What behaviours can you expect from people in a group?

If you can see value in looking at your group, team or organisation as a whole then you might ask, “What are the behaviours I can expect from individuals in a group context?”.

At this ‘group-as-a-whole’ level, a group becomes a social system. You can’t explain away people’s behaviour only by reference to their personality or style, because you can’t discount the influence of the group.

The group ‘spokesperson’

A common example is when one team member is the ‘outspoken, critical’ one who stands up to the boss and demands answers and higher standards, the rest of the team seeming content to let the person take this role and be identified as a ‘troublemaker’. While their colleague takes this role, they don’t have to risk their jobs or comfort levels to speak out about their own dissatisfactions.

So group members are called into roles that provide some kind of service to the group.The group-as-a-whole has unconsciously distributed roles among its members. People who don’t feel comfortable with certain emotional roles (spokesperson, group ‘mum’, the comedian, the organiser, the gossip etc) can allow someone else more naturally suited to take the role for the whole group.

The scapegoat

Though this can be a healthy pattern and relatively easy to manage once you understand what’s going on, you need to watch out for the group taking it to extremes.

One example is the concept of the ‘scapegoat’. If a group (or organisation) has had a strong experience of aggression, stress or frustration, the group can project all of this experience onto one person and then seek to ‘get rid of’ them somehow. It’s as if the group can no longer take responsibility for its behaviour as voiced through the scapegoated person and goes into shared denial.

Many of us have been in situations where a person has been ‘sacrificed’ on behalf of a group or team and we’ve been left feeling bad about it and yet not clear how it happened. We don’t want to admit that at some level we encouraged the person to take the role they did, and even participated covertly in the behaviour – it’s easier to blame them and allow them to take the rap alone.

An example of this is the group member whose role has become to voice frustrations and complaints on behalf of the group. They become the group gossip and may be very entertaining in their bitchy asides on what’s going on, the boss’s behaviour, the customers’ shortcomings etc. It’s hard not to laugh along. But when you spotlight the behaviour as negative in a team meeting or performance review, suddenly all the responsibility for it is placed squarely back on the individual concerned, who has now become the group’s scapegoat.

Leadership and the ‘group-as-a-whole’ perspective

If you don’t fully understand the dynamics of scapegoating, you may try to make sure the ‘troublemaker’ is dealt with without realising that they may have been the only vehicle for the group to express its dissatisfaction. Someone else will inevitably fill the role that’s left free, and you’ll never resolve the deeper, group, issue. Without thinking from a group-as-a-whole perspective, you may not examine the context of the situation or why the group allowed someone to be so ‘bad’.

As a leader of a group, team or organisation, it’s useful to ask questions when people, or departments (the HR department? the IT function?), seem to be taking particularly strong roles like being highly incompetent, emotional, caring, interfering, irresponsible, critical, etc. Bear in mind that when a person acts, they are acting not just on their own behalf but on behalf of their group, and that at some level people need someone, or some department – another group – to point the finger at.

With issues like these, which are issues of the ‘group-as-a-whole’, it’s always better to tackle them at the group level.

What are your experiences of group dynamic behaviour – we’d love to hear from you!