Improving Group Dynamics

Helping Your Team Work More Effectively

People standing on colored cogs.

A "joker" in your team can create negative group dynamics.

© iStockphoto/AnnBaldwin

Imagine that you've brought together the brightest people in your department to solve a problem.

You had high hopes for the group, so you feel frustrated when people can't come to a decision.

Several factors are holding the group back.

To start with, one person is very critical of colleagues' ideas. You suspect that her fault-finding is discouraging others from speaking up.

Another has hardly contributed to the sessions at all. When asked for his opinion, he simply agrees with a more dominant colleague.

Finally, one group member makes humorous comments at unhelpful times, which upsets the momentum of the discussion.

These are classic examples of poor group dynamics, and they can undermine the success of a project, as well as people's morale and engagement.

In this article, we'll look at what group dynamics are, and why they matter. We'll then discuss some examples of poor group dynamics, and we'll outline some tools that you can use to deal with them.

What Are Group Dynamics?

Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist and change management expert, is credited with coining the term "group dynamics" in the early 1940s. He noted that people often take on distinct roles and behaviors when they work in a group. "Group dynamics" describes the effects of these roles and behaviors on other group members, and on the group as a whole.

More recent researchers have built on Lewin's ideas, and this work has become central to good management practice.

A group with a positive dynamic is easy to spot. Team members trust one another, they work towards a collective decision, and they hold one another accountable for making things happen. As well as this, researchers have found that when a team has a positive dynamic, its members are nearly twice as creative as an average group.

In a group with poor group dynamics, people's behavior disrupts work. As a result, the group may not come to any decision, or it may make the wrong choice, because group members could not explore options effectively.

What Causes Poor Group Dynamics?

Group leaders and team members can contribute to a negative group dynamic. Let's look at some of the most common problems that can occur:

  • Weak leadership: when a team lacks a strong leader, a more dominant member of the group can often take charge. This can lead to a lack of direction, infighting, or a focus on the wrong priorities.
  • Excessive deference to authority: this can happen when people want to be seen to agree with a leader, and therefore hold back from expressing their own opinions.
  • Blocking: this happens when team members behave in a way that disrupts the flow of information in the group. People can adopt blocking roles such as:
    • The aggressor: this person often disagrees with others, or is inappropriately outspoken.
    • The negator: this group member is often critical of others' ideas.
    • The withdrawer: this person doesn't participate in the discussion.
    • The recognition seeker: this group member is boastful, or dominates the session.
    • The joker: this person introduces humor at inappropriate times.
  • Groupthink  : this happens when people place a desire for consensus above their desire to reach the right decision. This prevents people from fully exploring alternative solutions.
  • Free riding: here, some group members take it easy, and leave their colleagues to do all the work. Free riders may work hard on their own, but limit their contributions in group situations; this is known as "social loafing."
  • Evaluation apprehension: team members' perceptions can also create a negative group dynamic. Evaluation apprehension happens when people feel that they are being judged excessively harshly by other group members, and they hold back their opinions as a result.

Strategies for Improving Team Dynamics

Use these approaches to improve group dynamics:

Know Your Team

As a leader, you need to guide the development of your group. So, start by learning about the phases   that a group goes through as it develops. When you understand these, you'll be able to preempt problems that could arise, including issues with poor group dynamics.

Next, use Benne and Sheats' Group Roles   to identify positive and negative group roles, and to understand how they could affect the group as a whole. This will also help you plan how to deal with potential problems.

Tackle Problems Quickly

If you notice that one member of your team has adopted a behavior that's affecting the group unhelpfully, act quickly to challenge it.

Provide feedback   that shows your team member the impact of her actions, and encourage her to reflect on how she can change her behavior.

Define Roles and Responsibilities

Teams that lack focus or direction can quickly develop poor dynamics, as people struggle to understand their role in the group.

Create a team charter   – defining the group's mission and objective, and everyone's responsibilities – as soon as you form the team. Make sure that everyone has a copy of the document, and remind people of it regularly.

Break Down Barriers

Use team-building exercises   to help everyone get to know one another, particularly when new members join the group. These exercises ease new colleagues into the group gently, and also help to combat the "black sheep effect," which happens when group members turn against people they consider different.

Also, explain the idea of the Johari Window   to help people open up. Lead by example: share what you hope the group will achieve, along with "safe" personal information about yourself, such as valuable lessons that you've learned.

Focus on Communication

Open communication is central to good team dynamics, so make sure that everyone is communicating clearly. Include all of the forms of communication that your group uses – emails, meetings, and shared documents, for example – to avoid any ambiguity.

If the status of a project changes, or if you have an announcement to make, let people know as soon as possible. That way, you can ensure that everyone has the same information.

Opinionated team members can overwhelm their quieter colleagues in meetings. Where this happens, use techniques such as Crawford's Slip Writing Method  , and make sure that you develop strong facilitation   skills.

Pay Attention

Watch out for the warning signs of poor group dynamics.

Pay particular attention to frequent unanimous decisions, as these can be a sign of groupthink  , bullying  , or free riding. If there are frequent unanimous decisions in your group, consider exploring new ways to encourage people to discuss their views, or to share them anonymously.

Key Points

The term "group dynamics" describes the way in which people in a group interact with one another. When dynamics are positive, the group works well together. When dynamics are poor, the group's effectiveness is reduced.

Problems can come from weak leadership, too much deference to authority, blocking, groupthink and free riding, among others.

To strengthen your team's dynamics, use the following strategies:

  • Know your team.
  • Tackle problems quickly with good feedback.
  • Define roles and responsibilities.
  • Break down barriers.
  • Focus on communication.
  • Pay attention.

Keep in mind that observing how your group interacts is an important part of your role as a leader. Many of the behaviors that lead to poor dynamics can be overcome if you catch them early.

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