Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Why do subgroups emerge? And how do groups stay productive if they do?

Group working can be sociable, fulfilling and effective, yet there are many ways for it to fall short of the ideal. A mass of similar opinions can lead to groupthink, rushing to agreement without questioning a line of thinking. But a group splintering into subgroups can also lead to problems. Subgrouping doesn't take much, as minimal group research has revealed, and it creates barriers across which information struggles to flow, due to confusion or outright hostility. A new study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior explains how two kinds of group integration – cognition and emotion – influence the impact of subgroups in rather different ways.

A team of researchers lead by Matthew Cronin looked at performance of MBA students in teams of five or six participating in a 14-week business simulation exercise. They surveyed the 321 participants twice, once about three weeks before the end and again at the close of the exercise, determining the extent to which the team had formed subgroups and how satisfied individuals felt about being part of the team.

The researchers also took two measures of integration: affective integration, probing how much they liked and trusted the rest of the team, and cognitive integration, how much common ground members share in terms of how they look at the world. They were interested in how these variables ultimately affected the group' satisfaction, measured in the final survey, and its performance, determined by the final company earnings it achieved.

The data revealed a vicious circle: less affective integration made it more likely that subgroups would emerge later, and more definite subgroups led to subsequent lower integration. Falling into this pattern meant team members felt less satisfied about being part of the team at the end of the event. Moreover, as subgroups emerged, team performance also suffered. But this effect was dampened when there was good cognitive integration. That is, when members are divided, possess diverging agendas and may not particularly like each other, they can still get the job done if they share a framework for looking at the world.

This study is valuable in untangling some of the distinct processes that contribute to healthy team working. In the words of the authors, cognitive integration can “prevent the harm that subgroups can potentially create”. But to stop the subgroups forming in the first place, it comes down to preventing that slide into us-vs-them and the lack of trust that it feeds and is fed by. Stakeholders who want a group to succeed should consider interventions, and make them early to avoid the rot setting in.

ResearchBlogging.orgCronin, M., Bezrukova, K., Weingart, L., & Tinsley, C. (2011). Subgroups within a team: The role of cognitive and affective integration Journal of Organizational Behavior, 32 (6), 831-849 DOI: 10.1002/job.707

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