A comment from loupnoir spurred my thinking about I hear called "writers' workshops" and critique groups. Given that a lot of people on LJ are in virtual critique groups, this might be a dangerous topic! Of course, "virtual" is a misnomer here; they're perfectly real critique groups, they just don't meet in person...which has advantages and disadvantages for these purposes. As I note in my book, there are people who live and die by these groups. Nothing is finished until it has been "workshopped." I think these groups can be very powerful, but like any power, it can be negative as well as positive. But I digress.
What triggered my interest in this is the comment that "This group is in danger of becoming more social than helpful." I think this comment raises the question of what happens to a writing group over time, which is more interesting to me than reiterating my chapter on this.
I can't say I know every group out there, or even a representative sample, but I have seen a few groups form and have studied a particularly long-lasting and successful one. One group I saw form at an SF convention, where a group of people who had participated in a one-time workshop hosted by an experienced "workshopper" decided to try and form their own workshop. They obviously shared an interest in speculative fiction, they all wanted to workshop, they were relatively near to each other geographically--why not?
That group disintegrated very rapidly. Some went at it honestly and were irritated by the attitudes of others; some wrote stuff that the others just didn't "get," and some just didn't really want to participate at the same level of depth as the others. They weren't an effective workshop--they were just a bunch of people who met at a con and were reasonably friendly acquaintances.
People generally gravitate towards each other. The Affiliation motive is probably the commonest: we're social animals. Our ancestors probably roamed the plains in groups of 20-30, and preferred doing things in groups, even hunting. The "lone wolf" is highly atypical--we're more like plains baboons, if I remember the research correctly.
But an effective group is a different animal--so to speak--than a friendly one. Here's a simple reason why: if the intent of the group conflicts with the motivation aroused in its members, and there are no rules to manage that conflict, the group will not succeed. Thus, a group of highly competitive people (probably Influence motive) can either challenge each other to do better in a positive way, or snipe at and sabotage each other's success. Furthermore, a friendly group (say, very Affiliative) can provide strong emotional support, or it can become dysfunctionally polarized.
Group polarization is a concept developed in the 1960s. Basically, groups tend to clump around a leader or against a common enemy, and become disinclined to contradict each other. As a result, group opinions are often not questioned--instead, they just reinforce each other. It's not a conscious process; you are finding reasons to agree with someone you like. Primarily Influence-motivated people may come into power conflicts--who's the most respected, the most honored--and polarize into opposing camps; but even Affiliation-motivated people form strong likes AND strong dislikes, and can polarize around who they like and who they don't.
Effective groups have clear "rules of engagement" -- they encourage people to challenge opinions in a friendly and positive way, so, for example, people feel like they are letting their friends down if they don't challenge. Without these rules, a number of things can typically happen to a group of any kind, let alone a writing group.
1. The Influence motivated will start to assert themselves to control the group. Affiliative people will either go along or drop out, but Achievement-motivated people will resist having their personal control taken away and complain bitterly about their "best practices" not being listened to, and other Influence-motivated people will find their own personal power challenged and fight back. Indeed, anyone can have what is called "personalized power" aroused by too aggressive a person. (In brief: when someone pokes you, your instinctive reaction is to poke back!)
2. Or, if the group is highly compatible and has significant Affiliation, it will become less and less about critiquing and more and more social. It will take longer and longer for the meeting to start, and the quality of the criticism will drop, becoming both positive and less specific ("gosh, that's great! I really love that!"). Affiliation motive leads people to feel uncomfortable with conflict, which means strongly affiliative people will not want to say anything that might hurt feelings and thus disrupt the personal relationship. Of course, a workshop is a professional relationship, but how do most of these things form...? And the Affiliative person is more likely to trust a friend than an expert anyhow, which only reinforces itself--someone who provides honest but negative feedback may be seen as "betraying" a relationship.
3. Or, if the group is highly Achievement-motivated over all, people may offer strong criticism without regard for the impact on the other person--perhaps confusing "personal taste" with "quality." Individuals will get impatient waiting to get their own feedback, and will either go away to operate on their own, or split into smaller groups to get more intensive individual feedback from someone they trust as an expert. In other words, the Achievement motivated person prefers to trust experts over friends, and also tend to prefer individual control of work, so managing group dynamics is like pulling teeth.
A group with good rules (they're in the book) will keep going a lot longer despite these trends, but even the rules alone are not enough. One group I know that has been going a long time is very forthright in their criticism because they know none of their criticism is done maliciously, and furthermore it is understood that the only person to decide what to use is the writer--neither giving nor taking suggestions are taken personally. Another group has more affiliation across all the members, so they always take time to reassure people that they are all friends and are enthusiastic supporters before offering any criticism. Even these groups have shifted, but they are still productive.
A long-lasting and dynamic group tends to move members in and out, which shifts the relationships over time as well. Groups are not stable, despite affiliative desires to the contrary. One must be alert to the unconscious desires to be overly nice or overly nasty, and focus on the work itself, being aware of your relationship to the people whose work it is! Remembering that those relationships shift over time, as you get to know people and work with them, is important to keeping the group dynamic percolating and productive.