Three Social Dynamics of Dysfunctional Teams

Negative social dynamics appear entirely unpleasant and anti-motivating on the surface, but to be sustainable, someone’s self interest must be furthered. Here are three common breakdowns in group dynamics and possible side benefits of maintaining dysfunction.

  1. Deadly Embrace. Strong group members dedicated to their individual agendas can prevent substantive progress within a group. In the absence of a dominant leader, some team members will fill the void in authority. They may build on unofficial power bases: their expertise, seniority (and associated job security), or a tight network of friends. Although rarely able to implement a constructive agenda, Informal leaders can create a social gridlock that prevents progress on any initiatives in the group. [Thanks to Greg Olney for pointing out this dynamic.

    Whose interest is furthered? Gridlock favors the well established. The self-interest of who feel threatened by change is furthered by social dynamics that prevent meaningful change. Perpetrators may obtain fulfillment from the social dynamics of wielding a bit of power over junior colleagues and from showing up the official leader.

  2. Trial by Fire. A group dynamic that is especially hard on newbies is the trial by fire. The subtext, or underlying story, is: “we had to go through hell when starting this job and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.” From this perspective, belittling or overwhelming newcomers feels like mentoring.

    Whose interest is furthered? The benefit to the established employees participating in this dynamic is that it keeps the new employees off balance, maintaining a power dynamic. A second benefit is the opportunity to dump unpleasant work on the newcomers.

  3. Cliques. Cliques at work put personal preferences over larger group needs. Personal attraction or social agendas for members take precedence over their operational requirements.

    Whose interest is furthered? Maintaining clique boundaries promotes disrespectful interactions when members derive satisfaction from excluding others. Defining others as an external threat provides an artificial sense of camaraderie.

Group dynamics have a strong momentum. One person’s behavior in an interaction tends to channel the other person’s response. An aggressive action prompts either aggression or retreat. A cheerful smile seems out of the question.

Gaining some control over the social dynamics of a group requires foresight, understanding, and the capacity to overcome immediate emotional reactions to unpleasant action from others. It’s a difficult challenge for an individual working with powerful coworkers.

In CREW we include the full team into the quest of improving working relationships. Working on all ends of complex relationships has the best possibilities for meaningful change.

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