Understanding group dynamics for group work practice


Working in a group setting requires a great extent of sensitivity and leadership skills. For better practice it is important to understand the group dynamics of any group. 

Though there are several theories to describe how a  group functions, understanding a group as a social system is fundamental to this. 

Group dynamics or group processes are the forces that result from the interactions of the group members. Group dynamics influences the behaviour of the individual members as well as the  group as a whole. Appropriate use of group dynamics can lead to positive outcomes for the group and its members whereas not paying much attention to it may result in lack of direction and focus. 

There are mainly 4  aspects of group dynamics which are important for a  group worker to understand so that they can effectively achieve group goals.

Communication and Interaction pattern

Communication is a process by which people convey meanings to each other using symbols. It has mainly 3 components

  • Encoding of a person’s perceptions, thoughts, feelings into language and other symbols
  • Transmission of these symbols or language
  • Decoding of the transmission by another person

As the members of a  group communicate with one another, a reciprocal pattern of interaction emerges. The interaction pattern that develops can be beneficial or harmful to the group. A skilled group worker can understand the patterns that develop in the group and intervene accordingly to help the group achieve its goals and the socio-emotional satisfaction of the group members.

Understanding communication as a process

The foremost thing to consider when intervening in an interaction pattern is the fact that whenever there are people in a group, they always communicate. Even if they are silent they are communicating either anger, thoughtfulness, sorrow, lack of interest etc. It should also be taken into consideration by the group worker that members communicate for many reasons and not just for information dissemination. They may communicate for personal reasons such as persuading others, gaining power and authority, defending themselves, making an impression on others etc. 

Group workers who are aware of this fact that members communicate  for several reasons can observe, assess and understand communication and  interaction patterns. They can use this information  to work with individual group members and the group as a whole. 

Another very crucial aspect in understanding communication is that in addition to the meaning transmitted in every communication, the messages are often received selectively. Selective perception refers to the screening of messages so that they are congruent with their belief  patterns. Individual group members also have their unique way of understanding communication. Sometimes selective perception blocks the message from being decoded. Perception of communication can be influenced by several factors such as early childhood experiences, status and position of the communicator, stereotypes, assumptions and values etc.

Thus, it is very crucial for a group worker to  develop an  understanding of  the meaning associated with the communication so that he/she may intervene accordingly.

There may occur certain hindrance in transmission of the message during a communication. These may be as a result of certain barriers which can be language or different interpretation of words in different  cultures. The group worker must be cautious of this  when working with members coming from various backgrounds.

Hindrance may also result due to physical barriers like outside noise, members disability such as poor hearing or eyesight etc. The group worker should also take into consideration this fact. 

One of the methods to prevent distortion in communication is that the group worker facilitates feedback mechanisms among the group members. A structured feedback mechanism prevents conflict in the group as it brings clarity in communication. An effective feedback 

  • Describes the content or the behaviour as received by the group members
  • Should be given to the sender as soon as the message is received
  • Should be given in such a manner to express that the feedback is to  check distortion rather than to attack the pattern

Interaction patterns

Along with the communication process there is also a development of interaction patterns within the group. Scholars have studied and identified specific types of interaction patterns 

  • The Maypole : in this the leader is the central figure and communication takes place from leader to member or from member to leader
  • The Round robin : in this the members take turns talking
  • The Hot Seat : in this pattern one member and the leader exchange views actively while others are watching
  • The Free floating : in this all the members take responsibility for communicating according to what is being said and what is untold in the group.

The Free Floating pattern is group centred as it emerges from the initiative of the group and the rest are leader centred. The group worker should encourage group centred communication rather than leader centred. Group centred communication allows members to freely and openly  interact with each other. At the same time the group worker should be cautious about the fact that since group centred communication involves emotional bonding, the members may drift away from the tasks for which the group is formed. 

The interaction patterns can be modified if the factors associated with it are identified by the group worker and intervened accordingly. 

Group Cohesion

Cohesion refers to forces which keep elements together. Group Cohesion are the forces acting on members to remain in a group. People are attracted to a group due to various reasons. According to Cartwright (1968) there are mainly 4 factors which keeps individuals glued to a group

  • The need for affiliation, recognition and security.
  • Incentives and resources available through the group
  • Perception of members about the beneficial aspects of group
  • Comparison of the group to other group experiences

Attraction and cohesion also affect the functioning of the groups in various ways. Cohesive groups tend to maintain their membership. Members of cohesive groups are more likely to influence each other, participate actively to accomplish group goals and accept more responsibility for group functioning.

Cohesive groups have positive effects on task accomplishments as members perform better than non-cohesive groups. Cohesive groups also have positive effects on the satisfaction level  of  members and their personal adjustments within the group. Studies have shown that cohesiveness in a group leads to increased self esteem, ability to express oneself freely, more willingness to listen to others and take feedback positively.

Since cohesiveness has several benefits for the group, the group worker should strive to make the group attractive to the members. For this he/she may plan and strategize the group functioning to gain maximum results.

Social Control Dynamics  

Social control is a term used to describe the processes by which the group ensures members conformity to function in an orderly manner. Social control can be used by the group worker to gain compliance from deviant group members. To maintain order in the group and minimize conflict and chaos it is important to have social control mechanisms. Without it the group may not function properly and if it is too stringent it may also lead to intra group dissatisfaction and conflict.

Social control develops as a result of forces that develop due to several factors, for instance the norms that develop within the group, the role and status of the group members. 

Norms , roles and status are interrelated concepts which influence social control on individuals in a group. Since social control is crucial in maintaining group functioning, the workers should be familiar with ways to influence social control dynamics. In doing so the worker should be aware of the members’ need for individuality, freedom and independence. The worker should balance the needs of individuals and of the group as a whole, managing conformity and deviation and ensuring that social control is working to benefit rather than hinder or limit individual members and the whole group.

Group culture dynamics

When the members of a group are from diverse backgrounds, group culture emerges slowly. Members contribute unique sets of values  that originate from their past experiences as well as from their ethnic, cultural and racial backgrounds. These values are blended through group communications and interactions. Members observe each other’s cultural values during the initial  period of group formation and later on when they understand each other’s values a unique set of group values emerges leading to forming a group culture. This group culture evolves over the lifespan of the group.

Culture is also influenced by the environment in which a group functions, such as the organisational structure of an agency or community. The degree of influence depends upon the extent of interaction happening between the group and the environment.

The culture that the group develops has a powerful influence on the ability of the group to achieve its goals along with satisfying members’ socio-emotional needs. Sometimes members bring cultural stereotypes to the group which can create a conflicting situation. Thus it is the group worker who has to play an active role in identifying such values and help the members overcome it to prevent any conflict.

On a concluding note, understanding of  various group dynamics is crucial for a group worker as these factors play a key role in binding the group and thus achieving the group goals. Being sensitive to individual members’ needs and ability to identify which dynamics are beneficial for the group, are the core skills which the group worker should practice.

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