Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Group Dynamics

A recent project got me thinking about group dynamics. In college, the Group Dynamics course offered by the College of Liberal arts (don’t remember if it was under the Psychology or the Sociology Department) was largely worthless—unreliable observations tied together with dubious theory presented in a way that was not useful.

The course with the exact same title presented by the Forestry Department was outstanding- but they expected to graduate men and women who would be leading groups ranging from US Forest Service offices to fire crews.

We were taught (and I have seen again and again over the years) that there are two basic types of groups: Goal-Oriented and Longevity-Oriented.

Goal-Oriented teams exist to accomplish a mission. Your status with the team is based entirely on your contribution to getting the job done. Hard work, intelligence and creativity are valued and rewarded. There is no need for office parties or company picnics*. It is not a social club and when the mission is accomplished, the members drift off. This last is hard for some people to understand- in bad times, a good team can be tighter than family and then, when the bad times are over, go on to separate lives.

Longevity-Oriented groups exist to perpetuate the group. Status is based on rank and service to the group. Hard work and intelligence may be rewarded, but only so long as they don’t make others feel stupid. Creativity almost always threatens the status quo, and is almost always discouraged in a Longevity-Oriented group. Social ritual, whether hazing and initiations** or policy and protocol are the lifeblood of the LO group.

A pure group type is very rare. Even an extreme GO team, unless they are assembled for a single mission, will have to deal with training, logistics and the day-to-day issues of work between missions. Even the most bureaucratic LO team still (I hope) has some kind of job to do, some mission. They will also occasionally have crises that will require at minimum a few mission-oriented thinkers.

Larger organizations will have mixed departments. A GO tactical team will often work for an agency that is primarily run by LO administrations. The GO elements have a job to do, perhaps the primary job of the agency. The LO elements arrange for funding and coordination with other agencies and all of the little social details that are so critical to success and survival in both the government and corporate wilds. Both the GO and LO elements tend to think they are carrying the whole agency.

Something taxpayers should pay attention to: when they identify a problem and through ballot or protest demand a fix, they are expecting a GO response. They want the problem fixed. Due to the vagaries of funding, bureaucracy and labor law the solution will be constructed and run on LO principles. A Longevity-Orientated group is not benefited by accomplishing the mission and ceasing to exist. They are benefited by being able to show incremental progress.

Lastly, there are GO and LO individuals, though LO should actually be changed to Relationship-Oriented when talking about individuals. Generally, they will be happier in the group that matches their personalities. Yet the groups need a mix. LO groups need Goal-Oriented staff to deal with the basic job and to respond to any emergencies that arise. Goal Oriented groups get a lot of benefit from having a few Relationship-Oriented people. No matter how into the mission, a good team still has egos and feeling. I was always careful to have a couple of ROs on my Tactical Team and I never regretted it.

It’s that diversity thing.

*No need, but sometimes they hold good ones. Particularly barbecues in my experience.

**Interesting point- an initiation in an LO group serves the dual purposes of reminding the new member that they are very low status and giving them a shared experience, usually embarrassing and/or painful for common ground to talk. A GO group often has a test. In emergency response groups, the tests can be exhausting, dangerous and difficult. In more cerebral GO teams, such as tech innovation, the tests can be demanding. The purpose is to weed out those who might fail before they jeopardize the mission. It is not embarrassing, making recruits shy rarely improves mission success. It is also expected that bonding and shared stories will arise from action, not from the test.


Chris | Martial Development said...

Maintaining good relationships is a goal. A worthy one? More so than the false deadlines, preventable emergencies and other meaningless tasks that comprise so much of modern working life?

One of the problems with self-sacrifice: the best are willing, and the worst are usually not.

Ann T. said...

Dear Rory,
What's interesting in this model is that neither set puts people first. In this model, people are always second to a set of tasks or an organization. Personal identity is only a choice between two ways to manipulate others/be manipulated.

But I'm struck by how much it explains, like civil service at the VA Hospital and the bunch in the employee lounge.

Ann T.

Anonymous said...


I have worked in a lot of different groups, and I pretty much agree with this.

An example:

Working for a transportation company, they had a flaw in their operations planning that resulted in crises several times a week. The General manager had promoted me into a spot in operations, he was rustrated with the actions of the managers.

I was surprised when I got resistance from those managers, when I identified the flaw in process and fixed it. One of them told me that changing things would prevent them from being able to bond together to meet the crises the flaw regularly created.

I thought she was mad. I expressed my feeling that enough crises occurred in the normal course of business that allowing inefficiency for such a reason seemed silly.

In the end it turned out that she was angling for the manager job, but...

It also brings to mind the four kinds of officers. Was it Moltke who described them? That officers fell into four categories, divided by the traits "active/Lazy" and "Intelligent/dumb"

He said that three of the four had places.

A dumb, lazy officer could be an able administrator of a low-demand post.

Active-intelligent officers were great for the staff. Let them make railway deployment tables!

Lazy-intelligent officers were fit for high command, being the boss.

But the ones to identify and purge, with prejudice, were the active-stupid officers. They must be rooted out!

A lot of truth to that.

Robert E.

Rory said...

Good points, everybody. Just a general reminder- I find this really useful, but a model is a model. This one is good because it describes/explains a lot and you can use it to predict things (which is the real test of any model). Chris and Ann both keyed on related things that the model doesn't address. And Robert- re-read your story yesterday. Still writing?

Irene said...


exceedingly interesting insights. You have a personal and professional bias towards GO groups, which is quite understandable. As an intellectual exercise, can you describe the benefits and values of LO groups?

Anonymous said...


I am still writing, though we just went through the whole semester grading thing; I had a LOT of essays to grade, as well as more than anyones fair share of work related drama.

I found your observations very helpful, much more so than that of some other writing friends have given me-

-Robert E.

Rory said...

Nice, nice question, because I do have a bias based entirely on my comfort and what I value, which are a long way from universal.
Most obvious, people tend to be more comfortable in places where getting along is the priority. The ones who want to get along, anyway.
Second, some missions are long term- day to day cop work can be GO, but supply, funding, media relations and training each new generation to standard need an LO outlook (or RO) since they involve so much interaction.
And some groups exist for the group, not for the job. Most MA schools are really social clubs, more inclined to give a person a place to spend time with friends than to quickly send competent fighters into the field. My family is LO, and I hope to love and enjoy my wife and kids until the bitter end.


Tiff said...

Once worked for an LO Police Department. Not fun. But now I have a way to explain that particular job environment to others who normally didn't understand.

No matter where you put them, your words always seem to help me understand my experiences a little more. Thank you for that.