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Group Dynamics Essay

What is “group dynamics”? Perhaps it will be most useful to start by looking at the derivation of the word “dynamics”. It comes from a Greek word meaning force. In careful usage the phrase, “group dynamics” refers to the forces operating in groups. The investigation of group dynamics, then, consists of a study of these forces: what gives rise to them, what conditions modify them, what consequences they have, etc. The practical application of group dynamics (or the technology of group dynamics) consists of the utilization of knowledge about these forces for the achievement of some purpose.

In keeping with this definition, is not particularly novel, nor is it the exclusive property of any person or institution. It goes back at least to the outstanding work of men like Simmel, Freud, and Cooley. Although interest in groups has a long and respectable history, the past fifteen years have witnessed a new flowering of activity in this field. Today, research centers in several countries are carrying out substantial programmes of research designed to reveal the nature of groups and of their functioning.

The phrase “group dynamics” had come into common usage during this time and intense efforts have been devoted to the development of the field, both as a branch of social science and as a form of social technology. In this development the name of Kurt Lewin had been outstanding. As a consequence of his work in the field of individual psychology and from his analysis of the nature of pressing problems of the contemporary world, Lewin became convinced of society’s urgent need for a scientific approach to the understanding of the dynamics of groups.

In 1945 he established the Research Center for Group Dynamics to meet this need. Since that date the Centre has been devoting its efforts to improving our scientific understanding of groups through laboratory experimentation, field studies, and the use of techniques of action research. It has also attempted in various ways to help get the findings of social science more widely used by social management. Much of what I have to say in this paper is drawn from the experiences of this Center in its brief existence of a little more than five years.

We hear all around us today the assertion that the problems of the twentieth century are problems of human relations. The survival of civilization, it is said, will depend upon man’s ability to create social interventions capable of harnessing, for society’s constructive use, the vast physical energies now at man’s disposal. Or, to put the matter more simply, we must learn how to change the way in which people behave toward one another.

In broad outline, the specifications for a good society are clear, but a serious technical problem remains: How can we change people so that they neither restrict the freedom nor limit the potentialities for growth of others; so that they accept and respect people of different religion, nationality, colour, or political opinion; so that nations can exist in a world without war, and s that the fruits of our technological advances can bring economic well-being and freedom from disease to all people of the world?

Although few people would disagree with these objectives when stated abstractly, when we become more specific, differences of opinion quickly arise. These questions permit no ready answers. How is change to be produced? Who is to do it? Who is to be changed? Before we consider in detail these questions of social technology, let us clear away some semantic obstacles. The word “change” produces emotional reactions. It is not a neutral word. To many people it is threatening. It conjures up visions of a revolutionary, a dissatisfied idealist, a trouble-maker, a malcontent.

Nicer words referring to the process of changing people are education, training, orientation, guidance, indoctrination, therapy. We are more ready to have others “educate” us than have them “change” us. We, ourselves feel less guilty in “training” others than in “changing” them. Why this emotional response? What makes the two kinds of words have such different meanings? I believe that a large part of the difference lies in the fact that the safer words (like education and therapy) carry implicit assurance that the only changes produced will be good ones, acceptable within a currently held value system.

The cold, unmodified word “change”, on the contrary, promises no respect for values; it might even tamper with values themselves. perhaps for this very reason it will foster straight thinking if we use the word “change” and thus force ourselves to struggle directly and self-consciously with the problems of value that are involved. Words like education, training, or therapy, by the very fact that they are not so disturbing, may close our eyes to the fact that they too inevitably involve values.

How can we change people so that they neither restrict the freedom nor limit the potentialities for growth of others; so that they accept and respect people of different religion, nationality, colour, or political opinion; so that nations can exist in a world without war, and so that the fruits of our technological advances can bring economic wellbeing and freedom from disease to all people of the world? The proposal that social technology may be employed to solve the problems of society suggests that social science may be applied in ways not different from those used in the physical sciences.

Does social science, in fact, have any practically useful knowledge which may be brought to bear significantly on society’s most urgent problems? What scientifically based principles are there for guiding programmes of social change: In this paper we shall restrict our considerations to certain parts of a relatively new branch of social science known as “group dynamics”. We shall examine some of the implications for social action which stem from research in this field of scientific investigation. Consider first some matters having to do with the mental health of an individual.

We can all agree, I believe, that an important mark of a healthy personality is that the individual’s self-esteem has not been undermined. But on what does self-esteem depend? From research on this problem we have discovered that, among other things, repeated experiences of failure or traumatic failures on matters of central importance serve to undermine one’s self-esteem. We also know that whether a person experiences success or failure as a result of some undertaking depends upon the level of aspiration which he has set for himself.

Now, if we try to discover how the level of aspiration gets set, we are immediately involved in the person’s relationships to groups. The groups to which he belongs set standards for his behaviour which he must accept if he is to remain in the group. If his capacities do not allow him to reach these standards, he experiences failure, he withdraws or is rejected by the group and his self-esteem suffers a shock. Consider a second example. A teacher finds that in her class she has a number of trouble-makers, full of aggression.

She wants to know why these children are so aggressive and what can be done about it. A foreman in a factory has the same kind of problem with some of his workers. He wants the same kind of help. The solution most tempting to both the teacher and the foreman often is to transfer the worst trouble-makers to someone else, or if facilities are available, to refer them for counselling. But is the problem really of such a nature that it can be solved by removing the trouble-maker from the situation or by working on his individual motivations and emotional life?

What leads does research give us? The evidence indicates, of course, that there are many causes of aggressiveness in people, but one aspect of the problem has become increasingly clear in recent years. If we observe carefully the amount of aggressive behaviour and the number of trouble-makers to be found in a large collection of groups, we find that these characteristics can vary tremendously from group to group even when the different groups are composed essentially of the same kinds of people.

In the now classic experiments of Lewin, Lippitt and White (1939) on the effects of different styles of leadership, it was found that the same group of children displayed markedly different levels of aggressive behaviour when under different styles of leadership. Moreover, when individual children were transferred from one group to another, their levels of aggressiveness shifted to conform to the atmosphere of the new group. Efforts to account for one child’s aggressiveness under one style of leadership merely in terms of his personality traits could hardly succeed under these conditions.

This is not to say that a person’s behaviour is entirely to be accounted for by the atmosphere and structure of the immediate group, but it is remarkable to what an extent a strong, cohesive group can control aspects of a member’s behaviour traditionally thought to be expressive of enduring personality traits. Recognition of this fact rephrases the problem of how to change such behaviour. It directs us to a study of the sources of the influence of the group on its members. Within very recent years some research data have been accumulating which may give us a clue to the solution of our problem.

In one series of experiments directed by Lewin, it was found that a method of group decision, in which the group as a whole made a decision to have its members change their behaviour, was from two to ten times more effective in producing actual change as was a lecture presenting exhortation to change (Lewin, 1951). We have yet to learn precisely what produces these differences of effectiveness, but it is clear that by introducing group forces into the situation a whole new level of influence has been achieved. The experience has been essentially the same when people have attempted to increase the productivity of individuals in work settings.

Traditional conceptions of how to increase the output of workers have stressed the individual: * Select the right man for the job * Simplify the job for him * Train him in the skills required * Motivate him by economic incentives * Make it clear to whom he reports * Keep the lines of authority and responsibility simple and straight. But even when all of these conditions are fully met we find that productivity is far below full potential. There is even good reason to conclude that this individualistic conception of the determinants of productivity actually fosters negative consequences.

The individual, now isolated and subjected to the demands of the organization through the commands of his boss, finds that he must create with his fellow employees informal groups, not shown on any table of organization, in order to protect himself from arbitrary control of his life, from the boredom produced by the endless repetition of mechanically sanitary and routine operations, and from the impoverishment of his emotional and social life brought about by the frustration of his basic needs for social interaction, participation, and acceptance in a stable group.

Recent experiments have demonstrated clearly that the productivity of work groups can be greatly increased by methods of work organization and supervision which give more responsibility to work groups, which allow for fuller participation in important decisions, and which make stable groups the firm basis for support of the individual’s social needs (Coch & French, 1948). It is points out future research will also demonstrate that people working under such conditions become more mature and creative individuals in their homes, in community life, and as citizens.

A few years ago the Research Center for Group Dynamics undertook to shed light on this problem by investigating the operation of a workshop for training leaders in intercultural relations (Lippitt, 1949). In a project, directed by Lippitt, they set out to compare systemically the different effects of the workshop upon trainees who came as isolated individuals in contrast to those who came as teams. Six months after the workshop, however, those who had been trained as isolates were only slightly more active than before the workshop whereas those who had been members of strong training teams were now much more active.

They do not have clear evidence on the point, but they are quite certain that the maintenance of heightened activity over a long period of time would also be much better for members of teams. For the isolates the effect of the workshop had the characteristic of a “shot in the arm” while for the team member it produced a more enduring change because the team provided continuous support and reinforcement for its members. What conclusions may we draw from these examples? What principles of achieving change in people can we see emerging?

To begin with the most general position, we may state that the behaviour, attitudes, beliefs, and values of the individual are all firmly grounded in the groups to which he belongs. How aggressive or cooperative a person is, how much self-respect and self-confidence he has, how energetic and productive his work is, what he aspires to, what he believes to be true and good, whom he loves or hates, and what beliefs and prejudices he holds—all these characteristics are highly determined by the individual’s group memberships.

In a real sense, they are properties of groups and of the relationships between people. Whether they change or resist change will, therefore, be greatly influenced by the nature of these groups. Attempts to change them must be concerned with the dynamics of groups. In examining more specifically how groups enter into the process of change, we find it useful to view groups in at least three different ways. In the first view, the group is seen as a source of influence over its members.

Efforts to change behaviour can be supported or blocked by pressures on members stemming from the group. To make constructive use of these pressures the group must be used as a medium of change. In the second view, the group itself becomes the target of change. To change the behaviour of individuals it may be necessary to change the standards of the group, its style of leadership, its emotional atmosphere, or its stratification into cliques and hierarchies. Even though the goal may be to change the behaviour of individuals, the target of change becomes the group.

In the third view, it is recognized that many changes of behaviour can be brought about only by the organization efforts of groups as agents of change. A committee to combat intolerance, a labour union, and employers association, a citizens group to increase the pay of teachers—any action group will be more or less effective depending upon the way it is organized, the satisfactions it provides to its members, the degree to which its goals are clear, and a host of other properties of the group.

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