DIRT FROM THE ROOTS 6: GROUP DYNAMICS
Welcome back to DIRT FROM THE ROOTS, your monthly blog for discovering new perspectives on interesting, insightful, and obscure topics within the mental health and psychology fields. Today, I’ll go over a personal favorite in regards to my own understanding of life: group psychodynamics.
TOPIC OF THE MONTH
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Prior to studying this topic, I always found that statement very confusing. An intuitive assumption may view this as a simple means of “two heads are better than one", and though my math skills are subpar at best, this statement seemed obviously illogical.
However, the explanation lies within the idea of dynamics. This statement is referring not to the combined impact of the different personalities and skills of each individual, but rather to the additional elements created in group behavior due to the interactions between these individuals. Much like chemicals can be mixed together to create new ones, our social interactions as a group can create scenarios and successes that would be impossible to procure as isolated individuals.
THE GREAT DILEMMA OF BEING INTERDEPENDENT
If we think about ourselves as we see other species– the snow leopard is an extremely solitary animal, the octopus is known to collaborate with other species for greater benefit, the safety of zebra is entirely dependent on being a social species, and colony animals such as bees quite literally have no other reality besides an entirely social one– humans are interdependent at best. However, considering how autonomy and independence are absolutely crucial elements of human wellbeing, it is not surprising that we see ourselves as independent creatures. We often glamorize this concept as well– the lone wolf, the one person army, the independent warrior– but the truth is that we have far more incentive to operate in groups than we do alone. There are the obvious reasons, such as sheer power of numbers, diversity in ideas and abilities, and just the simple need for human connection. What may not be as evident here is that the actual reasoning goes much, much deeper than this.
Endless factors influence how any specific person feels about joining a group, but there is one unanimous dilemma that a grand majority of us will face when interacting socially: how do we best integrate our personal selves and experiences into a culture of a group?
This dilemma comes from how on one hand, the aforementioned need for autonomy and individuality is the key ingredient in how we see ourselves socially. We strive to be our most authentic selves, advocate for our needs, and maximize our unique abilities and skills. On the other hand, we possess core needs of acceptance and feeling connected with others, and have a great aversion to both isolation and loneliness. In an ultimate scenario, we find ourselves in a group that we feel we belong, that allows us to be ourselves while also receiving acceptance and membership from a group.
What this creates is a phenomenon we call in-groups and out-groups. When we are “in"– accepted and/or appreciated by members– we become part of the in-group, seen as a part of the whole. Naturally, however, this also creates a diversion from everyone else. Those who are not being seen as an in-group member are then perceived as an out-group member, creating a separation in identity at best and full-scale prejudice and xenophobia at worst. Considering the necessity of in-groups for both safety and identity purposes, this also highlights the importance of respecting differences between separate in-groups rather than expect assimilation or idealize a uniformed cultural expectation: for full psychological and societal success, we actually need to operate in diverse, interdependent groups that do not fully agree.
So while most every group that we will engage with in our lives will bring differences to the table, it is this competition between “I will be myself unapologetically” and “being a part of a group is worth making sacrifice and compromise” that makes working with others so much more challenging but necessary as opposed to just working with ourselves. When we do feel more comfortable, that is an indication that we are a “good fit” within the group, while joining a “bad” group that contradicts our core values may actually lead to us becoming more consciously aware of ourselves individually. This is the key underlying factor to the idea of dynamics themselves, as our additions to a group are what create movement and growth within both that specific culture as well as culture at large.
THE WIDE VARIETY OF GROUP TYPES
Next, we have to indicate that indeed, the type of group as well as our affiliation and history with a group is going to dramatically change how we interact. Here are a few types of groups that psychologists categorize in this realm.
PRIMARY AND SECONDARY GROUPS
A primary group can be described as any small conglomerate of individuals who care about and support one another. The main goal of this group is not for secondary individual gain, instead just to uphold the relationships themselves. Intimate partners, a close friend group, families, support groups, and similar conglomerates of social ties would be considered primary groups. These groups are unsurprisingly very influential on our formation, and therefore are one of the most important factors in our own development. Given the intimacy, importance, and ecosystem fragility of primary groups, they pose the hardest barrier to entry for out-group members. In addition, these groups are most likely to bring powerful experiences, emotions and connections that would not be as readily attainable in any other group structure.
Secondary groups are typically larger and shorter lived than primary groups, and can be viewed more as a “structure with roles to fill” as opposed to primary groups, which exist for more intangible, emotional and primal reasons. The function of a secondary group is based around collaboration towards a shared goal, and these “roles'' will need to be filled by certain skill sets or personalities. A more impersonal setup makes it much easier for people to join, leave or be replaced, and this creates barriers to intimacy but may increase effectiveness with less emotional bias. The most obvious example of a secondary group would be a business, where employees are hired based on skills and assigned positions to work together for a shared purpose, other examples include a sports team, a school, client-clinician relationships, and similar setups.
Also worth mentioning is the formation of subgroups within secondary groups– though the entire lot of people involved may be working towards one overarching goal, they may be doing so in fragmented pieces. Think about a restaurant– the front of the house, the kitchen, and management all work in unison, but occupy vastly different roles and consist of different cultures. We have all seen situations such as cliques where subgroups begin to harm the greater whole, but also signify a very integrated and effective group when working together successfully.
A collective is a step further in social group categorization– more or less just a conglomerate of random people that happen to be in the same place for a loosely similar reason. If we go to a concert, a game, the shopping plaza, even if we are just walking down a crowded street, we are considered to be in a collective. What is interesting about collectives is how they pose the easiest opportunity for out-group members to become in-group members– if we show up to the concert wearing the band's apparel, we are immediately and blindly accepted wholeheartedly into the group just based on our presentation. The reasoning for such easy entry is probably due to these groups often being very short lived and spontaneous, but also highlights the wide range of social acceptance that humans are capable of, perhaps giving insight into how defensive and protective that we become in response to primary group attacks while still being able to maintain a broader sense of empathy.
CATEGORY & REFERENCE GROUPS
Members of categories are just an aggregate of individuals that have similar characteristics, some of which are not even derived from the choice of an individual. Using myself as an example, I categorically belong to the groups of therapists, males, people of French and Sicilian descent, bass players, people who have pet cats, people who write blog articles for private practices, etc. This area expands to an infinitely large level universally, we can all be considered the same group if we go as far as “global citizens”. In-group members of some categories are permanently in that position due to fixed characteristics, but an additional unique feature of some categorical groups is that individuals can choose to become in-group without the consent of other members.
Finally, we have reference groups. These groups of people are more abstract and subjective, as the purpose of reference groups is to serve as a comparison and benchmark of sorts for individuals who are looking to more clearly evaluate their own role in society. A lawyer may use attorneys in similar firms as a reference group, a mother may compare herself to her peers with children. While reference groups are a helpful and grounding perception that we can benefit from, it is notable to see that they also may lead to superiority/inferiority complexes through comparison; a trumpet player will be disappointed if their reference group is Louis Armstrong, while someone making an annual salary of $100,000 will feel rich in comparison to the median of $34,000 yet poor in comparison to billionaires.
The most important factor of any group is cohesion, which is most commonly described as the “buy-in” or individual commitment that group members have towards the whole. A cohesive group creates a healthy environment through strong morale, defined group identity, effective conflict resolution, and in turn results in a conglomerate that members want to be a part of and care about maintaining.
What is interesting about a group with full cohesion is that it might actually look a lot different from what you would expect: signs include arguing, tension, and name calling. While a healthy group is obviously helpful and supportive, a fully cohesive group feels comfortable with disagreement and trusts that individual traits are valued by the group, even if these traits cause a rift or contradict from the overall culture. It is not full harmony which makes a group most comfortable, it is full understanding and respect of member individuality. A clear example here would be a group of kind individuals being polite to one another vs a raucous group where members are teasing and challenging one another; while both may be functional, the stronger overall group would most likely actually be the latter.
But what creates cohesion? Time will create cohesion in most groups, but we have likely experienced that most group experiences are unique and not necessarily equal. While many factors are influencing every situation, we can broadly look at the interaction of group members’ roles to get a more informed understanding of how cohesive a group may become.
Considering the huge range of different roles– which could best be described as archetypes of social behavior patterns– outlined throughout the many views on group psychology, I will just highlight a few common ones for example here. This by no means comprises every social role, and it is possible for one member to hold multiple roles.
Some roles are task-oriented; these function to achieve the goal of a group.
“Contributor” role- responsible for proposing decisions, solutions, ideas
“Elaborator” role- responsible for improving upon ideas
“Diagnostician” role- responsible for identifying problems
“Coordinator” role- responsible for clarifying and/or integrating separate ideas
“Summarizer” role- responsible for confirming members’ unified understanding
“Critic” role- responsible for critical analysis and determining group conclusion
These roles will often determine the efficiency of a group, as is plain to see, and will be highly effective in collaboration, particularly for shorter term goals. This being said, many of us have probably experienced how even the perfect constellation of roles can’t override a toxic group culture.
Therefore… Other roles operate for social maintenance and foster positive interpersonal interactions leading to a better experience and more group cohesion.
“Supporter” role- offers validation, comfort, praise
“Harmonizer” role- offers perspective, understanding, emotional calming
“Mediator” role- offers conflict resolution and compromise
“Comic relief” role- offers tension reduction and relaxation
“Follower” role- offers compliance, acceptance, less emotionally involved opinion
“Gatekeeper” role- offers open communication and facilitates interaction between members equally
The existence of variety within these roles strengthen group cohesion, and this in turn creates a more enjoyable group environment that promotes longevity and “buy-in”, considered to be the single paramount feature of a successful group. These blends can be problematic, however; cults are perhaps too good of an example regarding the danger of overcommitting to group buy in. More commonplace, too much comic relief will become distracting, an all-harmonizing group will struggle to make decisions, and even a group of all supporter roles would be susceptible to oversight and unrealistic expectations.
And as we all unfortunately know, there are also dysfunctional roles:
“The help-rejecting complainer” is considered by many group therapy professionals to be the most challenging role to work with. This role disrupts the group by stalling progress, creating negative perceptions, and preventing cohesion in full.
“The monopolizer” disrupts group by overtaking conversation, creates overly authoritative tone and weakens cohesion by preventing others from inputting
“The aggressor” disrupts group by attacking, criticizing, or self-inflating ego, and may foster division or hostility in other members
“The deserter” weakens group by withdrawing from discussion, showing apathy in decisionmaking, and/or distracting off topic to unrelated and unhelpful ones
“The name dropper” disrupts group due to need for self-validation through arrogance or narcissism, similarly “the playboy” disrupts through cynicism or lude distraction from topic
“The scapegoat” weakens group by taking brunt of undeserved negative emotions thereby preventing actual tensions between other members from being resolved
What is most intriguing here is that even what we would describe as toxic, dysfunctional, or unhealthy groups will still need dynamics to maintain themselves. Taking the scapegoat role is one of the most clear– the scapegoat needs to exist to take the brunt of the group’s negativity, because without it, the members will take that out in other places that weaken the efficiency of group functioning (maladaptive or not). This information is also important to understand, as often the best way we can identify whether a group is structurally broken is by removing a member and seeing where that lost energy will become displaced. In contrast, removing one particularly problematic dynamic from a group can actually be enough to repair the entire dysfunction in certain cases.
When we discuss intragroup dynamics, we are broadly referring to the expectations, norms, and rules that are created within any group due to the interactions, attitudes, and behaviors of the members. These in turn form the boundaries of a group, which create the culture. This may seem intuitive, but may be more influential than we realize.
Sometimes, we can see this clearly. A band with a singer, guitarist, bassist and drummer is going to sound much more dynamic than a band of 4 drummers. In sports, theoretically, a team of all elite offensive players would be prolific from a “sum of parts” interpretation; in reality, this strategy has failed time and time again due to the team’s lack of defensive abilities and scarcity of offensive roles. If you are a contractor building a home, it does little good to hire the 10 best carpenters but no electricians or plumbers. A choreographed dance would not consist of one beautiful move over and over.
These tangible displays also represent a pattern that is happening on more micro level interactions amongst groups: Using the roles mentioned above, we can see that a group consisting of one monopolizer and three withdrawn members is certain to fail, while a setup of a contributor, an elaborator, a critic, and coordinator would probably be a highly effective quartet. While we are always subject to emotional influence, we can see the power of task-oriented dynamics in our secondary group interactions; two individuals with conflicting personality types but complimentary group roles are still likely to function effectively for group purpose, while best friends could still make for horrible partners depending on the task requirements.
DO WE BRING PAST GROUPS INTO FUTURE ONES?
For better or worse, we do not get to choose all of our groups. In fact, we have no control over the primary group that we start out with, and that group will typically comprise a majority of our most formative years. Endless factors will influence this over our lifespan, but we will typically trend towards certain roles in groups on both conscious and subconscious levels.
Now, this seems very sweeping at first, but in action the concept of past experiences acts more as a guiding factor to how we react in groups. We are used to being the mediator when growing up, so we are more likely to voluntarily engage in mending disagreements in group settings because a) we feel most comfortable in this role and b) there is a subconscious feeling of responsibility to be in that role. If we behave this way, we begin to create an expectation of filling this role, and the group will respond based on need.
If this group lacked an adequate mediator role, your skills would be received well, and you would be seen as a great addition. If this group already included strong mediation abilities, your skills would not be as necessary, and you may have to fill a different role in order to functionally operate within the group. This is an important perspective to maintain, particularly in rejection– the circumstances of a group’s dynamics (rather than actual interpersonal emotions) is more determinant to who is accepted than we could ever realize and perhaps any other factor.
Very importantly, just because we are comfortable in a role or used to a role does not mean that we appreciate it or enjoy being in the position. We see this often in children forced into independence due to their parents not meeting needs at a young age– typically creating very advanced autonomy traits. Just because one has become good at a role does not mean it is the healthiest role for them, and this is an important caveat to understand when working with groups.
The end message here is really just that, with respect and caveat to outlier geniuses that have existed in our history, every functioning group has greater baseline potential than any single individual. Cohesion is so strong that evidence has suggested that not even the greatest leader could create a healthier group from scratch than any given strongly cohesive one, which would suggest that unity is indeed more effective than individual power. While groups do benefit from managers which keep them going, there is actually reason to assume that a functional leaderless group may be stronger than one with a leader.
You can take bands such as The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, or countless others as a great example of why even groups with legendarily cohesive task roles can fall apart without proper social roles, and look to our fascination with “the underdog story” as evidence that we do know that fully cohesive social roles can override even the best task-oriented roles. For the more stoic, there is still absolute truth that everyone doing their part will get the job done regardless of dynamics-- just so long as the group is comprised of complimentary roles.
To be successful, a group needs healthy amounts of conflict, disagreement, tension, and trust, and these dynamics are what push us to levels that we would not be able to achieve individually. If we can all universally say one thing about groups put simply... it would be that they are incredibly complex.
WHAT’S COOKING FOR NEXT MONTH
Next month, Nick will highlight one of the most under-discussed biases in modern society by relaying some personal accounts from individuals with a variety of physical disabilities about how ableism goes much further than a lack of ADA-approved buildings.
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