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Online Edition — November 2003

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November 2003 News For A Change — Home Page

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It’s OK to be Political if You Use a Process to Influence Change

Politics. It’s a word that makes most people cringe—particularly in this day of recalls, impeachments, and candidates trying to run for elected offices from within prison walls.

But in their book, Process Politics: A Guide for Group Leaders (University Associates, Inc., San Diego, CA), Eileen Guthrie and Warren Sam Miller, point out that both “individuals and groups share a desire to be political—to influence events that affect them and to manage change in ways that lead to success and prosperity.” (p. 1) The authors go on to redefine the role of change agents, calling them process politicians and charging them to “bring about positive change through democratic processes.” (p. v)

Commonly Identified Roles and Their Definitions

Task Roles:

Initiator: Proposes tasks, goals, or actions; defines group
problems; and suggests procedures.
Information seeker: Asks for factual clarification and requests facts pertinent to the discussion.

Opinion seeker: Asks for clarification of the values pertinent
to the topic under discussion and questions values involved
in the alternative suggestions.

Informer: Offers facts, gives expression of feelings, and
gives opinions.

Clarifier: Interprets ideas or suggestions, defines terms,
clarifies issues before the group, and clears up confusion.

Summarizer: Pulls together related ideas, restates suggestions, and offers decisions or conclusions for the group to consider.

Reality tester: Makes critical analyses of ideas and tests ideas against data to see if the ideas would work.

Orienter: Defines the position of the group with respect to its goals, points to departures from agreed-on directions or goals, and raises questions about the directions pursued in group discussions.

Follower: Goes along with the movement of the group, passively accepts the ideas of others, and serves as an audience in group discussion and decision making.

Maintenance Roles:

Harmonizer: Attempts to reconcile disagreements, reduces
tension, and gets people to explore differences.

Gatekeeper: Helps to keep communication channels open,
facilitates the participation of others, and suggests procedures that permit sharing remarks.

Consensus taker: Asks to see whether the group is nearing a decision and sends up trial balloons to test possible solutions.

Encourager: Is friendly, warm, and responsive to others and
indicates by facial expressions or remarks the acceptance of
others’ contributions.

Compromiser: Offers compromises that yield status when his/her own ideas are involved in conflicts and modifies in the interest of group cohesion or growth.

Standard setter: Expresses standards for the group to attempt
to achieve and applies standards in evaluating the quality of group processes.

From Process Politics: A Guide for Group Leaders, Eileen Guthrie and Warren Sam Miller, University Associates, Inc., San Diego, CA, pp. 76-77 (adapted
from “What to Observe in a Group,” Edgar H. Schein,
Reading Book,
Cyril R. Mill and Lawrence C. Porter, Editors, NTL National Institute for Applied Behavioral Science).

In a similar way, most people are uncomfortable with the word power and often have emotionally charged responses when they perceive that some other person or group has power over them. Guthrie and Miller challenge most of the existing notions about power, based on findings they have obtained in their Power Lab, a simulation of groups and community dynamics in which people belong to different groups. The following key learnings have emerged about power:

  • “There is nothing inherently bad (or good) about it. The key issue is, ‘How is it used?’
  • “It is unlikely that a group is totally powerless in any situation. A helpful perspective is to think of ways to influence the situation.

“Feelings of powerlessness often come from untested assumptions. Information shared directly between groups ‘tests’ assumptions and gives people real data to act on, thereby clarifying issues and increasing possibilities for cooperation. Too much energy is wasted acting on assumptions about what the ‘other side’ is doing.” (pp. 10-11)

Within teams, all members usually are not perceived as equal—no matter what norms are set. The perception of power is based on individual assumptions and experiences. A person who may seem very powerful to one team member may seem powerless to another.

Process politicians are aware that there are both formal (organizational position, authority, etc.) and informal power structures (sociological position, personality, age, etc.). Process politicians are willing to use their knowledge of members’ power, as well as their skills in creating power shifts to help the team make progress toward its goals and avoid “log jams.”

One way that power can be shifted involves re-arranging team members’ roles. The sidebar lists 15 roles that Guthrie and Miller have developed based on their review of group dynamics literature. These roles are divided into two categories, task (roles that help the group accomplish things) and maintenance (roles that deal with the participation of group members). These roles relate to behaviors within the group, not assigned team roles such as leader or scribe.

In most teams, members naturally assume one or more of these roles, but the process politician who serves as a facilitator can exert subtle, but definitive pressure on members to try on new roles for short periods of time. In some cases, these manipulated shifts can provide opportunities for long-term growth and development of team members who have been stereotyped by organizational leaders.
For example, let’s assume that a team member usually takes on the role of “follower.” After several discussion sessions where other team members have presented facts and data, shared their opinions, and declared positions, the group appears deadlocked.

The process politician might find it useful to shift the balance of power toward this normally acquiescent person by saying, “Martha, you’ve been fairly quiet during our recent discussions on this matter. Could you please summarize what you’ve heard and propose an alternative?”
At first, the temptation may be to shift the “follower” to the “informer” role, but that is likely
to make the team member uncomfortable. If you were normally quiet during discussions, you might feel as if you’d been put on the spot if you were asked to state your opinion without warning.
Obviously, this approach has great value—particularly for broadening the thoughts and ideas under consideration and for ensuring that individual members don’t dominate discussions and decision making.

However, it does not shift the power substantially. Instead, this “every member gets to speak” approach attempts to equalize the power. Generally, team members won’t even recognize that a power shift has occurred when this tactic is employed.

But think of how powerful it is to summarize a discussion. You get to choose what to include in the review and what to ignore. You get to choose what to emphasize and what to diminish. You get to state—and even to build—connections that often lead to more integrated thinking for other team members. Just being asked to assume that role implies that you have special insights, knowledge, and/or skills that can help the group move forward.

Knowing when and how to create power shifts within a team takes time and practice, but it is an invaluable tool for change agents—particularly if they want to become process politicians.

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