I was a psych major in college and working at a community counseling program. We ran a crisis hot line, manned a “trip tent” at rock concerts, and took a lot of practical training in group dynamics as it was then studied by the Tavistock Institute.
A psychologist from the university facilitated a training for us in group processes that had a profound effect on my life.
At the training, seven or eight of us were put in a group and assigned what seemed a simple a task: to order pizza for lunch.
But by the end of an hour, we had no pizza, the group had split into two warring factions, and I was miserable.
It started when someone suggested ordering two pizzas, one with one type of topping, the second with another. There was a general murmur of “sounds reasonable” and “one of them should be vegetarian” and I joined in that affirmative chorus. Discussion of specific toppings had begun when my friend Tim, a glint in his eye, said loudly “Why does it have to be pizza? The restaurant has sub sandwiches, too. We could get meatball subs.”
Everyone looked at Tim.
“Good point,” someone said. But others in the group were frowning. Things were getting complicated.
There was discussion of getting a couple of subs and a pizza. Then someone pointed out “Look, the assignment for the group was to order pizza.” General agreement, in which I joined. The suggester, buoyed by the agreement, returned to the plan for choosing the toppings for two pizzas, and people began discussing what should go on the veggie pizza and what on the non-veggie.
“Why do we have to do what we’re told?” Tim asked. “No one said we couldn’t change or modify the assignment. Perhaps this is an exercise to see if we can stop being sheep.”
This made sense to me, and apparently to several other folks. People stopped talking about pizza toppings, and started talking about the assignment. Groups dealt with disagreement! This was natural!
After a while, discussion died down and there was a tentative suggestion that we go ahead and order sandwiches from a deli instead.
At which point, a fellow who’d been moving in to Tim’s camp said. “Why do we have to order anything at all? Why couldn’t we just decide to give the pizza money to charity? We could decide to do that, and just go home. Hey, we could just take the money and go to a bar and get drunk.”
I think, at this point, Tim got up and reached for his coat.
“Sounds good to me,” he said.
Not surprisingly, several people in the group began looking distinctly uneasy. They looked at the psychologist who was sitting on a couch, observing our group process. He, of course, looked utterly detached.
By now the group had polarized. At one end, there was Tim and the other anarchist. At the other end, the conservatives, who by now wanted to order the damn pizzas and forget Tim.
On the sidelines were a few people who thought Tim was being a clever jerk and the pizza people were getting ridiculously worked up over a pizza. By now, most of them looked bored and ready to leave.
And then there was me. All I could think was that this silly argument was going to go on for ever, and we’d never get anything accomplished. Or any lunch. And I was utterly miserable.
At the end of the second hour, the psychologist called a halt to it. He pointed out to us how the group had polarized, and what roles each of us had taken. He assured us that no matter how you constitute a group, certain people will fall into the roles of the leaders, the anarchists, the followers, and the deserters.
At the end of the training, the psychologist called me over. He said: “You need to stay out of groups. You take on the overall experience of the organization. Whenever there is conflict, which there inevitably is, you experience the conflict, and it will tear you apart.”
I heeded his advice, and worked for a number of years as a journalist, observing and describing conflicts without having to be part of the conflicts themselves. In recent years, I’ve been careful (and fortunate) to work with strong, decisive bosses and clients.
I’m just now starting to be involved with groups as a volunteer and, let me tell you, it’s pizza and anarchy all over again.