Group dynamics are vital to ensuring a business’ workforce has a high level of productivity and morale throughout each working day. As such every employer who wants their business to grow and succeed needs to acknowledge and address team dynamics with the aim of ensuring team members develop a strong group dynamic.

What are Group Dynamics?

The term “Group Dynamics” originated from the social psychologist and change management expert, Kurt Lewin, in 1940. Whenever a group of three of more people converse or work together group dynamics will be displayed. Group dynamics are the processes that occur between members of a team.

The reason that these dynamics are so important is how they are affected by each employee’s internal thoughts and feelings, their expressed thoughts and feelings, non-verbal communication, and the relationships held between each member to the others. The dynamic present will help an employer understand how each person’s actions translate in context to their group.

Group Dynamics in Business Environments

In any workplace different individuals will take certain roles within a group; some individuals lead conversations and activities, others attempt to influence the direction in which a group works, and certain individuals act as mute spectators who follow the lead of others.

With a multitude of varying personalities being present during worktime and meetings it is inevitable that there will be clashes in both business and personal ideologies. If left unaddressed the behaviour which develops from this can become an obstacle to achieving business goals in a timely manner due to the potential breakdown of a positive group dynamic.

Conversely any group which has a positive dynamic will be easy to identify for employers and onlookers alike. When team members trust one another, they work harder towards common business goals as they don’t want to adversely affect other members of their employee group. Indeed, trust is the foundation on which any high performing team is built.

Should issues arise within a group then the likelihood of other employee members holding each other accountable for work done increases. This helps both management, as many problems will be addressed and resolved within the group before they have the chance to elevate to a level in which managers, or employers, need to actively step in.

The majority of all work completed will require some form of cohesion and teamwork between an employee workforce, and accordingly nurturing a positive and healthy dynamic will set up any business for greater long-term success. As well as helping the inter-group relationship flourish between members, looking from a larger perspective it is apparent that sufficient management of these dynamics will contribute to a better company culture as well. Something which all employers ought to strive for.

How do Groups Develop within a Workplace?

Bruce Tuckman, throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, created and developed the most common framework referred to when exploring how group formation takes place. ‘Group Formation’ implies that groups do not operate at optimum efficiency during the initial establishment and early development periods. His theory states that the majority of groups undergo similar development stages, which experience similar conflicts and resolutions.

Tuckman’s Theory has a total of five stages of Group Development, this being: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. Over the course of these stages, employee groups will have to address a number of issues, with the methods undertaken to resolve these issues determining whether the group will be successful in efficiently conducting different work tasks.

Stage One: Forming

This initial stage usually encompasses substantial misunderstandings and uncertainty, with the underlying goals of the group having yet to be established. With the nature and leadership roles having yet to be allocated, there will be a markedly high level of dependence on employers or upper management for guidance and direction.

‘Forming’ is the orientations period in which employees get to know one another better, understanding each other’s work styles and preferences on task management. Employee groups will need to come to terms with the scope of work assigned and what expertise and experience different members of the group have. Outside of the instructions allocated by management there is high likelihood for there to be frequent disagreements due to contrasting work views. As an employer it is important for whomever is placed in charge of forming this group to be prepared to answer numerous questions about the work projects put in place, the objectives, deadlines and what external contacts will be liaised with.

Whilst Tuckman states that this stage should not be rushed due to trust and openness needing to be developed, in a professional environment it is necessary to speed this process up to keep work deadlines on track. It is advisable to look towards out-of-work solutions to compensate for this reduction in time allocated such a social activities. If this stage is completed correctly then the positive relationships and trust built will be strengthened in the subsequent stages.

Stage Two: Storming

This stage has the greatest probability of seeing disagreements and conflict arise. Team members will compete for power and are likely to challenge the group methodology in completing their allocated tasks. It is very common to see employees attempt to position themselves favourably within the group and in relation to either management or employers.

It is recommended that there is a clearly defined goal for this work group as this will reduce the number of uncertainties present. During this period, with employees having passed the introductory phase, it is likely for cliques or factions to be formed. Keeping an eye on employee interactions will help to determine the appropriate course of action. It should be kept in mind that even if there have been no pre-established cliques formed between employees before, depending on the proximity required during these group tasks, individuals who have never acted in factions may join one due to the increased exposure.

It should be remembered that whilst this can be a precarious period, with the group dynamic remaining unstable, if approached properly this can become a positive experience for all involved so long as the employee members can achieve a degree of cohesion through resolving and compromising on their approaches. Employees will often voice their concerns and criticisms in this phase.

If your allocated workforce is unable to resolve a majority of their conflicts, then Tuckman’s theory dictates that the group will likely disband or remain in existence but be ineffective in what they are doing, unable to advance to further stages and remaining in work limbo. From an employer’s perspective this would be displayed through low productivity and morale present within a workforce.

Stage Three: Norming

In this stage a general consensus is formed with regards to shared expectations and individual differences are acknowledged and accepted. Having reached this point, a work group ought to begin developing a stronger group identity with improved cohesion and morale. With a team coming to terms on how it should operate, with some assistance and facilitation by their employer or manager, the efficiency levels will see a gradual, but noticeable climb due to better co-operation.

Ensuring that roles and responsibilities are properly defined and accepted by both the individuals in question, and the remaining team members, is the focal point of this stage. With this division of responsibilities all members of the team will be held accountable for their section of work required. Work progress will need to be monitored and evaluated to see whether employees are working significantly different within the group dynamic, in comparison to their prior work pattern.

The decision-making process should see the whole group decide on the largest decisions, with smaller items being delegated to the appropriate team member, or small teams, present within the group. The final phase of this stage will see the team leaders mutually respected with the team members engaging in social activities unprompted.

Stage Four: Performing

At this point the group will be strategically aware and independent. All employees within the team will clearly know what the goal is, working towards a shared vision and able to work with no input required from the employer. Due to the strong bonds present within all group members there will be a drive to over-achieve on all goals set, with members making the majority of the decisions, only following the criteria put in place by an employer.

With the team being autonomous in nature, all disagreements will be positively resolved internally, without the required assistance of an employer, and usually through a group discussion format. As a result of this autonomy an employee group is able to attend to relationship, style and procedural matters.

Having achieved strong working relationships, every group member will support one another, with members feeling secure enough to ask assistance regarding both personal and interpersonal development.

Stage Five: Adjourning

Bruce Tuckman advanced his theory in the mid 1970’s, adding a fifth stage to him Group Dynamic Model, to include ‘Adjourning’. This stage refers to the disbandment of the group. Fred Luthans, a Management Professor specialising in Organisations Behaviour, has noted that not all groups experience this stage of development, and can be seen as permanent fixtures. In general, the reason for disbandment can vary within a professional environment, with the most common reason being the accomplishment of the allocated tasks and individual group members being delegated to other areas of business to meet everyday demands.

Group members may be subject to feelings of closeness and sadness due to the separation of proximity depending on the degree of separation. Employers should look to maintain any positive group relationship formed to some level, with socials and other smaller work assignments being potential courses of action. Having built a strong working group relationship any prudent business leader ought to look at what long term benefits can be derived from these relationships, as potential future work endeavours will be more efficient than putting two unacquainted work colleagues together. Knowing each other’s personalities and work styles is an important aspect of work which cannot be understated when looking at increasing productivity levels within the workplace.

What Factors Adversely Affect Group Dynamics?

There are numerous factors which needs to be considered and accounted for by employers and management when looking to improve the group dynamics present within any workforce. The following factors form a comprehensive list of items which should be considered when aiming to promote constructive group dynamics.

  • Weak Leadership: If a work team lacks a strong and respected leader it is very likely that a dominant, and potentially more aggressive, personality can take charge. This can lead to numerous problems due these individuals often lacking sufficient management skills to sufficiently replace the intended leader. A by-product of this would be poor group direction, constant infighting/conflict, and an inability to prioritise work appropriately.
  • Anxiety of being Judged: Overly critical team member perceptions can create a negative group dynamic where employees are reluctant to put forward any input of their own for fear of being negatively judged. This apprehension takes place when people feel they are being judged excessively harshly by other members of the work group; this judgemental behaviour can be either verbal or non-verbal, remaining silent or ignoring group members when they put forth an idea. This will severely affect the creativity and productivity levels present within any group. The knock-on effect will be similar to what was mentioned above, whereby, only a more dominant and less socially sensitive individual will take control of a group dynamic.
  • Employees Off-Loading their Work: When members of a group off-load their work wherever possible onto other team members, this will create a toxic sentiment towards that individual. Over time a consensus will be built that this individual is lazy and is neither deserving, nor able to help the team work. Depending on the personality types present in a group there is a high likelihood of these free-loaders being isolated. This can also be the case for workers who take a more self-centric approach to their work, where they work hard on their own, but limit their own contributions to group situations. This can be done for numerous reasons, with a prevalent cause being the reduction of recognition received when working hard in a group, when compared to working alone and hitting targets.
  • The ‘Yes Men’ Mindset: This mentality refers to employees who want to be seen to agree with the group leaders and management, rather than voicing their own opinions. If a workplace culture is in place which encourages conformity, rather than constructive discussions and creativity, then this will be significantly detrimental to every employee group dynamic present within a business. There are several factors which need to be accounted for when determining why certain members of a group may be defined as ‘overly agreeable’ to any form of authority figures. One predominant reason for this is to protect job and social security, where a team member aims to conform with leaders in order to not stand out. In so doing they would hope to remain on the ‘good side’ of the relevant authoritative figures so that they are not singled out as a difficult, or uncompliant employee. A major problem with this is that team members often get marked for this type of behaviour as someone who would prioritise their own interests and security over helping their team or as a weak-willed individual who isn’t willing to voice their own opinion. The result being that any genuine input they do put forth is likely to be ignored due to the stigma attached to them.
  • Social Blockers: ‘Blocking’ occurs when members of a team act in a way which disturbs the flow of information between group members and often encourages negative personality traits from others. Whilst blocking behaviour is inherently negative, it is important for an employer to realise that often times blocking behaviour is not intended to be negative. There are several different blocking roles which can be adopted by employees with the following examples naming several, such as:
    • The Negator: A group member who is disparaging of other members ideas, often providing little to no constructive criticism with this. The Negator role usually attempts to control conversations taking place within a group by patronising other members, at times belittling other group members contributions and capabilities. This role, in particular, has a substantial affect on the overall creativity displayed by employee groups as a whole, with people becoming less willing to put forward their own ideas for fear of being embarrassed or patronised.
    • The Aggressor: A group member who often disagrees with others, usually in unnecessary situations, and is inappropriately outspoken. Key indicators of an Aggressor are shown when an employee criticises another employees’ values and makes jokes in a sarcastic or semi-concealed manner.
    • The Withdrawer: The blocking behaviour of a Withdrawer can be more subtle than with other blocking roles as the behavioural indicators are more passive in nature. An employee who can be classified as a Withdrawer will show avoidance behaviour; this will often convert to a group member not pursuing goals which are not related to or will have little to no contribution to the group. One method which is commonly employed by Withdrawers is to control or avoid conversational and work subjects to avoid possible commitments to the group.
    • The Comedian: Employees who are identifiable as Comedians often abandon their groups, not necessarily in a physical manner, through mental detachment. These attention seekers will often inject humour at inappropriate times and will exert more energy into attention grabbing activities rather than using this energy and time productively in aid of the group’s objectives.
    • The Blocker: Being true to their namesake, these individuals will stubbornly resist and defer the group’s ideas, disagreeing with group members for personal reasons, often times having hidden agendas. These agendas can range from looking to gain a competitive edge for a promotion, to sabotaging other members for personal vendettas.

These points relate to a vast majority of problems which arise in different work place environments, and need to be addressed and dealt with appropriately in order to ensure there is the opportunity to create strong team dynamics where all employees work towards a common goal, supporting each other along the way.

It is important to understand that the main reason why individuals are able to adopt these negative roles and build them to a level which significantly undermines a group dynamic is due to inadequate management. Failing to guide employees throughout the more sensitive early stages when a group dynamic is being formed leaves a business vulnerable to missed deadlines and toxic work environments. Inversely if an employer ensures that several positive group dynamics have been constructed over time then a business’s work environment will be far more resilient to toxicity and will overall result in better mental and social wellbeing for all employees.

Methods an Employer can Utilise to Improve Group Dynamics

The following points elaborate on a few different strategies which any employer, or manager, could look to utilising in order to bring about a desirable work environment, strengthened through positive group dynamics.

Understand who is in your Team

Knowing the personalities present within an employee group is vital in creating a strategy which will allow any employer to cater to the specific individual requirements present within each group. Identifying both positive and negative group behaviour roles and how they interact and relate to one another is a key factor in determining the capabilities a group can have, if successfully managed.

The way people behave in a group can vary significantly, with some members being supportive and sympathetic, others being more work centric, and others causing conflict and discord within a team. Anyone who has worked in more than one team will acknowledge that some groups can work far more effectively than others, and whilst there is no universal answer which is perfectly applicable to all groups there are general indicators which will help employers guide teams in moving forward and know what can inhibit the progress of a team. A good resource to utilise when referring to the numerous roles and responsibilities which can be taken, including; task roles, personal or social roles, dysfunctional or individualistic roles, is Benne and Sheats’ List on Group Roles. From the three categories of group roles developed by Kenneth Benne and Paul Shears, 26 different roles were defined.

It is important to understand what stage of development a work group is on. Most often any group in question will be within the first two stages, these being ‘forming’ or ‘storming’, as later stage groups will require a less hands-on approach in building and maintaining a strong group dynamic.

Improve Group Relations

Utilising team-building exercises is a practical and quick way to analyse and improve group dynamics. This method is particularly useful during the ‘forming’ stage of a group as it allows all employees to get to know each other, with this definitely being a preferred application for any new members joining a group. Doing this will graduate new members more smoothly and will help prevent the ‘black sheep effect’ which can occur when groups have a pre-disposition against people who they consider to be ‘outsiders’.

Utilising the ‘Johari Window’ technique will assist employees in opening up to one another. This is a cognitive tool created to help people better understand their relationship with themselves and others. In this exercise, an employee will pick a number of adjectives from a pre-planned list, choosing the items which they feel describes their own personality most appropriately. The other group members will then receive the same list, with each member picking an equal number of adjectives which, in their opinion, describes the subject in question. These adjectives shall then be inserted into a two-by-two grid of cells.

Charles Handy referred to this concept as the Johari House with four rooms. Room 1 being the part of ourselves which we and others see. Room 2 is the aspects which others see, but we fail to recognise. Room 3 is the most enigmatic room, being the unconscious and subconscious part of us which is seen neither by ourselves, nor others. Room 4 is our private space, which we keep hidden from others.

Whilst the above description may sound intrusive, it should be carried out with moderation but will be an eye-opening exercise for all involved. It is advisable that employers lead by example, share what thoughts on what the hopes are for the employee group, in conjunction with “safe and appropriate” personal information, such as appreciated pieces of wisdom which has been learnt throughout life.

Build Strong and Transparent Lines of Communication

Open and frequent communication is the lifeblood of any strong group dynamic and will dictate both the productivity levels and inter-group relationships present. For any group looking to be established, or improved upon, one of the first steps to undertake as an employer would be to look at what lines of communication are available to the group members, with it being noted which types of communication have the highest and the lowest rate of use.

Include all variations of communication used within the workplace such as emails, meetings, shared documents (both online and offline), social media groups, and any group call applications such as WhatsApp; doing so will reduce ambiguity.

Making sure that all members of a work group have every line of communication used within the group available to them will ensure that there is little opportunity for anyone to miss important information and updates. Having real-time updates will provide flexibility and a greater degree of autonomy for a group as they can react and collaborate more freely than if they only communicated face-to-face and via email.

Every conducive group requires employees to be able to present ideas in an open, supportive and encouraging environment. Ensuring this environment is present falls to employers and management. For any business leader who is unsure of how to bring this about, employing the Crawford’s Slip Writing Method provides a practical solution for this quandary. This system is intended to assist in pulling ideas from larger groups of people/employees, avoiding disordered and loud meetings which often take place when a sizeable number of people are gathered in a single meeting room.

One of the major problems with this open style of meeting is that all too often the conversations had will be dominated by a vocal minority, leaving the more shy and quiet individuals unheard. This can lead to potentially great ideas going amiss. Allowing everyone a chance to be heard is essential in cultivating strong group dynamics and this simplicity of the method emphasises its practicability.

Begin by identifying what topics and issues need to be addressed in the slip writing meeting, making sure that this is done adequately in advance. The complexity of these issues can vary depending on the business requirements. Ensuring that the topics are prepared, it will be necessary to schedule a meeting for the slip writing process (making sure to have sufficient paper slips and writing implements for all employees within the group). Giving several slips to each participant with instructions to write down just one idea on each slip, allocating a time limit from the start. When the participants have written their ideas on how to solve specific problems on a slip, the leader ought to catalogue all ideas for each problem, removing any duplicates, assessing the practicability of each idea. Conducting a follow up meeting to present the results of this meeting will show the effect this process has and this it is not ‘wasted time’.

These methods conclude a few of numerous other alternative approaches which can be utilised to strengthen group bonds within a workplace. Prioritising inclusivity, defined roles and communication is always a strong foundation to build upon. Every Employer will need to acknowledge the importance building strong team dynamics across their workforce in order to increase productivity and guarantee a positive workplace culture.

Take note that each group formed is unique, with different personality types and variances included, and that it is important to be able to adapt to the differences which will present themselves throughout the process of improving group dynamics.

The above methods should be used as introductory methods which serve as ideal starting points when looking to improve a group dynamic; with the subsequent evolution of group building methodologies the concepts and tools mentioned have been further updated and altered to provide approaches which can be utilised alongside modern technology and stresses. Look forward to a following article will provide the ensuing methods which have developed upon these tools.