A framework for understanding and applying group dynamics

A framework for understanding and applying group dynamics
A flock of birds flying in formation 

Next time you are faced with an organizational challenge or situation, try using this framework to analyze the group situation from the perspective of each of these attributes. By doing so you are likely to uncover opportunities to improve group identity and performance.

Attributes of group dynamics
  • Cohesion is a fundamental aspect of group dynamics.
  • A group is cohesive according to the degree to which there is physical and mental connection among members.
  • These connections endure to varying degrees across space and time.

Human beings are inherently group creatures. We tend to organize our life, our identity, and our society around the groups and identities to which we belong. Group identity derives part of its value from its aspect of cohesion.

We can think of this like the momentum of a moving object in physics. An object that is in motion tends to stay in motion. A group that has cohered around a shared identity and shared set of values tends to stay cohered. The motion gives the physical object energy. The cohesion gives the group (social) value.

What causes cohesion? There are both physical and mental aspects to this. (Some would also say spiritual, but we will not cover that here.)

The strongest kind of cohesive group is the family. In the family group, there is an obvious physical link – the physical and inseparable bond between a mother and child, the genetic bond with the father, and the (hopefully) nurturing physical touch that goes along with feeding, clothing, bathing, and interacting with a child as it grows from infant to adulthood.

This physical link is inherent in a family but is also present in other, less cohesive groups. Groups of friends may like to hug each other. Groups of business associates may handshake. These physical exchanges connect groups together and result in an increase in cohesion for the group as a whole.

Mental connection is much broader. This includes the exchange of ideas, affinities, and information. Two members of a club who have never met will still have some element of cohesion by having read the same weekly newsletter, for example.

Thinking about how these forces are distributed, a key difference between physical and mental cohesion is that physical cohesion cannot be exchanged at-a-distance. This is why you see so much of a premium placed on interacting in-person as a way for human beings to grow closer to each other.

On the other hand, the growth of global transportation networks and electronic communications has led to an explosion in the size, number, level of specificity, and depth of mental connections across all geographic boundaries.

Both physical and mental cohesion degrade over time. They need constant renewal to remain strong. As an individual evolves and receives feedback from the group and new information from outside the group, he makes decisions to either renew, or allow to degrade, all aspects of cohesion across all groups among which he is a member (both consciously and unconsciously). This is free will expression.

Due to the fact that cohesiveness has a stickiness, there needs to be an energy input in order to overcome the initial-starter friction. (Where this energy comes from will be saved for another discussion.)

  • Fervor is an amplifying medium for the other forces active in groups.
  • Too much or too little fervor will produce negative effects on the other forces.

Fervor is a multiplying force. It serves to increase and extend the other forces at play. It can provide both positive and negative expression as it interacts with the other forces at play.

By way of analogy, consider a pot of water. Heat, when applied to a pot of water, brings it closer to a boil. But if you apply too much heat for too long – the water can "boil over" and spill down the sides of the pot. The heat is the same. But the result goes from desirable to undesirable.

In group dynamics, the fervor is the heat. And the water is the other dynamic attributes. The connection between fervor and the other attributes varies in degree. Two of the attributes most closely related to fervor are cohesion, discussed previously, and zealotry, yet to be discussed.

Fervor causes cohesion to flow more easily. Cohesion is like glue: sticky, more difficult than water to move and form. It can get stuck, or it can dry up and become too rigidly inflexible. When applied to cohesion, fervor is like melting the glue. Melt a glue stick in a glue gun and you can apply it more precisely and in more places.

Too much fervor, however, causes too much flow. This is like a liquid glue that never cools down, and thus never forms a tight bond. Too much fervor can actually cause a group to become weaker by liquefying cohesive bonds. There is a sweet spot where there is just enough fervor to allow cohesion to flow, but not enough to cause the pot to boil over.

Fervor as applied to zealotry is similar. An excess of fervor leads a group that is susceptible to fanaticism. Extreme fanaticism is a fragile state for a group to be in, because it becomes less resilient to new information or environmental changes.

  • Purpose predicates all human action.
  • Group relations exist because of shared purpose.
  • The existence of a purpose is more important than the purpose itself.

Who are we and why are we here? This is a fundamental question that we all ask ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, all the time. Purpose gives the answer to this question.

Purpose is closely related to belief. Beliefs give us the reason why things exist and these reasons in turn inform our action. Ultimately, every action we take as independent agents can be traced back to a reason and set of beliefs that define our purpose.

Groups provide built-in purpose for those who are purposeless or unclear of their motivations, on their own. This is a convenience factor but also a bonding factor. Given our free will as human beings, our life is what we choose to make of it. Choosing is the key.

And when we choose a purpose that aligns with the same purpose of others, we express a group identity and build connection with others.

Purposes can be of many types – we can have a financial purpose, a social purpose, a religious purpose. We can have the purpose of just entertainment. Whether we believe or not in an afterlife, nobody wants to work in vain and to feel like their life is futile. The purpose itself does not matter as much as the fact that there is a purpose and the purpose is clearly defined and shared by the group.

Having a shared purpose promotes feelings of solidarity, which satisfies a fundamental human craving for connection and validation. We all want to feel like we are part of something larger than ourselves and that all of our efforts and strife in this world will not go to waste.

Of course, as we mature in our outlook, we may be more discerning about the purposes to which we choose to subscribe (and by proxy, the groups with which we choose to associate), but fundamentally, when two humans come together in common interest, there must always be a common purpose, otherwise there is nothing.

  • Zealotry is a group expression of potential energy.
  • Zeal is a common but not necessary condition of strong group dynamics.
  • Over-zealousness can lead to repulsion and weaker group structure.

Zealotry is the aspect of a group which embodies its evangelical energy, motivation, and propensity to engage with the outside world. It is like a potential or magnetic energy, latent, and able to be activated when counter-posed against the right conditions.

A group lacking in zeal is a dull, lifeless place. It has no strong pulling power, but it also does not repel. Groups like these can survive when other aspects of group dynamics are present and strong, which makes zealotry less critical than some of the other aspects.

Despite this, zealotry can be important in bringing life to groups by providing an expression path for shared values. The reason why some religions are able to maintain their hold on human minds is often purely a function of zealotry, along with some basic common truths about reality (golden rule).

Too much zealotry can cause eventual repulsion. Although it may initially draw attention and bring new members to a group, these connections tend to be weaker and fall off over time. Others are immune to over-zealous expressions and will be repelled without even engaging in the first place.

  • Distinction is what sets a group apart – “insiders” vs. “outsiders”.
  • A group’s distinctive elements are expressions of shared values.
  • Stories about and within a group are a mechanism to exhibit distinction.

What makes us different? Why are we special? Distinction is that aspect of groups that give identity to the group and set it apart from the rest of the world.

The old quote, "I would never want to join a group that would have me as a member" applies here. We all want something that is just beyond our reach, beyond our grasp, to believe that we are "insiders" and the rest are outside, according to the version of reality that our group has framed for us.

To the extent a group is able to embody and exhibit distinction, it sets itself apart as uniquely desirable. Distinct groups set themselves apart and in doing so, they provide members of the group with a shared identity and way to express a common set of values.

These values could be things like health, wealth, fitness, honor, intelligence, compassion, tolerance, intolerance, reverence, irreverence – really, anything that the group as a whole agrees to set apart as especially important, and therefore held in high regard. The group then exhibits distinction in these areas in a number of ways.

Some members may possess a high degree of merit with respect to one or more of the shared values. Or there may be particular stories or legends outside of the group, that group members tend to hold in high regard.

For example, if a group that values fitness has an Olympic athlete as a member, it would produce a high degree of distinction for the group. But even lacking such a unique member, such a group could set itself apart by sharing stories of famous athletes, and exhibiting reverence towards those athletes in their attitude and demeanor with respect to those stories.

  • Exclusivity is the expression of who or what is not part of the group.
  • Like distinction, exclusivity is part of group identity and value expression.

Exclusivity is the mirror image of distinction, and thus they are closely related. While distinction is mostly concerned with the identity of the group, exclusivity can be thought of as the anti-identity. Who is not part of our group? What goes against the values we share?

A common enemy can be a strong unifying factor that brings people closer together and increase the level of trust among group members. This enemy can be a specific person, a common belief, or a synthetic “straw man” identity that becomes a focal point for group enmity.

Exclusivity can manifest both consciously and unconsciously within a group. A group may not always be consciously aware of who they are rejecting, and if asked, may even deny it. For example, wealthy members of a fancy country club would probably not openly express disdain for the poor or the uneducated – even if their actions and attitudes may indirectly express this nonetheless.

Some groups are more self-aware and would be able to openly identify and articulate their common enemy – for example, a pro-freedom libertarian group may openly decry “the communists” while a liberal social group may take issue with “conservative Christians”.

  • Governance is the mechanism by which a group functions and interacts with the world.
  • Leaders emerge as agents of governance, without which a group ceases to function.
  • Group maturity correlates to the level of formality or informality in group governance.

Governance is the “natural order” of a group that arises from its expression of power and operating dynamics. It comprises the core function of how a group operates, makes decisions, and interacts with the rest of the world.

Within any group, certain individuals, whether by force, fraud, or mutual consent, emerge as leaders, and as a result hold a greater degree of influence on group activities than other members. These individuals embody the group’s enthusiasm and energy to make it their own – their will becomes the group’s will, to a greater or lesser degree.

Without these individuals, a group would be unable to function. Human beings each have their own distinct and individual predilections, desires, and ideas about what is right – in order to cooperate, some must cede – and others must impose – their individual will to the collective. This is the fundamental difference between group and individual action.

In addition to governing the group identity, decisions, and actions, leaders perform an important function in attracting new members, removing unwanted or rejected members, and forming alliances or relationships with other groups (diplomacy).

Depending on their size and level of maturity, different groups will have differing levels of formality or informality with respect to governance. This could range from a small group of less than ten people where it is survival of the fittest, with no conscious process, to a full formal parliamentary democracy governing millions, with very rigid and well-defined rules.

  • Propagation is how a group spreads its message and multiplies its members
  • It is formed as a consequence of other group attributes
  • The propagating force is a one-way function with a viral payload

Propagation is the act of duplication and multiplication that spreads a group, like a meme, from person to person. It performs the function of increasing awareness about the group, attracting new people to the group, and spreading the group’s message into new territories.

Propagation is related to alignment in that they are both aspects of how a group engages with other groups and the outside world. The difference is that alignment takes other groups’ energy, concerns, and considerations as input, with a goal of arriving at a kind of steady state or homeostasis where both groups make some sort of compromise in order to achieve unity.

On the other hand, there is no compromise when it comes to propagation. It is rather like a laser beam, a one-way concentrated force and channeling of essence that moves across boundaries and into uncharted waters.

A group’s propagating effect is a consequence of several of its other attributes – fervor, purpose, zealotry. These combine and “spill over” into the outside world, an aggressive and forceful act to which the outside world necessarily must respond.

  • Transparency refers to the availability of information about a group to those inside and outside the group
  • Internal transparency is inversely correlated with hierarchy
  • External transparency is inversely correlated with exclusivity

Transparency of a group can be thought about in two ways: internal transparency and external transparency.

A group has internal transparency when the group has a high degree of self-awareness – members are conscious of the group identity and meaning ascribed to group association, and have detailed knowledge of how the group functions. In hierarchical terms, this is related to how either “flat” (egalitarian) or “top-down” (authoritarian) a group is in terms of its structure.

Groups without a lot of formal hierarchy tend to be more transparent. This is necessary in order for dynamic leadership to emerge. An informal group without transparency will cease to exist eventually. More formal and authoritarian groups often lack transparency. This is an effect of their hierarchical structure where information is shared only on a need-to-know basis.

A group has external transparency when non-members of the group are able to discover the existence of the group as well as understand its purpose, governance and character. A group's level of external transparency relates to its need to either retain exclusivity (no need to be transparent) or recruit new members (need to be transparent).

  • Groups produce order out of chaos
  • Group identity, norms, and purpose filter and interpret group inputs

Order is the intelligent organization of chaos, the base layer of everything. One of the primary functions of groups is to make meaning and bring understanding out of a complex reality.

In this sense of organizing chaos, we can think of a group as a kind of filter or transformer through which we engage with a chaotic and unpredictable world.

A group is a shared mechanism by which individuals in the group observe, interpret, and translate the world into terms that fit the purpose, understanding, and character of the group as a whole.

Human beings long for order because it enables higher-level objectives such as stability and security, to be pursued. Groups provide this benefit to members, at the cost of some individual autonomy.

  • Groups are either attracted or repelled by aspects of other groups
  • Alignment enables groups to interact and evolve by adopting or rejecting beliefs, norms, and behaviors they observe in others

Alignment is the diplomatic and self-correcting function of a group, in that it refers to how the group positions itself relative to and with respect to other groups. It is also related to distinction and exclusivity in this regard.

As groups interact with other groups, they will naturally discover affinities and aversions to various attributes and aspects of those groups.

When an affinity or aversion is discovered, the group may modify its own behavior and identity in order to more closely align with the new information. This is the mechanism by which groups evolve and change over time.

  • Character is that inexplicable aspect of a group that slowly emerges over time
  • A group's reputation proceeds from its character.

Character is like a fundamental essence (je ne sais quoi), that embodies the energy, purpose, passion, and identity of a group into a qualitative substance that is known and felt by all.

Character is subtle and takes a long time to form. Groups with a well-developed character tend to be older and more mature. New groups build character through shared struggles and achievements.

In summary

Next time you are faced with an organizational challenge or situation, try using this framework to analyze the group situation from the perspective of each of these attributes. By doing so you are likely to uncover opportunities to improve group identity and performance.