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Group Dynamics

How will the group interact?

Each group you work with on an international project will interact differently. Good internal group dynamics are ensured if there is awareness of each other and the forces in operation.

The activities necessary for effective group operation can be learned. It is usual for people to automatically assume ‘roles’ and take on ‘functions’ within the group that can help or hinder cohesion. It is important to encourage behaviours that help a group to function well. When one or several people seem to be having a negative influence on the group dynamics, Non-Violence theory encourages us to separate the ‘person’ from the ‘behaviour’. In other words don’t blame the person but address their behaviour. Sometimes having a provocative person in a group can lead to real issues being aired, leading to greater understanding and help group-building.

One of the main tools to better group dynamics is to learn and practise ‘listening skills’. This involves really listening to what the other person is saying, trying to understand where they are coming from rather than just having a conversation. We find this easy to do when we have a rapport with someone, but need to make sure we practise it with those with whom we perceive differences.

Each workcamp group will go through stages as the volunteers get to know each other better. One way of understanding these stages is to use Bruce Tuckman’s theory of group development. Tuckman described four stages of group development: forming, storming, norming and performing. The descriptions which follow have been adapted from Wikipedia.


In the first stages, the team meets and learns about the volunteer project, the work, the living arrangements and will decide how to share tasks and may set up cooking and cleaning schedules. Team members tend to behave quite independently. They may be motivated but are usually relatively uninformed of the issues and objectives of the team. Team members are usually on their best behaviour and interested in getting to know each other better. Mature team members model appropriate behaviour. Workcamp leaders will usually be directive, setting up meeting times and facilitating the development of work schedules and leisure activities.


Once the volunteers have got over their initial politeness, they will start to get to know each other on a deeper level and this is usually when differences begin to arise. The group is usually figuring out how they will interact with each other, how they will function independently and what leadership model they will accept. Team members open out to each other and confront each other’s ideas and perspectives. Individuals may become competitive or overly attached to their own ideas. In some cases, this stage can be contentious, unpleasant and even painful to members of the team who are averse to conflict. Tolerance of each team member and their differences needs to be emphasized. Leaders of the team during this phase still need to be directive in their guidance of decision-making and appropriate behaviour.


At some point, members adjust their behaviour to each other and develop work habits that make teamwork seem more natural and fluid. Team members often work through this stage by agreeing on rules, values, professional behaviour, shared methods, working tools and even taboos. Team members begin to trust each other and motivation increases as the team gets more acquainted with the project.


High-performing teams are able to function as a unit as they find ways to get the job done smoothly and effectively without inappropriate conflict or the need for external supervision. Team members have become interdependent. By this time they are motivated and knowledgeable. The team members are now competent, autonomous and able to handle the decision-making process without supervision. Dissent is expected and allowed as long as it is channelled through means acceptable to the team. Workcamp leaders during this phase are almost always participative, but the team will make most of the necessary decisions.

Adjourning and Transforming

Tuckman later added a fifth phase, adjourning, that involves completing the task and breaking up the team. Others call it the phase for mourning. This can be quite a difficult phase of a workcamp. You may have developed quite strong bonds with your fellow volunteers. Goodbyes can be very upsetting and tears are quite usual. You may feel it hard to get back to ‘normal’ after such an intense two weeks, but keeping in touch with each other after a workcamp can help ease the transition.

In the next section we discuss managing conflict in groups