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Group Savvy - Interpreting the Situation and/or Networks of an Organization

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Group savvy represents a set of skills developed through experience. You learn how to navigate a group by being in an organization. You develop your capacity to perceive and read the social and power networks by becoming part of the networks themselves.


The posting below looks at how to figure out the informal but very important components of success in a new organization or setting. It is from Chapter 3, Group Savvy: Interpreting the Situation and/or Networks of an Organization in the book, Emotionally Intelligent Leadership, A Guide for College Students by Marcy Levy Shankman and Scott J. Allen. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint. Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2008 by Marcy Levy Shankman and Scott J. Allen. All rights reserved. 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 . Reprinted with permission.

Rick Reis

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Group Savvy: Interpreting the Situation and/or Networks of an Organization


Imagine that you're new to a group. Maybe you have an internship or a part-time job in an office. Or maybe you're a new member in an organization or club. Perhaps you have a new group of friends. When you're new, one of the big questions is, how do you become a part of that group? How do you figure where you fit?

If you're working, you may go through a staff orientation. Colleges and universities run orientation programs so that new students can learn about life on campus. But is this enough? If you've joined a club or organization, do you get anything more than an introduction to the people and an explanation of "how we do things here"? What if no one tells you any of this? If or when an introduction or orientation occurs, you generally get the official or accepted policies, procedures, rules, and regulations. We all know, however, that there's a lot about being in a group that isn't written down, explained, or even necessarily clearly defined.

Group savvy describes the skill set that helps you in all of these scenarios. This Emotionally Intelligent Leadership (EIL) capacity entails reading between the lines, identifying the "power players" in a group, and knowing how to get along without being told what to do and how to do it every step of the way. Group savvy helps you learn organizational politics and values. You can identify who is important in a group and how to develop relationships so you fit in. You can figure out what is happening and how to help make things happen.

Peeling Away the Layers

Imagine an onion. On the outside are the brown protective layers of skin. As you peel away the layers, the skin changes texture from paper and fragile to something stronger. At the middle of the onion, you find the most pungent and powerful part. Imagine an onion as a metaphor for a relationship or a group.

There are elements of a group that are known and obvious- who is in charge by title or position, the written rules of the group, and so on. These are the outer layers of the onion-easy to get at and clearly known to everyone (Hunt, 1991). But as you peel away the easy layers, you get to the tougher, stronger layers. Who is actually in charge? What matters most to the group? Who forms the in-group and who are the outsiders? These questions help you understand the group or organization in a deeper way. When you ask these questions and discover the answers, you are using your group savvy skills.


Diagnosing an organization or group culture is at the core of group savvy. Understanding what is going on in a group might mean learning the difference between what you are officially told and what you perceive really happens. Consider learning about an organization or group culture in order to improve your group savvy. According to Driskill and Brenton (2005), the following elements make up a group's culture:

* Symbolic elements: This category refers to aspects of culture that represent something of value; for example, logos, formal speeches, web pages, organizational stories, even slang used by group members

* Role elements: This category refers to the two main roles that help you understand a group's culture-the heroes (people within the organization whom everyone admires) and the villains (the bad guys and girls, rebels).

* Interactive elements: This category includes the rituals, group norms, accepted behaviors, and communication styles demonstrated by group members and by the group itself.

* Context elements: This category reflects the important roles that place and time play in an organization. An organization's culture is affected by its history, location, and space (both physical space and the context in which the organization exists in relation to its external environment).

Learning to recognize and understand these elements enhances your ability to figure out what's going on in a group-your group savvy. Becoming familiar with these different elements of an organization's culture also enables you to become a more active participant in that group.

The Power of Asking Questions

Group savvy represents a set of skills developed through experience. You learn how to navigate a group by being in an organization. You develop your capacity to perceive and read the social and power networks by becoming part of the networks themselves. Try this: think about the different elements mentioned earlier. Focus on an organization or group that you know well-it could be a club or organization, a workplace, or even a group of friends. Think about how these elements affect leadership. As you reflect on the relationship between these elements and leadership, you'll begin to see you group or organization in a whole new light. Here are a few questions to get you started:

* Who is the leader of the meeting?

* In your opinion, what are the leader's strengths and weaknesses?

* What would make the leader more successful or influential?

* What knowledge, skills, or abilities elevated the leader to this role? Knowledge? Friendliness? Did this person simply do a lot?

* Who are the followers in the meeting?

* Are the followers subservient or are they independent-minded?

* Does anyone seem to have a personal agenda? Is this person supportive of the leader? Why or why not?

* Who speaks a lot? Who speaks but is not heard or given power by the group or the leader?


Organizations are complex and dynamic. What works in one group or for one organization may fail miserably in another. The same holds true for leadership-a leader in one organization may not be successful in another. There are many examples of corporate, educational, and political leaders who are successful in one position and fall short of expectations when they change companies, institutions, or offices. Group savvy helps leaders improve their navigation of the challenges and complexities of different organizations.

Student Voice

"When I'm first joining an organization, I always limit my active participation. Instead, I spend a lot of time watching the body language of long-time members. I notice (1) their manner of interaction with each other and (2) their reaction to other new-comers in the group. From these interactions, I infer social norms. Following the internal rules of the organization lets me get what I want out of the organization. For example, I have to act brashly in my college dormitory if I want anyone to notice me, but that sort of attitude would have gotten me fired from my summer internship." -Female senior at MIT, involved in volunteer work, internship/job, and a religious organization

"Clearly, the easiest way to learn the unwritten rules or internal workings of an organization is to be fully engulfed in the organization. By carefully listening and evaluating an organization, an individual can quickly (this being a relative term) discover the internal workings and organizational culture that exists within an organization." -Male senior at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, involved in a fraternity and an honor society

"To be honest, the best way is to enter a position and learn through mistakes. This can be best done if you provide an acclimation period wherein outgoing executive and incoming executive work as a pair for a substantial period of time to truly understand the internal workings of an organization." -Male junior at Miami University (Ohio), involved in a fraternity, an honor society, and the residence hall association

"I've learned these unwritten rules mostly by observation and listening. If I see how things operate and try to follow the examples of others, I find that I catch on quickly. I always ask questions if I don't think I'm doing something right." -Female senior at University of Iowa, involved in orientation and an honor society

Reflection Questions

* How does group savvy enhance your leadership potential?

* How does group savvy relate to environmental awareness or consciousness of context?

* How can you develop your awareness of the listed indicators of organizational culture?