What to do with the “bad” team/group member?, part II

This past weekend, I joined over 50 other researchers and practitioners at a conference held at the Harvard Business School in J. Richard Hackman‘s honor. To celebrate several decades’ worth of research on group and teamwork, we divided into groups to collectively discuss and identify directions for future research in particular areas. We then presented our findings or recommendations to the larger group.

Here’s a sample of our preparations for our topic on “Performing in real time: What is special (or especially interesting) about artistic performances and athletic competitions, with special attention to the dynamics of real-time improvisation”:

Groupfest, 6/10/11

Our claim: we can benefit from understanding a major variation among artistic and athletic groups: level of practice – some might say preparation – leading up to performance – such as a game or concert. Some groups don’t practice together at all, like improvised jazz or pick up basketball; others practice in moderation, like community orchestras or athletic groups; a few practice intensively, like professional athletic teams and orchestras. This variation in level of practice can help us also understand other groups that practice/prepare for conventional or unusual situations, such as disaster preparedness.

To illustrate our points, we co-presented the material while accompanied by improvised jazz by Daniel Wilson on the drums and Colin Fisher on the trumpet.

Another group discussed the topic “dealing in real time with “bad actors,” team members who are slowing team progress or undermining the team. Here’s their definition of a bad actor:
Groupfest, 6/11/11

They used two clips from the tv show The Office to illustrate their points. They then showed a 2 by 2 typology based on an actor’s position in the authority (low vs. high) and amount of power (too little vs. too much) to identify 4 categories of bad behaviors.

Interestingly, unlike the sessions at the 5th annual Burning Man Regional Leadership Summit, the presentation was too short to offer tools for how to deal with actors who engage in these behaviors. I spoke with one of the group members afterwards, and she reported that although some of the group advocated moving the bad actor around to other groups in the hopes of a “better” fit, others worried that this would contaminate other groups with bad behavior. This suggestion of moving a person around to different groups sounds a little like what Burning Man organizers call “repurposing.” However, in the Burning Man organization, repurposing may be more about making sure that volunteers’ interests fit the task/group. For more on this, see chapter 4 “Radical inclusion”: Attracting and Placing Members of my book Enabling Creative Chaos.

What to do with the “bad” team/group member?

This June, more than 50 colleagues and I will be participating in a special conference sponsored by the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, the Center for Public Leadership, and the Graduate School of Business Administration at Harvard University. This conference honors one of my advisors, J. Richard Hackman, a foremost expert researcher in teams. To identify the conditions that encourage effective teamwork, Hackman studied groups including commercial flight crews and the Orpheus chamber orchestra, which does not rely upon conventional leaders but rather collective decision-making by the group. Besides numerous journal articles and co-authoring the seminal book Work Redesign with Greg Oldham, Hackman has also written the book Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, which walks readers through the steps of creating and running successful teams.

In addition, Hackman has been highly influential in mentoring and teaching organizational researchers such as myself about how to create organizations that are both meaningful and serve members’ interests. In fact, Hackman has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of my research on Burning Man, which when I first started my field studies, was a mystifying phenomena to most (i.e., at the time, most reactions consisted of “Burning What?!? Is this like the movie Wicker Man?”).

When I initially signed up for this June gathering, I anticipated sipping bubbly over small talk in the hallowed halls of HBS. I soon learned that the conference, dubbed the “Hackfest,” involves working in teams to troubleshoot challenges to teamwork. One issue that we’ll discuss involves “Dealing in real time with “bad actors,” team members who are slowing team progress or undermining the team.” Those of us who manage/work/volunteer in groups inevitably encounter this dilemma. Since most of us are not trained or coached on how to work effectively in groups, we often deal with this challenge through trial and error, with a heavy emphasis on error.

We may not recognize instances in which participants may have different goals or processes in mind and label these persons or their activities as bad rather than understanding their underlying motivations – “undermining” might be one participant’s way of checking groupthink or pursuing an end other than efficiency. For example, some people complain when meetings get derailed by small talk or discussions that don’t lead to tangible outcomes. What we often don’t realize is that meetings aren’t just tools for getting things done; they also serve as social occasions where the collective comes together. On the other hand, we do occasionally encounter individuals who are having a bad day or have a chip on their shoulder; their participation can derail or impede group processes despite our best efforts.

Interestingly, back in May, Burning Man regional leaders at the 5th Annual Burning Man Leadership Summit discussed a similar issue, “How do we deal with divisive personalities while still supporting radical inclusion?”* This and other issues provoked feverish but enthusiastic brain-storming, much of which drew on an earlier workshop on conflict resolution skills. I’ll be paying especially close attention to the “bad actors” discussion at the Hackfest to see whether what the experts suggest lines up with what Burning Man practitioners have proposed. (BTW, in his book Leading Teams, Hackman also recognizes the value of including even seemingly “difficult” individuals.)

*Note that the summit’s wording uses the word personalities, which connotes that this behavior is inherent to a person, rather than the conference’s word actors, which emphasizes activities. Organizational researchers like myself prefer not to use terms like personalities, as we focus on how activities emerge from interactions or situations. For example, all of us have occasionally acted as a “wrench in the machine” by questioning the status quo, but most of us would not characterize ourselves as being inherently divisive.

Burning Man entry now available in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology

Have a student or colleague who needs a quick summary of scholarly research and references across the disciplines on Burning Man, as well as possible avenues for future research? The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology has just published my entry on Burning Man.

The Blackwell Encyclopedia was edited by sociologist George Ritzer and his graduate students, including J. Michael Ryan, at the Dept. of Sociology, University of Maryland. Ritzer is best known for the concept McDonaldization, which describes the relentless spread of “efficiency, predictability, calculability and increased control through the replacement of human with non-human technology” across society. Those of you who are interested in understanding consumption might also like his newest writings on prosumption, in which consumers both produce and consume products or experiences.

Next talk stop: Fri., Sept. 17, 2010, 1:30-3pm EST at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

My next talk will be Fri., Sept. 17, 2010, 1:30-3pm EST, at Room K1310, in the Ross School of Business, Interdisciplinary Committee on Organization Studies, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. The title of the talk is: “Charismatizing the Routine: Storytelling in the Burning Man Organization.” Thank you, Prof. Jerry Davis, for the invitation, and Paula Kopka, for making the arrangements!

Where to learn more about sociology, part II

A while back, in response to a Burner’s request, I queried some of my colleagues and posted a short list of recommended readings for newcomers to the disciplines of sociology and anthropology.

But what if you want an easy-to-read overview of sociological classics, as well as recent research? Jay Gabler’s Sociology for Dummies (Wiley, 2010) is a good place to start.*

In addition, the quarterly magazine Contexts, published by the American Sociological Association, features short articles on a variety of contemporary topics (immigration, consumption, aging, gender roles, etc.). Written for a general audience, it’s a compelling introduction to recent research and the sociological imagination.

*: Gabler also is the co-author of Reconstructing the University: Worldwide Shifts in Academia in the 20th Century (with David J. Frank, Stanford University Press, 2006).

Changes in participation in the arts in the US

See this website, which has reports on data collected on arts activities between 1998 and 2000.

For instance,
“How the public participates in and consumes the arts is expanding. The arts participation measure is on the increase. Personal arts creation by the public is growing steadily (making art, playing music). Attendance at mainstream nonprofit arts organizations, however, is in decline.”

New blog on community and grassroots associations research and practice launching

As part of my service responsibilities to the Community and Grassroots Associations (CGA) section of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), I am also blogging here. We haven’t made an official launch yet but will do so soon. In the meantime, if you are interested in research and practice on community and grassroots associations, you can sign up to receive email notifications about posts or subscribe to the facebook fanpage. In addition, please consider joining ARNOVA and the CGA section as a member! (Unfortunately, I cannot directly link to the membership page, but click on this page and then click “join ARNOVA” in the horizontal menu.) The annual conference is a fun way of connecting with other researchers and practitioners.

To start things off, at the CGAP blog, I’ve blogged about online videos available from a recent conference that brought together leading social science scholars who each briefly presented on which hard problem social science research should pursue. Of particular interest to Burners is Ann Swidler’s call for deeper insight into “how societies both create and restore institutions,” including the nation, government, marriage, university, etc. Burners, consider how your activities with Burning Man have impacted your skills and experiences (both positive and negative) with organization. Then think about how these experiences have, in turn, affected your involvement in the workplace, other community-based organizations or voluntary associations, etc.

The challenges of growing participatory groups and organizations

One of yesterday’s WSJ front page articles (“Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages“) examined the increasing turn-over among volunteers for the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia. The article discusses the difficulties of monitoring the content contributed by users. Both the comments and article suggest that size, age, increasing rules, and a lack of accountability among anonymous users make Wikipedia a less attractive venue to potential contributors and discourage the continued participation of current contributors.

After mulling over this news article and other research on participatory groups, I would also suggest other possible reasons for a decline in Wikipedia’s participation, as well as a different perspective on the usefulness of Wikipedia:
(1) Most people don’t have experience with participatory practices and need to learn to flex those muscles, which results in inevitable bumps and attrition among those who privilege efficiency over collective discussion.
(2) More problematically, outside of the academy,* people don’t agree on what constitutes a fact versus an opinion, much less understand the research process. I would speculate that a heavily politicized education (i.e., creationism/intelligent design taught alongside evolution as a theory) or an insufficient education make it more difficult for people to make distinctions between facts and opinions.
(3) Since Wikipedia began 8 years ago, it’s possible that declining participation among old-timers may be inevitable due to changing interests and competing responsibilities, such as raising a family. In addition, the intensification of work as employers demand longer hours and/or downsize staff reduce the amount of free time that both new and longtime volunteers can offer.

So, what might Wikipedia really tell us? Rather than thinking of Wikipedia as only a factual, consensus-based encyclopedia, Wikipedia might offer us insight into phenomena over which consensus has not yet been established, as well as the different stakeholders who get involved in the construction and dissemination of knowledge.

* Of course, academics have their own disagreements about what constitutes proper research.