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Groups and teamwork
Groups and teamwork

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3 Reading 2 Working in groups

3.1 Belonging to a group

Because work groups are of central significance in the functioning of an organisation they have been studied intensively, and much has been written about group processes. In this reading it would be inappropriate to attempt to review this vast literature, which covers an enormous range of topics and aspects of groups. Instead, I focus attention here on two particular aspects of groups. First, I examine the nature of the contracts within a group: what it is that people gain from belonging to a group and, by inference, what they contribute to the group. This focus helps to explain certain characteristic problems that arise in groups. Second, I examine the process of group development.

When an individual joins a group he or she undertakes a trade-off. Joining a group requires the individual to agree to abide by the 'rules' of the group. These are sometimes explicit (such as 'who is invited to the meetings' or 'what our area of responsibility is') but often implicit (such as modes of dress, attitudes, values, beliefs, subjects that are and aren't talked about, and so on). These rules serve many purposes, a very important one of which is to distinguish the group from the rest of the world; they are the features that identify it as a group and, amongst other things, define its boundary. A group with no boundary-defining rules would include everyone and cease to be a group!

Agreeing to abide by the rules of a group involves some loss of individuality or freedom. In some groups the loss can be extreme, as in some fanatical religious groups where even questioning the leaders' authority leads to expulsion. In other groups the loss of individual freedom is minimal. In return for this loss, the individual gains not only such things as access to information and help with problem solving but also the opportunity to satisfy psychological needs, such as affiliation and security.

The nature of the agreement between the individual member and the group has close parallels with the formal, informal and psychological aspects of the contract between an employee and an organisation. In the context of a group, the 'formal contract' involves things like the group objectives, membership, leadership, terms of reference and the responsibilities of individuals within the group. The 'informal contract' includes the way meetings are conducted, how disagreements are handled, what feelings can be expressed and in what way, and so on. The 'psychological contract' involves more nebulous matters such as the degree to which the group will tolerate and handle interpersonal issues, the degree of personal disclosure that is acceptable and how much support an individual can expect from the group. It consists of all the psychological expectations of the group and of the individual. In general, the formal contract may be openly discussed in group meetings and may also be referred to in discussions about procedures. The informal contract is likely to be talked about far less and falls more into the category of 'that's just the way we do things'. The nature of the psychological contract is unlikely to be addressed except in times of crisis, such as intense disagreements or failure to accomplish some major objective. As a result, it may not be easy to discover what the psychological contracts are in a group.

One important ingredient in the psychological contract involved in joining most groups (provided that joining is voluntary) is that in return for abiding by the rules of the group one finds oneself surrounded by people who share one's perception of the world, at least to some extent. One of the key components in a good relationship is a sense of being understood and acknowledged. This can be understood in terms of individuals' need to test and affirm their sense of reality. It is possible, indeed common, to find that different people have different perceptions of the same events. By joining a group an individual agrees not to question certain assumptions about the world, and in return has the comfort of having this view of the world affirmed and reinforced.

The basic assumptions that cannot be questioned within a group form a sort of taboo area. Some of this area will be consciously known as a taboo area, while other parts will simply not be talked about. The precise relationship between the benefit of a confirmed perception of reality and the penalty associated with the taboo area varies enormously from group to group. A political group, especially a small extremist group, will usually have a large set of taboo areas: for example, members may be required to follow the party line on issues of employment, religion, sex, education, health care, foreign policy, and so on. Given the large number of taboos, it is not surprising to find that such groups repeatedly go through the process of dividing into factions. Although this is a fairly extreme example, the same processes operate in formal and informal work groups. For example, in the production of an Open University course there comes a point when it is essential that the members of the course team agree to the basic course aims and cease to raise fundamental questions of principle. If a team failed to reach such agreements, this could have very serious knock-on effects.

Another common ingredient in the psychological contract involved in belonging to a group is the emotional trade-off. Just as a group reinforces certain aspects of a particular view of reality, so too is it likely to reward certain types of behaviour and emotional expression whilst disapproving of others. For example, many political groups provide their members with a forum for expressing feelings of hatred or derision, provided of course that they are directed towards 'the opposition'. As in the case of group perceptions and taboo areas, less extreme requirements exist in typical formal and informal work groups. It is common to find work groups providing a forum for expressing positive and negative judgements of others' worth, for encouraging aggressiveness (as in sales promotion) or defensiveness. Another form of emotional trade-off often occurs around the issue of security. For example, members of an informal work group may agree among themselves to work at a particular rate, to gain some measure of security against undue pressure from supervisors.

In general, the trade-offs involved in belonging to a group will be balanced: the more an individual gives up in joining the group then the larger the pay-off expected. The level of trade-off involved, that is the size of the pay-offs and commitments, will strongly influence the group's ability to change. A group with very large pay-offs will resist change unless all the group members can see the prospect of an equivalent pay-off in the new arrangement. Exploring the resistance to change can be a powerful way of uncovering the important features of the contracts between an individual and a group.

Activity 3

Identify a team that you belong to, and list some changes to the team or its activities that you might conceivably be asked to make. Arrange them in order, from changes you would find very easy to accept to changes that you would find very hard to accept.

To what extent is this difference determined by what the proposed change would 'cost' you and what your 'pay-off' from it would be?

So far, the emphasis in the discussion has been on the group as a collection of individuals. It is also possible, and productive, to regard the group as a psychological entity in its own right. The concepts of self, self-concept, self-esteem and psychological energy that we normally apply to individuals, can to some extent apply to groups as well.

However, although this analogy is productive, it also has its limits. One important difference is in the levels of 'self-awareness' between individuals and a group. So far, I have assumed implicitly that everything that the individual member knows about the group, and that the group knows about the individual member, is shared by both parties. In fact this is not usually the case: for instance, there will often be 'hidden agendas' – things that an individual wants or expects from the group, but that the group doesn't know about. Common examples of hidden agendas are:

  1. Someone using a committee meeting as an opportunity to impress the boss.

  2. An individual raising an issue at a meeting in order to embarrass or force the hand of another member of the group.

  3. Someone resisting a proposal for reasons they are not prepared to disclose (and thus being forced to invent spurious grounds for resisting).

There may also be things that the group knows about individual members which the individuals are unaware of themselves: that is to say, individual members may have what are termed 'blind spots'. For example, a member of a group makes a suggestion, which if accepted by the group requires some action to be taken. None of the rest of the group believes that the person making the suggestion is capable of carrying out the action needed, and consequently the suggestion is rejected. The person making the suggestion is aware of the decision but unaware of the reason behind it.

Both hidden agendas and blind spots impede the effective functioning of a group. In fact, it has been shown that their effect on group performance is much larger than one would intuitively guess. There is no simple explanation as to why this should be so. But it appears that small increases in a group's self-awareness (that is, the removal of hidden agendas and blind spots by encouraging the development of greater openness and trust) can release a disproportionately large amount of psychological energy, which would otherwise have been absorbed by defensive and protective checks and manoeuvres.