Most of our lives happen in groups. We are born into a group (aka our family). We work in groups. We spend our leisure time in groups. We practice our spiritual beliefs in groups. We play sports in groups. And we watch other groups, be they musicians or athletes, perform in groups. And yet, most people haven’t the foggiest idea about group dynamics.
The Cult of the Individual:
We live in a culture that celebrates the individual. We think in terms of “I” and “me”, and “they” and “them”. We believe in the myth of Horatio Alger and the ideal of the self-made man. And we see groups as the spheres in which competitions are played out. As children, we competed for attention in our families and in our classrooms. As we got older, we competed to be the best, whether it was the best athlete, the prettiest girl, the smartest, the most popular, the funniest, the most delinquent, the biggest trouble-maker, etc. And even if we weren’t likely to be the best, we fought not to be the “worst” – to avoid being the biggest geek, the ugliest, the least popular. We live our lives as if Social Darwinism is the only guiding principle.
The Other Evolutionary Theory:
But fifty years before Darwin presented his theory of evolution, a French scientist named Jean-Baptiste de Lamark gave us a different theory of evolution. He argued that organisms evolve via cooperative interaction in their environment. So, for example, there is a species of hermit crab that carries a pink anemone on its shell. The anemone protects the crab from predators and the anemone gets the crab’s left over food. What this suggests is that while it’s true that there is competition for survival, there is also cooperation. The implication is that evolution may be a matter of survival of the fittest groups rather than the fittest individuals.
Principles of Group Dynamics:
Anyone who has ever played on a successful sports team or performed with an ensemble knows that working together is the key to success. And anyone who has been on a board or committee knows that not working together leads to disaster. It doesn’t matter if it’s the PTA, the planning committee at a local church, synagogue or yoga studio, or a national board of directors, breakdowns in group communication can derail the group.
The following elements are necessary in order for a group to function effectively.
1. Clarity of purpose: It should be obvious, but the purpose of the group has to be clear. It’s important to establish what the group is about and what the goal is. If the goal isn’t mutual, you’re going to have problems. For example, a football team needs to be clear on it’s goals. Is the team simply focussed on having fun or is its primary focus to win the league championship? Whatever the goal, everyone needs to be on board.
2. Safety: People need to feel safe in order to reveal themselves and take risks. Group leaders need to establish rules of engagement and help establish ongoing communication norms. Most people put respect at the top of the list. Freedom from judgement is also important. Leaders also have to do their best to provide equity so that everyone has an equal chance to be seen and heard.
3. Transparency: There’s an old saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” This applies to groups as well as individuals. Secrets and secret meetings rot groups from the inside out. They leave people feeling unsafe, unseen, and unimportant. Secrets also create a void which people fill by making shit up. People not involved in the secret meeting, should said meeting become revealed, often assume that the meeting was about them, think they are being judged and criticized which leaves them feeling scared, hurt, and angry. They lose some of their commitment to the group.
And it’s not just the obvious secrets that can be problematic. It’s important for group members to understand the relationship connections between group members. For example, if some members of the group have known each other for years and other members of the group don’t know anyone in the group, it’s important to make these relationships transparent so that the group can both reach out to the new people and understand that long standing relationships may take precedence in matters like who goes to lunch with whom. If there are couples in the group, this also needs to be clear. Otherwise, things can get sticky very quickly.
Inclusiveness: In order for a group to function effectively, everyone needs to feel “part of” and valued. Individual group members need to be seen and peripheral members need to be invited into the center. If a group member is struggling, or simply not feeling well, they need to be acknowledged and maybe even comforted, or at least offered a tissue if their nose is running, or sympathetic pat on the back if they sprain their ankle.
Group Conflict: Finally, to maintain a healthy group, there must be suitable structures in place to manage group conflict in a way that provides safety for the group and for the conflicting parties. This means that the conflict needs to be acknowledged in the group and norms regarding respect and safety must be followed. It can be helpful to note that conflict does not have to be bad unless it is managed poorly. Managed properly, conflict can actually make the group closer and help the group pursue its goal. Managed poorly, conflict can destroy the group.
It’s important for group leaders to understand these principles. Putting them in place makes the group more cohesive and pleasant (which makes life more pleasant in general). These principles, when followed, will also improve productivity and helps the group attain its goals.