Leading people: Don't let groups get out of hand

How can managers prevent people behaving like hooligans in the workplace?

The question of group dynamics versus individual behaviour is high on the agenda at the moment, especially in the light of recent problems with fans at European football matches. Why do normally sensible people get caught up in behaviour in groups that they would never contemplate if they were on their own?

This is a recurring question for leaders in charities. The same motivations that can result in hooligan-like behaviour can also cause people to march in protest, unite to challenge inequalities, gang up against unpopular colleagues or adopt a bunker mentality to protect their organisations or individual departments.

Why does this happen? In simple terms, we are social beings. We have evolved to seek out like-minded others who we perceive as sharing our values. This means there is a strong psychological pressure to adopt group norms and to adapt our behaviour so we continue to be acceptable to our chosen group. Nearly all of this is subconscious.

When we are alone we have to make our own choices about our behaviour. When we are in a group we will look to see how others are responding or reacting in certain situations. Even if we're not sure about how we feel personally, we often tend to go along with the group for the sake of preserving its integrity and our membership of that unit.

As a manager, what can you do to help harness this subconscious dynamic and minimise its downside?

First, establish a set of group 'norms' in the form of explicitly stated values for your team. Agree as a team and spell out what standards of behaviour are acceptable, how the group will deal with conflict, how it will behave towards members of an 'outside' group and so on. Then challenge group members who don't live up to the group standards you have agreed. Point out the consequences to the team and to others of their behaviour, and re-establish the common set of standards.

This way, instead of coping with outbreaks of hooliganism on the terraces, you'll have a team on the field, playing together.

- Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change and a trustee of MedicAlert.

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