Successful cooperation in teams

How can you ensure successful cooperation within a team? Let the 4 laws of group dynamics help you.

Group dynamics is hard to keep under control

Someone complains about a suspicious smell in the conference room. All of a sudden everyone smells it. No one pays any attention to the agenda anymore. Someone makes an inappropriate remark. Everyone turns against him. He feels excluded. Someone is nagging someone else. Before you know it everyone starts nagging. The meeting is ruined. Sometimes it seems like groups lead their own life ...

Group dynamics is inevitable

Psychologists have shown that we can all be influenced by the behaviour of people around us. “You are affected by others in group dynamics”, says Desiree de Graaff, trainer and programme maker at the Baak. “You are part of a process that is not entirely yours. This has consequences for the relationship and cooperation between group members. Before you know it, you are not just discussing work and business content, but all sorts of other issues.” Godfried IJsseling, trainer and programme maker at the Baak, adds: “Uncomfortable repressed tension is a signal: there are problems. The result? People don’t listen to each other anymore. Of course this can severely damage the quality of work.”

The following principles of group dynamics can help guide team processes in the right direction.

1. Safety first

‘Psychological safety’ is the most important condition for successful teams. This means that people feel like they can share their thoughts and be honest with each other. They feel that they can listen to each other and seek to understand each other. “Safety is an important issue to focus on, because many organisation steer towards insecurity”, says IJsseling. “You constantly have to prove yourself and people are constantly controlled. Do you not perform well? Then you will face a difficult conversation.“

Do you feel safe or unsafe?
Do people feel unsafe? Then they protect themselves against potential uncomfortable or negative consequences. This can have a negative impact on group dynamics. IJsseling: “But do you feel safe? Then this actually makes you smarter. You relax. You think more clearly. You are more creative.”

2. Let there be trouble

Conflicting forces can make group dynamics more complicated. A feeling of insecurity can disrupt the team spirit. But conflict can also make a team stronger. De Graaff calls this ‘storming’, a word originating from the American social psychologist Bruce Tuckman. De Graaff. “I always thought you have to avoid conflict at all costs. But then I realised, ‘storming’ is part of the process. This was an eye-opener for me.”

Tuckman’s 4 phases
Tuckman distinguishes 4 phases in group formation:

  • Phase 1: Group members get to know each other (forming).
  • Phase 2: Their mutual relationships are defined (storming).
  • Phase 3: Group norms develop and tasks are allocated (norming).
  • Phase 4: A well-oiled team works together (performing).

Don’t skip storming
Ideally, a team develops itself from one phase to the next while the team members’ relationships improve more and more. It is not recommended to do everything to avoid phase 2, the internal conflict. De Graaff: “In the ‘storming’ phase people take different points of view and they form coalitions. This brings clarity. And develops values.

Knowing is half the victory
Tuckman’s model helps leaders to recognise these different phases. Do you experience ‘storming’? This is not necessarily a bad thing, on the contrary. But, it is important to reach the next phase after this. All too often, teams get stuck in a conflict. And team members grow apart.

3. Sharing is caring

Transparency and ‘psychological safety’ are closely related. Is there space for dialogue? Then people are more willing to share their thoughts. Justice is another important part of this. Research by Tom Tyler shows that employees with a consistent leader are more constructive, better listeners and more respectful towards others. Are we treated well? Then we are more likely to have a positive attitude ourselves.

Being open is not always easy though
Team members have to be sure they avoid negative consequences. They need to be invited to share any negative feedback, explicitly and preferably more than once. This helps the team to get through the storming phase. Team members share arguments more easily. And everyone knows where they stand.

4. You, yourself and I

“To establish an open culture, someone needs to take the lead”, says IJsseling. “If team members are quite reluctant to share their thoughts, it’s harder to be the first one.” Being open makes you vulnerable. But, like justice, vulnerability can be contagious. “Leaders can play a crucial role here”, says IJsseling. “Does the leader show vulnerability? That sets the bar for everyone else.” The leader will have to show that being open will not face negative consequences. IJsseling: “I believe this directly impacts on the team’s efficiency. Openness makes people more involved. The team will perform better.”

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