In most affinity groups or employee resource groups (ERGs), there comes a time when the structure and roles the team set up in the beginning are no longer functioning as originally intended. The group continues to meet, but their efforts are falling flat. Attendance suffers, and sometimes conflicts erupt. That doesn’t mean that the group has failed or that it’s time to scrap everything and start over.
Instead, it’s a sign that your group may need a reboot.
After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, many affinity groups emerged in response. As public outrage subsided, some groups saw less interest and participation.
One client group had an ambitious vision – the entire organization taking part in weekly open meetings run by a small DEIB committee of four people. However, the four group leaders weren’t open to hearing input from other employees. It didn’t take long for tension to build up, and other employees felt excluded if they didn’t agree with the group leaders. There was no sense of advocacy or sponsorship, and in fact, the group and their sponsors started to turn against each other. This happens often when power and responsibilities aren’t fully negotiated and agreed upon at the outside of committee formation.
Even though many participating employees felt excluded, they still wanted a DEIB committee and several other affinity groups across different social identity types. But they were burned out on trying to make things work with the current leaders and hesitant to continue what they had started. The people leading the group did not want to make changes. So what do they do to get out of this gridlock and compromise on an adjusted plan to move forward?
Over several projects and years of experimentation, we’ve found that there’s a linear, concrete structure to forming and maintaining affinity groups. In this article, we’ll outline how to effectively and efficiently reboot your affinity group, reorienting everyone toward a clear purpose and vision.
At Ethos, we love to “start with why.” There are a few different situations that can cause affinity groups to veer off track from the expectations and functions that were set in the beginning.
When Ethos helps reboot an affinity group, we either do one-to-one anonymous research interviews or hold small focus groups to make sure voices at all levels are being heard. We go onsite to get a feel for organizational culture during key events and “track” representation. To “track” means to observe how much diversity exists and how different voices are showing up – or not showing up – in the conversation. Then, we synthesize our findings and facilitate a re-launch guided by the insights we uncovered.
The process will look a little different if you decide to manage your reboot internally, but the guiding principles are the same. You may collaborate on a reboot with members or leaders who think the group doesn’t need to evolve; remember to be sensitive to their points of view. You don’t want to erase the work that’s already been done, but rather offer others an inroad back into the committee and provide more structure.
Follow these six steps to engage everyone involved and gain sponsorship from the right decision-makers for a successful affinity group reboot.
Before you do anything, it’s important to understand how much power your group has in the form of your budget, resources, and advocates on your executive team. The worst thing that can happen during a reboot is getting everyone excited about a new plan – only to present it to the organization’s leaders and get a very disappointing rejection.
Ethos typically serves as a mediator or intermediary between an affinity group and leadership to ensure that the group doesn’t propose anything that’s impossible to do. Make sure to involve key stakeholders early in the process and facilitate by consensus. Create opportunities for those stakeholders to raise their concerns and address them to satisfaction before taking each step forward. This ensures that all the time and effort you put into the initiative can actually result in a significant change.
Once you understand what kind of power you have as a group, it’s time to find out what’s at stake for the people involved and those who want to be involved. The group members’ individual reasons for showing up will have a huge impact on your outcome.
You can expect to uncover several different ideas of what success means to individual members, which is normal: some may want to develop leadership potential while others are looking to solve a specific challenge or build some kind of social community. It’s perfectly fine for all of these people to meet in the same space and work towards a common set of goals: what’s important is clearly define together what the group can and cannot do and why.
During the group forming stage we described in the previous blog about launching an affinity group, the goal was to agree on an organization-specific “why” along with some measurable objectives. What does your group expect of the organization, and what does the organization expect of you?
This overarching agreement ensures that the organization’s leaders will be satisfied with the progress you make, and it creates a grounding purpose to help align with the expectations of individual group members. Just like the executive team, group members need to feel fulfilled by their involvement and see progress on what they care about to stay active and engaged.
In the first steps of the process, your team re-determined what you can do and what you want to do. Hopefully, your group members openly shared their ideas and their concerns, and by now you’ve started to develop trust. Now you can start planning.
Taking all of the input you’ve received into account, and working in a consensus-based format, develop a new vision along with the guiding principles and behaviors that will make that vision a reality. Limiting the group to three to five values will keep things clear and simple enough to effectively shape what you’ll do as a group.
For affinity groups, having the power and the will to achieve a desired outcome isn’t always enough preparation to launch your project and achieve results. Because most of this work is done on a volunteer basis and everyone has a full-time job to do, it’s necessary to be upfront and realistic about what you can accomplish. You should be able to tell prospective members how many hours they’ll need to commit per week or per month and how that changes if they're involved in a project.
One thing we’ve noticed about affinity groups is that they function best as idea labs. It’s best for the organization, initiative, and the group to have the group plan and execute pilot projects with clearly defined processes for assessing what works and handing them off to other teams within the organization. In our experience, affinity groups struggle when they have maintained ongoing initiatives outside of their day-to-day responsibilities.
Did you notice that we just got through four steps of the process without once talking about leadership roles? Working by consensus during these early stages ensures that everyone shares some common understanding about why the group exists and how it functions. This next step is where you determine everything from term limits to team structures for individual projects, meeting formats, and even sample agendas.
With some key decisions in place, the next important priority is to form a clear charter of roles and responsibilities for the group. We suggest planning commitments quarterly to avoid projects that fizzle out or fall apart for the reasons we discussed in the previous step. Any project that stretches on for multiple quarters needs a clear “end game” for assessment and either completion or handing off to another team.
After step five is complete, you have almost everything you need to call yourselves a functioning affinity group. All that remains is to choose what objectives you’ll pursue first and create an action plan to present to your organization’s leaders. We described these processes in steps six through twelve of our previous article about forming affinity groups.
Your action plan should include your group’s objectives, key responsibilities, and the key activities it will take to get things done. Again, limiting the number of objectives to no more than four keeps things clear and focused, but it’s always possible to have several initiatives under one objective. Try to stick to one or two initiatives per quarter to keep the workload realistic for your members.
Skipping critical steps or rushing them during group formation can result in the need for a reboot. Nevertheless, every group changes and evolves along with its membership, and even successful groups have to do some reconfiguring once they’ve achieved their goals.
Sometimes success looks like uncovering new challenges because you’ve done the work of going deeper and having tough conversations. That’s progress! Be sure to recognize it and celebrate with your team.
Depending on the challenges your group is facing, it may be best to bring in a third party with no stake in the matter to facilitate this process. You’re welcome to schedule a 30-minute problem-solving session with us to get the conversation started. Let’s get in touch!
There’s one more article coming to finish out this series: after successfully launching and working out issues during a reboot or two, affinity groups can eventually transform to meet shifting needs. Enter your info below to subscribe to our newsletter and get notified when the third article comes out.
This article is part of an ongoing series about affinity groups, employee resources groups, DEIB councils and committees, and other grassroots DEI initiatives inside organizations. Read part one of the series, How to Build Affinity Groups.
Blog written by Kelsey Hoff