Team Dynamics

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Lead Authors: Dick Fairley, Contributing Authors: Alice Squires, Art Pyster

A systems engineeringsystems engineering (SE) teamteam is a group of individuals who cooperatively perform a collection of SE tasks based on a shared vision and a common set of engineering objectives. Applying the practical considerations of group dynamics is essential to enabling SE teams to successfully perform SE activities. The interplay of the behaviors of humans in groups is varied, changing, and inescapable. Nevertheless, study of these behaviors has yielded valuable insight and knowledge on the dynamics of individuals within groups. The awareness and application of group dynamics is crucial to facilitating systems engineers' performance of work and achievement of their goals.

The study of group dynamics was initially within the province of psychology and later within sociology. The importance of group dynamics to successful teams has led other disciplines such as business management to study and apply team dynamics.


The origins of the study of group dynamics began with Gustave Le Bon. Le Bon wrote La psychologie des fouls in 1895, which was translated into English as The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind a year later. Sigmund Freud wrote Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego in 1922 responding to Le Bon's work. Kurt Lewin is acknowledged as the "founder of social psychology", coining the term group dynamics. He founded the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1945, relocating in 1948 to the University of Michigan. Wilfred Bion studied group dynamics from a psychoanalytical perspective. He helped found the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in 1947. In that same year, both the Research Center for Group Dynamics and the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations founded the journal Human Relations. The study of group dynamics is now worldwide, active, and well established.

Nature of Groups

Groups are endemic to human existence and experience; humans are by nature social animals. Consequentially, an informed understanding of the nature of groups is very useful in enabling teams to perform SE. Research into group behavior reveals that the nature of a group can be described by interaction, goals, interdependence, structure, unity, and stage. (Forsyth 2010, 5-10)


Communication (both verbal and non-verbal) among members within a group produces constantly changing and varied interactions. Group dynamics are more than the sum of the interactions between individual members; group interactions create synergistic behaviors and results. Interactions can be placed into two categories (1) socio-emotional interactions and (2) task interactions (Bales 1950, 1999).


All groups exist for the purpose of achieving one or more goals. The goals provide the basis for the group’s tasks. The tasks accomplished by the group can be categorized into activities and characterized by a Circumplex Model (McGrath 1984, 61), which establishes four quadrants, where the X-axis is choose vs. execute and the Y-axis is generate vs. negotiate.


Interdependence is the state of being dependent to some degree on other people, as when one’s outcomes, actions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences are determined in whole or in part by others. Interdependence can be categorized into five types (1) mutual, reciprocal; (2) unilateral; (3) reciprocal, unequal; (4) serial; and (5) multi-level. (Forsyth 2010, 8)


Structure includes the organization and patterned behaviors of a group. Structure can be deliberately devised and/or emergently observed. Most groups have both kinds of structures, which are evinced in the roles and norms of the group. The roles of leader and follower are fundamental ones in many groups, but other roles — information seeker, information giver, elaborator, procedural technician, encourager, compromiser, harmonizer — may emerge in any group (Benne and Sheats 1948; Forsyth 2010, 9). Norms are the rules that govern the actions of group members; norms can include both formal and informal rules.


The interpersonal forces that bind the members together in a single unit with boundaries that mark who is in the group and who is outside of it constitute a group’s cohesion (Dion 2000). Cohesion is an essential quality of group; it can vary from weak to strong. A team cannot perform effectively without strong group cohesion.


Groups exhibit stages of development. Being comprised of people, it is not surprising that groups collectively demonstrate the dynamics and growth of the individuals that constitute the group members. The most well-known and wide-spread model of the stages of group development was developed by Bruce Tuckman. The initial model identified the sequence of group development as (1) Forming, (2) Storming, (3) Norming, and (4) Performing (Tuckman 1965). He later added a final stage to the model: (5) Adjourning (Tuckman and Jensen 1977). While Tuckman’s model is sequential, others have observed that groups may actually recursively and iteratively progress through the different stages (Forsyth 2010, 20).

Practical Considerations

The dynamics associated with creating, nurturing, and leading a team that will successfully achieve the team's goals is important and challenging. Although psychologists and sociologists have conducted and continue to conduct research to understand team dynamics, the profession of business management has additionally sought to develop practical guidance for utilizing and applying this knowledge to foster high-performance teams. Accordingly, business management has focused its contribution to the field of team dynamics by publishing practical guidebooks to analyze the problems and focus on developing solutions to the problems of team dynamics (see Additional References). There are many consultancy firms throughout the world that assist organizations with the application of practical knowledge on team dynamics. Successful systems engineering teams would do well to not ignore, but rather take advantage of this knowledge.


Works Cited

Bales, R.F. 1950. Interaction Process Analysis: A Method for The Study of Small Groups. Reading, MA, USA: Addison-Wesley.

Bales, R.F. 1999. Social Interaction Systems: Theory and Measurement. New Brunswick, NJ, USA: Transaction.

Benne, K.D. and P. Sheats. 1948. "Functional Roles of Group Members." Journal of Social Issues. 4 (2): 41-49. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Dion, K.L. 2000. "Group Cohesion: From 'Field of Forces' to Multidimensional Construct." Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice. 4 (1): 7-26. Washington DC, USA: American Psychological Association.

Forsyth, D.R. 2010. Group Dynamics, 5th edition. Belmont, CA, USA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

McGrath, J.E. 1984. Groups: Interaction and Performance. Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA: Prentice Hall.

Tuckman, B.W. 1965. "Developmental Sequence in Small Groups." Psychological Bulletin. 63 (6):384-399. Washington DC, USA: American Psychological Association.

Tuckman, B.W. and M.C. Jensen. 1977. "Stages of Small Group Development Revisited." Group and Organization Management 2 (4): 419-427. Thousand Oaks, CA, USA: Sage Publications.

Primary References

Forsyth, D.R. 2010. Group Dynamics, 5th edition. Belmont, CA, USA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Additional References

Scholtes, P.R., B.L. Joiner, and B.J. Streibel. 2003. The Team Handbook, 3rd edition. Edison, NJ, USA: Oriel Inc.

Larson, C.E. and F.M.J. LaFaso. 1989. Teamwork: What Must Go Right, What Can Go Wrong. Newbury Park, CA, USA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Lencioni, P. 2002. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco, CA, USA: Jossey-Bass.

Lencioni, P. 2005. Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team. San Francisco, CA, USA: Jossey-Bass.

McShane, S.L. and M.A. Von Glinow. 2010. Organizational Behavior: Emerging Knowledge and Practice for the Real World. New York, NY, USA: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

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