Rules or values – what works best in developing group culture | HMA

Rules or values – what works best in developing group culture


Have you ever struggled developing group rules or ground rules for the programmes you are facilitating? Often we establish rules, write them on flipchart paper, and then ignore them for the rest of the programme. Or worse, the rules become the job of the facilitators to hold group members to account around. It can feel like a heavy weight to bear.

So what is a rule? A rule can be defined as, “a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct or procedure within a particular area of activity.” Don’t get me wrong I’m not anti-rule. Abiding by the rules is one of the tests of a civil society. However in many groups we are working with group participants have violated rules for most of their lives. In my view we effectively start at the wrong place if we are to encourage prosocial interaction in our programmes.

What do rules invite from us? If we see a rule as valid then we will generally adhere to the boundary that it sets. However if we see a rule as unjust or unfair, then we are more likely to find ways to violate it. In addition if I don’t see ‘your’ rule as applying to me, then I will have little investment in what it represents. As a consequence I would see little reason to abide by it.

Values on the other hand may provide an effective way around this dilemma. A value can be defined as, “the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something” or alternatively “principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life.”

One of the things that we have been exploring when teaching group work skills is taking a value base to developing group culture rather than a rule-based approach. If we were to ask the group what a unifying value would be that is central to the wellbeing of a group then someone might suggest ‘safety’. In the case of offender and family violence interventions, we know that given the traumatic backgrounds of many of the men attending, lack of trust of others in the group, including the facilitators, is evident. The flip side of safety is non-violence.

From here we can develop what this would look like as guiding values to support a well-functioning group. Groups provide a ‘here and now’ experience of relationships so it is not a major leap to seeing how these values might translate into behaviour outside of the group back in the group members own family and whanau group. The usefulness of using values is that they are very behaviourally-based as can be seen below.


The reality is that values are more central to our sense of self. When we violate values that are important to us, we experience dissonance and discomfit. This provides the energy for change as we are driven to resolve this in some way. It ultimately means we have to grapple with our ‘inconsistent selves’ as we try to iron out the bumps between our view of self and our behaviour. Consistency in values across time and place provide a stronger ‘go-forward position’ providing a sense of direction in how we might align our values for a good life.

If we can help group members identify important values that support a well-functioning group, then the transition of these back in their own world away from the group, is much easier.

Next time you are starting a program, rather than setting rules for the program you are running, think values. Be mindful of what difference this makes to the functioning of the group. Let me know how you get on.

Published on Tuesday, March 17th, 2015, under Family violence, Learning & development, Practice tips and techniques

2 Responses to “Rules or values – what works best in developing group culture”

  1. Steve Gladstone says:

    Kia Ora Ken, at present I am co-running a Young Offender Programme in Hawkes Bay prison, and we have found that ‘rules’ were initially developed and adhered to briefly, but we went for Values after the frayed and fractious rules disintegrated, and they seem to be much more effective to relate/refer and adhere to as they directly counterbalance the Rehabilitative needs and Problem Behaviours of the group members. eventually, we hope to see the essence of the Values in our kaupapa translated into ongoing behavoiur in the group, compound, and safety Plans for integration into daily decision making and behaviours.
    Steve (Teeps) Gladstone. p.s. next Moday the 23rd of March will be my 16th anniversary in prison programmes. hope you and your family are all well, and your Kelvinistic work ethic allows you some time to read and rejoice.

    • Ken McMaster says:

      Kia ora Teeps, lovely to hear from you and the great work you are doing. I agree, having young people explore life from a values base is much more powerful for the long term. Culturally it also is more consistent and helps link back to key ideas that underpin identity.

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