For most people in work organizations, the organization as a whole is a relatively abstract entity. Their day-to-day work experience is shaped far more by the work group, team, department, or work unit than by the organization as a whole. The work group is their direct social environment at work and the most important social influence on how they experience their work. Moreover, organizations are increasingly structuring work to be group or team based, where groups and teams rather than individuals are responsible for production and performance. This requires people to work in close cooperation with their fellow group members; and it makes coordination, cooperation, and communication between group members critical elements of task performance. Obviously, then, understanding how work groups function, what causes specific group processes, and what the consequences of specific group processes are is of critical importance to theory and practice in industrial-organizational psychology. Understanding these processes is the domain of group dynamics, or group processes.
The causes and consequences of group processes are typically understood within an input-process-outcome (IPO) framework, in which group processes (what happens in the group during task performance) are seen as the mechanism through which group inputs (resources internal and external to the group, and the organizational context) are translated into group outcomes (productivity, performance, or some other indicator of group effectiveness). In recent years research has highlighted group processes as critical in this respect, including group information processing; group conflict; group members’ shared understanding of, and shared feelings about, the task situation; and group efficacy.
Input-Process-Outcome Models of Group Effectiveness
Most attempts to understand group dynamics implicitly or explicitly take an IPO perspective. Inputs refer to what is given at the outset of task performance. Inputs include factors that flow from team composition— such as group member personality, knowledge, skills, and abilities—but also factors that are more external to the team—such as the organizational context in which the group performs its tasks. Processes refer to what actually takes place in the group during task performance, highlight what happens in the interaction between group members, and underscore group members’ thoughts and feelings about the group and group task performance. Obviously, the focus in trying to understand group processes is on factors that may be assumed to affect desirable and undesirable outcomes of group interaction. Outcomes in principle are all variables that might be influenced by group inputs and group processes. Not surprisingly, however, in I/O psychology the emphasis typically is on group outcomes that can be seen as indicators of group effectiveness, such as group productivity and performance, or on variables that may be seen as more distal indicators of effective group functioning such as group member turnover and satisfaction.
Originally, group processes were understood within this IPO perspective as being caused by group inputs. Group process was primarily seen as the mechanism explaining the relationship between group inputs and group outcomes. An alternative perspective in which group processes are seen as mechanisms that may be influenced to affect the relationship between group inputs and group outcomes is equally viable, however. In the latter perspective, specific group processes are not seen as the more or less inevitable consequence of particular input factors but rather as mechanisms that may be influenced, for example, by team leadership or management practices, in attempts to achieve positive group outcomes and prevent negative group outcomes. Importantly, the perspectives do not contradict each other. Particular group inputs may be likely to engender specific group processes, whereas at the same time group interventions may render these associations between inputs and out-comes more or less likely. For research and practice in group dynamics, it is therefore important to understand both how group input may affect group processes, and group outcomes through group process, and how group processes may be used to translate group inputs into desirable outcomes.
Key Issues in Group Dynamics and Processes
As more and more organizations use groups and teams for knowledge-intensive work, an issue that seems to increasingly assume center stage is a group’s ability to process and integrate large amounts of task-relevant information, as well as use this information in creative and innovative ways. Research and development teams are prime examples of teams faced with such tasks; but the same holds, for example, for the top management teams found in many of today’s organizations. The challenge to such groups and teams is all the bigger, because such groups are often quite diverse in their composition, including members with different demographic, educational, and functional backgrounds, and this diversity may introduce a wide range of task-relevant information, knowledge, and expertise that groups ideally would use in their task performance. Thus group information processing and decision making is one of the key issues in understanding and managing group dynamics.
A related but distinct issue is group conflict. Whenever people work together, conflicts may arise. These conflicts may concern the task itself as well as the relationship between group members. Especially diverse groups that have to deal with complex issues may be prone to such conflicts. Conflicts can be problematic, because they may disrupt group functioning and decrease satisfaction among group members. However, not all conflicts appear to be equally disruptive—task-related conflicts tend to be less problematic than relationship-oriented conflicts. Moreover, there is also evidence that at least under certain circumstances task conflict may actually be productive, because it may stimulate more thorough and creative thinking among group members. Group conflict in particular thus seems a group process that requires careful management; although it may often be disruptive, it may also lead to positive outcomes.
More and more evidence points to another aspect of group processes that may have an important impact on group outcomes: the extent to which thoughts and feelings about the group and the group’s task are socially shared among group members, that is, the extent to which group members have similar thoughts and feelings about the group and the task. This is the area of research in what are called team mental models and task mental models—group members’ understanding of their team and the way it functions and of the team task and the way it should be performed. This research suggests that as mental models of the team and the task become more socially shared (i.e., as group members hold more similar mental models), the influence of these mental models on group task performance grows; and groups may function more effectively and efficiently because these shared mental models provide guidance that not only contributes to individual performance but may also help coordinate group member efforts. Research has similarly suggested that groups may share feelings; and as feelings become more socially shared, they exert a stronger influence on group interaction. More generally, research suggests that group members’ thoughts and feelings exert a greater influence on group processes and performance the more they are socially shared.
Another factor that is important to group performance is perceptions of group efficacy: the belief that the group is capable of achieving its goals. The perception that an individual is able to achieve a goal is an important factor in translating motivation into action, and essentially the same holds for groups. Higher group efficacy (or group potency) tends to be associated with more effort and persistence in task performance and ultimately with better performance. Somewhat related to this is the notion of group cohesiveness—group members’ attraction to the group. At least under certain conditions, high cohesiveness may engender group member efforts that result in better performance.
From an applied perspective, this suggests that the effective management of work groups and teams includes the management of group processes, such that the potential in group inputs is realized; and potentially negative effects of group inputs, such as (relational) conflicts, are prevented. Among other things, this requires fostering group motivation and ability to thoroughly exchange, process, and integrate task-relevant information and perspectives; the careful management of group conflict to reap its potential benefits without suffering its potentially disruptive consequences; and facilitating the development of an (appropriate) shared understanding of the team and the task. This may involve member selection (e.g., selecting members with appropriate knowledge, skills, and ability), leadership to motivate high task performance and to build the trust between group members that is necessary to effectively deal with conflicts, and collective rather than individual training to develop a shared understanding of the team and the task. It also helps to keep the work group or team together for a more extended period of time so the team can benefit from the initial time investment required to achieve these positive influences on group processes.
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