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Social Sci LibreTexts

13.3: Small Group Dynamics

  • Page ID
    14304
  • Learning Objectives

    1. Explain the relationship between group cohesion and group climate.
    2. Describe the process of group member socialization.
    3. Explain the relationship between conformity and groupthink.
    4. Define various types of group conflict and identify strategies for managing each type.

    Any time a group of people come together, new dynamics are put into place that differ from the dynamics present in our typical dyadic interactions. The impressions we form about other people’s likeability and the way we think about a group’s purpose are affected by the climate within a group that is created by all members. Groups also develop norms, and new group members are socialized into a group’s climate and norms just as we are socialized into larger social and cultural norms in our everyday life. The pressure to conform to norms becomes more powerful in group situations, and some groups take advantage of these forces with positive and negative results. Last, the potential for productive and destructive conflict increases as multiple individuals come together to accomplish a task or achieve a purpose. This section explores the dynamics mentioned previously in order to better prepare you for future group interactions.

    Group Cohesion and Climate

    When something is cohesive, it sticks together, and the cohesion within a group helps establish an overall group climate. Group climate refers to the relatively enduring tone and quality of group interaction that is experienced similarly by group members. To better understand cohesion and climate, we can examine two types of cohesion: task and social.

    Task cohesion refers to the commitment of group members to the purpose and activities of the group. Social cohesion refers to the attraction and liking among group members. Ideally, groups would have an appropriate balance between these two types of cohesion relative to the group’s purpose, with task-oriented groups having higher task cohesion and relational-oriented groups having higher social cohesion. Even the most task-focused groups need some degree of social cohesion, and vice versa, but the balance will be determined by the purpose of the group and the individual members. For example, a team of workers from the local car dealership may join a local summer softball league because they’re good friends and love the game. They may end up beating the team of faculty members from the community college who joined the league just to get to know each other better and have an excuse to get together and drink beer in the afternoon. In this example, the players from the car dealership exhibit high social and task cohesion, while the faculty exhibit high social but low task cohesion.

    Cohesion benefits a group in many ways and can be assessed through specific group behaviors and characteristics. Groups with an appropriate level of cohesiveness (Hargie, 2011)

    • set goals easily;
    • exhibit a high commitment to achieving the purpose of the group;
    • are more productive;
    • experience fewer attendance issues;
    • have group members who are willing to stick with the group during times of difficulty;
    • have satisfied group members who identify with, promote, and defend the group;
    • have members who are willing to listen to each other and offer support and constructive criticism; and
    • experience less anger and tension.

    Appropriate levels of group cohesion usually create a positive group climate, since group climate is affected by members’ satisfaction with the group. Climate has also been described as group morale. Following are some qualities that contribute to a positive group climate and morale (Marston & Hecht, 1988):

    • Participation. Group members feel better when they feel included in discussion and a part of the functioning of the group.
    • Messages. Confirming messages help build relational dimensions within a group, and clear, organized, and relevant messages help build task dimensions within a group.
    • Feedback. Positive, constructive, and relevant feedback contribute to group climate.
    • Equity. Aside from individual participation, group members also like to feel as if participation is managed equally within the group and that appropriate turn taking is used.
    • Clear and accepted roles. Group members like to know how status and hierarchy operate within a group. Knowing the roles isn’t enough to lead to satisfaction, though—members must also be comfortable with and accept those roles.
    • Motivation. Member motivation is activated by perceived connection to and relevance of the group’s goals or purpose.

    13.3.0N.jpg

    Cohesion and shared identity help create symbolic convergence as group members develop a group identity and shared social reality.

    Ram K – Watching the big game – CC BY-NC 2.0.

    Group cohesion and climate is also demonstrated through symbolic convergence (Bormann, 1985). Symbolic convergence refers to the sense of community or group consciousness that develops in a group through non-task-related communication such as stories and jokes. The originator of symbolic convergence theory, Ernest Bormann, claims that the sharing of group fantasies creates symbolic convergence. Fantasy, in this sense, doesn’t refer to fairy tales, sexual desire, or untrue things. In group communication, group fantasies are verbalized references to events outside the “here and now” of the group, including references to the group’s past, predictions for the future, or other communication about people or events outside the group (Griffin, 2009). For example, as a graduate student, I spent a lot of time talking with others in our small group about research, writing, and other things related to our classes and academia in general. Most of this communication wouldn’t lead to symbolic convergence or help establish the strong social bonds that we developed as a group. Instead, it was our grad student “war stories” about excessive reading loads and unreasonable paper requirements we had experienced in earlier years of grad school, horror stories about absent or vindictive thesis advisors, and “you won’t believe this” stories from the classes that we were teaching that brought us together.

    In any group, you can tell when symbolic convergence is occurring by observing how people share such fantasies and how group members react to them. If group members react positively and agree with or appreciate the teller’s effort or other group members are triggered to tell their own related stories, then convergence is happening and cohesion and climate are being established. Over time, these fantasies build a shared vision of the group and what it means to be a member that creates a shared group consciousness. By reviewing and applying the concepts in this section, you can hopefully identify potential difficulties with group cohesion and work to enhance cohesion when needed in order to create more positive group climates and enhance your future group interactions.

    “Getting Real”

    Working in Teams

    Although most college students hate working in groups, in the “real world” working in teams has become a regular part of professional expectations. Following Japan’s lead, corporations in the United States began adopting a more team-based approach for project management decades ago (Jain et al., 2008). This model has become increasingly popular in various organizational settings since then as means to increase productivity and reduce bureaucracy. Teams in the workplace have horizontally expanded the traditional vertical hierarchy of organizations, as the aim of creating these teams was to produce smaller units within an organization that are small enough to be efficient and self-manageable but large enough to create the synergy that we discussed in the earlier part of the chapter.

    Aside from efficiency, teams are also valued for the potential for innovation. The strategic pooling of people with diverse knowledge, experience, and skills can lead to synergistic collaborative thinking that produces new knowledge (du Chatenier et al., 2010). This potential for innovation makes teams ideal in high-stakes situations where money, contracts, or lives are at stake. Large corporations are now putting together what has been termed interorganizational high-performance research and development teams consisting of highly trained technical and scientific experts from diverse backgrounds to work collectively and simultaneously on complex projects under very challenging conditions (Daniel & Davis, 2009). In markets where companies race to find the next generation of technological improvement, such research and development teams are critical for an organization’s success. Research on such teams in real-world contexts has found that in order to be successful, high-performance teams should have a clear base such as a project mission, a leader who strategically assigns various tasks to members based on their specialized expertise, and shared leadership in which individual experts are trusted to make decisions relevant to their purview within the group. Although these high-performance teams are very task oriented, research has also found that the social element cannot be ignored, even under extreme internal and external pressures. In fact, cohesion and interdependence help create a shared reality that in turn improves productivity, because team members feel a sense of shared ownership over their charge (Solansky, 2011).

    Some challenges associated with working in teams include the potential for uncertainty or conflict due to the absence of traditional hierarchy, pressures that become overwhelming, lack of shared history since such teams are usually future oriented, and high expectations without resources necessary to complete the task (du Chatenier et al., 2010). To overcome these challenges, team members can think positively but realistically about the team’s end goal, exhibit trust in the expertise of other team members, be reliable and approachable to help build a good team spirit, take initiative with actions and ideas, ask critical questions, and provide critical but constructive feedback.

    1. Given your career goals, what sorts of teamwork do you think you might engage in?
    2. Would you welcome the opportunity to work on a high-performance team? Why or why not?
    3. Members of teams are often under intense pressures to produce or perform at high levels. What is the line at which the pressure becomes too much? Ethically, how far should companies push teams and how far should team members go to complete a task?