Understanding Group Dynamics at Work


People act very different when they are in groups versus when they are alone. When you are in the position to lead a group of people, you begin to see just how different they are and how difficult it can be. From the inside of a group, mitigating disparities, disagreements, expectations, and perceptions can also pose a challenge. This tends to be the case no matter the group: family, friend, or colleague.

Be that as it may, learning to enrich the people around us is pivotal to success and happiness. As the adage goes, "You are the company you keep." What the adage fails to convey is that the company keeps you too, and therein lies the opportunity to change it.

In this article I explore three common problems that stonewall group dynamics and present solutions inspired by a collaborative and adaptive approach to relationship building.

Groups Are Social and that's a Good Thing

I have a few words by way of social psychology.

A saving grace of group dynamics is that the longer a group stays together, the longer the people in it begin to think similarly, act similarly, and live similarly. That's referred to as social cohesion, and that cohesion is the stuff of culture.

An established culture allows for identity forming. In other words, you see yourself reflected--either in whole or in part--in the group's members. People derive a great sense of purpose and satisfaction from group identity. The lines can be drawn just about any which way, starting with the more obvious similarities and tapping deep into those that are imperceptible yet lived.

This is a double-edge sword however. Social cohesion and group identity can cut both ways: it can generate harmony, pleasure, safety and strength; but it can also generate bias, prejudice, "us versus them" mentalities, and stifle creativity and innovation.

That is why leaders are crucial. Leaders are meant to provide perspective, guide, council, nurture, and grant confidence among group members. Of course, history has shown us that leadership can take many forms: the means and ends vary colorfully.

Sometimes, a leader is blinded by her own interests, biases, and groupthink. That's when coaches and advisors come into play. They should operate on the outside, while keeping the group's best interests in mind.

What is the point of all that work? Being a leader, being in a group, getting advice, it's daunting and cumbersome. Why do it at all?

The answer is easy. Because undeniably, coordinated groups of people can accomplish amazing feats. Whether commendable or not, the magnitude of a group's concerted efforts usually surpasses that of a single person.

That's why every person in a group plays a special role just by virtue of being in it.

Now that we've got the housekeeping out of the way, let's talk about those problems and how to address them.

"Do we have a common goal?"

I'll save the preamble and just jump into this one. One of a group's most poisonous problems is a lack of purpose.

Individuals alone can suffer from lack of purpose, but when you magnify the volume of people, you magnify the problem.

Often a simple conversation about purpose, goals, or objectives can open up into a discussion about preferences, ideals, dreams, and the like. It's a beautiful thing, and when it's handled with care, it can invigorate group members and set everyone on a course toward success.

Being trained on purpose can become an approach in and of itself. When done right, it can inspire people and foster higher levels of shared enthusiasm, decision-making, performance, participation, and morale.

There are three fundamental axioms that comprise this group dynamic:

Mutual Accountability
In a word, ground-rules. Successful groups openly discuss and establish ground-rules. By collectively establishing rules of proper conduct, expectations, penalties, and principles, the group can comfortably check itself and its members when failings arise. That mutual accountability based on the open discussion of ground-rules tends to be more egalitarian and more difficult to argue against. If you agreed to something, then you are accountable for it.

Shared Contribution
Each person must be committed to the group's betterment. Sometimes that will mean spending extra time, extra effort, and doing extra work. If the whole group is willing to share the effort and to work together toward this aim, individual frustrations can be mollified quickly. When each person feels that everyone is sharing and contributing equally, it inoculates each individual against resentments. Everyone shares the work; everyone shares the glory.

Shared Values
Every person is unique. Nowhere is this more the case than in the ambit of values. Many conflicts and arguments stem from value incongruities. They aren't irreconcilable though. An open recognition of value differences, and an attitude toward finding common ground in a respectful and considerate way can lead people to the same goal, even if they take different paths.

"Is Our Group Too Big?"

More people more problems. What I mean is that a group can get too large for its own good. That varies from context to context but sensitivity to size is ubiquitously important.

When groups get too large people tend to get lost in them. That undercuts mutual accountability, shared contribution, and makes finding middle ground problematic. That alone can cause rifts between group members that can go unchecked until they erupt.

Groups would be wise to consider the following tactics and manage group size with an eye toward effectiveness and social cohesion.

Downsize Your Groups
I think the sweet number is 12. When you are just forming a group getting to that number is easier. When you have a large group(s) already, aim to sub-divide your clan into 12-person groups that are in communication with one another, yet not necessarily dependent on each other.

The Resource Member Method
The Resource Member Method is simply having a core group that dabbles in all the satellite groups. It serves as the central control, without actually exerting control, but rather facilitates communication, enables discussion, and addresses issues as they arise.

Intelligent Grouping
Just having groups of 12 people isn't enough. The way in which people are grouped and sub-divided needs to be purposeful, and purpose-driven. The guiding star of the group must determine who needs to be there and who doesn't such that the group will function efficiently and with a high degree of specialty.

"Do We Allow a Diversity of Ideas?"

Under the right circumstances, on average groups are markedly more intelligent and able when it comes to decision-making than single individuals. James Surowiecki's research in The Wisdom of Crowds points out that the group is not more able than every single person, yet it is rare that the same person will be right as consistently as the group.

That is the benefit of a healthy diversity of ideas, skills, and experiences. When people take guesses, the aggregate of their guesses reflect reality better than a single individual's could. That's a potent revelation, and a strong indicator of the benefit of cultivating groups with varied perspectives.

A prevalent problem in groups isn't just the suppression of ideas and perspectives, but some social, cognitive pitfalls. People in groups commonly sabotage themselves in the following ways:

Social Proof
People tend to assume that if many people are doing something, there must be a reason. That's why a crowd becomes more influential as it grows.

People stick with the crowd because it is less risky than doing something radical that could fail enormously, or that could prompt social backlash.

Information Cascades
People with different information, much of it imperfect, make decisions in sequence because they believe that their information accrues to truth. They are making decisions using prior knowledge with the assumption that their predecessors knew something that they don't. This can undermine critical thinking. It's called, traditionalism.

Despite these pitfalls, imitating others instead of undertaking complicated calculations before every action is a rational response to our own limits. Used prudently, it is a powerful tool for spreading good ideas fast.

A Group Must Operate as a Group

A group, at its heart, is a collection of people who collaborate or interact in some way. Technology has facilitated collaboration immensely. It has allowed people to share at high-speed, to explore alternatives rapidly, and to review a gamut of possibilities with greater accuracy.

Putting collaborative technology at a group's disposal can reduce some of the strain of group dynamics through systematization. However, the important thing is to ensure that the group operates as a group. Each person must identify with the group in some way; otherwise they'll never feel a part of it.

A common pain, respect for a central figure, recognition of the expertise of others, passionate leaders, a clearly defined purpose, mutual accountability, transparency.

Those are the vital ingredients of a healthy group dynamic.

About the Author
Anurag Harsh wears many hats. He is an entrepreneur, a public company executive, a digital guru, a blogger, a McGraw-Hill published author, an angel investor, and a classical musician who has performed two sold out solo concerts at Carnegie Hall. Follow him on Twitter.