Group Dynamics

See also: Group Diversity

Group dynamics is the term used to describe the behaviours and psychological processes that occur within a group, and their effect on both individual group members and the group as a whole.

These group dynamics affect the way that the group operates, how it develops, and the motivation of the group and its members.

A group with a positive dynamic will feel positive and motivated. Members will work capably towards the group’s objectives, and make shared decisions. A group with a negative or poor dynamic will not be so productive. Instead, the behaviour of one or more members of the group will disrupt the smooth running of the group.

This page discusses group dynamics, and how you can improve them.

The Causes of Poor Group Dynamics

Before you can start to improve group dynamics, it helps to understand what might cause a poor group dynamic to develop.

There may be several causes of a poor group dynamic—and more than one may be occurring in any particular group. It therefore pays to look in depth, rather than accepting the first possible cause that you find.

Poor group dynamics may develop as a result of:

  • Poor or weak leadership, which may result in competition between group members, development of subgroups or factions, and lack of direction or focus across the group.

  • Too much respect or deference for the leader. This can be an issue in particular cultures that have a very hierarchical approach. Group members often do not wish to speak up, especially if they do not agree with the leader, or are worried about the consequences of expressing their opinions.

  • Poor behaviour from group members. Particular problem behaviours include:

    • Blocking the flow of information, by disagreeing with other people aggressively or being very critical of others’ ideas. This leads people to stop sharing ideas. Withdrawing from discussions can also cause problems, because it means that you are not contributing ideas.

      There is more about some of these behaviours in our page on Difficult Group Behaviours.
    • ‘Free riding’, where one or more group members stop working as hard as they would on their own, relying on the other members of the group to fill the gap.
  • Incorrect perceptions about the group. Sometimes people are concerned about how they will be perceived, or about being judged by other group members. They may therefore not be prepared to contribute fully.

Improving Group Dynamics

It will be clear from this list that a group leader plays an important part in both setting and managing group dynamics. In many ways, creating a positive group dynamic requires similar behaviours to developing group cohesiveness.

For example, it is important to set clear goals, roles and responsibilities, and support the development of group norms. These ensure that the group members are clear about how they are expected to behave and contribute. It also gives you a basis for intervening if members are behaving in unhelpful ways, such as blocking information or freeloading.

It is also important to encourage open, honest and respectful communication among the group. This can avoid incorrect perceptions from building up, and ensure that team members know that their contributions are valued.

Know Your Team

As a leader, there is no substitute for knowing your team or group well.

Understanding each group member, and how they like to contribute, can—and will—help you get the best out of the group. You may want to use tools to help you get to know more about people’s preferences, such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicators. Sharing the results across the team (with consent, of course) will also mean that group members know more about each other. This is helpful in improving communication, and giving the group a common language to discuss any differences or difficulties.

You should act quickly when you spot behaviours that could be a problem for the group dynamic. The group member concerned may not even have realised what they are doing—or there could be underlying issues that need to be addressed. Either way, it is a good idea to speak to them as soon as you notice.

There is more about how you might do this in our page on Giving and Receiving Feedback.

Another way in which group leaders can support the group to develop a positive dynamic is by using team building exercises. These get a bad press, but can actually be helpful when they enable the group to practise different behaviours and see their effects. Tools like the Johari window (see our page on Group Processes for more about this) can also help groups to understand the dynamics, and therefore surface any problems.

Encouraging Dissent

Paradoxically, one of the best ways to create a strong and positive group dynamic is actually to encourage dissent.

This does not mean encouraging group members to fight, or to create conflict unnecessarily. However, one of the signs of poor group decision-making is reaching decisions very quickly, and with a strong consensus. This suggests that group members are falling prey to problems like groupthink, or that members are not prepared to express opinions that are contrary to those already expressed. It may also mean that group members are not taking responsibility for decisions.

There is more about this in our page on Group Decision-Making.

Group leaders should encourage group members to disagree with each other respectfully. For example, people should be encouraged to focus on the idea, not the person.

The leader should also vary the order in which group members are asked to express opinions, or even find ways to canvass opinions in advance of any meetings. Using techniques like brainstorming (and see our page on Brainstorming Techniques for more ideas) can help to surface ideas and opinions without any judgement being made. Other techniques for enabling group members to share their opinions without fearing judgement include the Delphi Technique, where members give views anonymously and in writing. Their views are collated and shared for further comment, until a consensus is reached.

A Final Word

Group leaders have a strong part to play in developing a positive dynamic within a group.

However, group members can also play a role in this process. In particular, they can avoid problematic behaviours like withdrawal or aggressive disagreements. They can also support open communication as a way to surface any problems or issues. Addressing any issues early on is the fastest way to ensure that the group dynamic does not suffer.