Just hearing the word “group” is enough to make me cringe a bit. I think it is safe to say that we have all been involved in some sort of a group before. Fairly often we find ourselves in group situations, think about your job or a friends group. Be sure to think about those school projects where you were divided up into groups and were assigned a task. Sure, some of them worked out well and you were able to collaborate to accomplish the task. However, I would think that we all have some memories of group projects that were a disaster, nothing was sweeter than finally being done with that group. But, why is this sometimes the case? How can they be so toxic and draining?
There are many things that could lead to a bad experience when in group settings. Role conflict can play a part, where not everyone is on the same page with regard to the task at hand and the roles that each member play. Sometimes there are personality conflicts. But, the one that stands out for me the most, is the bad leader… I think that it is fair to assume that most people have dealt with a leader that was a jerk; they are bullies, they are selfish, they know everything, and they undermine the group members and their ideas. Bottom line, they are the worst and they need to be stopped.
First, let us look into the formation of groups, as I believe there are ways to prevent these personality types from being put into leadership positions. Bruce Tuckman proposed that there are four stages to group development: forming, storming, norming, and performing (Tuckman, 1965). Let’s look more into the first two as they are where I believe the leader will emerge. Forming is the first stage and it is basically what it sounds like, this is the stage in which the group structure will be tested and the dependence on the group will be assessed (Tuckman, 1965). I believe this to be the most critical when it comes to the adoption of roles. In the earliest of stages in group formation it is critical that all within the group are on the same page and everyone’s ideas and thoughts are being discussed. This stage should not be disregarded as it is where the group members will begin to get a feel for who the other members are, it is here that the toxic members will begin to emerge and show themselves. Something that we have all more than likely noticed is that these toxic/bully types are pushy and will try to put themselves into a role, probably the leader role. The earliest stage is your first glimpse at what the members will be like throughout the course of the group, so pay close attention. Storming, this is the stage where roles will be determined and there will most likely be some intragroup conflict (Tuckman, 1965). Take what was learned from forming, communicate between group members. This is the stage where your toxic member will become the leader if everyone does not express concerns and talk about member’s strengths. Again, there might be some conflict, but better now than in the middle of the task when no one has a say in the direction the team takes because you allowed the toxic member to be the leader. By the end of this stage all of the roles should be assigned, hopefully in ways that work for everyone. But that does not always happen… So, now we look at Tuckman’s third stage. Norming is where new standards will evolve, and new roles are adopted (Tuckman, 1965). Think of this stage as post-beta, the idea has been out there, and it is time to assess and make changes before the performing stage. If the leader role isn’t working out, this is the time to speak up and try to make a change. In all, there are many opportunities to weed out the bullies, but it takes a lot of communication in the early stages of group development.
All of that sounds fine and dandy, but there are instances where the bully will emerge as the leader or they may be assigned as the leader by a higher up and it is important to have policies in place that try to eliminate or minimize the way that these bullies treat others. Management scientist, Robert Sutton has spent some time looking into these toxic, bully leaders and he suggests a zero-tolerance policy for destructive aggression and selfishness (Sutton, 2007). The adoption of a zero-tolerance policy would certainly help deal with terrible leaders and would also send a strong message about how certain attitudes and actions will be dealt with.
Overall, groups are an important part of not only businesses, but schools, friends, families, and many others. They can allow us to accomplish amazing feats and challenges with incredible efficiency, but they can also be very toxic. Bruce Tuckman showed us the stages of group formation, it is our job to make the most of those stages to help prevent roles being improperly assigned. Also, if you are constantly having to deal with horrible leaders, speak to a higher up, express your concerns, and maybe suggest Sutton’s approach to dealing with jerks.
Sutton, R. (2007). The No Jerk Rule. Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders, Season 2, Episode 22. Retrieved from: https://ecorner.stanford.edu/podcasts/the-no-jerk-rule
Tuckman, B. W. (1965). American Psychological Association. Psychological Bulletin, Volume 63, Number 6, Pages 384-99