Group Dynamics: The X Factor in High-Performing Teams

Jonah Larkin

In my work at the Stanford Graduate School of Business I facilitate learning groups for MBA students in a class called Interpersonal Dynamics colloquially known as “touchy-feely.”

The portion that I run is called T-Group short for "Training Group," and is a type of experiential learning program that is commonly used in management education and leadership development.

The T-Group process was developed by the National Training Laboratories (NTL) in the 1940s and 1950s as a way to help individuals understand group dynamics and improve their interpersonal skills.

The groups at Stanford typically involve around 10-15 people.

They can be MBA students, executives or professionals.

During a T-Group session, participants engage in a series of exercises and discussions designed to increase their self-awareness and their ability to interact effectively with others.

Group members are encouraged to share their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to other members and the group process as a whole in an open and honest way, and to receive feedback (positive as well as constructive) from others.

At different times it can feel risky, vulnerable, boring, challenging and sometimes even beautiful.

I’ve learned over my years of facilitating T groups there are multiple dynamics at work simultaneously.

When I was managing people for all those years as an entrepreneur, I had no idea that these group dynamics were at play.

Understanding how these dynamics operate is crucial if you want to create highly effective, high performing, psychologically safe teams.

When there is strife inside teams it’s almost always the case that there are processes happening that people either don’t understand or choose to ignore.

In any gathering more than two people there are three fundamental dynamics at play:

  • Intrapersonal: What is happening inside you and your mind.  This can include stories, thoughts, emotions and sensations.  People with high intrapersonal awareness have the ability to clearly describe their experience and understand their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Interpersonal: What is happening between you and me or between you and another.  These are stories, thoughts and emotions that we notice happening between us.  High level interpersonal skills are perhaps the number one skill necessary for great leadership.
  • Group Level: The stories, thoughts, and emotions that the group is experiencing.  Political rallies, concerts or friends having a dinner party are examples of this.

We can use a real life example to illustrate the above examples.

Several years ago I worked in an organization with a highly effective and charismatic leader who can call Mason (not his real name).

He had a clear vision, worked exceedingly hard to create that vision and did a great job of recruiting talented, highly self aware people to come work for him.

He also had highly developed interpersonal skills.

He was a strong negotiator who often got what he wanted.

So far so good.

However, his negotiation style did not change whether he was negotiating with a vendor, a landlord, a competitor or an employee.

He was tough and unyielding and when things didn’t go his way he would often default to aggression.

While this might work well in negotiations with an adversary, it worked poorly when he negotiated with his direct reports or employees.

Let’s use the three dynamics to dissect how his leadership affected the organization.


Intrapersonal primarily refers to self awareness.

Being able to identify your stories, thoughts, emotions and sensations and being able to describe these usually indicates high intrapersonal intelligence.

However, many people in our doing driven culture are dissociated from their experience.  

As a result they aren’t able to clearly and succinctly describe what is happening for them.  

Oftentimes you’ll see these people falling into their own story about something or blaming others or themselves for how they themselves are feeling.  

Another symptom of this type of thinking is the lack of ability to name the feelings they’re experiencing.

A simple way of identifying your level of intrapersonal awareness is to ask yourself where you are feeling the emotion in your body.

Hint: it’s not in your head.  It’s in your body.

By being attuned to your employees or even bosses level of self awareness you can better navigate complex relationships.

Mason actually had a high level of intrapersonal awareness.

However, like many people he had intrapersonal blind spots.

These “blind spots” are areas where people have some underdeveloped sense of self and then default back to survival strategies that were used in our family.

They usually happen due to a perceived or real threat to your survival.

If you haven’t worked through those blind spots, your survival strategies will cause you to go unconscious.

When you’re unconscious, you’re unable to locate your emotions, motivations and thoughts in an organized way and instead get stuck in reactivity.

Reactivity, in Mason’s case manifested as high levels of anxiety and going unconscious anytime he perceived there was threat from competition.

The result was that when he had to negotiate with his employees they all left feeling like they had just gotten beaten up.

If he didn’t win, he would become even more anxious.

You can imagine what happened.

There were extremely high levels of employee dissatisfaction and eventually the company closed it’s doors.

Your job as a manager is to begin to notice not just your own blind spots but the blind spots of your own managers and direct reports.

Being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and reactions can help you better understand yourself and the group as well as create a better feedback loop so you can understand how your behavior impacts others.

When observing others noticing anxiety, depression, silence, withdrawal, aggression, nonstop talking or other maladaptive behaviors can give you a clue into their inner workings.

The fact is that just about everybody has blind spots.

Fortunately, if you’re open and willing receiving feedback from others is one the fastest ways to identify those blind spots which leads us to the most important dynamic; the interpersonal level.


The interpersonal level of group dynamics refers to the interactions that occur between individuals within a group and is concerned with how members of the group communicate, behave, and relate to one another.

This is the most important level for successful team leading, as how individuals interact can influence cohesion, trust, and overall effectiveness.

When you’re connecting interpersonally there are three things going on.  

There’s what’s happening with me(intrapersonal), what’s happening with you(intrapersonal) and what’s happening between us(interpersonal).

Pay attention to how you and your team members are relating to one another, electronically, in virtual meetings and in person.

And remember It’s not your job to micro-manage, first simply observe.

If you’re an enterprising manager you may want to help your team members build interpersonal by doing some trainings with them.

Communication skills like active listening and/or using the non-violent communication frame can be especially helpful.

Active listening helps people be more empathetic with one another which leads to greater understanding as well feeling seen and heard.

Productive conflict is also an important dynamic that many teams don’t get right.

They typically have too much conflict, but more often not enough.

I often see leaders who, when confronted with a negative interaction between themselves and another or their reports will simply try to squash it.

A framework that we use at Stanford that can be extremely helpful to have productive conflict is the the Net Model of Interpersonal Influence.

The Net Model will help to moderate conflict in such a way that all parties are more easily able to create a productive resolution.

The goal of building these skills is to have highly effective collaboration.

In my work with corporate teams it never ceases to amaze me that after a workshop they inevitably report their most effective collaboration sessions right after.

Let’s bring Mason back into the equation for a moment.

Mason’s interpersonal abilities were highly developed and he had a very refined sense of empathy (except when he went unconscious as described above).

He listened well and reflected back what he heard.

The result was that he was able to motivate his colleagues and employees in a highly effective manner.

People would also confide in because of his high levels of sensitivity.

When interpersonal conflict between employees did arise, Mason was able to coach his employees into speaking about facts (not opinions) their own emotions and the impact of others behavior on their feelings.

As a manager you can encourage and model being open to feedback, active listening, and speaking from the “I” perspective.

Another very important dynamic that can influence the interpersonal level of group dynamics is social identity.

Group members may identify with various social categories such as age, gender, ethnicity, profession or personal experience.

These identities and individual experiences can influence how team members perceive one another and may lead to unconscious biases and stereotyping.

If group members are able to recognize and appreciate the diversity of experiences and identities within the group, they are more likely to work effectively together.

This can be hard, but as loads of research shows, diverse teams have more conflict but are often far more productive and innovative.*1


Group level dynamics refer to the collective experiences, thoughts, and emotions of a group.

While individuals are having their intrapersonal experience, communication partners are having their interpersonal experience, the group is having it’s own experience.

There are a multitude of dynamics at play in groups.

There are too many to name here but it’s important to understand the most influential at play.

By beginning to understand these group dynamics you’ll be far better equipped to manage your team.

Developmental Stages of Groups

Phase 1: In the first phase group members are typically polite and cautious.

People are usually having thoughts like “How do I fit in? What’s my role here? Will I be accepted by others in this group?” or “How safe is it to be myself?”

The focus is on defining the group's goals and establishing the basic norms and roles that will guide the group's work.

Phase 2: Conflict often arises as group members jockey for positions and power and work to establish their own roles and priorities.

This can be a challenging stage for groups, but it is also an important opportunity for members to clarify expectations and establish norms of communication and collaboration.

Phase 3: As norms become more established group members usually begin to feel a sense of cohesion and mutual respect.

More effective collaboration usually starts at this stage.

Phase 4: The group is focused on achieving its goals and working together to solve problems and make decisions.

Members should have a clear sense of their roles and responsibilities, and communication and collaboration can be very  strong.

Interactive Dynamics at Play

At the same time and during every stage of group formation there are multiple other dynamics in play that can cause a team to sink or swim.

Let’s go through them.

Communication dynamics: This refers to how individuals in a group communicate with one another, including how they listen, speak, and respond.

Effective communication dynamics involve active listening, respectful dialogue, and open-mindedness.

Again, the Net Model of Communication is very useful here.

Power dynamics: This refers to the ways in which power is distributed and exercised within a group.

Power dynamics can be influenced by factors such as position, status, expertise, gender, and ethnicity.

Effective power dynamics involve a balance of power and a fair distribution of decision-making authority.

I see many leaders make mistakes when it comes to power dynamics.

All interpersonal interactions between you are your reports or between you and someone of higher authority involve some level of power dynamics.

They can’t be done away with, but by acknowledging them you can decrease their negative influences.2

Minimizing power dynamics as much as possible and promoting a more collaborative and inclusive workplace culture can help to foster a sense of trust and respect, and ultimately contribute to a more effective and successful team.

Conflict dynamics: This refers to how conflicts are managed and resolved within a group.

Conflict dynamics can be influenced by factors such as personality differences, communication styles, and cultural norms.

Effective conflict dynamics involve respectful dialogue, active listening, and a willingness to find common ground and most importantly, to be wrong.

Because conflict is inherently threatening, people can very often go unconscious and revert to survival strategies.

As a manager you want to help create an environment where conflict dynamics can play out safely and productively or you risk creating very negative consequences.

Cohesion dynamics: This refers to the level of connectedness and solidarity within a group or more colloquially “getting on the same page.”

Cohesion dynamics can be influenced by factors such as shared goals, values, and interests combined with a sense of belonging.

Typical offsite events usually overly orient towards cohesion dynamics.

If you don’t first work through communication, power and conflict, it puts a significant drag on cohesion.

Diversity dynamics: This refers to how diversity is valued and leveraged within a group.

Effective diversity dynamics involve a respect for differences and a recognition of the value of diverse perspectives and experiences.

I don’t need to tell you that diversity dynamics are some of the most challenging dynamics in the modern workplace.  

Sub-Group Dynamics: These dynamics involve how individuals interact within smaller sub-groups within the larger group.

Sub-groups often form based on shared identities, interests, or roles.

It's important to acknowledge and address any sub-group dynamics that may be affecting the larger group's effectiveness.

When a sub-group of individuals with similar backgrounds, positions or experiences is dominating the conversation, it can cause other members to feel marginalized.

Covert Process Dynamics: This refers to the underlying psychological processes that are present in every group.

These processes can include issues such as resistance to change, conformity, and social influence.

While not always visible or explicit, covert process dynamics can have a significant impact on group performance and effectiveness.

Examples of cover processes at play include blaming, skapegoating, groupthink, emotional contagion and unspoken group norms.

I’ve never seen a team where there are not covert processes at work.

However, by starting to name these covert processes team leaders can free up a significant amount of energy that these processes generally consume within a team.


In order to effectively manage your team it’s imperative that you understand group dynamics, the different stages of development and avoiding pitfalls.

Use this guide as a framework to build cohesion through shared values and belonging, recognize and value diversity, address sub-group dynamics, and bring covert process to the surface.

Ultimately, by being aware of and actively addressing these dynamics, leaders can ensure that all team members feel heard, valued, and supportive of one another.

Finally, I recommend utilizing a skilled facilitator to peel back the layers on your team as doing this work without guidance has the possibility of doing more harm than good.

1 Jehn, K. A., Northcraft, G. B., & Neale, M. A. (1999). Why differences make a difference: A field study of diversity, conflict, and performance in workgroups. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(4), 741-763.

2 Jehn, K. A., Northcraft, G. B., & Neale, M. A. (1999). Why differences make a difference: A field study of diversity, conflict, and performance in workgroups. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(4), 741-763.