by Laura M. Fernandez
Many social work students may ask themselves, “What is a task group? Why should I be concerned with what makes a task group run more effectively?” The majority of students have already participated in a task group, but may not have called it by name. Knowing the skills that contribute to being an effective task group leader will help ensure that your task group experience is a positive and productive one.
Task groups are groups of individuals brought together to accomplish a specific action or produce a product. If you have participated in an educational planning meeting, been a member of a committee, attended a treatment team meeting, been elected to student government, or joined a social movement group, you have already experienced a task group in action. For some, the experience may not have been a positive one, because running an effective task group takes many different skills. Many social work students will be in the position of leading task groups while they are in school or very shortly afterward. Developing an awareness of the ingredients that go into a successful task group, with satisfied members, is crucial.
Five areas that are frequently cited by the experts on task groups are the five C': Control, Conflict, Communication, Consensus, and Cohesion. The five C' can make or break a task group experience.
Groups are dynamic and fluid, which often means that the five Cs will be interrelated and interconnected. All can influence member satisfaction and ultimately the level of success the group will have attaining its goals. Thinking about some of the pitfalls that task groups can experience, and some strategies that may help you avoid them, may help you prepare for your own task group experience.
Have you ever experienced the leadership vacuum? A leader has been appointed, but the group feels like a ship with no one at the helm. No one clarifies the purpose of the group or establishes concrete goals that can be evaluated. There is no agenda and group discussions meander through many topics. Members feel they are wasting their time, because nothing is being accomplished. On the opposite extreme is the super controlling leader who makes the members feel as if they are working with a control freak. The leader imposes his/her own agenda and refuses any member input. The leader is insensitive to the members’ needs or inflexible about allowing extra time to process an important decision.
Social workers may feel uncomfortable about assuming a leadership role, but many groups need someone to carry out the leadership functions to fulfill their purpose. Leaders are often responsible for convening meetings, chairing discussions, and facilitating the processes of meeting goals.
One strategy for leaders is to prepare for meetings by having a written agenda. Leaders should orient group members at the beginning and as new members join, so that all members understand who is in the group and what is the group' purpose. Leaders should start meetings as close to on time as possible and end on time. Also, avoiding long meetings is usually a good idea; members may have a hard time remaining focused in meetings that are longer than two hours. Discussions should be refocused when members remain stuck on one point endlessly or drift on long tangents.
Leaders should use social work skills such as asking open-ended questions, paraphrasing, and summarizing to help facilitate productive discussions. Someone should be appointed to keep minutes of meetings. Minutes should be reviewed before the next meeting to remind members and leaders what was accomplished and what still needs to be done. Setting some realistic goals that can be reached early on will help group members feel the group has a purpose. Involving group members as much as possible in establishing group rules and task assignments will send a message to members that their contributions are valued.
Many social workers have been part of a group where the whole meeting was spent arguing over every decision. The members end up feeling as if they are participating in World War III. Some people may get frustrated and drop out. But the conflict-free group can often be just as frustrating. Being part of a group where no one feels they can raise a differing point of view for fear of creating conflict, often forces members to go along with decisions they don’t agree with and will not support in the long run.
Group leaders should expect some level of conflict as part of a healthy group process and not see conflict as a sign of failure. Group members should be encouraged to give their input, while at the same time, the leader should help members anticipate that there may be differences of opinion. Leaders should not switch topics or end discussion whenever there is a sign of possible conflict, but should intervene when a conflictual discussion moves to a personal level or goes on for so long that it feels unproductive. Negotiation, mediation, and arbitration skills can help resolve conflicts in a productive manner. Leaders should avoid leaving the most conflictual items until the end of the agenda, because meetings should not end on a conflictual note.
In any type of group, communication is very important, because miscommunication almost always leads to problems. In task groups, different communication styles can create a situation in which group members misinterpret messages and fail to have a true dialogue. This can be especially true in task groups made up of members from different professions or of community groups with many nonprofessionals. A doctor may use professional jargon which is meaningless to other group members who are involved in a discharge conference. A community organizer may arrive at a meeting to plan a voter registration drive in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood, unable to communicate anything because he or she doesn’t speak Spanish. And nothing is more painful than being in a group where no one will say anything. The silence is deafening.
Communicating ideas and having a dialogue among members is very important in reaching group goals. Leaders should encourage and model good communication behaviors, which include no talking over others, no interrupting, and the use of “I statements.” Leaders should intervene when members are potentially misinterpreting messages and ask for clarification from the member who has just spoken.
Leaders need to be aware of nonverbal communication, such as eye rolling, frowning, and shaking heads. Jargon should be avoided if members have different backgrounds. Members who use language that is racist, sexist, or homophobic should be addressed either during the group or afterward in private about the negative consequences of using this type of communication. Leaders should try whenever possible to reframe different communication styles as a positive addition to the diversity of the group.
Being a member of a group with no cohesion or no sense of belonging can be very disheartening. Members may have difficulty expending a lot of energy in a group where members have no sense of connectedness or common purpose. Some groups err in the opposite extreme, creating a group with an intense sense of connection which is closed to any new members or suggestions from outside the group. Sometimes, a few members within the larger group feel closer and cliques, claques, or fractions are created which contribute to negative feelings between group members or subgroups.
Cohesion is often linked to group member satisfaction. Leaders should strive for a sense of belonging among their members by involving members in group activities and encouraging interaction between members. When assigning tasks or delegating authority, leaders should try to include everyone, even if the task is very small, because members may feel more a part of a group where they are making contributions. The leader can also encourage and model the benefits of working cooperatively instead of competitively. Never forget the importance of frequently recognizing and praising members’ commitment and contributions to the group.
Task groups are frequently in the position of having to choose between different options. This means that groups must decide, in advance preferably, how they will arrive at a final decision. One pattern that can develop occurs when a small group of members is in contact outside of the formal meeting and makes a decision. This agreement is then presented to the whole group as if the whole group has already agreed to its mini-consensus. Striving to achieve complete consensus, especially in larger groups, can be aggravating to members. When a social action group has been meeting weekly for three months and is still trying to come to complete agreement by all forty members on the purpose of the group, members may lose interest and drop out.
Strategies for leaders include reaching an agreement early on in the life of the group as to what consensus will be when a group is formed: a simple majority? over 75% of the members? or 100%? Deciding the procedure for coming to consensus is also crucial: hand raising, secret ballot, and voice votes are all possibilities to consider. These strategies will vary a great deal depending on group size. A five-person treatment team may work well with 100% consensus, while a social action group with 50 members may need another type of decision-making.
Group processes will vary depending on group objectives and group membership. Sometimes a group will need a controlling leader or be able to tolerate high amounts of conflict. Flexibility and some understanding of group processes/dynamics are very important in helping leaders meet the needs of diverse groups. Leading or being a member of a task group can be very challenging to social work students, so don’t be too hard on yourself if your first experience feels like less than a total success.
Remembering what it felt like to be a task group member will help you stay in touch with what your group members may be going through. Learning from any mistakes will help you to be more prepared for future task group experiences to come.
Laura M. Fernandez, MSSW, is a 1996 graduate of Columbia University School of Social Work. She became involved in a social action group, The Action Coalition for Social Justice, in January 1995, and began a one-year term as Student Union Treasurer in September 1996. Through these experiences, she has realized the importance of task group leadership to the success of the group.