5.2 Small Group Dynamics

Small Group Dynamics

Almost every posting for a job opening in a workplace location lists teamwork among the required skills. Why? Is it because every employer writing a job posting copies other job postings? No, it’s because every employer’s business success absolutely depends on people working well in teams to get the job done. A high-functioning, cohesive, and efficient team is essential to workplace productivity anywhere you have three or more people working together. Effective teamwork means working together toward a common goal guided by a common vision, and it’s a mighty force.

Compared with several people working independently, teams maximize productivity through collaborative problem solving. When each member brings a unique combination of skills, talents, experience, and education, their combined efforts make the team synergistic—i..e, more than the sum of its parts. Collaboration can motivate and result in creative solutions not possible in single-contractor projects. The range of views and diversity can energize the process, helping address creative blocks and stalemates. While the “work” part of “teamwork” may be engaging or even fun, it also requires effort and commitment to a production schedule that depends on the successful completion of individual and group responsibilities for the whole project to finish in a timely manner. Like a chain, the team is only as strong as its weakest member.

Teamwork is not without its challenges. The work itself may prove to be difficult as members juggle competing assignments and personal commitments. The work may also be compromised if team members are expected to conform and pressured to follow a plan, perform a procedure, or use a product that they themselves have not developed or don’t support. Groupthink, or the tendency to accept the group’s ideas and actions in spite of individual concerns, can also compromise the process and reduce efficiency. Personalities, competition, and internal conflict can factor into a team’s failure to produce, which is why care must be taken in how teams are assembled and managed.

Establishing a Team

John Thill and Courtland Bovee (2002) advocate for the following considerations when setting up a team:

  • Select team members wisely
  • Select a responsible leader
  • Promote cooperation
  • Clarify goals
  • Elicit commitment
  • Clarify responsibilities
  • Instill prompt action
  • Apply technology
  • Ensure technological compatibility
  • Provide prompt feedback

Source: Thill & Bovee, (2002). 

Group dynamics involve the interactions and processes of a team and influence the degree to which members feel a part of the goal and mission. A team with a strong identity can prove to be a powerful force. One that exerts too much control over individual members, however, runs the risk or reducing creative interactions, resulting in tunnel vision. A team that exerts too little control, neglecting all concern for process and areas of specific responsibility, may go nowhere. Striking a balance between motivation and encouragement is key to maximizing group productivity.

A skilled communicator creates a positive team by first selecting members based on their areas of skill and expertise. Attention to each member’s style of communication also ensures the team’s smooth operation. If their talents are essential, introverts who prefer working alone may need additional encouragement to participate. Extroverts may need encouragement to listen to others and not dominate the conversation. Both are necessary, however, so the selecting for a diverse group of team members deserves serious consideration.

Positive and Negative Team Roles

When a manager selects a team for a particular project, its success depends on its members filling various positive roles. There are a few standard roles that must be represented to achieve the team’s goals, but diversity is also key. Without an initiator-coordinator stepping up into a leadership position, for instance, the team will be a non-starter because team members such as the elaborator will just wait for more direction from the manager, who is busy with other things. If all the team members commit to filling a leadership role, however, the group will stall from the get-go with power struggles until the most dominant personality vanquishes the others, who will be bitterly unproductive relegated to a subordinate worker-bee role. A good manager must therefore be a good psychologist in building a team with diverse personality types and talents. Table 5.1 below captures some of these roles.

Table 5.1 Positive Group Roles

Role Actions
Initiator-coordinator Suggests new ideas or new ways of looking at the problem
Elaborator Builds on ideas and provides examples
Coordinator Brings ideas, information, and suggestions together
Evaluator-critic Evaluates ideas and provides constructive criticism
Recorder Records ideas, examples, suggestions, and critiques
Comic relief Uses humour to keep the team happy
Source: Communication at Work by Jordan Smith, CC BY 4.0.

Of course, each team member here contributes work irrespective of their typical roles. The groupmate who always wanted to be recorder in high school because they thought that all they had to do what jot down some notes about what other people said and did, and otherwise contributed nothing, would be a liability as a slacker in a workplace team. We must therefore contrast the above roles with negative roles, some of which are captured in Table 5.2 below.

Table 5.2 Negative Group Roles

Role Actions
Dominator Dominates discussion so others can’t take their turn
Recognition seeker Seeks attention by relating discussion to their actions
Special-interest  pleader Relates discussion to special interests or personal agenda
Blocker Blocks attempts at consensus consistently
Slacker Does little-to-no work, forcing others to pick up the slack
Joker or clown Seeks attention through humour and distracting members
Source: Communication at Work by Jordan Smith, CC BY 4.0.

Original Source: Beene & Sheats, 1948; McLean, 2005

Whether a team member has a positive or negative effect often depends on context. Just as the class clown can provide some much-needed comic relief when the timing’s right, they can also impede productivity when they merely distract members during work periods. An initiator-coordinator gets things started and provides direction, but a dominator will put down others’ ideas, belittle their contributions, and ultimately force people to contribute little and withdraw partially or altogether.

Perhaps the worst of all roles is the slacker. If you consider a game of tug-o-war between two teams of even strength, success depends on everyone on the team pulling as hard as they would if they were in a one-on-one match. The tendency of many, however, is to slack off a little, thinking that their contribution won’t be noticed and that everyone else on the team will make up for their lack of effort. The team’s work output will be much less than the sum of its parts, however, if everyone else thinks this, too. Preventing slacker tendencies requires clearly articulating in writing the expectations for everyone’s individual contributions. With such a contract to measure individual performance, each member can be held accountable for their work and take pride in their contribution to solving all the problems that the team overcame on its road to success.

Power and Status in Groups

Recall back to our discussion of power and its bases. In a group or team, members with higher status are apt to command greater respect and possess more prestige and power than those with lower status. Status an be defined as a person’s perceived level of importance or significance within a particular context.

Our status is often tied to our identities and their perceived value within our social and cultural context. Groups may confer status upon their members on the basis of their age, wealth, gender, race or ethnicity, ability, physical stature, perceived intelligence, and/or other attributes. Status can also be granted through title or position. In professional circles, for instance, having earned a “terminal” degree such as a Ph.D. or M.D. usually generates a degree of status. The same holds true for the documented outcomes of schooling or training in legal, engineering, or other professional fields. Likewise, people who’ve been honored for achievements in any number of areas may bring status to a group by virtue of that recognition if it relates to the nature and purpose of the group. Once a group has formed and begun to sort out its norms, it will also build upon the initial status that people bring to it by further allocating status according to its own internal processes and practices. For instance, choosing a member to serve as an officer in a group generally conveys status to that person.

Consider This:  High Stakes in Action

What Does High Status Look Like in Action?

Let’s say you’ve either come into a group with high status or have been granted high status by the other members. What does this mean to you, and how are you apt to behave? Here are some predictions based on research from several sources (Beebe & Masterson, 2015; Bormann, 1989; Brilhart & Galanes, 1997; Homans, 1992).
First, the volume and direction of your speech will differ from those of others in the group. You’ll talk more than the low-status members do, and you’ll communicate more with other high-status members than you will with lower-status individuals. In addition, you’ll be more likely to speak to the whole group than will members with lower status.

Second, some indicators of your participation will be particularly positive. Your activity level and self-regard will surpass those of lower-status group members. So will your level of satisfaction with your position. Furthermore, the rest of the group is less likely to ignore your statements and proposals than it is to disregard what lower-status individuals say.

Finally, the content of your communication will probably be different from what your fellow members discuss. Because you may have access to special information about the group’s activities and may be expected to shoulder specific responsibilities because of your position, you’re apt to talk about topics which are relevant to the central purposes and direction of the group. Lower-status members, on the other hand, are likely to communicate more about other matters.

There’s no such thing as a “status neutral” group—one in which everyone always has the same status as everyone else. Differences in status within a group are inevitable and can be dangerous if not recognized and managed. For example, someone who gains status without possessing the skills or attributes required to use it well may cause real damage to other members of a group, or to a group as a whole. A high-status, low-ability person may develop an inflated self-image, begin to abuse power, or both. One of us worked for the new president of a college who acted as though his position entitled him to take whatever actions he wanted. In the process of interacting primarily with other high-status individuals who shared the majority of his viewpoints and goals, he overlooked or rejected concerns and complaints from people in other parts of the organization. Turmoil and dissension broke out. Morale plummeted. The president eventually suffered votes of no confidence from his college’s faculty, staff, and students and was forced to resign.

Toxic Leadership in Groups

We’ve focused for the most part on effective leadership, but what happens if you find yourself working under a horrible manager or team leader? It happens. Plenty of people assume positions of authority who are effective in some areas of management (e.g., they are shrewd business people and good with money) but aren’t so good with people, or vice versa. There are even managers who are bad at everything and it’s only a matter of time before they are fired or ruin the operation with incompetence, or they may continue to be propped up by cronyism, nepotism, or some other kind of corruption. Some people are even offensive to the point of committing harassment along a spectrum of misbehaviour ranging from inappropriate jokes or rude remarks to outright predatory sexual harassment or assault and violence. Whatever the case, nothing good comes of toxic leadership. Employees just aren’t productive when fearing abuse from their managers or worrying about the their leadership running the operation into the ground.

If the mismanagement is severe—especially if it is physically or emotionally abusive—the best way of dealing with the situation is to leave it. A person at work who makes you feel unsafe may suffer from a personality disorder that makes them dangerous, and there’s no fixing that. If you’re in immediate danger, of course you must leave immediately. From there, figure out your options. For starters, you could consider the following:

If you’re not in immediate danger but the situation is too toxic to continue, you must leave as soon as possible. A major red flag is if most of your co-workers agree that your boss is terrible. If leaving is easier said than done because you live paycheque to paycheque and can’t afford to be out of work even for a short while, a well-devised exit strategy is in order. This Lining up your next stable employment is the best you can do, though it may take time and you may have to do it without a reference from your current employer.

If the toxicity is relatively minor, perhaps the result of some nasty things said here and bad moves there, using internal procedures required of employers by law to address managerial misconduct is the most ethical course of action. It is ultimately the employer’s responsibility to ensure a non-toxic work environment, and if that means disciplinary action going up the chain of command, then it’s worth it to have people doing their best work without hating the people they’re working for. Any OHSA-compliant workplace will have such reporting procedures in place, including provisions to prevent employment-compromising retaliation. With pressure from above and below in the workplace hierarchy, some offending managers may improve their behaviour knowing their job depends on it.

Of course, you must also be good about picking your battles if your leadership isn’t perfect but not horrible either. Managers are under plenty of pressure—especially middle managers who feel it from above and below—and can easily make mistakes such as being gruff when a softer approach would be more appropriate. If you have the type of boss who only talks to you about the one thing you did wrong in a day while saying nothing about the hundred things you did right, this may be a sign of someone who lacks good people skills. It may also be that they’re extremely busy and have time only for quality assurance rather than boosting morale. If your manager isn’t a complete monster, exercising some understanding about the reasons why will make your life and work more tolerable.

Cultivating a Supportive Group Climate

Any time a group of people comes together, new dynamics are put into place that differ from the dynamics present in our typical dyadic interactions. The impressions we form about other people’s likeability and the way we think about a group’s purpose are affected by the climate within a group that is created by all members.

When something is cohesive it sticks together, and the cohesion within a group helps establish an overall group climate. Group climate refers to the relatively enduring tone and quality of group interaction that is experienced similarly by group members. To better understand cohesion and climate, we can examine two types of cohesion: task and social.

Task cohesion refers to the commitment of group members to the purpose and activities of the group. Social cohesion refers to the attraction and liking among group members. Ideally, groups would have an appropriate balance between these two types of cohesion relative to the group’s purpose, with task-oriented groups having higher task cohesion and relational-oriented groups having higher social cohesion. Even the most task-focused groups need some degree of social cohesion, and vice versa, but the balance will be determined by the purpose of the group and the individual members. For example, a team of workers from the local car dealership may join a local summer softball league because they’re good friends and love the game. They may end up beating the team of faculty members from the community college who joined the league just to get to know each other better and have an excuse to get together and drink beer in the afternoon. In this example, the players from the car dealership exhibit high social and task cohesion, while the faculty exhibit high social but low task cohesion. Cohesion benefits a group in many ways and can be assessed through specific group behaviors and characteristics. Groups with an appropriate level of cohesiveness (Hargie, 2011):

  • set goals easily;
  • exhibit a high commitment to achieving the purpose of the group;
  • are more productive;
  • experience fewer attendance issues;
  • have group members who are willing to stick with the group during times of difficulty;
  • have satisfied group members who identify with, promote, and defend the group;
  • have members who are willing to listen to each other and offer support and constructive criticism; and
  • experience less anger and tension.

Appropriate levels of group cohesion usually create a positive group climate, since group climate is affected by members’ satisfaction with the group. Climate has also been described as group morale. The following are some qualities that contribute to a positive group climate and morale (Marston & Hecht, 1988):

  • Participation. Group members feel better when they feel included in the discussion and a part of the functioning of the group.
  • Messages. Confirming messages help build relational dimensions within a group, and clear, organized, and relevant messages help build task dimensions within a group.
  • Feedback. Positive, constructive, and relevant feedback contribute to the group climate.
  • Equity. Aside from individual participation, group members also like to feel as if participation is managed equally within the group and that appropriate turn-taking is used.
  • Clear and accepted roles. Group members like to know how status and hierarchy operate within a group. Knowing the roles isn’t enough to lead to satisfaction, though—members must also be comfortable with and accept those roles.
  • Motivation. Member motivation is activated by perceived connection to and relevance of the group’s goals or purpose.

Group cohesion and climate are also demonstrated through symbolic convergence (Bormann, 1985). Have you ever been in a group that had ‘inside jokes’ that someone outside the group just would not understand? Symbolic convergence refers to the sense of community or group consciousness that develops in a group through non-task-related communication such as stories and jokes. The originator of symbolic convergence theory, Ernest Bormann, claims that the sharing of group fantasies creates symbolic convergence. Fantasy, in this sense, doesn’t refer to fairy tales, sexual desire, or untrue things. In group communication, group fantasies are verbalized references to events outside the “here and now” of the group, including references to the group’s past, predictions for the future, or other communication about people or events outside the group (Griffin, 2009).

In any group, you can tell when symbolic convergence is occurring by observing how people share such fantasies and how group members react to them. If group members react positively and agree with or appreciate the teller’s effort or other group members are triggered to tell their own related stories, then convergence is happening and cohesion and climate are being established. Over time, these fantasies build a shared vision of the group and what it means to be a member that creates a shared group consciousness. By reviewing and applying the concepts in this section, you can hopefully identify potential difficulties with group cohesion and work to enhance cohesion when needed to create more positive group climates and enhance your future group interactions.

Adapted Works

Group Communication” in Communication at Work by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Group Life Cycles and Member Roles” in Business Communication for Success by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Power in Teams and Groups” in Problem Solving in Teams and Groups by Cameron W. Piercy, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Cultivating a Supportive Group Climate” in Problem Solving in Teams and Groups by Cameron W. Piercy, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


Beebe, S. A., & Masterson, J.T. (2015). Communicating in small groups: Principles and practices (11th ed.). Pearson.

Bormann, E. G. (1985). Symbolic convergence theory: A communication formulation. Journal of Communication, 35(4), 128–38.

Bormann, E. G. (1989). Discussion and group methods: Theory and practice (3rd ed.). Harper and Row.

Brilhart, J. K., & Galanes, G. J. (1997). Effective group discussion.  Brown.

Griffin, E. (2009). A first look at communication theory (7th ed.). McGraw-Hill.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice (5th ed.). Routledge.

Homans, G. C. (1992). The human group. Harcourt Brace & World.

Marston, P. J., & Hecht, M. L. (1988). Group satisfaction. In R. Cathcart & L. Samovar (Eds.), Small group communication (5th ed.). Brown.

Thill, J. V., & Bovee, C. L. (2002). Essentials of business communication. Prentice Hall.


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Conflict Management Copyright © 2022 by Laura Westmaas, BA, MSc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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