The power of small groups

One of the things we’re a little bit obsessive about at Larger Us is the amazing power of small groups – specifically, groups of between about 8 and 15 people – to transform both the states of mind of their members, and the state of the world around them. Here’s why – and how we want to try out larger us groups as part of our work this year.

By Alex Evans — 7th Jul · 4 min read

One of the things we’re a little bit obsessive about at Larger Us is the power of small groups – specifically, groups of between about 8 and 15 people – to transform both the states of mind of their members, and the state of the world. Here’s why we find them so compelling – and how we want to experiment with small groups as part of our work this year.

Let’s start with the role of small groups in changing society and the world. Margaret Mead’s famous (and apocryphal) observation about the power of a small group of committed citizens to change the world is spot on – and all the more so when lots of small groups band together to become more than the sum of their parts.

It’s striking how many big political movements – from abolishing slavery in the 19th century and civil rights in the 20th century through to Extinction Rebellion or the school strikes today – are built on small groups. As Greg Satell puts it in his HBR essay on what successful movements have in common,

…while we usually notice successful movements after they have begun to attract large crowds and hold massive demonstrations, those are effects, not causes, of successful mobilization. It is when small groups connect — which has become exponentially easier in the digital age — that they gain their power.

Look, he continues, at the Tea Party in the US, which was rooted in a galaxy of small groups that met in cafes and coffee shops: as Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson observed in 2013, “There is not … a single Tea Party organization or even a well coordinated network”.

Why are small groups so great for movement building? The answer is all about relationships: above all, how they capitalise on our innate drive to develop deep loyalties within what sociologists call primary groups (the kind that are characterised by close, deep, intimate relationships that are built over a long time – like families, military platoons, or religious groups).

These kinds of groups are incubators for social norms, values, beliefs and worldviews – as well as for developing crucial relationship capacities like deep listening, courageous conversations, and recognising what we have in common with our fellow citizens. And they’re also hugely powerful as an antidote to the epidemic of loneliness confronting us today.

Then there are all the ways that small groups can help us to develop our individual identities, and with the tasks of inner growth – something that matters for politics as well as personal wellbeing because of all the ways that our states of mind affect the state of the world (for instance, how anxiety or a sense of perceived threat make us less empathetic and more prone to extremist views).

Take Alcoholics Anonymous: a network of small groups that has helped millions of people to turn their lives around, again because of the power of primary group relationships. Religions have also long understood that inner work is something that’s often best progressed with others. It’s why Buddhism regards Sangha (community) as one of the Three Jewels, for instance, or why small groups, often meeting in homes, were the backbone of the early Christian church (and are enjoying a huge resurgence today).

Why are small groups so helpful for inner work? Again, it’s all about the relationships. Primary groups can offer the support of a community of trusted peers, a space to both find out and ‘come out’ as who we truly are, and the structure for holding each other to account when we fall short of our goals – all vital elements when it comes to learning to be kinder on ourselves and more self-aware with it.

Of course, groups aren’t always helpful or healthy – they can be intimidating for many, and can sometimes acquire highly destructive dynamics (such as in-group bias, ‘groupthink’, and antipathy towards the ‘Other’). At their best, though, they can be uniquely powerful foundations for work on both our states of mind and the state of the world. 

Which begs an interesting question: why not have small groups that do both inner and outer work, rather than just one or the other?

Historically, that’s exactly what religions have often sought to do: look for instance at how Quaker groups pursue both inner and outer change in tandem, or at how church groups were one of the backbones of the 50s and 60s civil rights movement in the US.

But more recently, especially since the late 1960s, inner and outer practice have grown apart from one another. Fields like self-help, therapy, or meditation have gone mainstream – but often without being rooted in a deep sense of social purpose or the common good, leaving them open to charges of navel-gazing or narcissism.

Meanwhile, the last 50 years have seen huge innovation in activism and social change – but often without well developed self-awareness or an appreciation for the need for self-care, leaving these fields prone to othering (both of perceived opponents, and sometimes even those they are trying to help), toxic work cultures, and burnout.

So how might small groups reunite inner and outer change?

We’ve been thinking about this a lot – and we’re going to try it out later this year as part of our work to  build a community of practice for people who want to become more effective change-makers: people who want to work out how to bridge divides, rather than deepen them, and heal rifts, rather than see victory as something that’s always about defeating enemies. 

This short note sets out some of where we’re up to in our thinking. If you’d like to get involved in imagining how we might use the power of small groups to improve both our states of mind and the state of the world, then we’re running a few gatherings over the next 2-3 weeks to explore these ideas. We’d love to see you there and hear what you think! Sign up here if you’re interested, or get in touch directly with your thoughts.

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