The Many Paradoxes Of Group Dynamics: In this case, knowledge does help action

I am not one to willingly join a group; I go out of my way to avoid group projects.  One of my favorite professors once altered his syllabus so that I could opt out a team project (and thereby kept me in the class!).  That was the pinnacle of my “no group work” principle in school, and since then the more I study groups, the less I desire to be part of them.  However, I have also, willingly, been involved in some fabulous group works, and the main reasons for these groups to have succeeded were because (1) all of us are familiar with group dynamics, and therefore (2) we were all willing to engage in the group processes, the invisible meta work of our particular group dynamics, in order to accomplish our professed projects.

There are natural and unavoidable tensions within groups, independent of what ordinary development would entail.   The lack of understanding of such dynamics has aggravated many a group into adopting attitudes that only increase these tensions.  Some of the tensions are problematic, but a good portion of them fit what Kenwyn Smith and David Berg describe as “the paradox of group dynamics,” insolvable paradoxes inherent in a group.  I love their language:

…instead of seeking to resolve (emphasis theirs) the conflicts that create paralysis, we need ways to release these conflicts…central thesis is that group life is inherently paradoxical, and when group members are unable to see this they adopt approaches to group experiences that ‘create’ conflicts out of processes that are ‘conflictual’ only because of the way they are understood.  When group dynamics are experienced as oppositional, members act as if the conflicts must be ‘resolved’ before the group can move on, thereby making ‘unresolvable’ that which needed no resolution until it was defined as needing resolution.”

And so we have management vs. labor, men vs. women, black vs. white, etc.; in other words, the “we vs. them,” the “either-or” trap.

The classic example for illustrating paradox lies in the juxtaposition of the following statements:

The below statement is true.

The above statement is false.

Each on its own is perfectly accurate, but putting them together, they create the self-referencing and self-contradictory paradox.  They further suggest that being confined inside the frame of these statements, we are trapped, but using an outside frame, as in pretending you are not a member of this group, we maybe able to make some sense while allowing the paradox as it stands.

The authors list seven group paradoxes:  The paradox of identity, The paradox of disclosure, The paradox of trust, The paradox of individuality, The paradox of authority, The paradox of regression, and The paradox of creativity.  I will focus on the first and the last one.

One of Smith’s teaching points that really struck me and has stayed with me is:  The group doesn’t want the whole of you; it only wants part of you.  And the corollary is:  You want to be part of a group, but also apart from the group.  During the initial formation of a group, if we bring all aspects of our identity into it, like everyone else would like to, the group would not gel well.  And initially, everyone (including the group as an entity) is “hedging” by disclosing only limited information about himself/herself/itself, which also hampers the group to gel.  However, in order to strengthen the group, a degree of trust has to be invested.  And so we constantly gauge the situation, asserting our own identity or individuality or independence while surrendering a little here and there for the common good of the group.  Yet, without the group, our sense of individuality or identity may be weakened.  We are always becoming, as are groups.

One of the origins of forming any group is our reaction toward the other groups or entities whose actions we don’t like or have concerns for.  Even forming any committee at workplace is a reaction to something we need to address, and usually stemming from some dissatisfaction.  “If only the others would see our way, or would change their behavior…” However, if we allow the “others” their ways, behaviors, or opinions to stay, treat them as natural expressions of differences within a functional group, not only would we eliminate or minimize conflicts, we increase the diversity of thinking, thereby may bring more resources to address the real task at hand.

As groups mature, norms follow.  Usually no one defines norms – because they are implicit rules — till they are broken.  I remember this great exercise (I had to do it myself) in teaching norms:  We tell students to think of a norm and then go out and break it.  The major condition is:  do no harm to self or others.  Usually norm breakers don’t experience fear when committing the act, but a LOT of anxiety.  Some examples are:  riding in elevator facing others; going to a gay bar as a straight, ordering from menu backwards, as in dessert first. Try it sometimes, very educational!

Once a group feels settled, then comes the challenge of how to be innovative and creative.  “The paradox of creativity is that the creative process, the making of the new, involves destruction, the very antithesis of what creativity symbolizes, yet the refusal to destroy blunts creativity’s possibilities.”  Before we think a group in constant flux has more potential to be creative, we should remember why we need to be part of groups sometimes.  As the group gains maturity, through patterns (norms) and rituals or rules, it allows individuals to grow with it.  And in order to change, you need to be able to define what, among that which has been established, needs to be destroyed.  This is very much in line with system thinking; we need to understand context and grasp bigger pictures.

Now here comes an interesting point.  Usually a group would allow only one or two individuals in the group to be the “creative” ones.  Here is another teaching point I have learned and loved:  If you want to be a deviant, be the first one.  This is the one into whom the group can deposit all their creative energy.  However, while the group loves this individual’s creativity, it also hates her.  If these love and hate feelings get too intense, then the group is likely to split into two: members joining the positive side viewing the creative/deviant as a hero, and members with negative view of the creative/deviant, inclined toward scapegoating.  Yet, the underlying dynamics driving each side indicates that what each offers to the group is identical to the other.

The major point of understanding all these paradoxes is:  Accepting them frees us to put more energy into moving and acting.  So, when you feel as if your group is stuck, step back and assess if “solution” is necessary, or if just finding ways to release those tensions will do.

Now an important disclaimer:  I am not advocating for group work, nor suggesting that a group is more productive or creative than individuals.  Not at all!  Today’s entry is about what you need to be aware of when you have to work in a group.  Whenever “group” becomes the focus, I worry for introverts.  So, I was delighted to read Susan Cain’s piece, The rise of the new groupthink,” in today New York Times’ Op-Ed.  She is a powerful advocate for introverts and introversion.

Once in a while, I do love just talk about theories.  But next time, I will bring to your attention something more tangible.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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One thought on “The Many Paradoxes Of Group Dynamics: In this case, knowledge does help action

  1. I particularly enjoyed this blog entry because I am reading the biography of Steve Jobs, which has a lot of interesting material on group dynamics.

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