Dealing with Group Dynamics

Working with groups in general isn’t easy. No matter if you are facilitating a meeting, a workshop or a training. Feedback plays one important part and a safe learning environment plays another. Put into simple words, be kind and supportive towards each other!

What is happening! (turn on sound)

But sometimes none of these approaches seem to work. You wonder what is happening within a group and you don’t know how to deal with it. Confusion leads to panic. It happens to me sometimes.

Groups are not easy to understand. This is one of the reasons why giving workshops and trainings can be surprising. On the other hand, handling groups can be amazingly satisfying and leveraging individual learning as well. Imagine a group which pushes forward and is desperate to solve a common challenge. A group where all individuals are heard and can even accelerate their learning experience. It comes to no surprise that group development (which is a part of teambuilding) is a big thing.

Sometimes one member of a group makes a difference. Only one member can demotivate everyone by saying “It is so hot outside today.” — Or one member can push everyone by asking “This made me curious. Can we talk about that?”. The people then start asking more questions and the group starts cooperating and collaborating. Groups can eventually turn into teams. Teams can develop remarkable dynamics which can lead to happiness and success.

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”

Michael Jordan

Please Don’t Do This At Home

When it comes to group dynamics one of the first things that can happen to you as a Learning Designer is putting participants into boxes. Say you have the performer, the non-performer, the alpha, the beta, the gamma, the auditive or the visual guy, the slow group or the fast group etc. Every participant’s and every individual’s first impression usually sticks. He is bad in math, she doesn’t like games, he understands quickly, and so on. I try to avoid this inside-the-box-thinking as much as I can. It is all about prejudices and doesn’t help you.

Another thing quite popular among coaches, trainers and facilitators is Tuckman team stages as part of group development. Usually it has the goal to improve collaboration and group work efficiency. Here are the 5 steps of Tuckman team stages:

  1. The group forms
  2. The group fights
  3. The group defines common values and goals
  4. The group becomes a team and performs
  5. The group falls apart or reforms (continuing with stage 1)

This model helps to set goals for a teambuilding session. But I don’t use this for learning-related sessions, workshops and trainings because it doesn’t help me understand the current needs and underlying dynamics of a group. I am not here for teambuilding, I am here to facilitate a group.

Understanding Needs

Teambuilding or facilitation, we always need to start with understanding the needs of a group: What needs does a member of a group have? And what actions will this member probably do to fulfil the needs (aka “What is happening!!!”)? According to William Schutz and his FIRO theory people in groups have 3 basic needs:

  • Inclusion: Be part of the group
  • Control: Play an important role in the group
  • Affection: Be loved by the group

Understanding these needs helps you to understand what is happening and why it is happening. It helps you to deal with groups, even if the focus is not on teambuilding.

1. Inclusion Phase

When a group comes together the inclusion phase is the first step. People wonder whether they want to be part of this group and whether they actually are already part of this group. This phase can be observed in every newly-formed group, even if it is only temporary (like for a training).

  • People want to say something just because
  • People want to get to know all the others in the room
  • People want to get connected to a common ground (e.g. training topic)

This need for inclusion can be fulfilled by icebreaking activities, an introduction round, by asking for their expectations and by making clear why this meetup is important for everyone of them.

Even when groups leave for a break and then come back, there is always a need for inclusion when a group assembles (again). You can say things like “Are we all here?” “Any questions regarding our timeline?” and “I think we already made some progress together!”

If people question their membership in the group by saying things like “I don’t know why the others are here” or “I have other things to do” and playing with their phone, be warned. Try to bring them back to the group without isolating them.

This phase usually ends with a short honeymoon phase where everybody feels included and everything seems fine. People are polite and nice to each other.

2. Control Phase

Only when all (!) people got included they can start to contribute. This leads to the second phase and a need for control arises. During this phase people seek for finding their roles and assign their own and the others’ position in the group. Usually conflicts about roles and the purpose of the group arise. Competing for speaking time, attempts to redefine the group tasks and building coalitions in subgroups are signs of the control phase.

People have the need for clarification and structure. They have the need for leadership. This is why they behave like this. Your tasks as a facilitator is helping them to find common rules and processes. This enables them to solve their issues on their own. And of course, give them some guidelines: Show an agenda and the session goals, explain game rules, talk about logistics and give everybody the room to contribute.

Don’t hesitate to (let them) discuss rules and processes. Even if it doesn’t come from you, group members need to know. They need to know what’s coming and what their part is. They have a need for control.

The control phase usually ends with a short idyll phase. When all conflicts got visible and are solved it feels like liberation. Group members start to recognise each other’s differences and gain more self-confidence. A group identity comes up.

3. Openness Phase

The idyll phase doesn’t mean people start to work together as a team. Yes, there are signs that a team is formed. But no, this doesn’t mean it is actually a team. It is more like tea time: Everybody takes lots of effort to preserve the mood, but no task is done.

Only when all members (!) of the group have found their roles they can start building a team. People have the need for opening up. They need to bring their strengths and weaknesses to the table, find out what they can do for the group and show their emotions. They have a need to tell what they can and cannot do. Becoming an effective group — and eventually a team — has a lot to do with honest and clear communication as well as helping each other in need.

During this phase an emotional bond is build. Your tasks as a facilitator is to step back and let them talk. You can ask “What can everybody bring in?” “How do you think you work together as a team?” or “How did you feel during the last discussion?”. Acknowledge group effort and affirm group success.

Conclusion

As a Learning Designer, I usually try to understand participants’ needs. This doesn’t mean I want to fulfil all of them but I want to understand the cause and effects of individual behaviours as well as group dynamics. I don’t believe in difficult participants. They have needs, I have needs. As a facilitator and trainer I must somehow work with all of them.

The 3 phases of FIRO (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation) help me to understand individual needs in groups and group dynamics. I already observed groups going through these phases several times during a day and then starting all over again the next day. As if the FIRO cycle was repeating itself every time again.

Understanding needs helps me avoiding prejudices as well as putting participants’ feedback and behaviour into context. So it sharpens my own tasks as a facilitator and — through observation and reflection — helps me to become a better Learning Designer.


I am freelance trainer and currently writing a book about Learning Design. Design Thinking and user-centricism helps me to build better trainings and workshops.