The Power of Social Dynamics at Work

Creating an ideal work environment requires talent leaders to consider many questions. The most critical among them: Why do many talented employees fail to get along with their bosses? What is the difference between leaders and managers? How does work get done? What are the best work optimization strategies? How can an office’s layout influence the relationships between employees and bosses?

The answers to these questions come from understanding social dynamics and behaviors in the workplace.

Social dynamics are group behaviors based on individual interactions. Often, these interactions are dependent on companies’ culture and individuals’ psychology. In addition to the workplace — where workers will spend about half of their waking hours each week — social dynamics also come to light during time spent with family and friends.

In the workplace, culture refers to workers’ ideals, values and the unwritten rules that govern accepted behaviors. Individual psychology refers to employees’ expectations, cognitive wiring, and memories and experiences that ultimately form beliefs.
The health of an organization and the results it creates are largely based on the nature of its social dynamics, and building social dynamics plays a major role in the company’s success. While work results can be achieved without positive social dynamics, true engagement and next-level success cannot be realized without positive cultural behaviors.

Who’s in Charge?

Vital to establishing social dynamics that work are the people in charge — the individuals accountable for producing results. Unfortunately, management theory and practice have taught people to operate in roles that consist of directing the show, telling employees what to do and when, and focusing on day-to-day activities and problems. In sum, the manager tells workers to do something and how.

On the other hand, the person in charge must also function as a leader. This context consists of an entirely different spectrum of techniques. Unlike managers, leaders provide vision and goals, not instructions or directions. Like great athletes, leaders identify how to make those around them perform at their best. While a manager may say “do it, and here’s how,” leaders say “use your skills and abilities to find the positive way forward.”

The evolution from manager to leader takes place over time. A manager cannot simply walk into the office tomorrow, announce a vision and guide employees how to get there. This is especially true if their mode of work has been one of giving instructions and directives. Going from manager to leader is an evolution that occurs in stages, moving from the unsatisfying and incomplete mode of “tell” or “do as told,” to the socially dynamic model of employees discovering ways to achieve their own work results.

Each individual has strengths and weaknesses. In his book “Winning,” former General Electric Co. CEO Jack Welch described his weakness for HR. Because of his personal weakness, Welch elevated the position of HR on his leadership team. He considered it equal to the CFO to ensure that HR had a voice at the highest level.

Everyone has shortcomings, and individuals capable of self-reflection will realize their own and surround themselves with people to fill in the gaps and strengthen those weaknesses. In this style of leadership, the team — not any one person — is most important.

Perfect managers or leaders are also likely to have an unbalanced skill set, one that will leave them on a less-successful path. What’s needed is a combination of skills. While a perfect leader may be able to rally a sales team to run through a brick wall to generate new prospects, if his or her management skills are lacking, the team members may trip over their own feet, chasing down each other’s leads and not working as a team.

Likewise, a skilled manager may have a firm grasp on lead generation and sales goals, but be less able to motivate the team to engage their competitive psychology.
Effect of Social Dynamics on Work

When leaders allow employees to find answers and solutions, exceptional things can happen. That’s because when people are encouraged to advance their skills, strengths and passions, they learn to seize opportunities. In this environment, people with strong social relationships produce greater results. When employees work in strengths-based teams to solve problems, they form the social bonds that increase successes.

Second, consider employee engagement. The degree of autonomy and self-determination that each employee feels contributes significantly to engagement. Similarly, positive psychology shows a strong correlation between the ability to make self-guided choices and engagement in the work.

What about those employees — and there are many — who don’t function well in this autonomous and self-determined environment? Consider the U.S. Marine Corps’ chain of command, the “rule of threes.”

The social dynamics of the Marines are focused on the social dynamic of teams in triads:

  • There are three Marines on a fire team, led by a corporal.
  • There are three fire teams in a rifle squad, whose welfare is the concern of a sergeant.
  • Three rifle squads are assigned to a platoon, under a lieutenant.
  • Three platoons are assigned to a company, led by a captain.

This structure goes up the line through battalions, regiments and divisions, each containing groups of three of the smaller team below it. Because everyone is on a team and has the support of other Marines and the team leader, both those who excel in self-determination and those who require direction are accommodated. Conversely, in the workplace employees who don’t function well in a more autonomous and self-determined environment can succeed in similar supportive social dynamics.

What are some takeaways for those in charge of producing results?

Ask — don’t tell. Suppose an employee has a problem or is stumped on how to reach a solution. A manager’s first reaction is to tell the employee what to do. A leader asks, “What do you want to do? What do you think?”

Listen to understand. Assuming they understand the situation is one of the worst mistakes managers can make. It’s important for managers evolving into leaders to listen to what employees have to say. When a team believes it’s being heard, members will expose problems that may have been swept under the rug, as well as successes that haven’t been brought to light.

Encourage through storytelling. There are very few business situations that are truly unique. By describing a similar situation and how another team solved the problem, a leader can empower the team to move forward to a creative result.

Listen again to understand. Just because a manager-leader has heard the story once — or from just one person — doesn’t mean he or she fully understands what’s going on or what has changed. Listening is an art form.

Get curious. Good leaders ask, “What if?,” “What more?” and “What else?” Aspiring leaders challenge their team members by asking them these questions.

Sit in the dark together. It’s OK for managers evolving into leaders to not have all the answers. And it’s OK for team members to be stumped, too. Sometimes admitting that the answer isn’t forthcoming, that the problem is too ambiguous or the wrong question is being asked is productive. “Sit in the dark” as a team until a spark is generated and illuminates the problem.

Most individuals with latent supervisory ability will naturally lean toward being leaders or managers. To create social dynamics in the workplace that foster good relationships and optimal work results, managers must learn leadership skills and vice versa. The realities of what a boss was in the past are transformed into new dynamics. Leaders emerge who are more focused on the exchange of knowledge, ability and engagement.

Workplace Design Joins the Fold

Social dynamics and the manager-to-leader evolution have an effect on — and are influenced by — the physical work environment. Just as an engaged team creates dynamic results, an engaged workplace fosters team leadership behaviors. Workspaces focus on the whole interactions of a team, not just the parts. And just as a leader provides an overall vision for success, the physical environment can promote autonomy and self-determination. By creating a variety of work settings and allowing teams to self-regulate to the environments best suited to produce results, the workplace can effectively become a vital tool for business.

Leaders need to create places to enhance the value of the group along with the value of the individual. Work settings should encourage interaction, social relationship building and teamwork. Equally important, work settings also need to foster individual thought by providing private spaces and noncollaborative styles of work. What emerges from leaders is the recognition that when it comes to understanding social dynamics, the one-size-fits-all workplace model doesn’t work.

Finally, recognize that the workplace creates places to tell stories. Not in the literal sense of a speaker and an audience, but rather in what stories the workplace tells through its design. What greets employees outside the building? What stories are told inside? Is the company history on the walls? Are team success stories displayed in community areas? How are results displayed?

All of these techniques remind employees of their personal value to the company’s vision, why they are working as a team and the direction in which they are headed. It is in the stories of the workplace that social dynamics are reinforced, created anew and driven by the hearts and minds of people. When companies focus on people’s behaviors, they will change the social dynamics in ways that produce greater engagement and potential for success.

Brady Mick is a client leader who provides guidance in culture, social dynamics, work process and change alignments with BHDP Architecture. He can be reached at