Chapter 1 - Relationships Subchapter: Group dynamics

Group power dynamics

Groups come together for a variety of reasons. A group can be formed because of a situation, for example, family, school, work, club, or neighbourhood community. Groups are also formed to reflect shared interests, aspirations, values and social causes.

 

Split-frame, the left panel has three illustrated characters playing tennis together, the right panel shows the characters holding signs of the planet together at a rally.

 

Groups enable us to join with others to coordinate and unify our actions and beliefs as a collective. Collective group power holds more influence than individual power. This collective power is one of the key functions of groups.

Group dynamics refers to how group members interact with each other, both within groups and also between groups.

 

Dynamics within groups

It’s natural to be drawn to people who appear similar to us. Maybe we see key aspects of our identity reflected in others, or there might be a shared common interest, situation, background or culture.

We might try to become part of a group when we admire the group members and aspire to be like them. The potential for increasing our social power is a persuasive reason for looking to join a particular group.  

Sometimes we join a group for no other reason than to avoid feeling lonely.

Given that we are all individuals with a unique inner world of needs, interests and values, regardless of the reason for a group forming and the power of the collective, there will inevitably be differences and potential for conflict.

Some differences are minor and should have no influence on group dynamics:

  • you like metal music and the others like hip hop
  • you live with your older sister and everyone else lives with their parents
  • at home you speak a language other than English
  • you are vegan
  • you are short and everyone else is really tall.

Other differences will have the potential to create conflict and negatively impact the group dynamics.

For example, one person might decide to start making decisions for the whole group— what to talk about, where to hang out, who to hang out with. This person is attempting to take control of the group behaviour and identity, and likely has a few allies that always back them up.

Respectful groups with healthy interpersonal relationships encourage the performance of positive behaviours. Positive behaviours that are validated by group members and other groups are more likely to be repeated.

A leader of a group that uses their social power to encourage positive behaviour can improve everyone’s sense of well-being and group acceptance.

 

Dynamics between groups

A common assumption is that we will be most influenced by those closest to us - our intimate and most stable friends.

However, researchers argue that we are actually most influenced by those peers that we want to be friends with, or those groups that we aspire to belong to, rather than the friends or groups we have well established and stable relationships with.

Sometimes there can be conflict between groups because of a clash in their beliefs and values. If one group feels strongly about its beliefs and are faced with another group who holds different beliefs, the instinct might be to try to convince the other group to change their beliefs and to modify their actions.

Conflict occurs between groups and individual group members when each group holds strongly to their beliefs.

 

For example, when vegan groups (whose beliefs are that animals should not be farmed or used as a “product” by society) clash with groups of farmers (who believe animals can be humanely farmed and consumed).

Each group feel strongly that their beliefs are correct, that the beliefs of the other group are wrong, and that this entitles them to take action or stand their ground.

 

Follow the leader

Sometimes group members are happy for one person within the group to take on a leadership role.

That person may be seen by the others to be acting in the best interests of the group and encouraging positive behaviour. For example, an inspiring leader might encourage you to spend time working with a community group instead of watching TV, or steps up to call out bullying behaviour.

Other times the leader may engage in negative behaviour like bullying and encourage the rest of the group to follow their lead. Failure to follow the leader comes with the threat of being excluded from a group.

 

Split-frame; the top panel shows a group of illustrated characters taunting an individual. One member of the group looks awkward and worried. The bottom panel shows the same scenario, but this time the worried character is joining in with an angry face.

 

If the group condones risky or anti-social behaviour and rewards group members who engage in these behaviours, then it is more likely that other group members will also participate in these behaviours in order to be accepted.

Following the leader and imitating group behaviours is a way to be accepted into the group. But we always have to remember to question if the values and behaviour of a group are something that we want to accept.

If the group has a degree of social power in the community, it can be hard to push back against behaviour that goes against your individual values. Most people want to feel like they belong, rather than set apart and excluded.

 

The individual within the group

Support of the group

Groups can function like small communities. In a tribal sense, the strength that numbers provide can help vulnerable individuals withstand attack from another group.

 

Split-frame: on the left, an illustrated character is being bullied by two others with troll faces and thumbs down emojis; in the other frame, two characters are angry and protecting the character that was being bullied before.

 

If a person experiencing bullying is a member of a well-connected group, the effect of the bullying will be less intense.

Support coming from within the group increases the resilience of the person being bullied. They are better able to effectively cope with the bullying situation.

 

Diversity benefits everyone

Generally, the more diverse the group, the more respectful the relationships within the group, and with other groups, will be.

Individual needs, cultural diversity, age and gender differences, and personality differences help ensure that a peer group will be exposed to a range of perspectives and experiences.

Diversity of individual members encourages a more inclusive and respectful group dynamic. Individual differences within members of a group can also have a significant impact on group dynamics.

Establishing positive rules and norms is a critical ingredient for creating and maintaining respectful relationships within the group.

Working out what the group stands for, and how each person hopes group membership will make them feel, can even influence positive behaviours and attitudes to others outside of the group.