With credit to Francesco Marciuliano; drawn by Craig Macintosh March 25 2008
EDP 5285 GROUP PROCESSES
PROFESSOR SUSAN CAROL LOSH
GROUP PERFORMANCE AND DECISION MAKING
While it is self affirming to see that my personal experiences actually have some validation in the research literature, it is difficult to get students (particularly undergraduates) to do team projects. Most are concerned about "free riders" or "social loafing" and being exploited, i.e., that they will be the only group member to do the job and that the entire rest of the (free-riding) group will receive credit for one's individual labors. Other students are unsure about how to coordinate team efforts. When work on a team project is postponed due to other priorities, social loafers are less likely to be held accountable and loafing occurs more frequently.
Yet, when team members work together, the results can be spectacular! I am thinking of the two Social Psychology students who collected attitude data from nearly 1100 summoned jurors! Or the five person team who studied the effects of challenging authority on conformity to an aerobics instructor's (an experimental team member) attempts to teach new steps. Or the group that studied whether "pregnancy" made a difference in helping behavior at Governor's Square Mall during the holiday shopping season. Or the group that made over 1000 observations to study conformity in "looking up." None of these terrific student projects could have been accomplished by a lone individual.
Of course, these salutary projects are not an inevitable outcome of working in groups. Sometimes groups do worse than the average member working alone, even spectacularly worse. The issue becomes under which circumstances working in groups produces a superior--or an inferior--product.
How does the presence of other people affect the performance of individuals? Is performance improved, worse, or about the same?
For a brief review of social facilitation material in Guide One, click HERE.
The basic idea is that the presence of others creates at least some physiological arousal. Arousal heightens the probability of performing dominant responses. When a dominant response is correct, the presence of others improves performance. If the dominant response is incorrect, performance can suffer.
Many "work groups" do, in fact, consist of co-actors. Sewers in a clothing factory, students taking an exam, or counter workers at the post office are all co-actors, doing the same job at the same time in the same place. Although they are not "groups" in the sense of coordinated roles or interdependence, their coworkers' presence should influence their performance just the same.
More detailed research finds that a key to the physiological arousal that occurs with compresence or the presence of others is evaluation apprehension, i.e., a social anxiety that occurs when we believe that our behavior is under scrutiny and faces normative evaluation. Although some arousal may occur with the mere presence of others, it is heightened if some type of evaluation situation is involved. And, with groups of friends, a relaxation response may occur instead. The latter finding suggests one mechanism whereby more interpersonally cohesive groups are less productive: if relationships are too friendly, group members are more relaxed, less motivated to produce (according to the norms of the larger organization), and possibly produce at a lower quantity and quality.
The presence of others thus can improve performance through motivation and when improvement is easy to do. This would include quantity (when it is easy to increase output) on simple or well structured tasks.
However, what if the situation is new, the task unstructured or complex, requiring a sequence of steps to complete? In that case, both theory and empirical results suggest that individual performance in acquisition tends to suffer in the presence of others (especially on novel tasks). The recommendation is to study, practice, or rehearse alone, then perform in the presence of either co-acting others or an audience, wherein the presence of others will increase arousal, thereby facilitating the performance of well learned responses.
Social facilitation stresses arousal, motivation, or drive. Other theorists in this area suspect more cognitive processes are at work when people perform in the presence of others, such as heightened self-awareness or increased self monitoring. The increased attention paid to one's performance thus can actually distract individuals from exclusive attention to the task.
Ivan Steiner's social
combination theory, in contrast, focuses more on group, rather
than individual, productivity. In his view, group performance depends more
on whether groups have the resources to succeed (schools which lack trained
teachers, updated computers, sufficient textbooks, or laboratory equipment,
for example, face gigantic hurdles in becoming Florida "A-level" schools)
and whether groups can combine these resources productively.
|THE EFFECTS OF THE SITUATION|
Factors such as co-actors or audience effects interact with situational variables such as task complexity, group diversity, group size, or the nature of the task to influence task performance. KSAs is short for "knowledge, skills, and abilities" that members bring with them to a group situation. Similar to other types of knowledge, skills, and abilities that people possess, group skills learned in one situation may generalize to others.
William Sewell's theory of "structuation" (“A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation.” American Journal of Sociology, 1992, 98 (1): 1-29.) described how group members can transfer skills from one setting to another. In my study of churches and synagogues, I found that White or Black middle-class congregations easily created interlocking, often elaborate, structures of support groups, almost certainly using skills for running groups that members had learned in educational or organizational settings, while working class congregations created far fewer support groups. In my research on citizen responses to a jury summons, it was clear that middle class white collar workers had the bureaucratic skills to request a postponement or an excuse from jury duty. Less educated blue collar workers (who held attitudes toward jury duty similar to those of white collar workers) simply failed to show up as opposed to filing a postponement or excuse. Political scientists report that less educated African-Americans who are church members (Black churches tend to fill more community functions, such as educational or political than White churches do) have higher levels of political engagement, effects that do not hold for European-Americans. The lone working class President of the local Sheltie club was coached continually by other members on how to hold a semi-formal meeting.
The weight of the evidence indicates that group members DO transfer knowledge and skills from other settings to new groups. This means that group diversity of membership, whether by gender, ethnicity, or social class, can benefit groups because a diverse membership brings different skills and attitudes to the group. If so, this is particularly important for the modern era in countries such as the United States which have begun to stress the importance of diverse work and civic group membership.
Diversity of group membership is a plus--if handled carefully. Group members may bring different points of view and supplement each other's information. A diverse group is likely to have a larger collective memory that encompasses the individual memories of all members.
On the other hand, different cultural groups can bring different interactional styles to a group setting. "Mars Meets Venus" is not just the orientation of a popular series of books; women and men, for example, tend to have different interaction styles in groups (e.g., men interrupt women at extremely high ratios and women appear more interested in consensus-building) that should be considered if all group members are to participate effectively. Differences that come from statuses outside the group (diffuse status characteristics) should be leveled or else members with junior or subordinate statuses will have their contributions neglected and be afraid to speak up. Further, similarity among members is a primary source of group cohesion. Extra effort may be needed to create a cohesive group of members who arrive with diverse backgrounds and experiences.
Group goals not only provide a vision to motivate members and charge them with idealism. The type of goals a group adopts may facilitate group performance. Johnson and Johnson endorse the "START" model. Goals should be:
Group tasks can be:
Of course, many times, the group itself does not decide on the task or group goals. Volunteer groups often decide on their own tasks as do smaller work groups, which may decide on how to implement a task. On the other hand, in hierarchical organizations, the group task may be assigned or delegated. Members can only decide how to implement the task, not what the task will be in the first place. Employees are told they must increase production. Members of a local political group are told to raise votes and funding for state and national candidates.
Groups have been accused of stifling creativity. "Brainstorming" was a technique "officially" created in the 1970s and once widely applied in areas such as marketing to overcome this perceived limitation. The general notion was to have a group generate as many creative ideas as possible. Then the group would refine these ideas and adopt a decision, a new marketing scheme, or a new program (e.g., I worked with the U.S. Navy on racial integration programs in the mid-1970s when brainstorming was a popular technique).
Because group members might be shy in proclaiming their ideas or sensitive to criticism, or because diffuse status characteristics might lead some member's contributions to be valued more highly, "brainstorming groups" adopted rules to maximize the generation of creative ideas. Any idea, no matter how initially ridiculous it seemed, was to be considered. Evaluation of ideas was reserved toward the end of a brainstorming session and members were expected to add to the ideas generated during the session.
Brainstorming can lead to information overload; so many ideas become generated that people begin to try to block out too much information. The arousal overload makes some people anxious or nervous. Other members feel conspicuous because they believe they are over contributing. At that point, group members "clam up," and, as a result, fewer creative ideas get expressed. Ironically, silence and time may be needed for members to assimilate information and generate ideas individually. Individual output may then be combined later into a group project.
The failure of "simple-minded brainstorming" to work effectively and the reluctance of organizations to put more complex rules in place for more effective brainstorming sessions led this technique to an early demise as a routine event. It still occasionally resurfaces. Of course, brainstorming may be superior to a group not considering a topic at all.
Perhaps a review of the focus group materials
might be helpful to those who wish to try brainstorming. Focus groups,
too, emphasize generation of ideas and tolerance of the expression of ideas.
However, focus group do have a "semi" structure and that might be just
the format to help brainstorming groups become more productive.
Some of the benefits and problems that I have encountered while encouraging students to work in teams are neatly summarized by this literature on situational effects such as group size! For example, the tendency for individual effort and productivity to drop as group size increases (the Ringelmann effect) has been tested for nearly a century.
When tasks are simple and additive, or disjunctive, group productivity typically exceeds individual productivity. However, social loafing also increases with group size and this is a prime source of process loss wherein members work below their potential. Social loafing refers to the tendency for many members to work below capacity when in a group. Typical complaints are "I am the only one who does any work" or "I hate to be the one who did all the work and these loafers get the same grade!" To be charitable, social loafing may also reflect a lack of group structure so that members are not exactly sure what they are supposed to do or when tasks should be completed. Obviously, even suspicions of social loafing damage group cohesion and group productivity.
Here are some factors that increase social loafing:
Groups tend to make decisions in stages. In his work, Forsyth delineates orientation, discussion, decision, and implementation stages.
In making decisions, groups call upon a variety of decision rules (information processing schemas) and decision schemes. For example, the "truth wins" (or "Eureka" situation) rule is invoked when a proposal or solution seems so intuitively obvious to most members, once it is explained, that it is almost immediately adopted. Members experience an "aha!" crystallization so that the proposal or solution appears "instinctively true." "Truth supported wins" answers are less obvious and more ambiguous. As a result, diffuse status characteristics may provide the additional incentive to adopt the proposal or solution.
Groups suffer from some of the same information processing impediments that individuals face. The group may be overly influenced by vivid information but left unimpressed by statistical summaries. Members may act as "agenda scholars," i.e., they are use confirmatory bias in hypothesis "testing" rather than evidence driven decisions. As a result, the group may selectively gather data to support its conclusions instead of objectively weighing evidence. In their haste to reach a decision, group members may form conclusions too quickly. Thus, instead of trying to reason through alternatives, the group may force a premature vote or spend time trying to "convert deviants."
Groups also utilize a variety of decision schemes. Some examples include:
More ethnographic research conducted in groups indicates that interpersonal skills through the group decision making process need to be sharpened:
The old cliché was that groups were conservative. Group discussion was supposed to moderate extreme viewpoints, and opinions or courses of action would reflect horse trading and compromises among members. Therefore, you can imagine the surprise among researchers in the mid 1960s when a series of studies (the "Stoner dilemmas") reported that, as a result of group discussion, not only was the group's final choice more risky than the average of members' choices before deliberation, but members' post test scores also moved in a "risky" direction. These studies were called research on the "risky shift."
Within the next 10 years of research, it became apparent that (1) groups could experience "conservative shifts" too and (2) it was something about the group discussion that could move members in a direction more extreme (risky or conservative) than the average of group member's individual viewpoints. Discussion appears to intensify attitudes, beliefs, values, judgments and perceptions. The entire phenomenon was then renamed "group polarization" or "group polarized decision making."
The phenomenon may occur because those
holding extreme views usually try to be persuasive and may talk so much
that other members may conclude that this is the group's position.
Pressures toward unanimity (such as occur in juries) or social comparison
processes (the new information presented stimulates members to compare
their own opinions with the group) may also be important. Group discussion
may also provide a forum for members to learn the group's values. The direction
of the shift (risky or conservative) seems to follow the general direction
of group values. Polarized decisions are a dramatic reminder that groups
can taken on a "life of their own," divergent from the sum or average of
ALL COMES TOGETHER: GROUPTHINK
(or...did group cohesion run amuck?)
Not only can group decisions be different from the average of co-acting individuals in a simulated group, but, in real life they can be disastrous! "Groupthink" is the term that Irving Janis coined to describe a rigid, narrow, ethnocentric style of decision making that can lead groups to make terrible decisions. The group's decisions are problematic because the group considers only a narrow range of information that supports its own agenda. The problem may be exacerbated by a directive leader who states her or his own direction early in the group session.
Janis felt that group cohesiveness was
a prime factor in creating Groupthink situations. Because members want
to belong and because cohesive groups are better at enforcing norms and
rejecting deviants, cohesive groups are more likely to impose homogeneity
and uniformity upon their membership. This suggest that interpersonal cohesion
or possibly the attractiveness of a highly prestigious group may increase
"Groupthink" while stressing task cohesion or group structure may ameliorate
I have presented material first on cohesion
and group influence because these two sets of processes can dramatically
influence group decision making and performance. Descriptions of the types
of decision making and performance prepare us for our next topic, which
is leadership. The effectiveness of different styles of leadership often
depends on the type of group situation: the goals, the tasks, the structure.
This page was built with
Susan Carol Losh
March 29 2009
In memory, Columbia