Empowerment Leadership Model for Small Groups, Teams, & Families
Course Two, Lesson 12
Controlling Dysfunctional Behavior
Note: Whenever "group" or "team" is used, it can mean "group", "team", or "family".
Controlling dysfunctional behavior of group members and the group as a whole is a huge responsibility of the group. (Note that it is the group leader's task only if he or she cannot help the group as a whole do it.) This subtask relates to people behaving in a way that hinders the group moving forward on its purpose.
First note that dysfunctional behavior doesn’t necessarily have to be “bad” behavior. A person may be doing a good thing with the wrong timing. Or a person may be giving the situation his or her best effort, selecting the wrong good thing to do. Dysfunctional behavior must be controlled and changed over time by the group.
The successful group deals with its members’ behaviors that repeatedly get in the way of the group’s progress. Usually the group can just ignore unhelpful behavior and go on with its work. It does not need to deal with each and every dysfunctional behavior, only repeated behavior and the rare one-time seriously dysfunctional statement or action.
Dysfunctional behaviors on the part of members depend upon the particular group purpose and can be such things as talking too much, not talking enough, being too picky, not being specific enough, going to the bathroom at the wrong time during the meeting, coming to group sick with an infectious disease, bringing your pet parakeet in your shirt pocket, not doing preparatory work before the meeting, not doing assigned tasks, and a list of a hundred more.
To get behavior back on track, the group might need to explain to a member that silence is often a good way to allow people to think before they risk speaking. The group may need to point out that off-color joking is inappropriate and distracting. The group can teach an offending member that swearing is poor communication since it is not descriptive enough. The group may need to point out that giving the same old simplistic answers over and over again is not really helpful.
The successful group catches those critical or repeated dysfunctional behaviors and addresses them in order to cut off their destructiveness to the group’s progress. If the group does not, problems will develop. The sharp group leader will wait until at least a noticeable problem develops and then explain to the group how it developed by the group not dealing with some previously dysfunctional behavior. Then with subsequent problems, the group leader lets the problems go a little longer, a little more out of control, to see if the group will backtrack and deal with the dysfunctional behavior that started the problem. Eventually, because the leader did not rush in to help and a little more pain was experienced, the group will begin sooner to more carefully evaluate the effect of member behavior on the group and its progress toward its purpose.
Usually, it is only necessary to point out that a behavior is not helping or is not related to the purpose of the group. Many people will easily go on to change their behavior if a "major issue" is not made of it. Making a "big deal" of something opens up the gate for shame to enter in. People being challenged in a major way will often react defensively because they already feel "convicted, sentenced, and condemned." Their unhelpful behavior will often continue without any improvement. But if the group calmly, humbly and gently labels inappropriate behavior as not helping at the moment, and if the group identifies more appropriate behavior, many people will change their conduct on the spot.
It is during the correction of a group member that group synergy is so very important. Let’s say that one person lovingly confronts another. The group then confirms the correction. Yet the particular person being confronted feels attacked, triggered most likely from negative past experiences, and gets very defensive. The person in the group with the closest relationship or friendship can switch from confronting to upholding, reassuring the person of the group’s good intentions and love. Other group members will state the problem in different ways, some more kinder than others, and, therefore, more receivable by the member who feels “on the spot”. Another person in the group might ask someone very articulate to represent the “accused person’s” point of view, speaking for that person, allowing the fearful member to withdraw to feel safety for a few moments. However, the one taking the point of view of the confronted member will leave out defensiveness. That will help the issue to become less inflamed, more understood, and safer for self-examination. Everyone working together will help the confronted person to eventually respond appropriately to the group’s correction and bring his or her behavior into line with that required to reach the group’s purpose and goals. This is synergy, and the more mature a group the more it happens.
This reminds me of a situation once presented to me during one of my group leadership training workshops. A woman who led a junior high group of girls in the Pioneer Girls program (like Girl Scouts) of her local church related this incident, wondering how it could be handled. She and her group of girls were playing miniature golf. It started off fine. But by the seventh hole, the girls were angry with each other and fighting. What had happened was that one girl had become disruptive, hitting her ball hard and off the course at every opportunity, ruining the game for the other five girls. Here was dysfunctional behavior.
In dealing with dysfunctional behavior, it first must be defined in relationship to the group's purpose. I cannot remember the purpose of this leader's group, but it was something like "to learn about Jesus Christ and to have fun together." The miniature golf outing was to fit into that purpose. The behavior was inappropriate because it did not fit in with the purpose of the group to help one another have fun. Note that it would not have been inappropriate behavior if the goal was to go to the miniature golf course when no one else was using it for the purpose of making as many errors as possible to get over the fear of making mistakes.
I told this Pioneer Girls' leader that she had in this situation a wonderful opportunity to be of real help to these girls. She had "real" behavior to work with, behavior that these girls used all week long to deal with difficult situations. She had the opportunity to help the group of girls work together to help the one girl who was acting disruptively. What an opportunity to teach! This was real, and real solutions would teach powerful lessons for future behavior. Here she could teach a lesson and they could immediately put it into their behavior.
Let me tell how to handle this situation in narrative form, as if I had been the leader.
I called the girls off of the course at the end of the 7th hole in order to help them with the situation that had developed. I also wanted the people behind us to be able to go on past us so that we had plenty of time to deal with the problem that had arisen.
I wanted the girls themselves to do as much as they were able without my doing it for them. Only in this way would they develop a sense of their own adequacy to handle the "people problems" that would arise in their lives over the next 60 years. I wanted to build their confidence, both as individuals and as a group working together to solve the problem.
So, after calling the girls off to the side under a huge oak tree, I asked, "What's the problem?" A number of voices overlapped to tell me that Sarah was ruining the game. I walked over near Sarah to lend support so she could listen and eventually respond to the group.
I waited until everyone had gotten their complaint out, and then I gave the work to the group. "How do you want to deal with this problem?", I asked. There was silence until one girl suggested angrily that they toss Sarah out of the game. I asked them if they thought they should be more concerned about the game than Sarah. Considerable silence followed. I let it go on so the girls had time to think about what I had asked.
Eventually I asked, "Well, what have you each decided? Do you want to be more concerned about the game or about Sarah? You need to tell each other so that the group can decide what to do." Finally, Joan spoke up and told me that she thought it would not be right to eliminate Sarah from the game. I told her that she needed to tell this to the others, not me, since any solution would need the group's agreement and effort. She told the group her thoughts, looking at the other girls as she talked.
I kept silent, and one by one the girls agreed with Joan. Sarah stood there looking defiant. I asked the girls if they knew what to do next. They replied that they did not.
Knowing that Sarah already knew how her behavior was ruining the game and how it made the others angry, I suggested to the group that they try to find out why Sarah was acting the way she was. That would help them identify the real problem.
They asked, and Sarah told the others how badly she was doing and how she hated miniature golf. She began to cry. The other girls could then recognize that Sarah was miserable doing so poorly at the game. They told her that they couldn't do some of the things Sarah had done so well during the course of the group's life. And they mentioned that they did not think of her badly if she did poorly, that it did not matter how good she was at miniature golf for them to like her a lot. Valerie went and put her arm around Sarah.
Soon the group was back on the course having fun. And Sarah was doing as badly as ever, but was not out of control. And she was enjoying herself for the first time in her life when she was doing poorly. Her parents were always critical or pushing her to do better. The group showed her the acceptance she desperately needed.
This incident shows how a group can address dysfunctional behavior in a helpful, non-judging, manner. It also illustrates a group's responsibility to identify barriers to their progress and overcome them.
Next, let's look at the group's responsibilities to give emotional support as well as mutual aid, and understand the difference between the two.