Collaborative methods and game mechanics: a comparative approach — Part II
How to detect and deal with a dominant participant ?
In my previous article, I explored the similarities between collaborative approaches and cooperative games, focusing on the on-boarding and inclusion of participants. In this second article, I continue my exploration of the game mechanics and collaborative approaches with a new topic: the dominant participant, otherwise called alpha player in the gaming universe.
The Alpha player
I pay a lot of attention and effort in getting new players onboard when I organize an initiation game session. I dedicate time to explain the rules, the stakes, the intricacies, and I want to ensure the newcomers have all the right information to have a joyful experience before we start playing. Some time ago, as we were playing a cooperative game, we suddenly faced a challenge with several possible outcomes. As we were discussing options and evaluating scenarios, one of my teammates said: “We can discuss and argue, but in the end anyway we will do as Cédric said”. That short sentence caught my attention. It was said without defeatism or any sign of disengagement: on the contrary, it was a sign of recognition. My friend was only stating that among the field of possibilities, he would rely on my opinion. He thought this would be the best choice given my deeper knowledge of the game and my taste for analyzing variables. Objectively I knew the rules better than anyone else around the table since I had read and integrated them in order to be able to onboard the new players, and indeed, by exploring the rules, my brain was already looking for strategies even before the game started. But playing cooperatively it is not deciding for others!
I made some researches and I discovered that this kind of situation where a player implicitly dominates the game because he or she “knows better” has a name: it is known as the Alpha player. When an alpha player emerges in a cooperative game, collegial decision disappears. They define what to do, and the others follow their lead and carry out their plan. The richness of the game experience drops rapidly as the players are reduced to passive followers that watch the game unfold almost without them. Therefore, victory loses much of its interest because it is no longer the result of a joint effort. Worse, in the event of defeat, the responsibility is no longer shared, and the lessons learned are much lower. The players often lose interest in the game and, if you are not careful when an alpha player arises, you will find yourself alone around the table.
My friend’s statement concerned me because I neither worked for nor wanted to be seen as an Alpha player. Knowing the adverse effects on the common good, I was not in any way seeking to lead others around a gaming table. I have since been vigilant, when we play this kind of game, to absolutely avoid reproducing this configuration. But it is not that simple.
The dominant participant in collaborative approaches
We can observe a similar phenomenon in collaborative approaches. It happens when the group dynamic is disrupted by a dominant and overwhelming position from an individual, voluntarily or not, and when the group abdicates its responsibilities towards them.
This domination can be deliberate: the “alpha participant” seeks to impose their points of view and sets a coercion on the group dynamic. This can be through strong leadership, when the participant takes advantage of his hierarchical position and uses their status to guide decisions. It can also be linked to a high level of expertise that someone seeks to take advantage of by guiding decisions “because they know what others don’t”. In both cases, the collaborative is endangered by a desire to take control.
When this is unintentional, it is because the group itself elects the alpha participant, often by convenience. This is usually a sign of their disengagement, leaving the responsibility to someone that inspires them confidence. You might think that this is not a problem, since it is the result of an agreed process, recognizing one’s value and competence to resolve the problem and manage complexity of the question. The alpha participant himself may be flattered by this recognition. But this ‘delegation’ and the disengagement will generally affect the implementation of the decisions: the weakness of their involvement in the definition of the solution will arise in the future. Facing the first obstacle they will argue that their responsibility is minimal, that the one to blame should be the one who decided everything.
As a facilitator, I am careful to detect signals that show the emergence of an alpha participant. And when it happens, I do my best to prevent unwanted effects on group dynamics.
How to detect it?
My role as a facilitator is, among other things, to ensure that the collective delivers its full potential in order to generate solid and durable results. I am therefore vigilant to the dynamics of the group, and I constantly observe the interactions between the participants.
When some participant deliberately seeks to take the lead on the group dynamic, they rely on their hierarchical position, level of expertise, or sense of legitimacy. They thwart divergent opinions, leave little room for alternative options to theirs, and counter objections, etc.
When a participant is crowned Alpha by the group, it is often either a sign of a leadership not assumed, or because he has a deep and crucial expertise. This type of participant, often introverted, influences group dynamics in ways that are less visible at first. His or her interventions usually come at the end of the discussion, having a strong impact and setting the next steps.
Identifying a dominant participant requires looking for weak signals among the group: gestures of resignation, lack of attention, body language indicating half-hearted acquiescence. The “spineless consensus”, the enemy of any effective collaborative work, is growing and is reduced at what the dominant participant formulates. The alpha takes a growing space in the interactions, everyone looks toward them when a potentially contradictory idea arises, visible gestures of helplessness from possible contradictors who no longer dare to speak out, etc.
It is therefore important that you focus not only on the one who often speaks or seems to influence the group, but also on the reactions of others when it happens. As long as the group seems free to challenge the ideas provided, you are only facing a “loudmouth” or a “super-expert” that has their place in the collaborative session. As soon as you feel resignation or fatalism, you must act.
How to avoid it, and correct it when it occurs?
Just as I tried to work on my posture as a player in cooperative games, I try to work on my posture as a facilitator to prevent a participant from gaining the ascendancy over the group, whether they are aware of it or not. I work on two levels:
- Active facilitation of the group: I am careful to maintain the group dynamic in a spirit where opinions are challenged, ensuring all ideas are expressed. I a m also vigilant about the body language of the participants to detect those who want to express themselves but may be reluctant to do so. I try to ensure that all decisions are collective and that the consensus is strong, sincere and informed. This is a delicate exercise as I need to leverage the valuable contribution of the dominant participant without focusing too much attention on him/her, which would only amplify their influence. I look for participants who, through their body language, seem willing to object or provide alternative perspectives. I also encourage the group to react, without putting them in a difficult position. Sometimes, after the alpha participant states an opinion, I invite others to comment on it. If there is a silence, I challenge the group: does it mean everyone agrees? What alternatives could we imagine? Occasionally, I will also share and reflect on how I perceive the dynamic, creating a “meta-discussion” on what is happening.
- Coaching of the alpha participant: they are generally not aware of the negative impact they have on the group. My first job is to take them aside to see if they’re aware of their impact and deliberate with their posture. I seek to understand their motivations, and their positive intentions so I can work with them to find the right posture that will put their positive intention at the service of the collective and the objectives. When the ascendancy is deliberate, it often reflects impatience or fear that the group will go in the wrong direction. I then coach the participant to help them understand that their actions are detrimental to their intention and endanger the workshop. We then work on solutions to help them embrace their leadership in a more constructive and inclusive way that benefits the collective.
Finding myself in this role of an alpha player allowed me to better understand what was at stake and made me adapt my facilitation. I am now more vigilant in detecting this kind of pattern, and I am more deliberate in my facilitation, and in my support of alpha participants. In those moments, I act as a leadership coach as much as a facilitator.