Working in groups is almost always an inevitable life experience, even for those who prefer to work alone. Therefore, it's helpful to think about how to improve group interaction and performance.
Creating conditions that lead to more productive groups means we need to look at the nature of group dynamics. In this article, we discuss why people join groups, how groups evolve, what makes a group work well, and how to build a better working group.
Just to make it clear, for our purposes, we can define a group as being two or more interdependent people, who've come together to accomplish specific goals. A work group interacts mainly to share information and make decisions to help each group member perform better in his or her area of responsibility.
Work teams differ from groups in that teams engage in collective work that requires a joint effort. With teams, the overall level of performance is greater than the sum of individual input. More information about teams can be found in our article on improving teamwork.
Reasons Groups are Formed
Hermits are rare because humans are "social animals". We evolved living and working with other people - balancing our personal needs with those of the group. This enhanced our chances of survival.
Humans join groups for a variety of reasons, including:
- Security, there is strength in numbers
- Status, being a part of an important group provides recognition and status for its members
- Self-esteem, besides conveying status to those outside the group, the group can give members increased feelings of self-worth.
- Power and goal achievement, what can't be done alone, can often be done in a group by pooling knowledge and talents.
Reducing Anxieties - Group Development Stages
Many people find working in groups to be difficult and stressful, especially in the early stages. Understanding the stages of group development can help address these anxieties. The two main group development models are the Five-Stage Model and the Punctuated-Equilibrium Model.
The Five-Stage Model
In the 1960's, psychologists broke up group development into 5 separate stages. We now know that groups don't pass through these stages linearly or precisely, nevertheless the stages can help us understand group dynamics.
- Forming: This first stage is characteristic by a lot of uncertainty about the group's leadership, structure and purpose. Members often “test the waters” to see what type of behavior is acceptable.
- Storming: Have you ever noticed that some people in your groups simply didn't seem to get along, and sometimes power struggles emerged? This is typical of the storming stage, in which there can be a lot conflict within the group. Even though members accept the group, they resist the constraints imposed on their individuality. Once past this stage, a clearer leadership hierarchy becomes noticeable.
- Norming: The third stage of group development is characterized by cohesiveness and close relationships. The group structure solidifies and it's members have a common set of expectations about what defines correct behavior.
- Performing: The fourth stage is characterized by significant task progress being made. The group structure is fully functional and accepted and work gets done.
- Adjourning: For temporary teams, committees, and so on, there is an adjourning stage. Group members prepare for its disbandment. The focus is on wrapping up activities. Some members may become sad over the loss of friendships gained. Others may be upbeat, basking in the group's accomplishments.
The Punctuated-Equilibrium Model
Temporary groups with deadlines tend to follow a pattern different from the 5-stage model outlined above. They tend to follow what is called the Punctuated-Equilibrium Model. This model is characterized by :
- The first meeting, which sets the group's direction.
- The first phase of group activity (or inactivity) which is inertia. Often, group members haven't really completed their assigned tasks or that the tasks were carried out in an uncoordinated way.
- Once the group has used up exactly half of their allotted time, a transition takes place and the group recognizes that it needs to buckle down to get the work done. This midpoint seems to work like an alarm clock, waking members up to the fact that their time is limited and that they need to get moving. By the end of this transition phase, the group drops old patterns, adopts new perspectives and sets a revised direction.
- After the transition phase, the group works more efficiently to carry out the tasks set in the transition phase.
- The group's last meeting is characterized by a final flurry of activity to finish its work.
In summary, the Punctuated-Equilibrium model characterizes groups as going through long periods of inertia, with brief but revolutionary changes triggered by the group's realization that they have a deadline to respect. Remember, this model is more appropriate for explaining the behavior of temporary task groups that are working under time-constrained deadlines.
Think about these stages next time you find yourself working in a group. You'll very likely notice at least some characteristics of the Five-Stage or Punctuated-Equilibrium models.
What makes a group work well or poorly?
Why are some groups more effective than others? The answer is complex and includes many variables. It's important to realize that groups don't exist in isolation. They're part of a larger organization, which has its own strategy and infrastructure. Therefore, every work group is influenced by both external and internal factors.
The organization's overall strategy at any given time will have an effect on the power of the different work groups. Groups with tasks deemed as a priority will receive more resources than other groups.
The organization's leadership, rules, resources (or lack of), and evaluation and reward systems all have an effect on group performance.
Internally, groups are affected by things like their members' intelligence, motivation and skills. Individual abilities limit what members can do and how effectively they will perform in a group. Individuals who have crucial abilities to complete the group's goals tend to be more involved in group activity and are more likely to become group leaders.
Interpersonal skills have been consistently found to be important for effective group performance. It is advantageous for the group to have members with conflict management, collaboration and communication skills.
A group's structure has a major effect on the way it will perform. Leadership structure, member roles, groups composition, group cohesiveness, and group size all affect performance.
The communication patterns, decision processes, leader behavior, power dynamics and conflict interactions all affect the way groups work.
Building a Better Working Group
What can be done to improve group performance and interaction? The key is to assign appropriate tasks and give organizational support to groups.
Assigning appropriate tasks: Some tasks are more interesting to a given group than others. Harvard psychology professor Richard Hackman outlined the following conditions under which groups could be expected to work “extra hard”:
- The group task requires members to use a variety of relatively high-level skills
- The task has a visible outcome
- The outcome of the group's work has a significant impact on other people such as clients or other organization members
- The group decides how to go about accomplishing the task and is responsible for the outcomes.
- Work on the task generates regular an honest feedback about how the group is doing
Provide organizational support: Organizations can supporting groups in various. In the real world, the necessary resources to provide ideal levels of support aren't always available. Nevertheless, organizations should try to:
- Assign appropriate people to the group
- Provide the necessary group training
- Provide adequate and timely information
- Give challenging yet specific performance objectives
- Reward excellent performance
- Direct rewards and objectives to the group rather than the individual