Problems With Groups: Can You Overcome Them?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Laws Of Human Nature" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the main problems with groups? How can you overcome these problems for successful group work?

There are many problems with groups. Before forming a group for professional or social reasons, you should think through possible issues so you can avoid common group problems.

Read more about the problems with groups and how you can address them.

Problems With Groups: Manage Toxic Types

To understand how groups produce toxic types, first, we’ll look at some basics of group dynamics. These dynamics are impossible to avoid—if you try to opt out, you’ll look suspicious or holier-than-thou, and you’ll be isolated from the group. 

Dynamic #1: Culture

Groups often have their own language, customs, and way of doing things. This is most obvious between nations, but smaller groups, such as companies, have culture too. To assess group culture, don’t put much stock in how the group self-describes. Instead, consider the overall attitude and organization by looking at its actions and emotional tone when considering the problems with groups.

  • For example, some groups use a strict hierarchy and carefully control the flow of information.

Culture often includes:

  • An ideal. The group may not actually demonstrate this ideal, but the members are bonded by striving for it. 
    • For example, a group might be progressive or liberal.
  • The founders’ qualities. Whoever started the group probably had a strong influence on its culture.

Group culture can become so entrenched that new members, even leaders, can’t change it. For example, after World War II, the U.S. Department of Defense had an aggressive culture. Neither President Kennedy nor Johnson wanted to get involved in the Vietnam War, but they were unable to change the culture—in fact, the culture changed them and they became involved in the war. The older and larger the group, the stronger its culture.

Additionally, the older and larger a group, the more its culture will become conservative. This is because people want to maintain what they have, and as the group still exists, members think that their established ways of doing things will work forever. In fact, this inability to adapt is often what kills groups in the end.

Dynamic #2: Fear of the Outsider 

Whether or not an outsider really is dangerous, having a collective enemy strengthens a group. Since the human brain processes best by comparing things to their opposites, us vs. them works well. The enemy can also be used as a justification for potentially questionable actions or as a distraction. 

If our group is threatened, all four of the group influences strengthen. We think even more simply and unquestionably follow the groups’ decisions.

To figure out if an outsider actually is dangerous, consider her objectively—don’t let the groups’ opinions bias you. Do this privately, so you’re not accused of disloyalty. 

Dynamic #3: Unwritten Rules

People can’t handle rampant disorder, so groups come up with rules and behavioral codes about appearances, deference to authority, and so on. These unwritten rules are self-policed by group members and creates problems with groups.

Dynamic #4: Factions

In large, established groups, people will self-divide into factions because they want to be around those who are most similar to them (being around similar people gives a narcissistic boost). Additionally, by nature, we see larger groups as suspicious. Factions will ultimately break into even smaller factions.

Powerful factions will start to prioritize their own interests over the group’s and can even oust the leader.

  • For example, the elites of a group often form a faction because they want to maintain their status.

The smaller groups of tribalism are part of our nature, but they make for a lot of fighting because there are few people in our group and a lot of people outside of them. To survive, humans will have to overcome this part of our natures. We’re so globally interconnected that we need each other to survive. What we really need is to all feel like we’re part of one group with diverse membership—the group of humanity.

Dynamic #5: Hierarchy

Groups contain hierarchies of individuals and/or factions, and everyone is trying to get closer to the leader (the closer they are, the more power they have). For the most part, individuals admire the leader and think she’s superior, which makes it possible for them to accept that she has power over them. This is the same way we felt about our parents in childhood—because our parents controlled us, we had to cast them as competent so we could cope. Individuals tend to react to the leaders however they handled their family members, whether that was a need to please or resentment.

On the other hand, some group members, instead of wanting to get closer to the leader, want to displace her. 

There are several types of group members, categorized by how they feel about power:

Type #1: The Power-Hungry

These types appear loyal and hard-working, but in fact, they don’t respect the leader and want power for themselves. As children, they might have competed with their fathers.

To identify these types, look at their past and their actions, rather than their mask. They’re good at using others and making people in power depend on them. They also tend to be impatient.

The best way to deal with these types is to avoid them—you don’t want to become an enemy or a tool.

For example, Alexander Haig was a power-hungry type. He was an assistant to Henry Kissinger, who in turn was Richard Nixon’s national security advisor. Haig made himself very useful to Kissinger by doing all sorts of tasks, even grunt work, and used his closeness to gather information on Kissinger’s weaknesses. 

Haig also made himself appealing to Nixon—he made sure Nixon saw him working long hours, which he knew Nixon would appreciate because he was also a workaholic. Nixon started borrowing Haig from Kissinger and eventually made him chief of staff, a position Kissinger reported to. 

Type #2: The Information Controller

These types try to control the flow of information to the leader. They can be useful—they protect the leader from distractions and low-priority requests—but they’re also dangerous because they strongly idealize the leader and want to have power over her specifically. They get close by flattering, fawning, and feeding her narcissism, and once they’re close, they learn the leader’s weaknesses.

You can identify these by how differently they act towards the leader than everyone else. Additionally, they often act as the enforcer of the group’s unwritten rules which becomes one of the main problems with groups.

When you encounter these types, be careful. If you make them your enemy, they’ll cut off your access to the leader. You can try to expose their contradictory behavior between the leader and the rest of the group to the leader, but because this type is so close to the leader, the leader may take their word over yours. If you are the leader, don’t let individuals isolate you from the rest of the group.

Type #3: The Chaos-Causer

These types are insecure, resentful, and envious of others, but they’re good at hiding these emotions by appearing loyal. They try to stir up drama to get attention, to attract the leader’s notice, and to get closer to her. They do this by spreading rumors about other group members’ loyalty.

To identify these types, look for someone who’s spreading rumors, and in chaotic moments, look for someone who seems to secretly enjoy the negativity.

To deal with these types, never insult them—they’ll target you and be passive-aggressive.

Type #4: The Egger-On

These types are good at identifying others’ Shadows, especially the leader’s, and eggers-on encourage others to let their Shadows loose. They do this by bringing up a shadow subject in a casual way, which makes the leader feel unthreatened enough to respond. Then, the egger-on suggests how they might act on these feelings.

To identify these types, look for people who have strong Shadows that they’re fairly in touch with.

To deal with these types, keep your distance and don’t cross them. They often self-destruct on their own—if something they encouraged the leader to do goes badly, they get blamed.

For example, Charles Colson was an egger-on. He was Nixon’s special counsel and knew that part of Nixon’s Shadow included paranoia and insecurity about his masculinity. Colson encouraged Nixon to vent and suggested ways to get revenge on the media, who had criticized Nixon.

Type #5: The Joker or Rebel

Jokers and rebels are scared to fail, so they make fun of others, act cynical, and suggest outlandish ideas so that no one will take them seriously or give them any responsibility. Their role becomes to make everyone else feel a little superior.

Usually, there’s one person allowed to play this role in a given group, and to identify them, look for the person who is permitted to make fun of anyone in the group, even the leader (the leader permits this because it shows she has a sense of humor and isn’t insecure). They’re also the only person allowed to come up with ideas that conflict with the groups’ (the leader allows this because it makes her seem like she allows dissent).

To deal with this type, let her keep her role. If you feel the need to rebel, keep it private or subtle.

Type #6: The Favorite

This type holds the highest position in a hierarchy. She likely got this position by being personable and friendly, not by demonstrating loyalty or having notable skills. Many leaders are lonely, so a friend is attractive. This may create problems with groups.

To identify this type, look for the person the leader gives favors or special treatment to.

To deal with the favorite, like the Joker or Rebel, let her keep her position. You don’t want to be the favorite because it’s dangerous:

  • The favorite becomes entitled and spoiled, which makes her less likable to the leader.
  • If the favorite disappoints the leader, she won’t just lose her position, the leader may hate her, because being disappointed by a friend hurts more than being disappointed by someone else.
  • Everyone else in the group is envious of the favorite and won’t help her. 
Type #7: The Least Favorite

This type is the opposite of the favorite—she holds the lowest position in the hierarchy and everyone feels superior to her, whether in intelligence, skill, sophistication, or something else.

To identify this type, figure out who’s made fun of behind her back.

To navigate around this type, don’t make fun of her because it will debase you. Take the high ground and treat her well, and you might make yourself an ally.

Type #8: The Reflectors

These types can charm leaders and group members. They do this by acting as emotional mirrors—they validate people by reflecting their own opinions and emotions back at them. 

To identify these types, look for people with high empathy.

To deal with these types, try to emulate them. Work on your empathy, nonverbal cues, and mirroring.

For example, Frances Perkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s advisor and secretary of labor, was a master reflector. She used her empathy to intuit Roosevelt’s moods. She knew he liked stories, so when she wanted something, she’d present it as a narrative. She listened deeply and then reflected what he’d spoken about back to him.

She mirrored everyone else the same way and was careful to be nonthreatening. She had a huge influence over Roosevelt but never showed it.

Problems With Groups: Can You Overcome Them?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Robert Greene's "The Laws Of Human Nature" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Laws Of Human Nature summary:

  • Why it's in your nature to self-sabotage
  • How you behave differently when you're in a group
  • Why you're wired to want the wrong things in life

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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