Group Cohesiveness

In trying to understand what makes work groups and teams effective, an important question for theory and practice is what keeps a group together, or what leads the members of a group to stay committed to the group? The term group cohesiveness (or cohesion) was coined by Leon Festinger and colleagues to refer to the social glue that binds group members together. Thus group cohesiveness refers to the resultant of all the forces acting on members to remain in the group or simply to group members’ attraction to the group.

The concept of group cohesiveness has a wide appeal in research in applied psychology in such diverse areas as organizational behavior, social psychology, military psychology, sport psychology, educational psychology, and counseling. Much of this interest is inspired by the widely shared recognition that keeping groups together is important to the successful functioning of systems relying on group work. Aside from a concern with what leads group members to remain with a group, the interest in group cohesiveness is also inspired by the assumption that more cohesive groups function better, at least in part because members of more cohesive groups presumably are more willing to exert themselves on behalf of the group. Evidence for this proposition is mixed, however. To address this issue, Brian Mullen and Carolyn Copper (1994) integrated the results of many studies on the relationship between group cohesiveness and group performance. Their conclusion is that group cohesiveness may better be viewed as a construct with different aspect, and that the aspect of cohesiveness that has to do with group members’ commitment to task performance and goal achievement is the most important in predicting group performance. Complementing these findings, more recent evidence suggests that whether group cohesiveness is conducive to group performance is contingent on the extent to which the group embraces high performance goals and norms. If not, high cohesiveness may in fact be associated with lower performance.

The Dimensionality of Group Cohesiveness

Group cohesiveness has always been at least implicitly associated with a greater willingness of group members to exert themselves on behalf of the group and therefore with increased group productivity and performance. Some issues complicate our understanding of the concept of group cohesiveness and its consequences, however.

A first issue is the measurement of group cohesiveness. The concept of group cohesiveness refers to the forces that bind individuals to the group or the attraction of group members to the group. The most common way to measure group cohesiveness, however, is to measure individual group members’ attraction to other group members (i.e., rather than to the group). Interpersonal attraction may be an aspect of group cohesiveness, but it is not the only aspect of group cohesiveness and might not be the most important one. Indeed, the definition of group cohesiveness suggests that attraction to the group as a whole (i.e., rather than to individual members) is more central to the concept. Many studies of group cohesiveness may thus fail to capture important aspects of the concept.

A second issue follows from the first. Many researchers and practitioners alike tend to think of group cohesiveness as a one-dimensional construct, that is, a concept reflected in a single characteristic of the group. Theoretical considerations as well as a review of measurement practices suggest, however, that it may make more sense to think of group cohesiveness as a multidimensional construct—in other words, as a concept reflecting different aspects of the group. Interpersonal attraction between group members may be one of these aspects but not the only one. A second important aspect of group cohesiveness is cohesiveness as it flows from attraction to the group’s goals and mission and commitment to the group’s task. That is, group members may be attracted to the group because they value what the group is trying to achieve. A third aspect that may be important in the group’s attraction on its members is the value to group members of being a member in the group, per se. Part of a group’s attractiveness may flow from the group’s prestige or from other factors that may render members proud of their membership in the group. As Mullen and Copper’s (1994) review of the literature shows, these three aspects are represented in different studies of group cohesiveness, and the relationship between these different aspects is small enough to see them as separate aspects of group cohesiveness. Moreover, these different aspects are differently related to group performance.

Group Cohesiveness and Group Performance

Mullen and Copper (1994) conducted a meta-analysis— a quantitative summary of the results of a number of empirical studies—of research on the relationship between group cohesiveness and group performance. Following from their review of the literature, they distinguished between interpersonal attraction, task commitment, and group pride as different parts of group cohesiveness. What they found was that task commitment was most strongly and most consistently (positively) related to group performance. In particular, the contribution of interpersonal attraction between group members turned out to be very modest at best—and could indeed even be negative. Group members’ attraction to the group’s goals and task thus seems to be the part of commitment that is most important in predicting group performance.

On the practical side, these findings suggest that attempts to boost work group performance by fostering cohesion will be relatively ineffective if they concentrate on building interpersonal attraction between group members, such as by organizing social events for the team, or by boosting group pride. Rather, such attempts are better focused on increasing group members’ commitment to the group task and group goals; for example, this effect is often attributed to charismatic and transformational leadership.

An important caveat in this respect is that short-term group performance may be only one aspect of viable group functioning. For other aspects of group functioning, and perhaps also in the longer run, other aspects of group cohesiveness may play a more important role than suggested by Mullen and Copper’s (1994) focus on relatively short-term task performance. There is, for example, research suggesting that the more social aspects of group cohesiveness such as interpersonal attraction may play a role in longer-term group viability. Arguably, although interpersonal attraction and group pride may not contribute much to group performance directly, they may be important in retaining valued members of the group, and thus for group performance in the longer run. We should be cautious in concluding from a narrow focus on proximal task performance that only certain aspects of group cohesiveness are important for effective group functioning.

It is important to realize, when it comes to the relationship between group cohesiveness and group performance, that group performance may also affect group cohesiveness. Group cohesiveness may lead to group performance, but group performance may also lead to group cohesiveness. When a group performs well rather than poorly, this may render the group more attractive. Indeed, Mullen and Copper’s (1994) analysis suggests that the effect of group performance on group cohesiveness might be twice as strong as the effect of group cohesiveness on group performance. This is not to say that group cohesiveness does not matter in engendering high performance, but it does caution research and practice in group cohesion and performance that observed correlations between cohesion and performance may reflect the influence of performance on cohesion more than the influence of cohesion on performance.

Another important issue in the relationship between group cohesiveness and group performance is that it is probably better to think of group cohesiveness as motivating a willingness to exert oneself on behalf of the group and not necessarily as motivating high group performance. That is, members of highly cohesive groups may be attracted and committed to their group and motivated to exert themselves in pursuit of what they perceive to be the group’s interest, but they need not perceive high performance as being central to the group’s interest. This is nicely illustrated in a study by Philip M. Podsakoff, Scott B. MacKenzie, and Michael Ahearne (1997). These researchers studied the relationship between the cohesiveness of work teams in a paper mill and team productivity. Specifically, they looked at the influence of the teams’ commitment to organizational performance goals on the relationship between group cohesiveness and group productivity. What they found was that higher group cohesiveness was only associated with higher productivity when commitment to organizational performance goals was high. When commitment to performance goals was lower, group cohesiveness even tended to be negatively related to productivity. Other research obtained similar findings for the role of group norms—only when groups accepted high performance norms did cohesion positively predict performance. These findings suggest that organizations may thus only expect positive effects of high-group cohesiveness when groups embrace organizational performance goals and norms.

References:

  1. Festinger, L. (1950). Informal social communication. Psychological Review, 57, 271-282.
  2. Hogg, M. A. (1993). Group cohesiveness: A critical review and some new directions. European Review of Social Psychology, 4, 85-111.
  3. Mullen, B., & Copper, C. (1994). The relation between group cohesiveness and performance: An integration. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 210-227.
  4. Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., & Ahearne, M. (1997). Moderating effects of goal acceptance on the relationship between group cohesiveness and productivity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82, 974-983.
  5. van Knippenberg, D., & Ellemers, N. (2003). Social identity and group performance: Identification as the key to group-oriented efforts. In S. A. Haslam, D. van Knippenberg, M. J. Platow, & N. Ellemers (Eds.), Social identity at work: Developing theory for organizational practice (pp. 29-42). New York & Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

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