Group Dynamics The Roles People Play (Part 3 of 3)

In parts one and two of this series, we looked at various task and maintenance roles that emerge when people work in groups or teams. Both of these earlier categories of behavior represent positive contributions to group activity that serve as informal leadership roles and can help pave the way for broader leadership development.

Photo by Libr, Wikimedia Commons

Destructive Roles and Behaviors in Groups

The third category of behavior that typically emerges in groups and teams is less constructive. These roles, known as hindering, blocking or negative roles, obstruct progress and introduce conflict into group activities. The following excerpt from Roles People Play in Groups, by Ann Porteus, provides a description of some of the more common of these hindering roles, along with proposed solutions for dealing with them:


  • Behavior: Asserting authority or superiority to manipulate the group or certain members; interrupting contributions of others; controlling through use of flattery or patronization.
  • Solution: Establish a procedure whereby each person contributes one idea to the discussion and then must wait until every other group member does the same before contributing again; interrupt the dominator, ask him/her to summarize the point quickly so that others can add their ideas, too.

“Thank you for giving us all those ideas, Erin. Let’s hear from others in the group now.”


  • Behavior: Removing self psychologically or physically from the group; not talking; answering questions only briefly.
  • Solution: Do not let conflicts remain unresolved; talk with the person privately to find out what is happening; direct questions to and solicit ideas from the avoider so this person stays involved.

“Carol, I have noticed that you haven’t been as involved in the group lately. Is everything O.K.?”


  • Behavior: Putting down others’ ideas and suggestions; deflating others’ status; joking in a barbed or sarcastic way.
  • Solution: When your group first gets together, review your contract and ground rules with them, highlighting the rule that all ideas will be accepted; the first time someone criticizes another person, reinforce this rule.

“You have a point, but we need to solve our problem, not attack each other’s ideas.”


  • Behavior: Disagreeing with and opposing ideas; resisting stubbornly the group’s wishes for personally oriented reasons; using hidden agendas to thwart group progress.
  • Solution: Incorporate statements in the original guidelines that deal with cooperation and interruptions, encourage this person to explain reasons behind his/her objection; look for any aspect of the position that supports the group’s ideas so that this person moves from left to center field; refocus his/her participation as a recorder or process observer; ask the group to deal with this uncooperative behavior.

“It seems like we may be forgetting the ground rules we set up as a group. Should we take a few minutes to revisit them now?” “Sandy, that is an interesting view. Could you explain how you came to those conclusions?”

Side Conversations

  • Behavior: Whispering, giggling and having private side conversations with another person.
  • Solution: Set guidelines and expectations at the beginning of the meeting, stop the meeting and ask those involved in the side conversation to share what they are talking about with the group, stop the meeting and comment that it is difficult for you to hear the other discussion or to concentrate on the topic at hand with side conversations occurring; privately talk with the distracters and discuss their expectations for the meeting’s topics; empower others to confront the distracters with how these side conversations keep everyone from concentrating on the group’s discussion.

“I am having trouble focusing on the discussion with the side conversations going on. Is anyone else experiencing this?”
“It is difficult to focus on the discussion with side conversations going on. Can we agree that we will all focus on the main discussion?”
“I sense we are losing people’s attention and interest, can we do a check-in to see where people are on this topic?”

Additional blocking or negative behaviors in groups and teams might include anything from persistently seeking personal recognition to obstructing group progress with overt disinterest and cynicism.

Negative Behavior or Negative Role?

It’s important to distinguish between occasional negative behaviors (that any or all group members may exhibit from time to time), and recurring patterns of negative behavior from one individual that cast such a person in a destructive role. Researchers further divide hindering or negative roles into those which are self-centred and those which are simply unproductive. Group or team members who take on self-centered negative roles strive to divert attention from the task at hand and onto themselves[1].  Those who embrace unproductive roles, on the other hand, are less concerned with garnering personal attention and more intent on preventing progress through means ranging from aggressive attacks to passive withdrawal.

The Roles People Play in Groups

Whenever people work in groups or teams, certain roles emerge. In this series, we’ve looked at three categories of roles that commonly occur in groups: task roles, maintenance roles and negative roles (also known as blocking or hindering roles). Each of these roles contributes to team and group dynamics in various ways, both productive and non-productive and can be summarized as follows: [2]

  • Task-related roles and behaviors contribute directly to the group’s completion of a task or the achievement of its goal. These roles typically serve leadership, informational, or procedural functions.
  • Maintenance roles and behaviors create and maintain social cohesion and fulfill the interpersonal needs of the group members. Participants who perform these roles need strong and sensitive interpersonal skills.
  • Negative, blocking or hindering roles delay or distract the group through behaviors that seek to divert attention from the goal (self-centered) or block progress toward the goal (unproductive).

Groups are defined in a number of ways depending on their purpose and affiliation. With respect to groups and teams at work, probably the best definition comes from Joann Keyton, author of Communicating in Groups, who writes:

“A group is defined as three or more people who work together interdependently on an agreed-upon activity or goal.”

In the workplace, you will likely be called upon to work in and/or lead groups and teams. Make your group work more effective (and less stressful) by gaining a better understanding of group dynamics and the roles people play.


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[1] John F. Cragan and David W. Wright, Communication in Small Group Discussions: An Integrated Approach, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1991)

[2] A Primer on Communication Studies (v. 1.0). Group Member Roles, section 14.2. Creative Commons License 2012 Book Archive

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