Challenges of Small Group Dynamics

Learning Objectives

Describe some challenges of small group dynamics.

Most people have had some experience with the frustrations or unique challenges of working with small groups. The following categories detail some of the challenges you may have encountered with group work.

Interpersonal challenges include personality clashes, differing communication style, and conflict between members.[1] While conflict is normal in a small group, unproductive interpersonal challenges tend to be personalized and detracts from the group reaching its goals. For instance, a member who has an outspoken and direct communication style might overwhelm or offend other members.

Cultural and gendered differences: While cultural diversity can be highly beneficial in a group, particularly when a range of experiences is valued, it can also be challenging. For instance, cultures that are individualistic promote competition, winning, difference, and individual achievement. Collectivist cultures tend to prioritize the needs of the group, harmony, and cooperation. If one group member is highly individualistic, they might tend to take control and be more forceful with their ideas than members from more collectivist cultures who are more concerned with the needs of the entire group.

Gendered and sex differences in roles, expectations for communication, and roles can also be a factor. From a young age, women tend to be socialized to be agreeable and build relationships while men tend to be socialized to be task and achievement driven (these are all generalizations, of course). These and so many other cultural factors can create unique challenges when a group is communicating and working together towards a common goal.

Power struggles in groups might include monopolizers who take over, too many leaders, and competing goals and agendas. Sometimes this is because of role conflict, where it’s unclear who is in charge, or because there’s a power struggle to determine different roles (not just the leader).

Lack of resources and support: At times, the challenges in small groups come from inadequate time, money, expertise, or vision. For example, in the workplace, a committee might be formed to tackle a problem without resources or support from supervisors, or lack enough time to meet to adequately address a problem.

Naysayers and other antisocial roles: As described in the section about roles of group members, naysayers and other antisocial roles quickly denounce ideas or anything new, or take over the discussion with off-track or disparaging comments. Those comments can be frustrating for other groups members and impede progress.

Inadequate or ineffective leadership: This challenge arises when no group member is willing to take charge of some or all of the group tasks. Alternatively, members who try to take a leadership role might lack experience or skills to do so competently. For instance, a group member might be willing to write the research paper, but is a poor writer and lacks experience writing an academic paper.

Groupthink: While unity can be a positive quality in a group, a lack of any tension and total agreement can signal a possible unwillingness on the part of group members to critically evaluate discussions and decisions. Groupthink can lead to inferior outcomes because members just “go along” with ideas or suggestions without adequately questioning or critically assessing them.

Social loafing happens when group members fail to invest their time and energy in the group, often because they can feel like they can “hide” behind the work of other group members. Group projects in classes are notorious for social loafers who allow other group members to do all the work while they keep their heads down and avoid taking initiative or accepting assignments.

Practice Question

  1. O'Hair, Dan, and Wiemann, Mary. Real Communication: An Introduction with Mass Communication. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012.