7.3 Small Group Dynamics

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the relationship between group cohesion and group climate.
  • Explain the relationship between conformity and groupthink.
  • Define various types of group conflict and identify strategies for managing each type.

Any time a group of people come together, new dynamics are put into place that differ from those in our typical dyadic interactions (Sidorenkov, 2013). The impressions you form about other people’s likeability and the way you think about a group’s purpose are affected by the climate within a group that all members create. The pressure to conform to norms becomes more powerful in group situations, and some groups take advantage of these forces with positive and negative results. Last, the potential for productive and destructive conflict increases as multiple individuals come together to accomplish a task or a purpose. This section explores previously mentioned dynamics to prepare you for future group interactions better.

Group Cohesion and Climate

When something is cohesive, it sticks together, and the cohesion within a group helps establish an overall group climate. Group climate refers to the relatively enduring tone and quality of group interaction that is experienced similarly by group members. There are two types of cohesion: task and social.

Task cohesion refers to the commitment of group members to the purpose and activities of the group. Social cohesion refers to the attraction and liking among group members (Molloy, 2020). Ideally, groups would have an appropriate balance between these two types of cohesion relative to the group’s purpose, with task-oriented groups having higher task cohesion and relational-oriented groups having higher social cohesion. Even the most task-focused groups need some social cohesion, and vice versa, but the purpose of the group and the individual members will determine the balance. For example, health studies students may join a local summer softball league because they are good friends and love the game. They may end up beating the team of faculty members from the university who joined the league to get to know each other better and have an excuse to get together in the afternoon. In this example, the health studies students exhibit high social and task cohesion, while the faculty exhibit high social but low task cohesion.

Cohesion benefits a group in many ways and can be assessed through specific group behaviours and characteristics. Groups with an appropriate level of cohesiveness:

  • set goals easily;
  • exhibit a high commitment to achieving the purpose of the group;
  • are more productive;
  • experience fewer attendance issues;
  • have group members who are willing to stick with the group during times of difficulty;
  • have satisfied group members who identify with, promote, and defend the group;
  • have members who are willing to listen to each other and offer support and constructive criticism; and
  • experience less anger and tension.

(Hargie, 2011)

Appropriate levels of group cohesion usually create a positive group climate since group climate is affected by members’ satisfaction with the group. Climate has also been described as group morale. The following are some qualities that contribute to a positive group climate and morale (Marston & Hecht, 1988):

Participation. Group members feel better when they feel included in the discussion and a part of the group’s functioning.

Messages. Confirming messages help build relational dimensions within a group, and clear, organized, and relevant messages help build task dimensions within a group.

Feedback. Positive, constructive, and relevant feedback contribute to the group climate.

Equity. Aside from individual participation, group members also like to feel that participation is managed equally within the group and that appropriate turn-taking is used.

Clear and accepted roles. Group members like to know how status and hierarchy operate within a group. Understanding the roles is not enough to lead to satisfaction, though—members must also be comfortable with and accept those roles.

Motivation. Member motivation is activated by perceived connection to and relevance of the group’s goals or purpose.

Group cohesion and climate are also demonstrated through symbolic convergence (Bormann, 1985). Symbolic convergence refers to community or group consciousness that develops through non-task-related communication, such as stories and jokes.

By reviewing and applying the concepts in this section, you can hopefully identify potential difficulties with group cohesion and work to enhance cohesion when needed to create more positive group climates and enhance future group interactions.

Group Pressures

There must be some motivating force within groups for the rules and norms to help govern and guide a group. Without such pressure, group members would have no incentive to conform to group norms or buy into the group’s identity and values.


Some people are more likely to accept norms and rules than others, which can influence the interaction and potential for conflict within a group. While some people may need social acceptance that leads them to accept a norm or rule with minimal conformity pressure, others may actively resist because of a valid disagreement or an aggressive or argumentative personality (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). Such personality traits are examples of internal pressures within the individual group member and act as a self-governing mechanism. When group members discipline themselves and monitor their behaviour, groups need not invest in as many external mechanisms to promote conformity — deviating from the group’s rules and norms that a member internalized during socialization can lead to self-imposed feelings of guilt or shame that can then initiate corrective behaviours and discourage the member from going against the group.

External pressures in the form of group policies, rewards or punishments, or other forces outside of individual group members also exert conformity pressure. Regarding group policies, groups with an official admission process may have a probation period during which new members’ membership is contingent on conforming to group expectations. Deviation from expectations during this “trial period” could lead to expulsion from the group. Supervisors, mentors, and other types of group leaders are also agents that can impose external pressures toward conformity. These group members often can provide positive or negative reinforcement through praise or punishment, apparent attempts to influence behaviour.

Conformity pressure can also stem from external forces when the whole group stands to receive a reward or punishment based on its performance. This ties back to the small group characteristic of interdependence. Although these pressures may seem negative, they also have positive results. Groups that exert an appropriate and ethical amount of conformity pressure typically have higher levels of group cohesion, leading to increased satisfaction with group membership, better relationships, and better task performance. Groups with a firm but healthy level of conformity also project a strong group image to those outside the group, which can raise the group’s profile or reputation (Hargie, 2011). Pressures toward conformity, of course, can go too far, as is evidenced in tragic stories of people driven to suicide because they felt they could not live up to the conformity pressure of their group and people injured or killed enduring hazing rituals that take expectations for group conformity to unethical and criminal extremes.


Groupthink is a negative group phenomenon characterized by a lack of critical evaluation of proposed ideas or courses of action resulting from high cohesion levels and high conformity pressures (Janis, 1972). You can better understand groupthink by examining its causes and effects. When group members fall victim to groupthink, the effect is an uncritical acceptance of decisions or suggestions for plans of action to accomplish a task or goal. Group meetings that appear to go smoothly with only positive interaction among happy, friendly people may seem ideal, but these actions may be symptomatic of groupthink (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). When people rush to agreement or fear arguments, groupthink tends to emerge.

Two primary causes of groupthink are high levels of cohesion and excessive conformity pressures. When groups exhibit high levels of social cohesion, members may be reluctant to criticize or question another group member’s ideas or suggestions for fear of damaging the relationship. When group members have high task cohesion, they may feel invincible and not critically evaluate ideas. High levels of cohesion may lessen conformity pressures since group members who identify strongly with the group’s members and mission may not feel a need to question the decisions or suggestions made by others. For those not blinded by high levels of cohesion, internal conformity pressures may still lead them to withhold criticism of an idea because the norm is to defer to decisions made by organization leaders or a majority of group members. External conformity pressures because of impending reward or punishment, time pressures, or an aggressive leader can also lead to groupthink.

To avoid groupthink, groups should:

  • divide up responsibilities between group members so decision-making power is not in the hands of a few
  • track contributions of group members in such a way that each person’s input and output are recorded so that it can be discussed
  • encourage and reward the expression of a minority or dissenting opinions
  • allow members to submit ideas before a discussion so that opinions are not swayed by members who propose ideas early in a discussion
  • question each major decision regarding its weaknesses and potential negative consequences relative to competing decisions (encourage members to play “devil’s advocate”)
  • have decisions reviewed by an outside party that was not involved in the decision-making process.

(Hargie, 2011)

Group Conflict

Conflict can appear in indirect or direct forms within group interaction, just as in interpersonal interactions. Group members may openly question each other’s ideas or express anger toward or dislike for another person. Group members may communicate indirectly in conflict through innuendo, joking, or passive-aggressive behaviour. Although you may view conflict negatively, conflict can be beneficial for many reasons. When groups get into a rut, lose creativity, or become complacent, conflict can help get a group out of a destructive or mediocre routine. Conversely, conflict can lead to lower group productivity due to strain on a group’s task and social dimensions. There are three main types of conflict within groups: procedural, substantive, and interpersonal (Fujishin, 2001). Each type of conflict can vary in intensity, affecting how much it impacts the group and its members.

Procedural Conflict

Procedural conflict emerges from disagreements or trouble with the mechanics of group operations. In this type of conflict, group members differ in their beliefs about how something should be done. A group leader can handle procedural conflict, especially if the leader puts group procedures into place or has the individual power to change them. If there is no designated leader or the leader does not have the sole power to change procedures (or wants input from group members), proposals can be taken from the group on addressing a procedural conflict to initiate a procedural change. A vote to reach a consensus or majority can help resolve procedural conflict.

Substantive Conflict

Substantive conflicts focus on group members’ differing beliefs, attitudes, values, or ideas related to the purpose or task of the group: rather than focusing on how substantive conflicts focus on questions of what. Substantive conflicts may emerge as a group tries to determine its purpose or mission. As members figure out how to complete a task or debate which project to start next, there will undoubtedly be differences of opinion on what something means, what is acceptable in terms of supporting evidence for a proposal, or what is acceptable for a goal or performance standard. Leaders and other group members should not rush to settle this conflict. As you learned in our earlier discussion of groupthink, open discussion and debate regarding ideas and suggestions for group activities can lead to higher-quality output and may prevent groupthink. Leaders who make final decisions about substantive conflict for the sake of moving on run the risk of creating a win/lose competitive climate in which people feel like their ideas may be shot down, which could lead to less participation. Group members may want to research what other groups have done in similar situations to resolve this conflict. Additional information often provides needed context for conflict regarding information and ideas. Once the information is gathered, weigh all proposals and discover common ground among perspectives. Civil and open discussions that debate the merits of an idea are more desirable than a climate in which people feel personally judged for their ideas.

Primary and Secondary Tensions

Relevant to these types of conflict are primary and secondary tensions that emerge in every group (Bormann & Bormann, 1988). When the group first comes together, members experience primary tension, which is tension based on the uncertainty that is a natural part of initial interactions. Only after group members begin to “break the ice” and get to know each other can the tension be addressed, and they can proceed with the forming stage of group development. Small talk and politeness help group members manage primary tensions; there is a relatively high threshold for these conflicts because experiences with such uncertainty when meeting people for the first time, and many of us are optimistic that a bit of time and effort will allow us to get through the tensions. Since some people are more comfortable initiating conversation than others, more extroverted group members need to include less talkative members. Intentionally or unintentionally excluding people during the negotiation of primary tensions can lead to unexpected secondary tensions later. During this stage, people are less direct in their communication, using more hedges and vague language than they will later in the group process. The indirect communication and small talk that characterize this part of group development are not a waste of time. They help manage primary tensions and lay the foundation for future interactions involving more substantive conflict.

Secondary tension emerges after groups have passed the forming stage of group development and have conflict over member roles, differing ideas, and personality conflicts. These tensions are typically evidenced by less reserved and polite behaviour than primary tensions. People also have a lower tolerance threshold for secondary tensions because rather than being an expected part of initial interaction, these conflicts can be more damaging and interfere with the group’s task performance. Secondary tensions are inevitable and should not be feared or eliminated. It is not the presence or absence of secondary tension that makes a group successful; it is how it handles the tensions when they emerge. A certain level of secondary tension is tolerable, not distracting, and can enhance group performance and avoid groupthink. When secondary tensions rise above the tolerance threshold and become distracting, they should be released through direct means, such as diplomatic confrontation or indirect means, such as appropriate humour or taking a break. While primary tensions eventually disappear (at least until a new member arrives), secondary tensions will come and go and may persist for extended periods.

Managing Conflict in Small Groups

Some common ways to manage conflict include clear decision-making procedures, third-party mediation, and leader facilitation (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). The commonly used majority vote can help or hurt conflict management efforts. While an up-and-down vote can allow a group to finalize a decision and move on, members whose vote fell on the minority side may resent other group members. This can create a win/lose climate that leads to further conflict. A leader who makes ultimate decisions can also help move a group toward completing a task, but conflict may only be pushed to the side and left not fully addressed. Third-party mediation can help move a group past a conflict. It may create fewer feelings of animosity since the person meditating and perhaps making a decision is not a group member. Sometimes, the leader can act as an internal third-party mediator to help other group members work productively through conflict.

Tips for Managing Group Conflict

  1. Clarify the issue by getting to the historical roots of the problem. Remember that perception leads us to punctuate interactions differently, so it may be helpful to know each person’s perspective of when, how, and why the conflict began.
  2. Create a positive discussion climate by encouraging and rewarding active listening.
  3. Discuss needs rather than solutions. Determine how each person’s needs can be met and goals for the outcome of the conflict before offering or acting on potential solutions.
  4. Set boundaries for discussion and engage in gatekeeping to prevent unproductive interactions such as tangents and personal attacks.
  5. Use “we” language to maintain group cohesion and identity and “I” language to help reduce defensiveness.

(Ellis & Fisher, 1994)

Advantages and Disadvantages of Group Conflict

Remember that a complete lack of conflict in a group is a bad sign, as it indicates either a lack of activity or a lack of commitment on the part of the members (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). When properly handled, conflict can lead a group to understand better the issues they face. For example, substantive conflict brings voice to alternative perspectives that may not have been heard otherwise. Additionally, when people view conflict as healthy, necessary, and productive, they can enter into a conflict episode with an open mind and an aim to learn something. This is especially true when those who initiate substantive conflict can share and defend their views competently and civilly. Group cohesion can also increase as a result of well-managed conflict. Occasional experiences of tension and unrest followed by resolutions make groups feel like they have accomplished something, which can lead them not to dread conflict and give them the confidence to deal with it the next time.

Conflict that goes on for too long or is poorly handled can lead to decreased cohesiveness. Group members who try to avoid a conflict can still feel anger or frustration when the conflict drags on. Members who consistently take task-oriented conflict personally and escalate procedural or substantive conflict to interpersonal conflict are incredibly unpopular with other group members. Mishandled or chronic conflict can eventually lead to the destruction of a group or a loss in members as people weigh the costs and rewards of membership (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). Hopefully, a skilled leader or other group members can take on conflict resolution roles to prevent these disadvantages of conflict.

Key Takeaways

  • Task cohesion refers to the degree of commitment of group members to the purpose and activities of the group, and social cohesion refers to the degree of attraction and liking among group members. Group climate refers to the relatively enduring tone and quality of group interaction that is experienced similarly by group members. The degree of each type of cohesion affects the group’s climate. Groups can be very close socially but not perform well if they do not have an appropriate level of task cohesion. Groups too focused on the task can experience interpersonal conflict or a lack of motivation if social cohesion, which helps enhance the feeling of interdependence, is lacking.
  • Internal pressures influence behaviour and communication, such as an internal drive to be seen as part of the group or to avoid feeling ashamed or guilty for deviating from the group. Likewise, external pressures such as group policies and the potential for reward or punishment also play into group dynamics. The pressures toward conformity can manifest in groupthink, characterized by a lack of critical evaluation of proposed ideas, a high level of agreement, and fear of argument.
  • Groups experience different kinds of conflict, including procedural, substantive, and interpersonal.
    • Procedural conflict emerges from disagreements or trouble with the mechanics of group operations and deals with questions about “how” a group should do something. A leader may be able to resolve this conflict by changing or explaining a procedure or taking, from group members, proposals for or votes on procedural revisions.
    • Substantive conflict focuses on group members’ differing beliefs, attitudes, values, or ideas related to the purpose or task of the group. Leaders and other group members should avoid closing off this type of conflict before people can be heard, as a lack of substantive conflict can lead to groupthink. Instead, listen to all viewpoints, find common ground, and weigh and evaluate the information as a group.


  1. Group cohesion and climate are essential dynamics within a small group. Identify and then compare and contrast a current or former small group that was cohesive and one that was not cohesive, including a discussion of how the presence or lack of cohesion affected the group’s climate.


Ahuja, M. K., & Galvin, J. E. (2003). Socialization in virtual groups, Journal of Management, 29(2), 163. https://doi.org/10.1177/014920630302900203

Bormann, E. G. (1985). Symbolic convergence theory: A communication formulation. Journal of Communication, 35(4), 128–138. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1985.tb02977.x

Bormann, E. G., & Bormann, N. C. (1988). Effective small group communication (4th ed).  Burgess Publishing.

Ellis, D. G., & Fisher, A. B. (1994). Small group decision making: Communication and the group process (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill.

Fujishin, R. (2001). Creating effective groups: The art of small group communication. Acada Books.

Griffin, E. (2009). A first look at communication theory (7th ed). McGraw-Hill.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice (5th ed). Routledge.

Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascos. Houghton Mifflin.

Marston, P. J., & Hecht, M. L. (1988). Group satisfaction. In R. S. Cathcart & L. A. Samovar (Eds.), Small group communication. Brown.

Molloy, C. (2020, March 22). Task cohesion vs social cohesionhttps://cmolloyreflectivecoaching.wordpress.com/2020/03/22/task-cohesion-vs-social-cohesion/

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:

University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. (2013). Communication in the real world [Adapted]. https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book