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Assessment Centre Group Exercise - Coping With The Stress Involved

The Group Exercise A Stressful Situation

A group can be a pleasant and secure environment. For example, amongst a group of family and friends we are likely to feel secure and comfortable. We are accepted by our 'group peers' for what we are with our pros and cons. In such a supporting atmosphere we often find a lending ear and a helping hand. In such a group the rules of conduct, boundaries and expectations are clear. The 'goals' of the group are clear and agreed upon. The group dynamic is known and familiar. The individual 'gives up' some of his rights and in return receives support. If an individual breaks the accepted rules of conduct the group may choose to expel them. The more the individual associates himself with the group, the more the group will reciprocate.

For example, in a football team there are clear cut goals and roles and there is a structured hierarchy the team manager, the coach, the assistants, the players, etc. When the group rules of conduct are clear, the goals are shared by the group peers and the group roles are defined the stress levels within the group decrease and clarity is achieved.

This is true even in the animal kingdom. In a group of lions, for example, each individual has a role and the group is harmonious. However, if a young lion tries to throw the current leader from the 'thrown' and challenges the rules of conduct within the group, confrontations and even battles are likely to occur to the point of dismantling the group as a single unit.

Every group has a set of rules that the members abide by. The key to achieving a supportive group is by having each individual 'sacrifice' some of their rights for the sake of the group. Each change or attempt at changing the group rules is likely to face objection and cause stress.

Even at home, a mother and a father, each have a clear role and they both follow the rules of the house. Any attempt at crossing over by one parent and trying to take over some of the responsibilities of the other is likely to cause tension at home. The willingness of the family members to abide by the family rules and respect each other's roles is what keeps the family cell in tact.

In comparison, in a group that does not have common goals, clear rules and an agreed upon leadership; power struggles are likely to emerge over the establishment of the leadership and setting up the group rules. When the group regulations remain unclear, the search for leadership is imminent. On the backdrop of this search, power struggles emerge and tension levels rise.

This is situation is very much the one you are likely to come across in an assessment centre. In an assessment centre the participants, more often than not, don't know what is expected of them, how they are being assessed, who the other group members are, what is or are the methods for problem resolution within the group and who hosts or leads the group discussion. The lack of clarity and rules coupled with the hopes of succeeding at the assessment centre, result in elevated stress levels which is the main contributing factor to failure in the assessment.

In a group exercise the assessors are the only ones that know the rules and they are the authoritative body of the group, yet mostly they choose to keep the task instructions vague and unclear in order to create an uncertain and tense environment enabling them to assess the participants' ability to deal with the tension and stress involved.

When the atmosphere is vague and unclear, the candidates' try and assert their role in the group, they try and make careful judgements as to how they should behave, who should lead the group, who will set the group norms, whether they should be part of the group or should they make an attempt at leading the group and perhaps risk criticism and resentment from the rest of the group members.

The tense atmosphere generates various reactions and behaviour patterns amongst group members. Some exhibit introvert behaviour, remain silent and try to avoid confrontation and struggles in the group. The less confident the candidates feel, the greater the tendency of such candidates to be introvert and shy. Yet, exactly the same situation may give way to aggressive and hostile behaviour which also originates in the feeling of increased tension.

An insecure and introvert candidate may think:

'I really don't feel like participating in this game; I don't think it shows anything about me and it definitely doesn't reflect my true abilities. What's the point in participating in such a futile discussion?'

Withdrawal is a self protective mechanism from unpleasant situations. It reduces vulnerability. From our experience gained by preparing thousands of job applicants, we can safely say that approximately 40% of candidates will exhibit introvert behaviour during the assessment centre. This means that in each group exercise comprising of 10 candidates approximately 4 will demonstrate introvert and shy behaviour.

The stressful atmosphere in the room may be elevated due to controlling and dominant behaviour on the part of some of the candidates who have trouble coping with the pressure.

When a certain candidate behaves in a bullying and overly dominant manner he/she may trigger aggression in some of the other candidates. This happens since these candidates may feel threatened by the overt behaviour of their peer and may feel that he/she can compromise their chances of success, so in response they try to overcome their counterparts' dominant and loud behaviour by competing using the same methods. Chances are that their efforts will be in vain and that the stress levels in the room will continue to rise and more importantly they will compromise their own chances of success in the assessment centre. Moreover, a stressful situation may also induce sarcastic and critical reactions amongst group members.

The best way to deal with the situation is to first of all try and calm your self down. Deal with the situation at hand in a rational rather than in an emotional manner. Many people compromise their chances of success during the first few moments of the group exercise by making an inadequate or silly comment due to the stress they're feeling.

Some of the participants in a group exercise feel confident and comfortable in the new situation. They are not afraid to voice their opinions even if they are not popular and they have no trouble confronting other group members if their opinions differ. These participants believe in themselves and are independent minded. These candidates may initially be the targets of criticism and even hostility, however if they persist they stand a chance of becoming eventually the group leaders.

Leadership is based on one's ability to withstand pressure and posses' inner strength and self determination, demonstrate calm behaviour and clever interaction with the group peers. The group will select a leader who is firm, assertive and clever in their progression as well as good mannered and pleasant. The higher the sense of inner belief and security, the greater the respect the member will earn from his/her fellow group members.

To succeed in the group exercise you must aim to believe that

your fellow group members are pleasant and deserve your respect
your fellow members present themselves in a clever and logical manner.
you're enjoying the presence of the rest of the group members.
this is a good opportunity to participate in a group discussion.

The ability to observe your fellow group peers in a positive and inviting manner reduces the tension you may feel and increases your chances of success as it provides a sense of calm and self-control. Failing to do so or viewing them as fierce rivals empowers them in your mind and enhances the feelings that they pose a threat. This in turn increases your own stress levels and therefore it is counter-productive and in effect inhibits your chances of success.

Even if one of the participants approaches you in an offensive or condescending manner, it is probably due to the stress he himself is feeling. In any event, you are better off accepting this behaviour and internalising that it is not personal. The group exercise is not a personal event and all participants are under pressure. The ability to understand and sympathise with the other candidates reduces your stress levels and enables you to function more efficiently.

When the assessment begins and the stress levels rise the best way to reassure your self is to look around and respect your self and the other members of the group. View the other participants positively, even with affection. Search for the pros rather than the cons in each and everyone. Don't think of the others' as your rivals; learn to talk to them as a friend at eye level.

When treating others' as well as your self in a friendly and respectful manner - then you are taking a step in the right direction; a path with less tension and rivalry and more cooperation, teamwork and opportunity to succeed.

Stress and tension can be dominating negative factors in a group exercise. A candidate that manages to keep calm and focused will most likely make a good impression and succeed. A candidate that is affected by the stress and tension and reacts in an introvert or aggressive manner will most likely fail the assessment.

Submitted by:

Ron Clover

Ron Clover is an organisational psychologist who works with the JobTestPrep institute. JobTestPrep offers psychometric test preparation - incl personality and aptitude tests, interview and group exercises in assessment centres. JobTestPrep offers online preparation at http://www.jobtestprep.co.uk.




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