As initiatives like the Citizens' Assembly demonstrate, groupwork has the potential to do more than most individuals could do on their own, writes Dr Bríd Connolly, Department of Adult and Community Education

We work, play and learn in groups, but society is organised on the basis that we live as individuals, independent of others. This takes in the trust in meritocracy and the belief that benefits and rewards are truly deserved due to the individual talents and capacities in education and work. It also includes the reliance on personal responsibility to solve difficult social issues, such as reducing waste as a response to climate change. But it is useful to reflect on the contradictions between individualism and the demands made by work, education, democracy and everyday life. 

Humans are born into families, communities and society. From the very first moments, humans seek connections from others in the form of touch, eye-contact, facial expression and the sound of our parents’ voices. Babies are completely dependent on others for sustenance and care. We learn everything from walking and talking, to attitudes and values, to develop as adults. While walking and talking are innate drives, they are shaped by the social environment, like the light voices of women in some countries or the male, shoulder-rolling walk in others. However, values and attitudes are resolutely social, with culture, society, tradition and power differentials coalescing to create the ethos and principles.

Groupwork is a way of harnessing those inherent social qualities. But rather than passively accepting prevailing values and attitudes, groupwork uses the active, reflective participation of people in a sophisticated way that draws on their best qualities. And this is where synergy comes in. The relationship between team members is as important as getting the work done

Groupwork is developed at work and learning environments, counselling and psychotherapy, social movements and deliberative democracy, for example. Counselling and psychotherapy delves into the deep recesses of the conscious and unconscious mind, in order to relieve and heal trauma and distress. Similarly, in social movements, groups have been essential to order to develop solidarity and support to overcome alienation.

However, not all groupwork needs to function at such profound levels. Drawing on social psychology, teamwork has everything to do with getting the job done and less to do with the personalities or the unconscious drives of team members. These two dimensions - the task of getting the job done and the process of the relationship between the group members - are characteristic of groupwork and the emphasis on one or the other or a balance between the two, depends on the situation.

In work contexts that require a high level of co-operation, the relationship between the team members is as important as getting the work done. Relationships depend on recognising the good and not-so-good in everyone, so that they can function effectively and overcome difficulties. The balance between the task and the process must be used wisely to enhance the outcomes for the entire project.
The Citizens' Assembly is a complete contrast to representative democracy or direct democracy and leads to more sophisticated decisions

Team leaders are important in maintaining this balance. They must recognise the qualities of the team members to address personality clashes and conflict between the participants, on the one hand, and to make the most of their skills and talents. But in addition, they must have insight into their own behaviour and attitudes, to overcome unconscious bias and to avoid enmeshing the team in their own issues.

Team leaders need intelligence, both cognitive and emotional, rather than leadership through force of personality, social class, gender, ethnicity, or some ephemeral quality like charisma. This contrasts with traditional hierarchical assumptions, that of powerful leaders and powerless followers who had little or no initiative or self-direction. Nowadays, there is more emphasis on equality, empowerment and participation, including motivated workers and facilitative leaders.

Groups develop in myriad ways, but broadly, there are various stages including getting to know others and oneself, issues around power and control; and eventually, getting to the stage where the group settles down and gets on with the work on hand. These stages can be observed and experienced in adult learning groups. Groupwork acknowledges the talents and capacities of individuals, and utilises them to benefit the entire society.

Adult education is based on the premise that all learning is social, whether it is from reading, watching TV, imitation, experience, being taught, thinking about things, reflection. This brings changes in the brain, but it not simply a cognitive or psychological process, although it is often framed as purely individual. Meritocracy is based on the belief that educational success is not related to class, gender, resources or social dividends. Yet, any superficial analysis shows that education is characterised by deep inequalities, from the geography of early school leaving to the rewards in the elite professions.

Democracy has also been assumed to be individual, although the etymology shows that it is meant to be collective, that is, rule by the people. But this has been interpreted as representation, elected through the vote. Voting has been exploited by advertising, propaganda, peer pressure and the invisible hand of the social institutions, particularly in the past few years with the harvesting of data to undermine democracy.  

However, there are cracks in that mould. Ireland has witnessed a fundamental shift with the Citizen’s Assembly. This process is known as deliberative democracy and it depends on groupwork and facilitation to bring it to fruition. The random sample of citizens work in small groups, listening to arguments for and against propositions before they make up their minds. This is a complete contrast to representative democracy or direct democracy and it leads to more sophisticated decisions.

Groupwork demonstrates the potential of synergy to bring about higher quality thinking and doing than most individuals could do on their own. It acknowledges the talents and capacities of individuals, and utilises them to benefit the entire society.