled one atop the other so that the lower ones have taken the shape of the collections they hold.  All conceivable colours of post it notes are pasted on every bit of exposed surface of the barrier.  Bottles of half-used hand lotion are placed in an exactly straight line at the exposed edge of the desk like a lotion hedge, their caps iced with a layer of grime that hangs over them like the tablecloth on Table Mountain.  This is Eunice’s desk.  Eunice talks on the phone like a chain smoker lights one off the other, preferring phone conversations over email, and certainly over having strangers squatting in the office at Bertrand’s desk.  Even when the situation could be dealt with via email, Eunice shoves the receiver between her ear and shoulder and dials away.  You might say she uses  phone calls to drown out Bertrand’s strangers since she can’t get any work done while he is entertaining, so she may as well do her phoning then.  Her energy levels are stable throughout the day, normally at a level that people who can’t sleep strive for in the hours before bed.

Pascal sits with his back to Eunice with just enough space to back his chair out to extend his legs and leave room for her chair to sway, as she does when she’s on the phone.  He’s an intense young man who is completing a PhD while working full time.  He sits at his desk most of the day, ear buds humming, a perplexed panic on his face that is lit by the glare of his dual monitors.  I’m not certain anyone really knows what he does in this office.  Perhaps he vets soundtracks.  Eunice thinks he’s creepy because he never says anything.  She sways carefully so as not to bump his chair.  Those quiet lonely types usually hide homicidal maniacs, that kind you hear about on he news. Always over thinking everything.

Charmaine’s desk is across the lane from Pascal.  She sits with her chair angled away from the centre of the desk, her feet propped on an open drawer so that she’s usually facing Pascal, which may contribute to his perplexity since her painted lips appear long before her face reaches focus.  To top that off, she has the eyes of a startled buzzard wearing false eye lashes and seems never to blink.  She keeps her fingernails snagless by swishing an emery board over them  during her thinking moments, which are thankfully few.  Her energy level is driven by a tendency toward procrastination, which lends itself to pointless research on Facebook and Pinterest, and occasionally LinkedIn if she’s feigning work.  She thinks those homicidal types are a bit sexy.  She giggles out loud at her Facebook posts.

Up the opposite wall next to Charmaine, Cheever sits with his desk facing the wall.  He has muff-like headphones on even when he’s not at his desk.  His energy level leaks out according to whatever beat he is wearing at the moment.  He hums to instrumental strains that inspire him and joins the chorus of every vocal piece that couldn’t possibly inspire anybody.  This noise is reminiscent of someone yelling out from the nightmare of having a stranger sit on your face while you’re asleep.  The others in the group look sideways at each other when Cheever’s going strong.  They wouldn’t be surprised to hear one day that Cheever and Pascal have exploded in a a pent up implosion and gone and done something un-sayable.

Hargreaves, who prefers to be referred to by her last name – ALWAYS, considers herself somewhat of a natural leader.  She wears reading glasses perched nearly on the tip of her nose and therefore peers at people with a double chin and rolled lips.  Her eyes form a judgemental crevice.  Her energy comes from a self evaluation which assures her that she is the only one who knows what they are all doing here.  No one has the capacity for figuring out the obvious like she does and she usually expresses these in bursts.

Well now, here’s a change.  I see that we’ve been invited to a farewell morning tea next morning at the Creaky Lav, a popular organisational haunt two doors down.  Charmaine has been offered a position as Marketing director for a virtual shoe company.  They produce a transparent shoe developed to shoecase a new range of graphic socks that they hope to pass off as waterproof.  Being virtual, the shoes require a thoughtful social media campaign and Charmaine excels at employing action verbs to represent her accomplishments so has swung into the position with surprising grace.

This group has worked together for seven years, measured by the shortest serving member of the group.  The longest serving member, Bertrand, has been there most of his life and will be there most of the lives of the others if they’re not careful.

But what do they actually do?  Hint:  it has to do with marshmallows (see video below).

What they do doesn’t really matter but you might want to watch that video anyway.  What will happen to them when Charmaine’s replacement arrives does matter. Their dynamics will shift, it’s in the cards.  Any time a group loses or gains another person, completes old and/or starts new major projects, or shifts office, the dynamics are disrupted.  Extroverts bond outwardly, introverts observe inwardly.  Chairs move closer to their desks and backs hunch while the norming, storming, forming, cycle begins again.

The best resource I have on my shelves about group dynamics is Baden Eunson’s Behaving:  Managing yourself and others.  I looked at some of the other group dynamics books from that period and found them to be quite prescriptive and not at all about the nature of people’s differences and the struggle this causes to become a group that attempts to represent all individuals’ temperaments yet carry out the overarching goal.

This is the book cover for Eunson's Behaving - Managing yourself and others (1994). The Careers office looks a bit like this when events are in the planning stages.

This is the book cover for Eunson’s Behaving – Managing yourself and others (1994). The Careers office looks a bit like this when events are in the planning stages.

I find Eunson good because he broaches the topic of the ooze that takes place as teams form, rather than chuck one-size-fits-all steps to performance on us.  This ooze is like liquifaction – comes out in eruptions when there’s change stress, sits around like sledge for awhile, then solidifies into something that may just be useful.

By the way, the new staff member who will be hired after Charmaine has gone goes by the name Guatchalina though her real name is Cindy Lou Dworshak.  She’s a Zumba instructor on the side, swills triple shot espressos four times a day and punches people as she talks to them.  She eats only liquid food and comes with a high speed food processor/juicer which she plans to plug into the power box that feeds the photocopier, a handy extra ‘shelf’ next to her desk which in a month’s time will be gummed shut with stodgy globules of protein powder.

Did I mention there was only one window and that was by Bertrand’s desk but no one can get to it because the robot planner arranged their desks and screwed them down so they couldn’t reach the windows?  Cheever ripped the screws out to get his desk against the wall, leaving little floor wounds that snag people’s socks.

Well, consider the work that’s gone on in the seven years for this group of varied personalities to get to a point where they can deliver on their common goal, their organisation’s purpose (see hint above). They’ve had to live in a cramped space with a photocopier at the far end that is used daily by the greater organisation, and sometimes the odd stranger.  Consider the traffic that photocopier causes and how this impacts these individuals in their work.

This office group do not share the same temperaments yet they have learned to co-exist to some degree in this modern-day crime scene/office.

If you observe groups that work well, you will notice shifting leaderships.  It’s not always the ones who think they should be in charge who will actually be in charge.  When the project changes, a new expert may emerge based on the scope and content of that project.  It’s not always the ones who think they should be in charge who will actually be in charge.  Individuals in the group will recognise this; it can be a totally unspoken shift.

Finally, consider Guatchalina, the newbie.  Do you think Bertrand will be able to keep her seated long enough to charm her?

He might need to get himself a Nespresso machine.  Perhaps he could put it on the windowsill.

Working in groups, especially open plan offices, can be detrimental to getting work done.  Here’s a blog about that ( Thinking out loud – the OPEN plan ); look out for the video Why work doesn’t happen at work in that blog.  I love Fried’s  idea of ‘no talk Thursdays’.
And here’s for you other creepy quiet people out there – have a look at some of the blogs about us:  Hire good people and leave them alone, Do interviews and networking events cause you stress?  Perhaps you’re an introvert, and Networking for Introverts (look for Susan Cain’s Power of Introverts in this blog).

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