Shortly after New Year’s Eve, my friend Jara said to me, “I think we need to put on the Ice Cream Social.”
She was referring to a huge fundraiser held at our school every April. A five dollar ticket bought entrance to an all-you-can-eat dessert and ice cream buffet. There was also live music, and raffles for elaborate gift baskets. Organizing the Ice Cream Social took a tremendous amount of time and energy. The former head of the event had retired last spring when her daughter graduated, leaving the fate of future Ice Cream Socials unclear.
I took a sudden interest in the crow flying overhead hoping Jara would let it drop. She didn’t.
“It’s such a good fundraiser, and such a nice community event.” Jara is into community events.
“We pinkie promised NOT to take on the Ice Cream Social,” I reminded her.
“Oh, I know, Missy,” said Jara. Somehow, Jara is the only person other than my parents who was allowed to call me “Missy.” She smiled her dazzling smile, and went in for the kill, “But the school really needs the money.”
I sighed. Our school, like most schools these days, can use every extra penny they can get. “Okay, fine,” I told her.
Jara clapped her hands happily. “Oh, Missy, I’m so excited. This will be great. We’ll do it together. We’ll get all the parents to help. It will be fun! I’ll make some calls and set up a meeting.”
I looked at her like she was crazy. There was nothing I could think of that was less fun than working in a group. When given the choice, I choose to work alone, do my own thing, hang solo. I don’t like group sports, cliques, big parties, or neighborhood associations. I’m just not a group person.
But my commitment to making my kids’ school better was stronger than my distaste for groups, so I showed up for the first Ice Cream Social planning meeting. Since Jara and I had first talked, I’d made a number of notes with ideas about how we could improve the event. One idea was that we change the Ice Cream Social theme to that of a Dessert Bar. All the desserts were made by the parents, except for the ice cream and toppings, which had to be purchased and therefore cut into our profit.
“We’d make more money,” I explained, because wasn’t making money what the event was all about?
“I don’t think so,” said another mom at the meeting. “I think the Ice Cream Social theme is cute. Dessert Bar isn’t cute.”
So far, this parent had shot down every single idea I’d presented. I’d say it, and she’d reject it. I was becoming beyond annoyed, which Jara must have noticed because she quickly suggested that we move on. “We have plenty of time before we have to make a decision about themes,” she said soothingly.
As I drove home, I muttered to myself, “See, see, see, this is why I hate groups.” It wasn’t that I had to have it my way. It’s just that in group settings, change and new ideas seem to be perceived as a threat.
And this is precisely what psychologists who study groups have found. Writes Jeremy Dean in an article entitled “Why Groups Kill Creativity” posted on his website PsyBlog, “Unfortunately, groups only rarely foment great ideas because people in them are powerfully shaped by group norms. Norms influence what people believe is right and wrong just as surely as real laws.” Even though there had only been two previous Ice Cream Socials, the committee members were not willing to step out of the rules and patterns that had been built around how this event proceeded.
Or at least they weren’t ready yet. Dean goes on to explain that in groups, ideas must be introduced slowly and carefully. In a study of nursery school children, it was found that “children didn’t follow potential leaders who jumped straight in with new ideas. Leaders first conformed, then only later, when trust has been gained, can they be confident that others will follow.” This data was later confirmed using adults as subjects.
I have a deep-seated fear of group conformity–perhaps because my parents were supporters of the Civil Rights movement where the opponent was often mob mentality. I steer away from groups precisely because of the group norms. So because of this, over the weeks leading up to the Ice Cream Social, it was truly miraculous to watch Jara as she deftly and gracefully maneuvered her way through these group rules. Where I’d rush in with ideas to make big sweeping changes, she’d thoughtfully refer to the notes from the past events–kept in a large white three-ring binder that she carried everywhere–and then, after acknowledging the norm, would gently suggest a change. I’d watch her at the very end of a meeting or as a parking lot conversation was wrapping up, slip in an option about how we can do something slightly differently. It was amazing how well it worked. Not only were people willing to consider new ideas, but they seemed excited to do so.
She even carefully backed me off the idea of not serving ice cream in order to cut cost even though they’d printed tickets and flyers advertising the event as an Ice Cream Social. At the end of an impromptu meeting at drop-off, Jara would say to me, “You know, several people mentioned to me how much they loved the root beer floats last year and are really looking forward to having them again.” Or, “We are so lucky to have you in charge of the food for the Ice Cream Social. You are so experienced. I wonder if we might want to consider a teeny tiny table that serves ice cream just for those people who are expecting a little cold treat.”
Finally, I caved. “Fine,” I fumed. “We can have ice cream at the Ice Cream Social. I don’t care.” Yes, it sounded as dumb then as it does now.
Not only was Jara gently persuasive, but she was also savvy enough to know how to handle the problem of slackers. Dean writes that “people in groups demonstrate a tremendous capacity for loafing.” We’ve all had that experience where one or two people pick up the slack for everyone else on that high school group history project. Dean says that social psychology pioneer Max Ringelmann found that in a tug-of-war, people who were on a team put in only 50 percent as much effort as when they were pulling the rope on their own.
This past spring, right off the bat, a few people began complaining about the Ice Cream Social, and indicated that they were less than willing to help. If it had been up to me, I’d have done the same thing as I did in high school: I’d have done all the work myself–staying up all night long seething with resentment at the other group members and the teacher for coming up with a group project in the first place. But Jara had a different approach. Early in the Ice Cream Social planning, she stood up at a school-wide event, and laid out the numbers for the parents. We could either each pitch in a couple hundred dollars per family and scrap the whole event, or we could make a commitment to work all together to raise money for our students and teachers and create some positive community interest in our school. After her speech, we took a vote. An overwhelming number of hands were raised in favor of proceeding with the fundraiser.
Once the decision was put in the laps of the parents, they took ownership and the Ice Cream Social went forward with an unprecedented outpouring of help from parents and grandparents. At drop-off, moms and dads stopped me to ask what they could do to contribute. There were offers to bake cookies, donate cases of water, and gather gifts for the raffle baskets. I got emails and phone calls from parents wanting to do more. The weekend before the event, ten families showed up at the school to spend the day helping transform the gym into a fundraising venue. As I’d always found group decision-making laborious, I was dreading setup day. Jara, on the other hand, showed up with a big smile and an enormous pink bakery box of donuts. “Hi, Guys,” she said. “Thanks for coming! Where should we start?”
I resisted rolling my eyes. I had a whole plan mapped out in my head, and had drawn a diagram of the room set up, but before an organized system could be established, everyone just kind of dispersed and started working on a different aspect of set up. People lugged boxes of decorations from the attic. Some people raised pop-up canopies where the musicians would perform. Some fixed faulty outlets. It was a bit chaotic, but slowly, things started to pull together. Every so often a little knot of parents would meet and bat around ideas. Since none of us had done setup before–the former event coordinator had preferred to do it single-handedly–we were new to how to make it all work. It was a slow process, but as the day progressed, everyone began offering bits of advice here and there. We often had to take down what we’d just put up, and the set up veered away from my initial sketches, but the end product was pretty close to perfect.
Dean writes that “the mere presence of others can make us perform better.” Even though my ideas for change were shot down at the first meeting, once the participating parents learned to work as a cohesive group, there was a creative energy that emerged. One idea sparked another, and as long as it wasn’t too radical to the group norm, it was considered. I went home that night tired, but strangely excited also. Even though it might have been much more comfortable for me to work on my own, there was deep satisfaction gained from participating in a group effort.
I’m proud to report that the Ice Cream Social was a smashing success. (And yes, the ice cream table was hit hard, so thank goodness Jara talked me into serving floats and sundaes or there might have been a revolt.) Once we backed out expenses, which were minimal, we made more money than ever before. But that wasn’t even the best part. The best part was the new sense of community and closeness that grew among the parents and students at the school. People who’d never said much past hello to each other were now leaning out of their windows at pick-up to have a conversation. Ideas are flying for how to improve upon next year’s Ice Cream Social. Says Dean, “Amongst other things, groups give us a most valuable gift, our social identity, which contributes to our sense of who we are.”
A week after the event, Jara and I took a walk, and I told, her with great admiration, “You did this. You brought the whole school together.”
“Oh no,” she said modestly, but smiling broadly. “It was a group effort.”
Since the Ice Cream Social, I have been considering the idea of groups. I will probably never conform well, and I will have trouble resisting tossing out ideas before the group is ready, but still, I have gained much insight into the mystery of how groups work.
A month after the Ice Cream Social, I helped chaperone a four-day class trip to San Diego. There were fourteen kids, four other parents that I hardly knew, and the teacher, Mr. Jackson. While I had great trepidation about sleeping on a gym floor and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch every day, I was mostly concerned about being in a group. But the trip was great, magical even. In the planning meetings before we took off, I chose to keep my mouth shut, rather than jump in with a whole bunch of ideas that probably would have complicated things. I reminded myself to be patient while engaged in making group decisions, and to trust that we would eventually arrive at a good outcome. I also brought a really thick sleeping pad.
On the very last morning of the trip, I learned the lesson that will help me engage in groups more readily in the future.
Since twenty of us were traveling in only three vehicles, space was an issue. On the way to San Diego, Elizabeth had to ride in a car with all boys, one being her brother. Mr. Jackson promised her that she could move into our car, where there were some other fourth grade girls, for the seven-hour ride home.
But somehow our luggage had expanded, and at eight a.m., on the day we were to leave, all twenty of us were standing in the parking lot looking at a mountain of luggage that just wouldn’t fit. Over the next thirty minutes, Mr. Jackson and one of the other parents packing the cars had several variations of the following conversation:
“There just isn’t enough room. We are going to have to put the seat down in your car, and Elizabeth is just going to have to deal with riding with the boys.”
“Nope,” answered Mr. Jackson quietly, yet firmly. “We can make this work.”
I sat on the curb and watched. I realized that sometimes, even though you’re in a group, you need to put your foot down and take a stand for what you feel is right. Even if it is a bit inconvenient. Even if it makes the other group members annoyed. You don’t want to do it all the time–Mr. Jackson is as savvy a group member as Jara–but just when absolutely necessary. Because eventually, we got all the luggage to fit, and Mr. Jackson kept his promise to Elizabeth. All it took was a little extra group effort.