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Land mines lurk in group dynamics
Scripps Howard News Service


March 13, 2006

Greetings, class. Today's lesson is on group dynamics.

No matter what your field, you'll sometimes find yourself in a group of people trying to accomplish something. Even those of us who work alone at home eventually must go reeling into the world to meet with employers or colleagues or creditors.

At those times, you need a working knowledge of group dynamics. Without it, you can make blunders and upset your fellow humans and risk embarrassment, financial ruin or, in extreme cases, a swift and painful death.

Group dynamics arise in all arenas, from the traditional business meeting to charity board proceedings to team sports to five guys leaning on shovels, staring at a pothole.

Group dynamics lie at the core of decision-making. Someone must lead and someone must follow. Agreements must be reached. Ideas must be hashed out, thrown out and resurrected. The wheel must be reinvented.

To understand group dynamics, let's first look at the roots. "Dynamics" comes from the Latin - "dynamo" for "power" and "ics" for "in the hands of idiots." The larger term, "group dynamics," was coined by psychobabblists as a way to address the behavior of the human herd.

As with herds in the animal kingdom, human behavior follows a pattern of dominance and submission. Most people, placed in a group, are submissive. They're called "listeners" or "followers" or "sheep."

Others are assertive and demand to be heard. Depending on the setting, these types are known as "leaders" or "alpha males" or "jerks."

No matter where you fall in that spectrum, it's vital that you remember some basic tenets of group dynamics, such as:

- Density is variable:

Some people have quick minds. Others must mull and mumble to reach a decision. In dealing with groups, you must allow for variations in brainpower and reaction speed and skull thickness. The same goes for driving in traffic.

- Feelings, nothing more than feelings:

Like it or not, humans have emotions. They get their feelings hurt. They're quick to anger or slow to forgive. They let these emotions seep into the decision-making process, resulting in misunderstandings and grudges and wars. Parliamentary procedure was designed to remove emotion from decision-making, and that really steams some people.

- Please do not leave baggage unattended:

Humans are not blank slates when they arrive in a group setting. They bring along their own histories and hang-ups and biases. You must allow for this baggage and work around it, or be prepared to shoot the person hauling it.

- Everyone wants to sing before the Fat Lady:

It's a democratic ideal that everyone has a voice and everyone should have a say in decisions. Meetings often involve going around the table, giving everyone an opportunity to address each issue. Unfortunately, some people are in love with the sound of their own voices. These divas want to sing an aria when a few notes (or silent assent) would do. A strong leader knows when to cut off debate, even if it requires stuffing a sock in the diva's mouth.

- Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die:

People in groups tend to address the "big picture." They want to describe a "vision" for the "future." But when it comes time to pass out the hands-on labor, they sit quietly, hoping that others will do the dirty work. "Vision" is great, but it won't fill that pothole.

Keep these rules of human interaction in mind the next time you enter a group setting. Allow for the feelings and egos of others. Work toward that common goal.

If all else fails, keep your shovel handy.


Redding, Calif., author Steve Brewer's latest book is called "Boost."
Contact him a ABQBrewer(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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