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Group Work

How to Improve Group Dynamics

Group dynamics refer to the ways in which a group operates and interacts with each other—this dynamic plays an important role in the overall effectiveness of the group.

Positive group dynamics are easy to spot—group members trust one another, collaborate on ideas, and hold each other accountable for completing tasks on time. So, what happens when a group can't work together?

In this section, we'll identify the causes of poor group dynamics and look at strategies to improve those working relationships.

6 Conditions to Improve Group Work

Researchers J. Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman studied teams for decades and identified the conditions that made it more likely for a team to be successful.

Watch the video or click on the boxes below to learn about the 6 conditions—3 'Essentials' and 3 'Enablers'—that are most responsible for high-performing teams.

Hackman and Wageman noted that the 3 Essentials are responsible for about 60% of the team's success. Those essentials include:

  1. Compelling purpose

    The compelling purpose describes why this particular group is absolutely required to create a particular outcome. A compelling purpose is concrete and there are some parts that are non-negotiable—if the team doesn't get their outcome, then the team didn't do what it was created to do.

    There are other parts that can be negotiable—for example, the specifics of how they'll achieve that outcome, how long it might take, etc.

  2. Right people

    Which skills are needed to create an outcome, and who has those skills? The skills needed are not just technical capabilities, but include the ability to be a good team member.

  3. Real team

    A real team has a clear boundary of membership. If you ask a group member or a stakeholder who is on the team, you'll get the same exact answer from everyone. No one will be confused about who is on the team, how they uniquely contribute to that team, and what their compelling purpose is as a team.

    While your groups at Sheridan will likely be assigned, it's important that everyone knows their role and understands the group's compelling purpose from the start.

Hackman and Wageman also noted that the 3 Enablers are difficult or impossible to achieve without the 3 Essentials. The enablers include:

  1. Sound structure

    Sound structure describes what happens within the team—both the systems of work and systems of interacting. It includes things like role clarity, processes, and practices the team will use to get the work done, and a working agreement (like a group work contract) about what kind of behaviour is expected and what kind won't be tolerated on the team. Things like psychological safety and dependability falls within this category.

  2. Supportive context

    In contrast to sound structure, supportive context is about the team being able to get what they need from outside the team in order to achieve their compelling purpose. This includes getting things like: clarity, information, funding, training, and permission from outside the team. It also includes removing impediments in the organization that prevent the team from delivering on their purpose.

  3. Team coaching

    Most groups don't need a named, full-time coaching role on the team if the other 5 conditions are present, but teams will still get stuck from time to time and will benefit from coaching. That coaching might come from different people at different times depending on the challenges the group is facing.

    At Sheridan, you might get project coaching from your professor, partnership coaching from an external stakeholder working with your group, research coaching from Sheridan's Library, and more.

Common Causes of Poor Group Dynamics

Poor group dynamics don't necessarily come from people just not liking each other—in fact, you can be great friends with someone and still get annoyed with their indecisiveness, their communication style, or their approach to work.

So, what are some common causes of poor group dynamics when it comes to group projects?

  • Poor communication or miscommunication.
  • Poor project management skills.
  • Authority and groupthink: Excessive deference to authority or the desire to conform to group norms can have a stagnating effect on groups, as people would rather agree with the leader or with others than offer innovative ideas and opinions.
  • A toxic or hostile work environment, which includes blocking behaviours like aggression, negativitiy, withdrawing, recognition-seeking, and joking behaviours, which can block the flow of information on the team.
  • Lack of direction, or misunderstanding of shared goals.
  • Lack of trust between group members.
  • Poor decision-making skills.
  • A lack of cohesion or collaboration skills.
  • Weak leadership, or non-inclusive leadership.

6 Ways to Improve Team Dynamics

Groups with positive dynamics function like clockwork, as each member can fearlessly and continuously build on their strengths and improve on their weaknesses.

Check out the boxes below to learn 6 ways to improve your group's dynamic:

Psychological safety refers to the belief that you will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Groups that feel empowered to share their perspectives with each other, especially when their opinions differ from the rest of the group, are able to fully leverage the knowledge and talent that each member brings to the group. These teams are more likely to take initiative and consider the full picture of each situation.

Psychological safety is also critical to a team's ability to give and receive candid, respectful feedback.

Try these strategies to create psychological safety in your group:

  • Promote self awareness—start by trying some self-reflection activities you can share with the group!
  • Demonstrate concern for your team members as people.
  • Actively solicit questions from group members.
  • Provide multiple ways for group members to share their thoughts.
  • Show value and appreciation for ideas.
  • Promote positive dialogue and discussion.
  • Be precise with information, expectations, and commitments.
  • Explain reasons for change.
  • Own up to mistakes.

A group where everyone trusts one another is characterized by a high level of cooperation and collaboration, as well as mutual respect.

Group members feel safe to voice their opinions without fear of criticism or judgement, knowing that their thoughts are valued and respected. They are comfortable with each other's skills, abilities, and expertise, which allows for the faster completion of assignments since everyone is working together to get things done efficiently.

When trust exists among group members, groups are also able to handle disagreements or conflicts constructively and reach a resolution faster.

Try these strategies to build trust in your group:

  • Set clear expectations and boundaries: Write a group contract that sets out guidelines on how group members should communicate and behave with each other and establishes structured roles, responsibilities, and expectations.
  • Create a space for psychological safety.
  • Demonstrate transparency by openly sharing information.
  • Try a team-building activity like an ice breaker or a group inventory sheet.
  • Schedule regular meetings to check in with each other.
  • Respect everyone's time and show up to meetings prepared.
  • Communicate effectively (and pick the right communication mode for the group).
  • Be the first to admit when you're wrong—it's part of the learning process!
  • Show appreciation for each group member's contribution.
  • Celebrate milestones and achievements together.
  • Lead by example—if you want a culture of trust, show that your trust your group!

Building relationships with your group members can have a huge impact on how much you enjoy working on your project (and how much you enjoy your class too!)

Characteristics of positive working relationships include trust, mutual respect, active involvement in decision making, and honest and open communication between group members.

Try these strategies to create and facilitate connections in your group:

  • Know what you need from your group members and consider what you can give back.
  • Practice active listening and be receptive to their ideas.
  • Make time for your group members when they ask for help or need a break.
  • Follow through on your commitments.
  • Know when to ask for help–and actually ask for help!
  • Set clear boundaries and communicate when you need time to focus on work.
  • Show gratitude and praise for your group members.
  • Address group conflict as it comes up.
  • Start small—being friendly is the first step to being friends.

Conflicts are inevitable in any group—regardless of what started the conflict, if they're left unresolved, conflicts can quickly affect the team's morale and productivity.

Check out the section on Dealing with Group Conflict or try some of the following tips:

  • Create a healthy culture where everyone is treated fairly and equally.
  • Learn to spot the signs of conflict, including body language (e.g., crossed arms), facial expressions, and tone of voice.
  • Deal with conflict promptly and take action to resolve the situation before it escalates.
  • Develop rules for handling conflict in your group contract and make sure group members listen to one another.
  • Don't take sides—focus on the underlying issues causing the conflict and reach a resolution that works for everyone.

An inclusive team culture is a work environment that welcomes and values diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and ideas.

Common characteristics of inclusive teams include group members who feel a sense of belonging on the team, who are encouraged to share their ideas and thoughts, who feel valued for their contributions, and who support collaborative efforts.

Try these strategies to create an inclusive team culture in your group:

  • Start building empathy and understanding with group members.
  • Be aware of your language and communication style—make sure you listen to group members, ask for help, encourage active involvement, share your thoughts, and provide support without removing responsibility.
  • Facilitate inclusive meetings by planning effective group meetings and creating equal space for everyone to talk.
  • Delegate tasks based on individual strengths, but also consider areas where group members want to grow or learn new skills.
  • Give clear, specific, and timely feedback.
  • Resolve conflicts fairly and focus on the underlying issues—not the group members!

Coaching is a great method to teach new skills to your group members. These skills could include learning problem-solving techniques, setting goals (like SMART goals), reducing presentation anxiety, understanding new technology, and more. Check out the Academic Skills Hub to learn more about self-paced resources you could recommend to group members (or that you could try yourself!)

If a group member wants to learn a new skill that you know well, take some time to teach them the basics or point them to resources that helped you learn that skill. If you want to learn a new skill, make sure to ask a group member if they have time to show you!