Groups may be formed for task completion, social support, economic gain, personal development and change, spiritual growth, or another reason. Groups may emerge and evolve quite naturally, or its members may develop and maintain it through planning and conscious effort. Groups may also have a very transitory existence, or they may be stable over time. A groups' structure and operation can be causal or formal.
Groups usually go through four stages as they develop - forming, storming, norming and performing. Forming refers to getting acquainted, talking about how the group might begin its work, exploring when and where the members will meet, identifying the group's purposes and sharing other initial concerns. Storming is the stage when individual members in the group start expressing different perspectives, opinions and preferences that need to be addressed in some manner as the group starts its work. Norming consists of the clarification and agreement over the group's goals, directions and methods of operating. After the norming stage is completed, the group can move forward to the performing stage, where it accomplishes its goals.
In most groups, there are particular roles or patterns of behavior. Three broad categories of roles typically occurring during group interactions were identified by Kenneth Benne and Paul Sheats - task completion roles, group building and support roles and individualistic roles. Task completion roles are those roles related to the completion of a given activity or job and include information seeker, information giver, opinion seeker, recorder, evaluator-critic and coordinator. Group building and support roles are roles related to encouraging the group's social development and include encourager, compromiser, harmonizer, observer, follower and gatekeeper/expediter.
Individualistic roles contribute negatively to the group's progress toward completing a task as well as to the group development and climate. These roles include aggressor, recognition seeker, blocker, special-interest pleader and dominator. The leader has a particularly critical role in any group, which essentially consists of guiding the group. The leadership role has group maintenance functions and group achievement functions.
As part of group maintenance activities the leaders needs to promote participation, manage interaction, promote cooperation and assure that the members' needs and concerns are addressed. The leader should also arbitrate conflict, protect the rights of individual members, model exemplary behavior, promote group development and assume responsibilities for group dynamics. Group achievement functions include informing, orienting, integrating, planning, representing, clarifying, coordinating, motivating and evaluating.
There is a variety of approaches to making decisions in a group, including consensus, compromise, decision by leader, majority vote and arbitration. As part of a consensus, all members of a group arrive at a decision with which they all genuinely agree. Compromise refers to decisions that result from negotiation and a give-and-take so that the decision is acceptable to all members. Under majority vote, the final decision of the group is the one supported by the majority of the members. The decision by leader approach consists of the leader imposing his or her decision on the entire group, while in formal negotiation and arbitration an impartial "third party" often helps so that opposing positions are reconciled.
Conflict is another phenomenon closely related to the study of group dynamics. Conflict can generally be defined in two ways— realistic and perceived. Realistic conflict involves tangible, verifiable competing interests, while perceived conflict refers to situations where one or both parties believe the other stands in the way of achieving a goal. Conflicts occur over resources, values and power distribution. They can be classified as latent, or yet to be noticed, or manifest and they can also be defined as destructive or constructive.
Conflict analysis of groups consists of the study of intragroup conflict and intergroup conflict. Intragroup conflict is that which happens among the members of a group, while intergroup conflict happens between one or more groups, which results in the group as a whole being involved in the conflict. Intragroup conflict is viewed as potentially harmful because it can result in competition for leadership, membership loss and loss of focus on group purpose.
Intragroup conflicts are typically about power and control over content, goals and purpose, while they can also emerge if intragroup inequalities are recognized, which those with less power cannot accept. The maintenance of a strong normative structure with effective member socialization is the primary means of limiting conflict within a group. Intergroup conflicts are typically about control and distribution of resources, which are objective conflicts, or threats to identity or values, which are subjective conflicts.