Working with Strangers

Life's Questions

Ever seen this poster? If you think about it, it’s more truth than humour.

Much of our Union Street work involves working with a whole host of very diverse individuals; recently we worked with a group of twenty-something’s on a media project and whilst the overall project was a big success, the road getting there was not a particularly easy one.  As individuals, all the participants were bright, fun and eager to participate in the project but it was when placed together in groups is when the challenges arose.

We’re also currently working with a large group of teenagers in a school, and when asked to split up into groups the pupils immediately flocked to their own cliques.  Those who turned up late were forced, unhappily so, into other groups and it became clear that those who were in their comfortable groups fared far better than those who were working with pupils they didn’t know, many of whom became totally disengaged.

This is where the relevance of the poster comes in.

‘Just when I thought I knew all of life’s answers, someone changed the questions.’

From an early age we are taught that all you need is good grades in order to be successful in the outside world.  But in fact, this does not seem the case as with the twenty-something’s.  They were all intelligent, most of them were graduates and yet the project proved a real challenge for them.  They lacked the experience of working in groups made up of strangers, who in essence are very different to them.  But when you think about it, it was the most obvious outcome.  If you’re taught to work in groups you are familiar with how can you be expected to know how to work in a group of unknown people?

Whilst the ideal situation would be that we are all equal, the reality is that human beings are not made that way.  There are always leaders and those who don’t feel the need to be in charge.  Inevitably, in groups of unknowns leaders quickly establish themselves and the rest are happy to let them.  But of course there can be more than one, or perhaps the rest of the group are not happy to follow the ‘leader’. This is where conflicts arise.

Group conflicts are nothing extraordinary, but for individuals who don’t know each other and lack the judgment on dealing with differing personalities, a significant amount of time can be lost trying to rectify issues.  From a business perspective, if these issues are not solved, it can be severely detrimental to the project and the group and thus the company.

Of course it’s easy for us to say all this from a distance – it’s not us in there experiencing these things, group dynamics, contrasting egos, different attitudes and so on.  Having an overview on a group without a real emotional attachment allows you to assess things objectively.  But it is not with some great insight into the human condition that we can do this, rather the more simple fact that we went through this ourselves.  In fact everyone does not matter what field you work in.


We go to school, get taught one thing and then you leave and realise that everything you thought you knew, wasn’t exactly true.  The pupils in school were asked what they thought would happen if they didn’t do well in school, and the majority responded with scenarios involving homelessness or prison. It’s only after leaving school and working in the real world do you realise that an F is not the path to a jail cell or a doorstep.  Good grades means you know a lot of facts, not that you will be successful.  The reality is you also need to know how to productively work with others in order to become prosperous.  You can have straight A’s, but if no one wants to work with you, then what’s the point? So for those who are about to enter the working world, take heed, the world may not be what you expect. And for those who have any influence on a young mind maybe mention that life is full of new challenges.

But challenge is a good thing too.  It’s not just after school that we face hardship, as we get older we face more and more change be it in work, health, relationships…. Perhaps the lesson is, if the ‘questions have changed’ we need to adapt to the new answers that can only be found through experience which provides us with the judgment on how to deal with said situations.

The unpredictability of life is what stops us becoming complacent and more importantly, keeps it interesting.  Where’s the fun in knowing what’s around the corner all the time?