Clarifying roles and responsibility
As group activities come together, their complexity usually comes into focus gradually. The previous ILLUSTRATION presents one level of tasks which are not specific enough so they are broken down again into even more concrete, realizable steps. As this long list of details unravels, the question of organization and keeping track of things comes to mind. How does a group make certain that a long list of tasks contributing to a larger cooperative activity is completed?
Essentially this a matter of planning. However, it is a special kind of group planning in which a variety of people are asked to carry out a number of different tasks. First of all, the list of tasks to be accomplished must be as specific, detailed and complete as possible. Participants have to agree that this list is exactly what they wish to do. The method by which each task is accomplished must also be clear.
Having finalized the list, the organizer begins a process of contracting, similar to that described in Chapter Three under "Working With Counterparts". To apply it to a group situation, the organizer begins by helping the participants clarify the purpose of their cooperation and the overall goal of their work. Then the participants might share expectations of their roles, what is to happen, and how things are to be done. In a discussion following, carefully monitored by the organizer/extensionist or a trained counterpart, various expectations are verged and adjusted to fit together into a rough work plan. The work plan is finalized through negotiation of the specific points in the work plan - what is to be done, by whom, how and when. At this point people should match their skills and interests with the tasks listed to do. The organizer asks participants to review these details and agree on them and the overall plan of work. Finally, the organizer asks each person involved to commit herself to a specific role and set of responsibilities within the cooperative activity. A time is set to meet to do the work, and another time is agreed upon to evaluate the results of the work.
The formula for this process is fairly simple. But the effort involved in group decision-making of this kind, especially among those new to this way of working, is enormous. It requires great patience and many hours of preparation. Participants must be ready to do this, and issues/tasks must be clear enough beforehand for this contract to evolve smoothly.
This rigorous process of role and responsibility clarification is important because unfamiliar forms of cooperation are often mistrusted until proven profitable to participants. Even in villages where family and communal cooperation is a norm, it is hard for individuals to perceive the value (for them) of other common efforts. Traditional cooperation has proven its usefulness over generations. If a West African farmer shares his bounty at harvest with his extended family and chief, the odd lean year will not be as problematic, because they will reciprocate. The pattern of contribution and return is well-understood and trustworthy in this instance. But cooperative efforts outside the strict circle of tradition require a special investment effort.
Furthermore, cooperative activities are sometimes poorly organized (especially by impatient or inexperienced outsiders). These result in disappointments which reinforce suspicions about common efforts. By rigorously planning the manner in which participants play their parts, the organizer helps allay these fears and demonstrate the fact that everyone is contributing in an equitable way. The plan becomes a reference point for mediating disputes or clarifying misunderstandings. It also serves the practical purpose of keeping track of who does what, when.
It is here, during the discussion of tasks and roles, that the extensionist must learn to say "NO". The organizer's task is to organize cooperative activity. Participants do the cooperative tasks. If the organizing has been successful to this point, the extensionist's role is to remain in the background, to depart from center stage. The extensionist takes total responsibility for assessing the need for cooperative activity. She assesses interests and problems, identifies common issues with people, begins to see tentative tasks emerge, and, most importantly moves people toward coming together to decide on tasks, role and responsibilities. At this meeting the organizer should be behind the scenes, if her organizing efforts have been successful. When farmers look to her to solve the problem they themselves consider addressing though cooperative effort, the extensionist says "NO".
For the most part this set of agreements is made in discussions with participants. The organizer plays the role of bringing people together and asking the questions which stimulate group decision-making. In rural communities in developing countries the community meeting is a familiar forum for such discussions. The importance of the spoken word in situations like these is due to the fact that literacy is not often widespread and oratory is a time-honored skill. Oral contracts, witnessed by others, are often the most legal and binding commitments in village communities. The organizer must learn what the most appropriate form of agreement is in his situation, and conform to it. The cultural appropriateness of contracts gives them added weight and influence.
Excerpt from a conversation between Bill Moyers, TV interviewer, and Myles Horton, founder of Highlander Research and Education Center in Appalachia:
MOYERS: Was this place, Lumberton, North Carolina, when the four guys came after you with the guns and you made your best speech?
HORTON: Oh, yeah, that's-I had some experiences there, that was very educational to me.
MOYERS: What happened that time?
HORTON: I was trying to get those people to make a decision. Because the big thing is to get people to have confidence they can make decisions. I was doing pretty well, so they made all the plans, and committees were set up, and they'd made all the decisions. I just sat with them, and encouraged them to make decisions, but it got pretty rough. And it looked like it was about to fail. The committee got pretty desperate, they weren't so sure of themselves. So they came up to my room one time and said "We got to talk about plans." And they talked it over and said, "Myles, you got to tell us what to do. We've just gone as far as we can." and I said, "You've got to run this union, so you might as well learn. You learn when it's easy, and you learn when it's rough. And if you don't learn to make tough decisions, you know. I learned. I get the learning experience you don't, I need it less than you do. You need the learning experience. I can get along without you know. So you've got to make the decision." They said, "but there's 2,000 people involved in this decision." And I said, "Sure, that's why you, you know, it's rather important decision but you've got to make it. " And one guy say, you know, "You've gotta, you gotta make this decision." I said "No, no, I --" And he says, "Now you're not at Highlander running a school, you'v got to do this." So I said, "No, you've gotta make it." So he just pulled -reached in his pocket and pulled out a gun, and he said "You sonuvabitch make this decision right now". (laughs) I came nearer to going back on my principles of education than I ever did in my life.
MOYERS: But did you stick firm?
HORTON: Yeah, I did, I said "Well", I said you know, "You can win this round, but you still won't know how to make decisions after you get through."
1. See Chapter Six under "Planning" and "Carryring Out Plans".
2. See Chapter Three under "Working With Counterparts".
3. See the following subchapter "Meetings" and "Group Dynamics".
(from US Dept of Health & Human Services, Training of Trainers Manual)
Many decisions are made in groups before full consideration has been given to the effects these decisions will have on other members. Some people try to impose their decisions on the group, while others want all members to participate or share in the decisions that are made.
• Does anyone make a decision and carry it out without checking with other group members (self-authorized)? For example, does anyone decide on the topic to be discussed and immediately begin to talk about it? What effect does this have on others?
• Does the group drift from topic to topic? Who topic-jumps? Do you see any reason fo this in the group's interactions?
• Who supports other members' suggestions or decisons? Does this support result in the two members deciding the topic or activity for the group? How does this affect others?
• Is there any evidence of a majority pushing a decision through over other members' objections? Do they call for a vote (majority support)?
• Is there any attempt to get all members participating in a decision (consensus)? What effect does this seem to have on the group?
• Does anyone make contributions that receive no response or recognition? What effect does this have on the member?