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Effective Self-Organization through an
Ever-changing Process // Briana Reece


Leaderless groups exist within many realms of society and are participated in largely throughout our college careers. Activist groups, design charrettes/competitions, group projects, and the Design+Make Studio are groups where people of equal enthusiasm gather to accomplish one mission. We have been existing in a non-hierarchical organization where each colleague started the semester with similar interest in the project and identical levels of control. When no formal organizational structure is put in place we are left to self-organize and how effectively we do that can determine the group's’ success. This process of people obtaining leadership positions and their effect on the group has been a consequential aspect to the fluidity of the design and construction process for the Design+Make Studio. Over the course of the semester there were people who seemed to emerge from the group as candidates for leadership. These candidates emerged partially due to their character traits and partially due to the situation.


As explained in The Communication in Small Group Discussion: An Integrated Approach, leaders emerge as a response to the situation in which they are placed.(1) The beginning of the semester began with a very action oriented mindset: to design details, prototype the difficult aspects of design, order materials, and compose a thorough budget among other tasks. Those who excelled at getting things done were people with a very task oriented mindsets. They gained status and respect from their peers through hard work and knowledge. Those with experience carrying out tasks especially related to construction assumed the role as manager to see these tasks were completed. As the semester progressed so did the project. After action oriented tasks were complete, then relational tasks became significant. These functions included communicating with the client, marketing our project to others, obtaining tours and materials from local manufacturers and coordinating with everyone involved to relay schedule and expectations. Those who were initially identified as leaders based on their ability to complete tasks were not the best fit to lead the relational tasks. This disconnect between two different task types led to tension between these designated leaders and those who were better fit for the role.


Carrying out tasks to progress the dry stack limestone wall.

Communicating the design intent with structural engineer to reach a solution acceptable to both groups.

Members are also seen as candidates based on character traits they exhibit. (2) The Fundamentals of Small Group Communication suggests that leaders emerge “based on communicative behaviors and persuasive influence.” When referring to these communicative behaviors, leaders are more eloquent, confident, and more vocal than other members.  “Experts believe emergent leadership also result from the perceived intellectual competence (understood by others).” This intelligence is reassuring as good problem-solving skills are needed for good leadership. Leaders also tend to be more assertive, outgoing and persistent than other members of the group. These traits come from the confidence that they are knowledgeable in the subject.


What if the identified emergent leaders don’t have qualities to withstand shifts over time?  

Leaders within the Design+Make studio had strong tendencies of persuasive influence but struggled most with communicative behaviors. The persuasive influence assured members that their problem solving and decisions were the most valid options. Strengthening the communication between leaders and members could have been the key to a more successful process for the group. Communication during the initial action oriented stages of the project should allow others to help carry out tasks related to their direct decisions. Using respectful, thorough and precise directions the leader relayed information to members allowing tasks to be completed. Communication should also be key when responsibilities change to facets uncomfortable to these identified leaders. When this shift happens it many times leads to discord within the group. If the leader attempts to still gain full control with aspects they do not excel at, many times it is perceived as weakness and trust of the members begins to deteriorate.  Rather than communicating their ideas directly, they should communicate with other members whose strengths match up with the tasks at hand. They should allow for more delegation to happen while using the leadership position to oversee that these tasks are completed. The same tone and understanding attitude should follow through in these forms of communication but allow for others to be the primary decision makers.


Allowing team members to take informal leadership roles based on individual strengths.

Leaderless groups find leadership in an organic process by allowing members to emerge and gain respect from their colleagues. This respect comes from their response to the situation in terms of actions taken and characteristics they exhibit. As the studio added more relational tasks and not just action oriented items, the leadership became less effective. The fluidity and effectiveness of the group began to fail as the goals changed and did not include characteristics in the leader’s wheel house. As the leader began to show weaknesses, the members began to become more uncertain of the leader's ability and the arrangement began to break down. For a successful self-organized group, members must fully buy into the hierarchy put in place. When weaknesses arise or the validity of the leader's’ ability is questioned and dismissed, another motivating factor must take over. Many times this motivating factor is money. Bosses, imposed leaders, and competition judges have the ability to influence members based on their guardianship of money. During school, we find grades just as influential as money. The reason to be an active participant throughout school projects is largely attributed to grades. These overarching and most powerful factors of motivation, money and grades, are controlled by prescribed leaders. These prescribed leaders should have an obligation to monitor group dynamics and step in when the self-organization of the group is no longer effective. When emergent leaders become ineffective and fail to get successful cooperation from members, using money and/or grades will allow for a more productive response. The Design+Make studio started with a fully functioning team created by this organic form of leadership. Leaders had emerged based on characteristics and tasks at hand, with additional members motivated to participate. As the leaders’ abilities were dismissed, others became unmotivated and disinterested. At this point, the use of grades to interest students was crucial to the reintroduction of members who had become dispassionate. The group lacked this upfront reminder which would take this once functioning group back to a studio with thirteen contributing members. While successful in the fact that the project and tasks were completed, we were unsuccessful in sustaining a leadership hierarchy which kept all members engaged.



(1) "Leadership, Roles and Problem Solving in Groups." N.p., n.d. Web.

(2)  "What Are the Top 3 Features of an Emerging Leader?" SquareBlog. N.p., 09 Aug. 2010. Web. 01 May 2016.



Written by Briana Reece

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