10 Group Psychology Theories Leaders Need To Know

Updated Over a Week Ago


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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Group psychology is greatly influenced by both its leader and informal leader. Group psychology’s problematic and counter-intuitive aspects make building highly productive teams challenging. Leaders who build close-knit teams that consistently exceed expectations understand how to align group dynamics and make it a priority.

A few years ago, Dan Pink gave a TED talk about the puzzle of human motivation.

He argued that financial incentives can work against employee performance and that leaders should try a different approach – like giving the work their employees do ‘meaning’ and allowing them to improve their skills (mastery).

Needless to say, the talk exploded online. It was a radical idea. But it’s just one of a long list of psychological phenomena that are counter-intuitive.

1. Beware of Groupthink

Groupthink is a phenomenon in which a group takes on a mind on its own. This happens because groups are a potent influence on our behavior. In groups, people do things they don’t usually do independently.

Individuals often don’t know that they are influenced by groupthink.

This is why some experts believe certain practices we hold dear in the corporate world aren’t effective at all. One such questioned technique is brainstorming. In theory, it sounds great: you gather as many ideas as possible from a group without censoring, then weed out the losing ideas later. The assumption is two heads are always better than one.

However, researchers have found that the most charismatic individual tends to take over, and even when the most seasoned professional conducts the sessions, people can’t help but ape others. Their influence is subconscious.

You can’t come up with a genuinely innovative idea if you’re placed consistently in a group because innovation is, by definition, radical. Radical solutions are constantly questioned by the group – and killed before they can take flight. This is especially true when that idea threatens the standing of other group members. Or the group itself.

Unlike groupthink, social pressure is a conscious influence. It’s a group’s way to keep its members and ensure its own survival. It’s also the way groups grow.

2. Social Pressure

Unlike groupthink, social pressure is a conscious influence. It’s not only the group’s way to keep its members and ensure survival. It’s also the way groups grow.

Here’s an example. Imagine a large group of peaceful demonstrators. It takes one person – the spark that lights the fire – to influence the second person (often a family member or friend) to behave violently. The third person then sees two people destroying properties, and he too joins in on the chaos.

That’s how a violent riot grows. People justify their behavior because a group of people is doing it. The word “pressure” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s uncomfortable.

It’s a conscious decision.

So how does this apply in organizations? Well, this is what organizational behavior professionals call “company culture.” If most of your group members think doing just enough to “do their job” is perfectly fine, then that’s how new members will behave. Changing company culture is out of the scope of the article, but check out this great guide to get started.

3. Belonging

So why do groups have such a hold on us? Well, because we have an innate need to belong to one – an individual would have struggled to survive in the wild 100,000 years ago.

In the absence of a united group, people create one. Psychologists call this the “minimal groups paradigm.” In an organization, these spontaneous groups are called “cliques.” You can also see this in schools. As you can imagine, Cliques can create specific challenges for a leader because each clique has its own culture.

This is why organizational leaders must hold team-building activities. For more information on team building, check out this great article on company culture.

4. Individuality

It’s a human paradox of group psychology that we yearn to belong to a group, yet we also desire to be unique. For groups to be effective, leaders must allow individuals to add their individuality to the process.

For example, if you’re told precisely what to do and when, and you’re meant to do that every hour of every day as long as you work for the company, you’re not feel fulfilled by doing that task. We want to feel like we are irreplaceable.

A study by Max Ringelmann back in the 1890s found that people put in 50% less effort when playing tug-o-war in a team of 8 than alone. It seems that when our effort is difficult to distinguish from other members, we’ll slack off. It’s called social loafing.

5. Curse of Knowledge

Ever tried to teach a group of recruits how to do things but just couldn’t get through.

Ever consider the possibility that maybe the issue lies with you, not them? It might be the Curse of Knowledge at play. What seems glaringly obvious to you might not be so to a beginner. So what can you do about the curse of knowledge?

Well, ask for feedback from your target audience. This happens less than you think, in both the office and the classroom. The speaker assumes the audience understands what they are talking about, which can be presumptuous.

6. Self-Identity

Each member in the group has a role to play to function efficiently. This much you probably already know.

But here’s something you might not know: people conform to their roles in a now-famous experiment called “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” psychologists assigned to guard and prisoner roles to young volunteers in a simulated prison. To their surprise, in just six days, their subjects conformed to their roles perfectly – the corrections officers became abusive, and the prisoners became submissive.

So take a good look at yourself. Have you conformed to a “role” that is not yourself?

group psychology meeting

7. Group Psychology of Rejecting Outsiders

Have you ever had a new manager come into the office and announce, “All right, ‘team’? Here’s how we are going to do things now.”

Did you end up doing what he said?

Groups reject outsiders and any attempts to change their unwritten rules – even if that person is its appointed “leader.” Leaders, then, don’t make the group. On the contrary, it’s the group that makes the leader.

This was observed by psychologist Merei in 1949 when he saw that children new to the group who jumped in with new ideas were usually rejected by their peers. Those who became successful leaders, on the other hand, first conformed to group norms then slowly suggested new ideas.

Merei’s observations were later replicated by other studies – with adults.

8. Gossips

Gossips are a part of tribal life. Contrary to popular belief, gossip is actually good for a group.

If you saw your friend John eating more than his fair share of food in a time of scarce resources and you had no way to gossip, the confrontation between you and John would probably result in at least one death or severe altercation. By gossiping with other group members, you can avoid conflict, and the group will pressure him to change his greedy ways by using subtle cues (like refusing to share food with him).

There is no doubt that gossip harms others but also be used positively. If you talk about John positively behind his back, that message becomes more vital to other group members because it is perceived as authentic.

Considering this, when word travels back to John, your relationship with him will skyrocket more than simple face-to-face praise can ever achieve.

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9. Competition

Point three revealed how cliques could form and pose specific challenges to a leader. This is one of those challenges.

Have you ever had an experience where you find someone as a “good person” individually but that the group he belongs to is anything but a reasonable force in the world? For example, you might find that as an individual, your neighbor is a great person – until you find out that she belongs to a different political party.

In other words, groups breed adversity.

When in groups, we can’t help but compete with opposing groups. A 2001 study by psychologist Insko et al. used the classic game “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” to measure competitiveness in-group vs. alone. He found that, alone, people were competitive 37% of the time. They were competitive 54% of the time in groups – more than 50%.

Competition between cliques in a company can be highly destructive. Each department makes another’s job difficult to do. Some experts believe this is how Enron collapsed. Enron, the former poster child of organizational management, encouraged competition between its departments to the extreme.

10. The Halo Effect

If I say physical attractiveness influences who you hire, you’d probably deny it. But study after study has found that we prefer attractive individuals over their less-attractive counterparts – even when their intended job has nothing to do with beauty. We perceive beautiful people as more intelligent, hardworking, honest, and organized.

This is called the “Halo Effect.” The halo effect is a psychological phenomenon in which we extrapolate one good trait to determine other characteristics. This means that good-looking people are also honest; “organic” must mean it’s healthy, and “premium” products must somehow be better than their regular competition.

As you can imagine, the halo effect can have a significant impact on your decision-making – and thus on your team. So how do you overcome it? Well, two steps: be aware of it and make data-driven decisions.

Which Group Psychology Theories Should You Be Aware Of?

If you have ideas, you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Andre Pinantoan
Andre Pinantoan
Andrianes Pinantoan is the head of inbound marketing at Open Colleges. He is a psychology-nut who can be found reading when not writing or spending time with his family. Connect with @andreispsyched and +Andrianes.
  • Andre, this was an excellent reminder of things to watch out for as you work on building a group. I am working with a new group right now and it was interesting to try and pinpoint some of the issues we are having with the points you identified. Well done!

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