I have been involved in many different communities. In both a formal setting – what would be called non-governmental organisations or non-profits in America – and informal groupings of like minded people gathering around a common interest or cause of some kind.
It’s been interesting to see the different kind of group dynamic that arises when everyone is a volunteer. I’m specifically thinking of the dynamics that play out when the driver for engagement comes from an idea, that something ought to be in a specific way. And what happens when a group is very homogenous vs heterogeneous.
In Swedish, another name for the non-profit sector is the idea-driven sector. This is to recognise that also entities that are created based on ideas, values or a mission can be run as a company and need to make a profit.
The main differentiator is that the top goal is not profit for the owners. Perhaps there are no individuals owning the company at all, it can be owned by a foundation or by its members. Instead, the top goal is to spread and develop whatever core idea that is the base of the company’s existence. It still needs to make a profit to survive, but it does so in order to further the cause.
Idea-driven means everyone is welcome
In many community cases, the doors are open for everyone that wants to join. The call for volunteers is always out. If you share the mission, you are welcome. Perhaps there’s a small membership fee involved, or perhaps the only way to show you are part of this group is to show up on the meetings and take part in the community activities.
This kind of openness is not without it’s challenges. Since everyone is there by volunteering their free time, you can’t really put any demands or expectations on the individual. It’s important to spread the workload and not put too much responsibilities or duties on any one person. You have no leverage to make sure necessary work gets done, and people can leave at any notice.
And there’s no way to improve a toxic group dynamic by removing a disturbing element.
I recently read the book “The five dysfunctions of a team” which was a good read about leadership and group dynamics. In it, the leader of a business has to make a tough decision for the best of the group and let one of them go. This option is not easily available in community or volunteer work.
You can’t sack somebody or exclude them when there’s no formal membership. You can ask a person to leave, but you do not have control over if they show up anyway.
Shared values matters in the workplace
In the workplace, in general, groups tend to function better when there are shared core values. The kind of values we’re talking about here are things like the importance of being on time, achievement/results vs social gathering, the views on hierarchy and involvement of decision-making etc.
A person who values doing an excellent job with good results most of all will not thrive at a company where the others in the group value the social aspect more. For the latter people, it’s more important that everybody feels good and welcome, and there will be much more focus on social chit chat, gatherings, events and “chances to get to know each other”.
For the result-oriented this will feel like a nuisance and waste of time at best, and the activities meant to increase work satisfaction is more likely to decrease it.
Finding a place to work where the core values align with yours is more important to your work satisfaction than the actual job description. This is not something that I’ve made up, it’s advice I have gotten from a professional career coach during training.
These core values show up as company culture. The actual tasks you need to perform are less important, what matters more for your general satisfaction and happiness is that you are in an environment in which you thrive – or at least not rubs you the wrong way.
And this is where things become interesting with volunteer work.
The idea-driven group is often diverse
If the core of the community is idea-driven, people come together because of this shared idea. And what happens is that the discussions in the community tend to follow the same threads – ideology (what is the idea, exactly), tradition (what we used to do), renewal (wanting to do something differently), being true to the idea or straying from the path etc.
People come together from all kind of backgrounds – social environment, financial background, intellectual abilities, ethnicity etc. Many times, these settings are where people who usually wouldn’t get a chance to meet each other suddenly do. It’s a very diverse, heterogeneous group.
And there are many good aspects that come with it. A diverse group has many perspectives and points of view. It will challenge the status quo, and has great potential for new thinking and creativity.
On the other hand, taking very large differences and putting them close together will create friction. Depending on how good the group is at handling this friction, arguments can turn into pure conflicts.
Also, a constant adaptation to the extreme ends of the group views can result in a no man’s land – nothing gets achieved, everything gets lost in discussions, and when a decision is finally made it’s gone through so many rounds of compromises that nobody recognises the original suggestion and everybody is dissatisfied with the result.
These days, we most often hear the calls for more diversity. We take for granted that the heterogeneous group is good and the homogenous group is bad. Elitist, excluding, full of judgement and prejudice – perhaps even racist or sexist.
This is not necessarily the case.
The homogenous group often collaborates easier
The homogenous group is often functioning better because the participants understand one another faster. When the group shares the same values, less time is needed for discussions and definitions since you can make assumptions about what the desired behaviour and result looks like.
This makes for a smoother and more efficient way of getting things done. I believe this is part of the reason we see homogenous groups more often in the workplaces.
Of course the homogenous group has its drawbacks. It can develop blind spots, and go around in circles without knowing it. Doing what it has always done, without questioning. The group can make erroneous assumptions and since everyone agrees with everyone else, there’s nobody there to point out the errors.
Many seem to think that the homogenous group fosters a thinking of “us vs them”. But that kind of thinking is just as likely to happen in the heterogeneous idea-driven group. It’s only a question of which idea you gather around and how the group views those who do not rally around the same idea.
I think there’s too little recognition of what it means to find and be part of a group “like you”. There is a value in feeling at home, among people who understand you, without being called all kind of *-ist names. There is value in easy and seamless collaboration.
There’s no shame in looking for a more harmonious place to be with less conflicts – even though it might look like your group is less diverse than it could be.
I also think that the challenges of putting extreme differences very close together are often underestimated. I see this played out right now, where my current project involves teams from three different continents. The time zone scheduling becomes a small detail compared to untangling all the hidden assumptions about what a job well done looks like.
I don’t really have a finished conclusion here, and not a finished point of view of whether one setting is better than the other. I just see a contributing factor to why leadership and collaboration can be so hard in the idea-driven sector. There’s this saying that leading volunteers is like herding cats.
I also wonder if the calls for increasing diversity in the workplace ever will tip over and the end result will be negative instead of positive. There’s probably some kind of “optimum friction point”, where the differences within a group are large enough to support creativity and new thinking, but not so big that they hinder moving forwards.
Perhaps there will be a constant pendulum movement from one end of the spectrum to the other. It might be a good candidate for a polarity map?