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Sometimes I’m just a participant of a meeting. I cherish these meetings. I’m just one of the pack, do not need to lead the meeting and can decide my own role according to my whims. This time I was in an observing and learning mood.

A crowd of approximately 40 participants had gathered around the facilitator. He was standing in front of a big empty sheet on the wall. There were just a few post-its next to one and other forming various lines on the sheet.

The facilitator asked us a deceivingly simple question: ‘please fill in the chart that is behind me’. In a brief demonstration he showed us how the chart was working; it was indeed fairly simple.



But the group didn’t move. One participant asked a clarifying question. And then people started to stir around uneasily:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • You didn’t use the prep work from the past months!
  • This is a tedious task; we’re not going to manage with 40 of us at the same time.
  • Could you explain again how the chart is working?
  • What makes you believe this is the best way to handle this issue?
  • Can’t we just skip this part and move straight on to the next part, that’s what I’m here for.

Growing confusion was taking hold of the space. Energy levels dropped. Smart phones appeared; some started to talk with their neighbours; others moved backwards out of the group. Clearly, people were disengaging. A few sat down on the ground realizing that this would be time-consuming. Participants were rejecting the process.


Not all leadership works

Standing out

Suddenly, one person stepped forward. He had had his share of it. ‘If this is going to be the process, don’t count me in anymore. I can spend my time in a better way.’ And by ostentatiously leaving the room, he made clear that he also was rejecting the group. No one else followed. Of course, as he had just been rejecting the group.

A second person gave it a try. His proposal was quite identical to the first person: leaving the group. The biggest difference, however, was that he explicitly invited others to join him in his secession. He proposed to work on the objectives of the programme but with a different process. That ad-hoc process would be built with all the seceding participants.

He too was negating the whole group so again, no one followed.

(Why is this? By rejecting the group the individuals within the group also feel rejected. They feel rejected in their initial choice of being part of the group. Also many feel rejected by the leadership of standing out. You risk being rejected by the group without being seen as a leader. So at first instance, there is nothing to gain in following.) 


Leadership that helps the group

It was already 20 minutes that the group was in a state of confusion when finally a breakthrough occurred. The third person to stand out reversed the proposition of the first two and said: ‘I’m not sure if this is the right process but I’m willing to give it a chance.’

And then she initiated what would become the tipping point: she stood up and physically moved a step forward. ‘I invite everyone who supports this to also stand up and make a step forward.’ Immediately 2 to 3 persons stood up and moved. This leader was not alone anymore and within seconds every participant was on its feet and had made the forward step.

The group was back on track again.


Positive choice made by the body

By reversing the proposition, the last person acknowledged the choice every participant had made to join the meeting and be member of the group. She did not reject the group and thus she made it acceptable for the participants to join in. She made the choice positive instead of negative.

Also, by literally making a step, she invited participants to make the choice in the body and not in the mind. And that’s an easier choice to make. Thinking is ambiguous, feeling not.

It was a tremendous learning experience for me. And I wonder if as I facilitator I am always so vividly aware of dynamics around confusion. I think not.

So when in a decision-making process, keep these 2 things in mind: give participants a positive choice aligned with their wish to be part of the group and let them feel their choice by doing a small physical activity.

2 comments on “What leadership for groups in confusion?
  1. David Ramsay says:

    Thanks Ruben for sharing that experience and letting it be a learning for me too!

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