We can’t go on meeting like this – Part 8 Manage Groups Online

Manage group dynamics online, keeping everyone involved and on-track

Dealing with people in groups

An experienced facilitator should be aware of how and why people react as they do in groups and know how to deal with the dynamics.

Establishing authority

An effective leader establishes and maintains personal credibility because he or she:

  • is prepared
  • obtains information about the participants, their accomplishments, behaviour, styles and preferences in advance
  • manages the meeting environment sensibly
  • displays effective communication and presentation skills
  • uses questioning skills and techniques effectively
  • responds properly to all calls for clarification or feedback
  • provides positive reinforcement and motivational incentives for contributions at the meeting
  • evaluates the inputs and outcomes of the meeting
  • reports and acts upon evaluation information.

Pecking order

It happens, not only with hens but also with other animals (including humans). A real or symbolic contest between two opponents determines who is allowed to ‘peck’ with whom. When a new member joins, there is unrest until a new contest determines the new member’s place in the group.

As long as the group is working out who’s who, it gets in the way of settling down to work. If participants know nothing about each other, it is difficult for them to know where they stand in relation to each other. That is why a facilitator will always try to ensure people have been properly introduced to one another as early and as rapidly as possible. An obvious opportunity is some kind of round­ the (virtual) table introduction.

Something else for the facilitator to consider is the extent to which groups soon appear to feel and think alike. ‘Behavioural norms’ are developing, and although usually unspoken, they may go as far as determining how much work will be done, when and by whom.

Getting to know everyone

It is important to know as much as you can about who will take part, before you design the meeting:

  • demographics – age, gender and so on
  • prior knowledge of the topic of the meeting, their attitude to it, and what special knowledge, information or insight they can bring along
  • any personal agendas, coloured by the demands and priorities of their particular jobs and careers
  • Whether they have the confidence, intellect and authority to wrestle with a problem by themselves
  • Whether they prefer to use others as a sounding board and compare opposing arguments before reaching a conclusion
  • Their attitude towards meeting online rather than face-to-face

You cannot expect everyone to thrive in a free-form, exploratory, fast-moving process for reaching resolutions. Conversely, if you hinder them or slow them down, the creative or spontaneous thinker may withdraw. A great benefit of the mixing of synchronous and asynchronous elements into meetings is that it plays to the stengths of both ends of the spectrum.

An online meeting may present information in a visual way while text or speech is happening in the background. People differ in their “perceptual modality”. This means the primary senses through which they prefer to receive information – text, audio, imagery, touch, and so on. As long as they do not suffer from some physical or psychological impairment, people are quite capable of accepting sensory input in in any number of ways, whether or not it is their method of choice. Take care with how you mix modality, for example, don’t read text aloud to people who can read it for themselves. In part 6 of this series, we dealt with the use and combination of media elements to get your message across.

Roles within groups

“Some”, says the bard, “have greatness thrust upon them”. Roles in a group may be actively chosen or thrust upon one who passively accepts it under pressure or because no one else will. One person may assume more than one role.

Active roles (apart from the facilitator):

  1. Workers
  2. Fighters

Passive roles:

  1. Favourites
  2. Idiots
  3. Conformists
  4. Outsiders
  5. Scapegoats

Workers are an uncomfortable reminder of what all other members ought to achieve if only they tried. It is taken on by one who is more intelligent or a higher performer than the others and not prepared to go at the pace of the slowest. Some in this role of worker are driven to be best at everything.


Bolsterd by the respect of the group for speaking their minds, fighters may take every chance to challenge or annoy the facilitator.


Favourites usually communicate best. They seem to know everything about the group members. Others confide in them. They are more likely to be seen guiding and counselling than assuming the role of leader.


Idiots struggle to work hard, but accomplish little. They respond by loudly entertaining or volunteering to do helpful jobs in order to win approval. When someone throws themselves enthusiastically into using mark-up tools to doodle across your slides or whiteboard, you know with whom you are dealing.


Conformists keep their heads down and may not challenge or defend a point of view. Usually they wait for the power struggle to end and then join the unofficial leader. They avoid confrontation. They may be consistently last to post a comment or opinion in “chat”.


‘Innocents’ may be nudged into the position of outsider against their will. Typically introvert, they may have joined the group later than the others and have crossed boundaries they did not even know existed. A skilful facilitator should recognise these outsiders and tactfully help them back into the group.

‘Mr Nasty’ types become outsiders simply because they are unpleasant and create friction. Once exposed they are ostracised, and you are unlikely to succeed in bringing them back into the fold.

‘Mr Superior’ is high on intelligence but low on social and emotional skills. Always one step ahead and extremely arrogant, this person has no desire to form part of the group. ‘Mr Superior’ can create tension, interfere with motivation and productivity, and spoil the atmosphere in a group. It is often best to address them through private chat, or contact them off-line and confront their destructive behaviour.


A group that feels frustrated by low challenge, or dominated by the facilitator may punish the weakest member. Members try to empathise and suppress negative impulses like envy and rivalry. But when they need to let off steam, they may channel their energies into aggression. The spirit and structure of the group comes under threat. The weakest member of the group becomes a target. Sometimes the pressure is heavy and sustained.

Time and numbers

You would not normally expect an online meeting to last more than 90 minutes. Longer sessions require breaks and may validly be paused for an agreed interval to allow the completion of offline tasks arising during the live meeting, and then resumed.

Some experts believe that, given the extra burdens on online facilitators, you should aim for no more than 75% of the numbers you would invite to the equivalent face-to-face meeting.

The magic number 12

Groups of more than 12 people invariably split into into closely knit pairs or threesomes, and that means more than one unofficial leader emerges.

Large groups give the opportunity for shrinking violets to appear to contribute but avoid showing through practise that they are ready to adjust their behaviour!

People need sufficient time to reflect, explain and justify their thinking. The more people in the group, the longer it takes to reach understanding and give feedback.

Roles in managing an online meeting

If you have a large group, the topic is complex, the agenda is unlike any you’ve managed before or you are relatively inexperienced as a facilitator, consider working with a ‘producer’.

The producer is not concerned with the content of the online meeting. Their job is to make sure you can concentrate on your job as a process facilitator, by making sure the sessions run smoothly.

The producer keeps an eye on everything during discussion; welcomes participants, handles technical questions and problems, responds to messages and manages the chat, launches surveys, breakout rooms and shared apps, acts as a scribe on the whiteboard.

The producer role does not need to be an expensive resource.

Alternatively, consider spreading the facilitation load with one or more other facilitators, or handing over specific tasks to participants who are experienced at meeting online, have the capability to help with a task and know what is expected.

When Emotions Get in the Way

When you are face-to-face it may be easy to spot when someone is holding back from telling you how they are feeling. The harder they try to conceal their upset, worry, anger or even happiness, the more likely it is that their body and tone will reveal the truth.

This brings to mind the work of Albert Mehrabian. His point seems to be that words, tone of voice and facial expression each influence how we feel about the person who is speaking, and the authenticity of their message.

The suggestion is that a listener will be taking non-verbal cues as a more reliable guide to underlying feelings, attitudes and motives than the actual words themselves. If the words are at odds with the tone of voice and facial expression, people tend to mistrust the speaker and disregard the words.

This is not the same as the false conclusion that only 7% of what you say is communicated through words! This is important to note because one of the most damaging arguments against meeting or learning online is this very misconception that you cannot get a message across if someone cannot see and hear you.

Nevetheless Mehrabian’s “7% verbal -38% vocal -55% visual” rule has relevance in that participants and facilitators may need to take other points of reference to test the true feelings, attitudes or motives of someone who is expressing their likes and dislikes in an online meeting.

* Mehrabian, Albert (1971), “Silent messages,” Wadsworth, Belmont, California.


McDavid J., Harari H. Psychology and Social Behavior: A Textbook in Social Psychology, HarperCollins Publishers, 1974.

Harvey, J.B. The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management, Jossey-Bass, 1996.

What next?

Part nine of this ten-part series is about keeping a record of an online meeting and its outputs. We’ll discuss what to archive, and how and when. Apart from the actual archive of the live meeting, what else you can do to preserve and share the outputs of your collaboration. We’ll post it in a couple of days time, so do please come back.

We’re hoping you will add your own ideas to these blog items too, so we can create of it something that is representative of the experience of a wide range of practitioners and helps us all to understand what works and what doesn’t.

About Phil Green

Phil Green has written 84 post in this blog.

Phil identifies himself as a perfomance consultant and teacher who helps people and organisations to do the best they can at work. He has strong skills in designing learning materials and workflow support, and draws from a wide spectrum of methods and technology. Co-designer of a certificated qualification in blended learning, he has trained hundreds of others from many industry sectors in how to create effective learning solutions, both online and offline.

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