Group Dynamics and Team Building

1. Why group dynamics matter

All group members have their own personal histories and life experiences, knowledge and skills, vision and aims, as well as interests and needs. Group members are usually also members of various subgroups, e.g. neighbours, employment status, representatives of an ethnic community. Each of the participants comes with his/her own values, beliefs, and principles. Considering that each group member influences all other group members as well as the group as a whole, it becomes obvious that each group of learners is unique and that each group develops its own dynamics. The term "group dynamics" is used to describe the processes that occur when people interact in a group. Being able to observe and understanding these processes will help make the team work more effective.

Influencing factors

Interpersonal level

Participants of every group develop relationships with each other. Here are some aspects to consider:

  • How well do the group members know each other?
  • How much do they trust each other?
  • Do members of the group have a common history (positive or negative)?
  • Do group members communicate with each other?
  • Do they feel comfortable and safe?
  • Do group members respect differences and diversity?
  • How similar or different are the group members regarding their objectives, needs, or attitudes?

Personal level

On a personal level, participants come to a course with both task-related and human needs:

Human needs

  • Protecting one's self-esteem and demonstrating what one knows and can do.
  • Space for expressing oneself.
  • A feeling of belonging.
  • A positive environment that provides safety and comfort.
  • Positive relationships.
  • Positive emotions.

Task-related needs

  • Personal objectives about what he/she wants to gain from the course.
  • Predetermined ideas about what one needs and what is useful.
  • Offered information and skills must be applicable and relevant.

Political level

Group dynamics are often influenced by political factors such as hierarchies, status, and power. This level becomes especially important if most of the group members represent the same organisation or other subgroup. Power dynamics can become a disturbing factor when:

  • Participants compete with each other.
  • Key persons, e.g. the management or informal leaders, do not participate. As a result, the event's prestige can suffer and the participants' motivation might deteriorate.
  • On the other hand, the participation of key persons can also have a negative impact, as it might result in less openness and more cautiousness on the part of group members.
  • Training activities are funded by outside bodies. The requirements and interests of outside bodies have to be considered, and this can result in less flexibility in designing and implementing the course.
  • Other potential hidden icebergs, e.g. an unclear process of how participants have been selected or if participants transfer to the course their negative attitudes towards their work place or other subgroup they represent.

Ideas for limiting the negative impact of political aspects:

  • Group work will limit the impact of dominant leaders on the whole group.
  • The use of non-verbal methods promotes a change of roles and equality among the participants.
  • Demonstrating that responsible bodies value and support the group.
  • Background processes, such as the selection of participants or the interests of the organisers, should be made transparent.

2. Development stages of a group

Group dynamics theory teaches that each group experiences various different stages of development. There is no guarantee that a group will reach the next development stage and the length of time a group remains in a particular stage varies from group to group and stage to stage. The group development process is not linear: a group that has reached the 3rd or 4th stage can easily fall back into the "Storming" stage. A group might skip a stage, but this will haunt the group later in the process; in order to reach the "Performance" stage the previous stages have to be successfully concluded first.

Based on the work of Bruce Tuckman, Peter R. Wellhöfer and Eberhard Stahl, as well as our own experience in conducting team trainings, the following list summarises the group development stages and actions that the leader can undertake to help the group reach the next level.

Team development stages

1. Forming

Image: Forming

In this stage group members are very much occupied with their own emotions and doubts: uncertainty about whether they will find their place in the group, what will the other participants be like, what to expect from the teacher, etc. "I-thinking" is the predominant attitude. In their search for safety and structure, the group members try to become oriented, look for a safe place, search for sympathetic colleagues, and expect help from the leader.

The leader must look assured and exude certainty in order to help group members find their places. The teacher should create a positive atmosphere and provide space for communication and interaction.

2. Storming

Image: Storming

Participants try to find their place in the group. There are many discussions, coalitions are made to represent one's interests, and there is lots of competition. Many people talking at the same time and nobody listening to each other is a clear indicator that the group is in the Storming stage. Failure or success in this stage will to a large extent determine how open or closed participants will be later in the process and how well they deal with conflicts and emotions.

The leaer can guide the group through this stage by giving the group practical tasks that help to establish relationships and clarify roles. The teacher should show confidence and leadership because this stage can get rather emotional. All participants' contributions should be dealt with equally.

3. Norming

Image: Norming

Participants have established principles and procedures for achieving results and creating a positive atmosphere. Participants have found their place and feel safe in the group. People feel a part of the group, "I-thinking" is replaced by "We-thinking". It has become easier to communicate and collaborate with each other.

The leader can entrust the group with more challenging and demanding tasks. The teacher should find a balance between the group's human and task-related interests, e.g. the wish to communicate with each other and the requirements of the curricula.

4. Performing

Image: Performing

This is the highest point a group can accomplish. The result is similar to two people being in love: participants feel proud to belong to this group, they have a strong belief that nothing is too difficult for them, and interaction is based on complete trust and openness. Objectively, such a group is also highly productive. Most groups never reach this stage because it requires strong motivation, common goals, great emotional input, and strong commitment from the participants.

If a group has reached this stage, the leader can step aside and limit his/her role in facilitating the process, thus further strengthening the group's ability to work autonomously. He/she might want to present the group with new perspectives in order to provide the group with further opportunities to develop.

5. Adjourning/Reframing

Image: Adjourning

A group is established in order to accomplish certain objectives. When these tasks have been accomplished, the group reaches a natural end to its existence or set itself new tasks - in this case, the group development processes starts again from the start. Work and processes are reflected upon and objectives are readjusted. If the team will stop existing after intensive cooperation, participants need time to tie up loose ends and become familiar with the idea that the end is near. The stronger the relationships that have developed, the more emotional this parting process will be.

The leader has to provide methods and tools for evaluating what has been done and for readjusting or setting new aims. If the team will not continue working together he/she should help prepare the group for the end by providing opportunities to reflect on what has been achieved and by offering a perspective for continuing the established relationships.

Some things to keep in mind

  • The time a group spends in a stage can be minutes or years, and there is no guarentee that it will reach the next level. The more the group members are used to team work and the better the support from the leader, the faster the group will reach the "Performance stage".
  • The group development process is not linear: a group that has reached the 3rd or 4th stage can easily fall back into the "Storming" stage.
  • Working in groups does not come naturally to most people and conflicting personal interests versus group interests is a common challenge. Working in groups requires practice.

3. Roles and actions

Klaus Antons, the German researcher of group dynamics, outlines three groups of actions that exist in a group:

Task-related actions

  • Showing initiative and activity: making suggestions, expressing ideas, tackling an existing problem anew, restructuring material.
  • Looking for information: asking questions to specify suggestions, asking for additional information.
  • Learning others' opinions: trying to find out other people's feeling in regard to suggestions that have been made, etc.
  • Expressing one's own opinion.
  • Providing information: introducing others to the facts, sharing in experiences.
  • Delving into the issue at hand: giving example, trying to imagine the consequences of specific suggestions.
  • Coordinating: organising relationships and ideas, combining the activities of various smaller groups.
  • Summarising.

Process-related actions

  • Encouraging: being friendly, considerate, ready to respond to others, praising others and their ideas, agreeing to what others have said.
  • Staying within boundaries: helping others express themselves (e.g. "We still haven't heard John's opinion"), limiting the length of one's turns so that everyone has time to express themselves.
  • Agreeing to rules: setting rules for the group that regulate content, processes, and decision making.
  • Following along: complying with the group's decisions, carefully listening to others and accepting their ideas, being an active listener in group discussions.
  • Expressing the emotions of the group: defining the emotions generated by the group, sharing observations about group members.
  • Analysing: checking whether the group's decisions comply with the rules.
  • Diagnosing: defining sources of problems, determining next steps, analysing the main obstacles to further activity.
  • Analysing the stage of the group's development: finding out the members' opinions, evaluating whether the group is nearing a collective solution.
  • Being an intermediary: harmonising, smoothing out differing opinions, offering compromises.
  • Lessening tension: using humour to avert negative emotions, calming the situation by looking at the bigger picture.

Negative actions

  • Aggressive action: determining one's status by criticising others or doing them in; hostile actions towards the group or individuals in the group; always trying to dominate.
  • Blocking: sabotaging the further development of the group by focusing on insignificant problems or talking about one's own experiences that is not associated with the problem at hand; a prejudiced rejection of others' ideas.
  • Fishing for sympathy: using the group as an audience for expressing one's own feelings or opinions (that are not associated with the goals of the group); trying to get on the good side of group members by telling them about one's problems and failures; explaining things in a very complicated way.
  • Dominating: arguing with others about the best ideas; talking non-stop; trying to be the most important person; taking over leadership.
  • Being a clown: playing the fool, telling jokes, imitating others; interrupting the group's work.
  • Looking for attention: attracting the attention of others, for example, by talking loudly or at length; expressing extreme ideas; acting strangely.
  • Stepping back: acting in a passive or inappropriate way, for example, daydreaming, whispering, avoiding the topic.

Tip

It is more productive to focus on people's actions rather than on roles. Each person can take on different actions that are required for the group to succeed, e.g. time keeping, writing down ideas, asking questions or reminding others about agreed rules, thus taking on co-responsibility for the outcome. Being able to observe these actions helps the teacher to analyse processes in the group and to determine what corrective actions need be taken. It is even better if the group becomes able to analyse its own actions and adapt to any shortcomings.