Group Formation And Communications
This paper will discuss underlying human factors which contribute to group dynamics. More specifically, it will examine the different stages of group formation and development. It then goes onto address the importance of effective communication in group dynamics and the emergence of leadership issues.
This paper focuses on the interpersonal issues, often referred to as “team dynamics,” that developed during a Project Management group assignment. Group work can be fun, stimulate creativity, help people relax, improve moral, and create relationships and bonds that would otherwise not develop. Some people are comfortable and enjoy listening and communicating in the small group settings. The feeling of being part of a group can be a satisfying experience if the group is effective; however, group work can invoke fear, generate boredom and make people dissatisfied and annoyed. Indeed, some people are reluctant to take part or engage in group interaction (McCroskey 1997). Almost every aspect of Construction and the Built Environment requires some form of group work and in order to work effectively in these contexts, certain communication skills must be developed. However, despite the obvious benefits of team working, there are many obstacles to consider, some of which are discussed in further details in this paper. It is only through the understanding of group dynamics that these barriers can be overcome.
This project examined students’ perceptions of group dynamics and collaborative team working. The group consisted of five members, all post graduate students on a MSc Surveying distance learning course. The team worked together to produce a number of set assignments and later to produce a Project Management Plan for a fictitious new school development. While participating as contributors during this project work, the students’ also observed their respective group’s dynamics, interactions, conflicts, and resolutions.
Group Formation and Communication
This paper refers to a well-functioning, interdependent, task-oriented group based on a functional need, i.e., they formed to complete a series of inter-related tasks. Members in this group share the same goal–to successfully complete the module, although members would describe success at different levels in terms of the grade sought.
Members worked through the theory papers individually with limited interaction for the initial few weeks until the first assignment was due. This assignment required a submission of completed questions from one of the theory papers which was randomly selected by the module leader. This is the point at which the group initiated contact and began the forming stage of the Tuckman’s Five Stages of Group Dynamics. Bruce Tuckman (1965) developed a 5-stage model of group development. He labelled these stages:
Forming: The team is brought together and the assignment is allocated. Team members tend to behave independently and although goodwill may exist they do not know each other well enough to unconditionally trust one another. Time is spent planning, collecting information and bonding.
Storming: The team starts to address the task suggesting ideas. Different ideas may compete for ascendancy and if badly managed this phase can be very destructive for the team. Relationships between team members will be made or broken in this phase and some may never recover. In extreme cases the team can become stuck in the Storming phase. If a team is too focused on consensus they may decide on a plan which is less effective in completing the task for the sake of the team. This carries its own set of problems. It is essential that a team has strong facilitative leadership in this phase.
Norming: Eventually agreement is reached on how the group operates and the group makes agreements on the rules and values by which they operate.
Performing: If a group makes it to this phase then they are considered to be highly performing and this is measured by independence, motivation, knowledge and competence. There will be a high level of trust and communication between members which makes decision making and conflicts much easier to foresee and resolve. It should be noted that many teams do not make it to this stage of Tuckman’s process.
Adjourning: This is the final phase and the process of ‘breaking up’ the group and moving on.
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Once a paper had been requested for submission, there was very little discussion between the team about the suitability and quality of the work before the papers were submitted. Due to travel schedules of some group members, a laissez-faire approach was adopted to the group structure in that the only norm identified was the use of e-mail to communicate. The group seemed willing to rely on the professionalism of each member to dictate their performance. The group consisted of mature students who were expected to have quite a lot of experience working in groups. Other members who might have preferred more structure did not voice this desire.
There was no communication between members after the initial task until another submission was required for the course. This was approximately two weeks later, so forming was not quickly accomplished. However, it was at this point, where initial development of the main Project Management Plan assignment began, that the group moved into the performing or cohesion stage very quickly. Three of the members met in person and a very dynamic, supportive meeting took place. Members volunteered for tasks they wanted to do and the group was off and running.
As noted, members in this group were all focused on completing the tasks successfully and achieving the desired goal. This influenced the group’s interaction in terms of conforming and majority influence. All members had a similar level of commitment to the product which influenced how readily they reached agreement. Since there were no repercussions to agreeing with another member’s opinion, members quickly agreed to an approach as long as it achieved the goal. There was little need exhibited for one specific person’s approach and as such no conflict situations arose.
During the development of the groups norms (the third stage of Tuckman’s Five Stages of Group Dynamics), email was identified as the preferred method of communication. All group members live in various locations across the country and as such face-to-face contact on a regular basis was not possible, so the group agreed to hold meetings only when convenient (i.e. whilst at University seminars/exams).
Bruce W. Tuckman’s model of the developmental sequence in small groups has rightly been adopted as a helpful starting point about possible stages or phases within different small groups. When the original article was written it was an important summary of the existing literature – and its longevity reflects Tuckman’s ability to categorize and synthesize – and to get it right. While there may be all sorts of debates around such approaches to stage theory, and around the need for a model that reflects the flux of groups, there does seem to be some truth in the assertion that small groups tend to follow a fairly predictable path.
This team, in general seemed to have a fair level of open communication. Logical negotiation and brainstorming led to group sessions being energetic and focused. The individuals worked at a professional level with no personal conflict. However, on the downside, there was lack of clearly defined roles. This led to confusion regarding individual responsibilities during execution of the final deliverables at every stage, and thus often caused delays in the completion of the project development.
However, effective communication was demonstrated when a team member was experiencing difficulties accessing the University IT facilities, thus effectively excluding them from project discussions which were all made through email and PebblePad. The team member communicated as soon as possible and explained their absence and still managed to fulfil their role in the project by completing the piece of work they had arranged. The episode highlights the importance of clear communication for effectiveness in team processes. If this team member had not informed the rest of the group that they were unable to access email facilities then the rest of the group may have assumed that they have left the group and reallocated their work load to another member – thus possibly resulting in duplicate work and generating unnecessary and counterproductive stress. In this situation we can see that the communication network is working efficiently.
It is all very well to consider formal aspects of team communication through communication networks. However, informal aspects of group communications are no less interesting and significant for team effectiveness. Relationships and trust may develop between all members of a team but it is more likely that some members will confide and communicate with selected members of the team. Following the initial group selection, a sub group naturally developed of two people who owned and drove the project forward. This included initiating email contact, planning and delegating roles and keeping the project on track. This smaller group demonstrated skills and determination to drive the project on top of their other university and work commitments.
Working together to deliver a joint project with individuals you do not have a natural relationship with is challenging, particularly when communication is limited to email and forums. The commitment and enthusiasm necessary to progress the work may not be there and team members may be quite open about their lack of enthusiasm. No one person has leadership or management responsibility and these roles have to be negotiated. The success of the project relies on alliance building and like minded people, with complementary skills, developing a firm relationship.
Because of the limited communication methods available to the team and the lack of shared experience, it was hard to decide upon a shared goal or vision for their project as discussions and negotiations were limited. However despite this impediment, all team members felt more at ease with each other as the project progressed, they had bonded through the shared and unifying experience. Therefore if this group were assigned another task, their previous group experience as a cooperative unit is likely be beneficial by enhancing group structure, purpose, adaptability, and understanding.
There is a multitude of research on leadership within organizations (Lieberson & O’Connor, 1972; Smith, Carson, & Alexander, 1984; Stodgills, 1974). More recently, Wills (1994) defined a leader as “one who mobilises others toward a goal shared by leader and followers” and emphasised that a leader and follower are interdependent and together they must pursue the shared vision of the group. Therefore, leadership is not inherent in a single individual but depends on the group and its goals.
Significant research on leadership has focused on leadership styles. Stodgills (1974) described four classic styles of leadership: authoritarian, democratic, laissez-faire, and human resources. The authoritarian style is characterised by tight control of the group by the leader. In this case, the leader tells others what to do, limits discussion on ideas and new ways of doing things, and discourages teamwork. This style tends to be most effective when there is a major time constraint, the group lacks skill and knowledge, or the group members do not know each other. The authoritarian style is ineffective when the group’s goal is to develop a strong sense of teamwork, the members have some degree of skill/knowledge, or the group wants an element of spontaneity in their work.
Moderate group control characterizes the democratic leadership style. In this case, Stodgills (1974) suggests that the group members have the knowledge and skill, but it is necessary for the leader to coordinate group action. It involves group members in planning and carrying out activities and promotes the sense of teamwork. Also, the leader participates as an active member of group. This style is most effective when there is plenty of time for the group to work together and there is a high degree of motivation among its members. It is most ineffective when the team lacks skills or knowledge and when there is a high degree of conflict present.
The laissez-faire leadership style gives little or no direction to the group. In fact, the group has a high degree of control and assumes responsibility for meeting its goals and objectives. The opinion of the leader is offered only when requested. This style is most effective when there is a very high degree of skill and motivation between the group members and the routine is familiar to all participants. It is most ineffective when there is a low sense of interdependence and an expectation that the leader is to provide guidance on the tasks. In the human resource style of leadership, the leader focuses on satisfying the needs of members with little emphasis on tasks.
Consistent with its laissez-faire approach to structure, this group was reluctant to designate a formal leader. Instead, tasks rotated among the members based on their interests and skills. The member who initiated first contact was seen as the first informal leader; however, subsequent meetings were initiated by other members. This lack of direct leadership was successful in the initial stages of the project, however as deadlines approached and workloads increased, establishing the role of a chair became crucial to ensure the project was completed within the required timescales. Although there was no formal allocation of chair position, one member of the team naturally adopted a leadership role by leading project discussions, delegating tasks and responsibilities in agreement with the rest of the project team and monitoring progress.
Leaders often emerge naturally in this way throughout the lifecycle of a project. These emergent leaders play significant roles in moving the group toward its goals although they may not be recognised as leaders in the traditional sense. Geier (1967) has proposed a model for leadership emergence in small groups that consists of three stages. This model presents a process of elimination where contenders of leadership battle each other through group interaction and are ousted one-by-one as the group progresses through each developmental stage. The result of the elimination process is that one person emerges as the group leader. According the Geier, the emergence of the leader is a gradual process that occurs as a person achieves status in the group. This individual may have had more time and interest to devote to the course and other members were grateful for their level of participation. This informal leadership approach fitted well with the personalities of the group members, although at least one member expressed a desire for more formality in terms of stated responsibilities and deadlines. The leader utilised an interpersonally oriented interaction style to accomplish the necessary tasks. They often reminded group members of their assignments and due dates and emphasised their commitments to the group if members fell behind. They suggested approaches to completing the project, as did other members. Open discussions were held over email prior to decision making, thus, all members felt they had input to the decisions.
A group of five people without previous shared experience, as this team had, exceeds the limits of informal task sharing. In not formally designating a team leader, this team created a situation where decisions and goals were frequently reassessed and changed. There was no one with designated authority to make final decisions. Individual team member roles were undefined and responsibilities unassigned. Although to start with, this lack of formal leadership worked to the groups advantage by allowing members to naturally define their own roles within the group, later as work pressures mounted and deadlines loomed, these factors led to halting progress, frequently changed direction, and unequal sharing of work.
Once the group began developing the Project Management assignment, communication among the members was frequent. The group email messages were very task oriented and the lack of regular face to face meetings meant that that group cohesion suffered as no socio-emotional connections could be made between group members. Only one formal meeting was held during the course of the assignment. Just three members of the team attended the meeting, acceptable explanations were given to explain absences prior to the meeting however certain group members did not seek ‘opportunities’ to volunteer or take on roles/actions when they had not attended the meeting.
One member of the team has remained somewhat isolate throughout the course of the project, not participating as frequently in group discussions as some of the other members. Perhaps this individual would have been more involved had they had greater defined role? Priorities and pressure of day to day jobs must also be taken into consideration as this was a significant factor in the commitment and performance of all team members. The final planning of the group project coincided with the end of the financial year which for any group members who hold jobs in the public sector, is a time of year when workloads increase and priority must be given to main job commitments and deadlines. The pressure of ‘main job’ commitments cannot be ignored when working on a group project and there will be times when other duties have to be prioritised but throughout a three month project there was enough time from planning meetings, email discussions and seminar events for people to have played an equitable role.
Despite these issues, this group functioned well within the parameters of the task. The team had no specific conflicts to overcome during the course of the project and as a result were able to adopt a method of leadership which suited the working style of each of the team members. This allowed the assignment to be completed to the satisfaction of everyone in the group and without any feeling of resentment or disregard. All members will leave the group with a positive view of the interaction among the members, although they may feel the requirements of the project were extremely demanding with limited time to adequately devote to development of group dynamics and working relationships. This group formed to complete a specific project and as this task is now complete, the group interaction is not expected to continue unless there is a professional reason to do so.
McCroskey, J. C (1997) ‘Willingness to communication, communication apprehension, and self-perceived communication competence: conceptualizations and perspectives.’ New Jersey, Hampton Press.
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Lieberson & O’Connor, (1972); ‘Leadership and Organisational Performance: A Study of Large Corporations’, American Sociological Review 1972, Vol 37.
Smith, Carson, & Alexander, (1984); ‘Leadership: It can make a difference’, Academy of Management Journal 1984, Vol 27.
Stogdill, R. (1974). ‘Personal factors associated with leadership.’ Journal of Applied Psychology.
Wills, G. (1994). ‘Certain trumpets: The nature of leadership’. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Geier, J. G. (1967). ‘A trait approach to the study of leadership in small groups’. Journal of Communications.
Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing, www.teambuilding.co.uk