Group Cohesion Definition
Group cohesion is a social process that characterizes groups whose members interact with each other and refers to the forces that push group members closer together. A lot of work these days is accomplished in groups. Most people have had both good and bad experiences from participating in such group work. One important element that influences one’s group work experience is cohesion. Cohesion has two dimensions: emotional (or personal) and task-related.
The emotional aspect of cohesion, which was studied more often, is derived from the connection that members feel to other group members and to their group as a whole. That is, how much do members like to spend time with other group members? Do they look forward to the next group meeting? Task cohesion refers to the degree to which group members share group goals and work together to meet these goals. That is, is there a feeling that the group works smoothly as one unit, or do different people pull in different directions?
Group (or team) cohesion was studied extensively and has received a great deal of attention in the social sciences, as evidenced by the hundreds of articles published in the past 50 years in various domains, including sports, education, and work (a quick Google search revealed that there are more than 278,000 hits for “group cohesion” and nearly 120,000 hits for “group cohesiveness”).
Factors Influencing Group Cohesion
The forces that push group members together can be positive (group-based rewards) or negative (things lost upon leaving the group). The main factors that influence group cohesion are members’ similarity, group size, entry difficulty, group success, and external competition and threats. Often, these factors work through enhancing the identification of the individual with the group he or she belongs to as well as the individual’s beliefs of how the group can fulfill his or her personal needs.
The more group members are similar to each other on various characteristics, the easier it is to reach cohesion. Through social identity theory, it has been found that people feel closer to those whom they perceive as similar to themselves in external characteristics (age, ethnicity) or internal ones (values, attitudes). In addition, similar background makes it more likely that members share similar views on various issues, including group objectives, communication styles, and the type of desired leadership. In general, higher agreement among members on group rules and norms results in greater trust and less dysfunctional conflict, which, in turn, strengthen both emotional and task cohesion.
Because it is easier for fewer people to agree on goals and to coordinate their work, smaller groups are more cohesive than larger groups. Task cohesion may suffer, though, if the group lacks enough members to perform its tasks well enough.
Difficult entry criteria or procedures to a group tend to present it in more exclusive light. The more elite the group is perceived to be, the more prestigious it is to be a member in that group, and consequently, the more motivated members are to belong and stay in it. This is why alumni of prestigious universities tend to keep in touch for many years after they graduate.
Group success, like exclusive entry, increases the value of group membership to its members and influences members to identify more strongly with the team and to want to be actively associated with it. Think how it feels to be part of a winning basketball team!
External Competition and Threats
When members perceive active competition with another group, they become more aware of members’ similarity within their group and see their group as a means to overcome the external threat or competition they are facing. Both these factors increase group cohesion; leaders throughout human history have been aware of this and have focused the attention of their followers on conflicts with external enemies when internal cohesion was threatened. Similar effects can be brought about by facing an objective external threat or challenge (such as natural disaster).
Consequences of Group Cohesion
Cohesive groups have several characteristics. First, members interact more with each other. Cohesive groups develop a supportive communication climate in which people are more comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings. Second, cohesive groups’ members are friendlier and cooperative with each other than are members in noncohesive groups. Members of highly cohesive groups talk positively about their group and its members. Third, cohesive groups have greater influence over their members and pressure them to conform. Fourth, cohesive groups’ members are more satisfied and believe that both their personal and group goals are better met compared to low-cohesion groups.
Given these characteristics, it may be not surprising that a general finding that emerged from studying various groups (including sport teams and work groups) is that cohesion contributes to positive group processes (e.g., sharing information) and to groups’ task performance. Among the reasons for the performance-enhancing effects of cohesion are members’ increased motivation to perform better in the group, partially due to norms that discourage social loafing on group projects. Another reason for the performance superiority of cohesive groups is members’ commitment to the group task, which tends to be higher in cohesive groups; higher task commitment was indeed found to relate to higher task performance. Improved communication and trust allow members to share more and better information with each other, enabling a wider resource pool for the group to use when solving problems. Lastly, the high mutual support among cohesive groups’ members in stressful times creates a positive and long-lasting interdependency among team members. On the other hand, in low-cohesion groups, conflicts tend to occur more and develop into dysfunctional interpersonal conflicts more often, discouraging members from sharing information and helping their teammates.
Notwithstanding the generally positive consequences of cohesion, there are rare situations in which group cohesion may not contribute to higher performance. One such case is found in organizations when teams’ norms conflict with organizational goals. Researchers found that when such conflict is high, higher team cohesion actually results in lower task performance.
Another source for potentially negative outcomes is the pressure to conform that highly cohesive groups exert on their members. While this adherence to norms has many benefits for the group as a whole, the same mechanism may result in negative social and individual consequences. For example, the fact that abuses against individual members in small communities and military units, which tend to be highly cohesive, can go for long times unexposed, can be attributed in a large part to the tight norms of these very cohesive groups.
- Beal, D. J., Cohen, R., Burke, M. J., & McLendon, C. L. (2003). Cohesion and performance in groups: A meta-analytic clarification of construct relation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 989-1004.
- Orwell, G. (1949). Nineteen eighty-four, a novel. London: Secker & Warburg.
- Piper, W., Marrache, M., Lacroix, R., Richardson, A., & Jones, B. (1983). Cohesion as a basic bond in groups. Human Relations, 36, 93-108.