Classic Nerd Guru: Who’s in charge? Understanding group dynamics

Note: This article originally ran on July 31 2007, is slightly edited for reprint in an effort to share previously published ideas with new readers.

Often times, when interacting with a new group of people it can be difficult to decode the roles and responsibilities that have already been established among them. Inadvertently directing comments to the wrong person can spark insults or waste time, generally yielding poor results. Taking the time to ask about who is in charge of what can make a big difference for everyone involved.

When my maternal grandfather (inventor of concussion grenade fishing) died in 2002, my Mom went back to Oklahoma City before Dad and I could join her for the services that would be held. My grandmother wasn’t up to planning the funeral so her 3 daughters and son did the job.


My Mom (back left) with her siblings and parents, circa 1982.

As much as we all love them, it’s a known fact that my Mom and her sisters all got the family “bossy gene”. They have a need to be in charge. Don’t get me wrong, all of them use their powers for good instead of evil. When any of them are on the case, stuff gets done and you don’t have to give it a second thought.

As a result of being raised in a house with these people, my uncle is an extremely laid back guy. He’s a very hard worker, but he’s always had other people around him to do the worrying so he doesn’t do a whole lot of it himself (and, by extension, he was more fun to play with when I was a kid, a comment I’ll surely take flak for from my aunts). If you had three people barking orders at you all the time throughout your childhood who weren’t even your parents, you’d be the same way.

So, the four of them are sitting in the funeral director’s office planning how the services would go. The conversation quickly fell into a pattern. A gentleman in his mid 50s, the funeral director would address his questions directly to my uncle, who would say nothing when eventually the silence would be filled by one of his sisters interjecting the answer. Not understanding the dynamic, the funeral director continued to address my uncle almost exclusively, presumably because he’s male and the assumed leader of the group despite evidence to the contrary. After awhile, my uncle couldn’t stand it any more and with his gentle drawl, politely said:

“Excuse me, sir, but are you under the impression that I’m in charge here?”

Needless to say, the format of the conversation changed for the better after that and helped them all achieve a much swifter resolution to the issues they were there to discuss.

The next time you find yourself confronted with a new group of people with a prior relationship, take a minute to assess who is playing what roles. If you can’t figure that out for yourself, ask. Knowing who is interested in what is half the battle.

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