How to Become a More Effective Small Group Leader or Member

All of us have been part of a small group at some point in our lives, haven’t we?

Think of some people gathered on a street sidewalk in a bustling city moving closer together in a “group” as they try to hail a taxi. Or can you picture some people gathered in a work/office room, discussing and collaborating to solve a challenge? Now consider a group of people gathered and waiting to be individually called in for a doctor’s appointment.

Does each of these mental pictures of groups of people fit the meaning of what a small group is? What are key elements that help us discern the difference between random collections of people, and functioning small groups?

And why do we care?!

Well, if you are a leader of a small group (either a leader established formally – perhaps by a title, or have informally become the “leader” of a group), understanding these 4 Key Elements of Small Groups can help you intentionally lead with fresh strategies.

Or, are you a member of a small group, and do you desire to make it a meaningful, positive, and effective experience? If so, then understanding these 4 Key Elements of Small Groups can help you engage in the group in ways that may shape the experience and effectiveness of the group.

Understanding 4 Key Elements of Small Groups – What are they?

1) When 3+ people gather together, they have the makings of a small group – when a few more key elements are added! Is the size of a small group limited or ideal with no more than 7, 12, 15, or 20 members? Actually, there is no magical number when it comes to how large an effective small group can be. The ideal number of members in a small group is typically the smallest number possible to successfully complete the purpose of the small group. This size number of group members depends largely on the next key element of a small group…its purpose.

2) The next element of small groups is that they possess a known and shared goal or purpose.  Group members are united in their common focus of reaching the clear goal or purpose of the group.

3) A third key element of small groups is that members interact with one another. Whether face-to-face or in virtual groups, members dialogue, discuss, sometimes debate, and collaborate as they create shared meaning together. In graduate school online leadership development courses I teach, I have seen some extremely dynamic small, virtual groups develop. They have a clear purpose (a small group project/assignment!), and work closely together to pull it off, all while never meeting face-to-face.  Whether or not you have had a virtual small group experience or not, let’s hope we can all relate to the interaction involved (and required!) in a functioning small group where participation is primarily face-to-face.

4) The last key element of small groups is that members influence one another. Members are open to learning with one another as a result of dialogue and discussion and discovering insights from the perspectives of others.

How does this info help me as a leader?

Sometimes asking ourselves questions like below related to the 4 Key Elements of Small Groups help us reflect as leaders – and then plan how to lead more strategically.

  • Have I clearly designated the members of this small group? Have I made known the members of this small group? While this seems elementary, sometimes conflict and obstacles in a small group’s effectiveness result from unclear membership.
  • Have I clearly articulated the purpose for this group? Are ALL members aware of the goal and purpose of this group? If I asked each member, would I get the same response? Do I need to cast some vision regarding what this group is trying to accomplish? Can I paint a picture of what it will be like when this group has achieved its purpose?
  • To what degree do all members in this group interact with one another? How can I best encourage every single member to contribute ideas and discussion? Are there any ground rules I need to establish as the leader to create a safe environment for all members to engage in dialogue?  Am I listening fully to each group member when they contribute in any fashion?
  • Do I see this small group as a connected system, where each member influences other members and the group at large? How open are the members of this group to invite questions from one another and to truly listen to the perspectives of others? How open am I to this?

How does this info help me as a member of a small group?

It is not unusual to find ourselves as a part of a small group – either by choice or what seems like force (more about this in a subsequent post!). If we are not in the formal role as the leader in the small group, we can still play a significant part in influencing the small group and creating an enjoyable experience. Most likely we can all recount being part of a small group that seemed like drudgery or just miserable; all we could hope was that time would fleet by so we could be “done” with the small group!

Understanding the 4 Key Elements of Small Groups provides us a set of questions to consider as we attempt to make our participation in a small group an enjoyable and effective one.

  • Have I gone out of my way to acknowledge and to even welcome (in some small way) each member of this small group? What could that behavior look like?  Am I willing to commit to expressing value for each group member as a human being? (Hopefully you also foresee value that each unique individual brings to the group. But in case not, perhaps you can welcome each person in a civil way because of the virtue that he or she is a human!)
  • To what degree do I “know” that my perception of the purpose of this small group is accurate? How can I check this? When I possess clarity on the purpose and goal of this group, how can I restate this to the group and refocus our group on our purpose? What will that sound and look like?
  • How well do I interact with this small group? How willing am I to risk by offering my ideas and suggestions? How can I help create, establish, or maintain a safe and trusting culture where all members feel genuinely welcome to contribute and interact with one another?
  • How open am I to learning from other group members? How attached am I to my views and ideas? How important is it that my ideas are embraced by this group? To what degree am I able to suspend my judgments and try to learn what the perspectives are of other group members? How can I help this group be willing and open (and even desire!) to discover and learn insights from one another? What would that look and sound like?

Now that we’ve spent time thinking about key elements of small groups, we know that just because people may be gathered together – that proximity of one another does not make them a small group! So a group of people waiting for the next taxi or a subway, or folks gathered in a doctor’s office waiting room does not mean they are what we call a small group!

Whether you are a small group leader or member, hopefully now you are equipped to apply this knowledge in intentional ways to better impact the group how you desire.

Taking Action

Which questions above resonated with you most? Which ones can you copy/paste into your calendar to remind yourself to think about them and take strategic action as you continue to lead or participate with this small group?