Understanding Group Dynamics – what every leader should know

Understanding Group Dynamics – what every leader should know

Mel Fairley 18th March 2021

    Group Dynamics? That’s the thing that facilitators and OD specialists need to know about, right?  Absolutely, but managers and leaders of people need to know about it too!

    Take this scenario for example.  As a leader you have a number of different teams in your area of responsibility.  You have a particular issue that needs a cross team solution. So, you bring together your star players to form a project team.  You pick the most creative, talented people you can and set them to work.  You have high hopes for this team and what they can achieve.

    But….

    Little or no progress is made.  It’s frustrating and bewildering so you start attending some of the team meetings to try and find out what’s holding the team back from moving the issue on.  You observe a number of things that you think might explain the lack of progress. 

    Firstly, one of the team members appears overly critical of any idea that isn’t their own and others start holding back from contributing for fear of being shot down in flames.  Someone else in the team barely offers up anything, agrees with whatever is being said and yet you know in his own team he is a real independent thinker and a driver of creative solutions.  And in addition, there’s the team member who seems desperate to get every meeting over and done with as soon as possible which is not how she behaves in other meetings.

    So, what’s going on? These are classic examples of group dynamics undermining the potential success of this project team by impacting the morale and engagement of the those within it.

    An American social psychologist, Kurt Lewin, was the first to coin the term “Group Dynamics” in the early 1940s (also referred to as Team Dynamics).  He identified patterns around the distinct roles and behaviours people often stepped into when they came together with others to work in a team or group.  He described the effects of those roles and behaviours on others and on the group as a whole as “group dynamics”. There has been considerable research since those early findings on the theory of group dynamics with knowledge and understanding of the term becoming central to great leadership and management practice.

    Group dynamics isn’t always an easy thing to define and can be difficult to get your head around. Largely because it’s not something that’s all that tangible or measurable. Here are a few ways in which you could describe Group/Team Dynamics:

    • Team Dynamics is the way your team members interact with one another. These interactions are shaped by things like individual personalities and behaviours, the nature of the work being done, and the relationships that exist within the team.
    • It is the behavioural relationships between members of a team or group including how they interact, communicate and cooperate with one another.
    • Team dynamics are the unconscious, psychological forces that influence the direction of a team’s behaviour and performance. 
    • Team dynamics are created by the nature of the team’s work, the personalities within the team, their working relationships with other people, and the environment in which the team works.

    When a team has a positive dynamic it’s relatively easy to spot.  There are significant levels of trust between team members, they will hold each other accountable for rising to the challenge and regardless of personal viewpoints they will work collectively once a decision has been made.

    On the other hand, when the dynamic is poor, as in the case above, then the likelihood is that no amount of previous high performance as individuals will help the team.  What is needed is for the leader to create the right environment for positive groups dynamics to thrive.

    Here are the steps you can take to set that positive environment:

    Create a shared purpose

    We all know that the difference between a group and a team is that the team has a shared goal which they are all willing to work towards.  The sense of everyone pulling together with the same end in mind is critical to effective team working.  If you observe that your team is unable to move things on or make decisions, then it is perhaps a sign of a lack of clarity and understanding of the overall goal and may be worth revisiting.

    Interdependence/Sense of Belonging

    It is important that you take the time to bring your team together properly in those early stages.  Each person should understand why they are part of the team, their value, expected contribution and level of responsibility. Positive group dynamics show in a team where not only does each member understand what they are responsible for but equally how interdependent they are with other team members.  Team members will proactively seek others out to share ideas or suggestions and, importantly, ask each other for help when needed.

    Inclusion and Diversity

    For creativity and innovation to flourish there needs to be disagreement and opposing views.  If we all think the same, then how will we come up with something new and different? Leaders who truly value difference will avoid group think by ensuring that the team has a wide range of views, knowledge and experience across the issue at hand. 

    Openness and Trust

    With a diverse team all members need to feel safe to openly share their information and ideas.  By explicitly acknowledging that you are seeking different views and perspectives, and that you expect the team to share those, you as the Leader can set the tone for how open the team will be.  With that openness will come a high degree of engagement and dialogue which will help with creativity and innovation.  Team members also need to have trust in each other and in you as a Leader, that everyone will do their bit – meet deadlines, do what’s being asked of them and be accountable for it. They must also be willing to admit and correct mistakes.  As Leader, you will set clear measurement and evaluation criteria with the team and be willing for them, and/or you, to change course if the results are not what has been agreed.

    Participative Leadership

    As a leader you brought this team together because you believe in their capabilities so now you must step back.  Micro-managing a team not only stifles creativity but can also undermine their sense of ownership. This in turn can negatively impact the levels of trust they feel you have in them.   Participative leaders step back and give members the space to work autonomously. See your role as the provider of resources, guidance, and information as required by the team.

    By making a conscious effort on each of the points above, you will stand a much greater chance of positive group dynamics in those that come together to achieve.  Our leader in the example above hadn’t realised that there was more to it than simply getting together the brightest and best to achieve success.  Group dynamics are a very important part of our working life.  They can have a significant impact on whether people enjoy their work, on team and individual performance, retention and ultimately the success of an organisation. Paying attention to the nuances of group dynamics and taking the time to create the environment in which a team can thrive with positive dynamics is something every Leader should have a focus on.