By: Todd Essig
Having just returned from a Backroads bike trip, I now see why. It was outstanding. Everything clicked. One especially important component making the trip such a rich, fun and seamlessly easy experience was the impressive leadership skills of the group leaders. I took notice. 6 specific leadership lessons emerged, lessons you also may want to note should your job—or hobby—ever require you to facilitate group formation.
Of course, this was vacation (did I say, maybe the best ever?) and not work. Because of that the purposes of the group were quite specific: safety first, have fun, experience the local scene. But the leadership skills on display are also applicable both singly and in combination to other kinds of groups, such as seminars, classes, work-groups, and teams. In fact, these skills should be in the tool-kit of anyone trying to corral a collection of strangers into a group for whatever purposes are at hand.
1. Front-load preparation and expertise
You only get one chance to make a first impression. Make it a good one. Time spent preparing an initial display of effective expertise is time well spent.
We were a group of 20 (families, couples, and individuals) who had never met. People, even experienced Backroad-ers, were brimming with anticipation, excitement and, yes, even some anxiety. Everyone wanted special treatment, while also wanting to just be one of the group. Everyone had questions and requests, oh so important requests that would devolve into irritated demands if there was not immediate and sufficient attention. And the fact that everyone was dressed in multi-colored biking attire lent an edgy carnival feel to the sunny scene.
The leaders were more than ready for us. They did their prep work. Like a couple of busy short-order cooks with well-stocked grills fielding orders and dishing out plates full of expert help and good cheer, the leaders responded to every request. No orders got lost. Everyone was soon settled on a properly fitted and outfitted bike; all supplies were located and distributed; information, and how to get more information, was shared and then shared again. Not only were we all soon happily sent on our way, a tone of expertise and competence was set that lasted the entire week.
2. Invite task-consistent individual differences
No one wants to participate in a group if the group does not have room for them, for their unique individual needs and abilities. This is as true at work as it is at play.
Everyone on this trip had different expectations, fitness levels, and biking proficiency. The leaders made sure all differences were treated as equally valid and important. “It’s all good” was the motto. Someone went on his first century-rides (100 miles) while someone else upped his personal distance record from 27 miles to 71 miles. But there were also others who wanted more time at the spa or by the pool who relied on a support van to avoid long hills, or even long rides. Some families wanted mostly to stay to themselves while other people looked to the week as summer camp for adults, and became friends in the process.
And it was all good. There was ample room for everyone to be themselves. Inviting task-consistent individual differences was the responsibility of the leaders, and they did a great job of it.
3. Establish clear rituals for information exchange
When you don’t know what you need to know, and you know it, to avoid discomfort you need to know how you’re going to get the information you need. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by always having a search screen available, of always knowing how to get the information we want. Or maybe not knowing just makes people nervous. In any event, group leaders need to be very clear and precise about how and when people could get the information they need. There needs to be reliable rituals for information exchange. Such rituals of information exchange are important tools to keep anxiety at a minimum and keep everyone focussed on the group tasks, regardless of the nature of the task.
Rituals were set on the first day, and reliably maintained. There would be a detailed hand-out in the evening about the next day’s ride. And there was a “morning route rap” when everyone gathered to talk through the various options and get all practical questions answered. But the specific ritual is not as important as the fact that reliable rituals were present. We always knew we could access our “search screen.”
4, Self-disclose positive experiences for increased positive emotions
“Reciprocity of self-disclosure” is a well-documented research finding. It boils down to one way you can encourage other people to share personal information during social encounters is by sharing some of your own.
The leaders were emotionally open and present. But only about positive experiences. I’m sure they experienced the same mix of disappointment and heartache that infect any life. Their lives were not just Appalachian trial hikes, on the trail romance, long-distance bike-rides, and relentless good cheer. But sharing those experiences were not part of leading this group. This was not a kvetch-fest. And because of reciprocity in self-disclosure, the more they talked about positive experiences, the more the rest of us did.
Of course, we were a time-limited group with specific functions that included having fun. If we were to be an ongoing group, I am sure some of this good cheer would have eventually worn thin, at least for my disposition. But for the purposes at hand a style of reciprocal disclosure of positive experiences rippled throughout the group contributing lots of laughs to what was a real good time.
5. Support positive group identity with downward comparisons to other groups
Everyone wants to feel part of something special. Like Lake Wobegon where “all the children are above average,” a little “illusory superiority” can help grease the wheels of group formation. Along with never hearing a single negative comment about our group of riders, the leaders did tell some hilarious stories about bad behavior from other other groups and other trips.
It’s pretty clear that not every group can really be the “best group ever.” But it’s nice to feel that you are, and some gentle downward comparisons to other groups can help.
6. Pick a team committed to the group’s goals
OK, I admit it, we were a great group. Maybe the best ever. Not a prima donna in the bunch, which is not to say that there weren’t a lot of strong personalities. It’s just that everyone put the group tasks of safety, fun, and local color ahead of whatever personal irritations may have brewed beneath the surface. Everyone did not need to be a beast on their bike, a fun-loving party animal, or a budding tour guide. They just needed to want everyone to stay safe, have fun, and enjoy the scene. And good things happen when everyone in a group signs-up for the tasks at hand.
Finally, if any of my fellow travelers are reading this, double-d says hi.
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