A group can be defined as several individuals who come together to accomplish a particular task or goal. Group dynamics refers to the attitudinal and behavioral characteristics of a group. Group dynamics concern how groups form, their structure and process, and how they function. Group dynamics are relevant in both formal and informal groups of all types. In an organizational setting, groups are a very common organizational entity and the study of groups and group dynamics is an important area of study in organizational behavior.
The following sections provide information related to group dynamics. Specifically, the formation and development of groups is first considered. Then some major types or classifications of groups are discussed. Then the structure of groups is examined.
As applied to group development, group dynamics is concerned with why and how groups develop. There are several theories as to why groups develop. A classic theory, developed by George Homans, suggests that groups develop based on activities, interactions, and sentiments. Basically, the theory means that when individuals share common activities, they will have more interaction and will develop attitudes (positive or negative) toward each other. The major element in this theory is the interaction of the individuals involved.
Social exchange theory offers an alternative explanation for group development. According to this theory, individuals form relationships based on the implicit expectation of mutually beneficial exchanges based on trust and felt obligation. Thus, a perception that exchange relationships will be positive is essential if individuals are to be attracted to and affiliate with a group.
Social identity theory offers another explanation for group formation. Simply put, this theory suggests that individuals get a sense of identity and self-esteem based upon their membership in salient groups. The nature of the group may be demographically based, culturally based, or organizationally based. Individuals are motivated to belong to and contribute to identity groups because of the sense of belongingness and self-worth membership in the group imparts.
Group dynamics as related to development concerns not only why groups form but also how. The most common framework for examining the "how" of group formation was developed by Bruce Tuckman in the 1960s. In essence, the steps in group formation imply that groups do not usually perform at maximum effectiveness when they are first established. They encounter several stages of development as they strive to become productive and effective. Most groups experience the same developmental stages with similar conflicts and resolutions.
According to Tuckman's theory, there are five stages of group development: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning. During these stages group members must address several issues and the way in which these issues are resolved determines whether the group will succeed in accomplishing its tasks.
- Forming. This stage is usually characterized by some confusion and uncertainty. The major goals of the group have not been established. The nature of the task or leadership of the group has not been determined (Luthans, 2005). Thus, forming is an orientation period when members get to know one another and share expectations about the group. Members learn the purpose of the group as well as the rules to be followed. The forming stage should not be rushed because trust and openness must be developed. These feelings strengthen in later stages of development. Individuals are often confused during this stage because roles are not clear and there may not be a strong leader.
- Storming. In this stage, the group is likely to see the highest level of disagreement and conflict. Members often challenge group goals and struggle for power. Individuals often vie for the leadership position during this stage of development. This can be a positive experience for all groups if members can achieve cohesiveness through resolution. Members often voice concern and criticism in this phase. If members are not able to resolve the conflict, then the group will often disband or continue in existence but will remain ineffective and never advance to the other stages.
- Norming. This stage is characterized by the recognition of individual differences and shared expectations. Hopefully, at this stage the group members will begin to develop a feeling of group cohesion and identity. Cooperative effort should begin to yield results. Responsibilities are divided among members and the group decides how it will evaluate progress.
- Performing. Performing, occurs when the group has matured and attains a feeling of cohesiveness. During this stage of development, individuals accept one another and conflict is resolved through group discussion. Members of the group make decisions through a rational process that is focused on relevant goals rather than emotional issues.
- Adjourning. Not all groups experience this stage of development because it is characterized by the disbandment of the group. Some groups are relatively permanent (Luthans, 2005). Reasons that groups disband vary, with common reasons being the accomplishment of the task or individuals deciding to go their own ways. Members of the group often experience feelings of closure and sadness as they prepare to leave.
One common way to classify group is by whether they are formal or informal in nature. Formal work groups are established by an organization to achieve organizational goals. Formal groups may take the form of command groups, task groups, and functional groups.
Command groups are specified by the organizational chart and often consist of a supervisor and the subordinates that report to that supervisor. An example of a command group is an academic department chairman and the faculty members in that department.
Task groups consist of people who work together to achieve a common task. Members are brought together to accomplish a narrow range of goals within a specified time period. Task groups are also commonly referred to as task forces. The organization appoints members and assigns the goals and tasks to be accomplished. Examples of assigned tasks are the development of a new product, the improvement of a production process, or the proposal of a motivational contest. Other common task groups are ad hoc committees, project groups, and standing committees. Ad hoc committees are temporary groups created to resolve a specific complaint or develop a process. Project groups are similar to ad hoc committees and normally disband after the group completes the assigned task. Standing committees are more permanent than ad hoc committees and project groups. They maintain longer life spans by rotating members into the group.
A functional group is created by the organization to accomplish specific goals within an unspecified time frame. Functional groups remain in existence after achievement of current goals and objectives. Examples of functional groups would be a marketing department, a customer service department, or an accounting department.
In contrast to formal groups, informal groups are formed naturally and in response to the common interests and shared values of individuals. They are created for purposes other than the accomplishment of organizational goals and do not have a specified time frame. Informal groups are not appointed by the organization and members can invite others to join from time to time. Informal groups can have a strong influence in organizations that can either be positive or negative. For example, employees who form an informal group can either discuss how to improve a production process or how to create shortcuts that jeopardize quality. Informal groups can take the form of interest groups, friendship groups, or reference groups.
Interest groups usually continue over time and may last longer than general informal groups. Members of interest groups may not be part of the same organizational department but they are bound together by some other common interest. The goals and objectives of group interests are specific to each group and may not be related to organizational goals and objectives. An example of an interest group would be students who come together to form a study group for a specific class.
Friendship groups are formed by members who enjoy similar social activities, political beliefs, religious values, or other common bonds. Members enjoy each other's company and often meet after work to participate in these activities. For example, a group of employees who form a friendship group may have an exercise group, a softball team, or a potluck lunch once a month.
A reference group is a type of group that people use to evaluate themselves. According to Cherrington, the main purposes of reference groups are social validation and social comparison. Social validation allows individuals to justify their attitudes and values while social comparison helps individuals evaluate their own actions by comparing themselves to others. Reference groups have a strong influence on members' behavior. By comparing themselves with other members, individuals are able to assess whether their behavior is acceptable and whether their attitudes and values are right or wrong. Reference groups are different from the previously discussed groups because they may not actually meet or form voluntarily. For example, the reference group for a new employee of an organization may be a group of employees that work in a different department or even a different organization. Family, friends, and religious affiliations are strong reference groups for most individuals.
Group structure is a pattern of relationships among members that hold the group together and help it achieve assigned goals. Structure can be described in a variety of ways. Among the more common considerations are group size, group roles, group norms, and group cohesiveness.
Group size can vary from 2 people to a very large number of people. Small groups of two to ten are thought to be more effective because each member has ample opportunity to participate and become actively involved in the group. Large groups may waste time by deciding on processes and trying to decide who should participate next. Group size will affect not only participation but satisfaction as well. Evidence supports the notion that as the size of the group increases, satisfaction increases up to a certain point. In other words, a group of six members has twice as many opportunities for interaction and participation as a group of three people. Beyond 10 or 12 members, increasing the size of the group results in decreased satisfaction. It is increasingly difficult for members of large groups to identify with one another and experience cohesion.
In formal groups, roles are usually predetermined and assigned to members. Each role will have specific responsibilities and duties. There are, however, emergent roles that develop naturally to meet the needs of the groups. These emergent roles will often replace the assigned roles as individuals begin to express themselves and become more assertive. Group roles can then be classified into work roles, maintenance roles, and blocking roles.
Work roles are task-oriented activities that involve accomplishing the group's goals. They involve a variety of specific roles such as initiator, informer, clarifier, summarizer, and reality tester. The initiator defines problems, proposes action, and suggests procedures.
The informer role involves finding facts and giving advice or opinions. Clarifiers will interpret ideas, define terms, and clarify issues for the group. Summarizers restate suggestions, offer decisions, and come to conclusions for the group. Finally, reality testers analyze ideas and test the ideas in real situations.
Maintenance roles are social-emotional activities that help members maintain their involvement in the group and raise their personal commitment to the group. The maintenance roles are harmonizer, gatekeeper, consensus tester, encourager, and compromiser. The harmonizer will reduce tension in the group, reconcile differences, and explore opportunities. Gatekeepers often keep communication channels open and make suggestions that encourage participation. The consensus tester will ask if the group is nearing a decision and test possible conclusions. Encouragers are friendly, warm, and responsive to other group members. The last maintenance role is the compromiser. This role involves modifying decisions, offering compromises, and admitting errors.
Blocking roles are activities that disrupt the group. They make take the form of dominating discussions, verbally attacking other group members, and distracting the group with trivial information or unnecessary humor. Often times the blocking behavior may not be intended as negative. Sometimes a member may share a joke in order to break the tension, or may question a decision in order to force group members to rethink the issue. The blocking roles are aggressor, blocker, dominator, comedian, and avoidance behavior. The aggressor criticizes members' values and makes jokes in a sarcastic or semi-concealed manner.
Blockers will stubbornly resist the group's ideas, disagree with group members for personal reasons, and will have hidden agendas. The dominator role attempts to control conversations by patronizing others. They often interrupt others and assert authority in order to manipulate members. Comedians often abandon the group even though they may physically still be a part. They are attention-getters in ways that are not relevant to the accomplishment of the group's objectives. The last blocking role, avoidance behavior, involves pursuing goals not related to the group and changing the subject to avoid commitment to the group.
Role ambiguity concerns the discrepancy between the sent role and the received role, as shown in Exhibit 1. Supervisors, directors, or other group leaders often send (assign) roles to group members in formal groups. Group members receive roles by being ready and willing to undertake the tasks associated with that role. Ambiguity results when members are confused about the delegation of job responsibilities. This confusion may occur because the members do not have specific job descriptions or because the instructions regarding the task were not clear. Group members who experience ambiguity often have feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction, which ultimately lead to turnover.
Role conflict occurs when there is inconsistency between the perceived role and role behavior. There are several different forms of role conflict. Interrole conflict occurs when there is conflict between the different roles that people have. For example, work roles and family roles often compete with one another and cause conflict. Intrarole conflict occurs when individuals must handle conflicting demands from different sources while performing the tasks associated with the same role.
Norms are acceptable standards of behavior within a group that are shared by the members of the group. Norms define the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. They are typically created in order to facilitate group survival, make behavior more predictable, avoid embarrassing situations, and express the values of the group. Each group will establish its own set of norms that might determine anything from the appropriate dress to how many comments to make in a meeting. Groups exert pressure on members to force them to conform to the group's standards. The norms often reflect the level of commitment, motivation, and performance of the group.
Performance norms determine how quickly members should work and how much they should produce. They are created in an effort to determine levels of individual effort. They can be very frustrating to managers because they are not always in line with the organization's goals. Members of a group may have the skill and ability to perform at higher levels but they don't because of the group's performance norms. For example, workers may stop working a production machine at 20 minutes before quitting time in order to wash up, even though they produced fewer items that day than management intended.
Reward-allocation norms determine how rewards are bestowed upon group members. For example, the norm of equality dictates equal treatment of all members. Every member shares equally so rewards are distributed equally to everyone. Equity norms suggest that rewards are distributed according to the member's contribution. In other words, members who contribute the most receive the largest share of the rewards. Members may contribute through effort, skill, or ability. Social responsibility norms reward on the basis of need. Members who have special needs therefore receive the largest share of the reward.
The majority of the group must agree that the norms are appropriate in order for the behavior to be accepted. There must also be a shared understanding
Cohesiveness refers to the bonding of group members and their desire to remain part of the group. Many factors influence the amount of group cohesiveness. Generally speaking, the more difficult it is to obtain group membership the more cohesive the group. Groups also tend to become cohesive when they are in intense competition with other groups or face a serious external threat to survival. Smaller groups and those who spend considerable time together also tend to be more cohesive.
Cohesiveness in work groups has many positive effects, including worker satisfaction, low turnover and absenteeism, and higher productivity. However, highly cohesive groups may be detrimental to organizational performance if their goals are misaligned with organizational goals. Highly cohesive groups may also be more vulnerable to groupthink. Groupthink occurs when members of a group exert pressure on each other to come to a consensus in decision making. Groupthink results in careless judgments, unrealistic appraisals of alternative courses of action, and a lack of reality testing. It can lead to a number of decision-making issues such as the following:
- Incomplete assessments of the problem,
- Incomplete information search,
- Bias in processing information,
- Inadequate development of alternatives, and
- Failure to examine the risks of the preferred choice.
Evidence suggests that groups typically outperform individuals when the tasks involved require a variety of skills, experience, and decision making. Groups are often more flexible and can quickly assemble, achieve goals, and disband or move on to another set of objectives. Many organizations have found that groups have many motivational aspects as well. Group members are more likely to participate in decision-making and problem-solving activities leading to empowerment and increased productivity. Groups complete most of the work in an organization; thus, the effectiveness of the organization is limited by the effectiveness of its groups.
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Luthans, F. Organizational Behavior. 10th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
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