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Group Assignment? How to Collaborate Successfully and Avoid Disaster

[Reblogged from original posting at NOBA,] Professors often ask students to work on projects and activities in groups. These learning groups can yield remarkable educational benefits, but their value depends on how well the group manages its work and its relationships. Consider, for example, these two students’ experiences in groups.


(A) Ava is upset as she listens to her professor make a nightmare of an assignment: a 5-student group project comparing the James-Lange theory of emotions to the Cannon-Bard theory. She doesn’t like working in groups, but she manages to get everyone’s name and emails as class ends. That night she sends them all messages and sets up a meeting for the next day. Sadly, only two other people show up, but together they talk about the project some—although they also discuss how unfair group projects are. They decide to split the paper up into parts, and assign each part to one member. Ava emails everyone their assignment, and all agree to do their work. As the deadline looms, 3 turn in drafts, one turns in part of a draft, and the fifth member explains he has been ill and did not get to it. Ava downloads the various parts and turns them into a paper, but she has to pull an all-nighter to get it done. The professor gives the paper a C-, and threatens to turn the group into the honor council since portions are plagiarized.


(B) Ethan is worried when his professor explains the assignment: a 10 page group paper about the psychological effects of playing violent video games. He has been in groups before, and in one class he nearly failed because the group got an F on their project. But, at the group’s first meeting, held immediately after class, he is relieved when the students quickly settle on a time for a more extended meeting. At that meeting they discuss the project, and ideas flow because everyone read the portions of the chapter that apply to their topic before the meeting. One member volunteers to set up a Google Docs page to facilitate their work, and over the next several weeks the members stay in email contact and busily revise the online document. They finish the project two days before it is due, and one project member has it reviewed and edited by a consultant at the writing center. They make the final changes, the professor gives the paper an A, and the group celebrates that evening after class.


Ava and her fellow members learned only one thing from their experience: avoid working in groups. But Ethan’s group learned something about the topic they studied and how to work successfully in collaborative groups. Next time one of your professors assigns a group project, what can you do to make sure your group is more like Ethan’s than Ava’s?

Many factors combine to influence group performance, but Tuckman’s (1965) theory of group development highlights four: planning (forming), dealing with conflict (storming), setting standards (norming), and teamwork (performing).

1. Forming. Groups do not become instantly effective teams—they must spend time as members identify their goals and develop interdependencies. In study after study, researchers have found that groups that spend time during the forming stage identifying their goal and planning their process outperform other groups, First, they get clear, as a group, on what the group must deliver at the end of the project: Is it a paper, will you be taking quizzes as a group, answering problem sheets together, doing a PowerPoint presentation? Second, they identify the steps the group will take to reach its goal. The plan can change along the way, but having a goal is of little benefit if your group does not know what steps to take to reach the goal. Third, and perhaps most critical, they identify key milestones, deadlines, and meeting dates.

2. Storming. Working with others is not always a smooth, harmonious process. Members often disagree each other—over their procedures, who gets to be in charge, who is right, who is wrong—but these conflicts must be handled skillfully if your group is to prosper. It is not conflict, but the poor management of conflict, that leads to problems. When researchers have studied student learning groups, they found that too many spend more time trying to resolve conflict instead of just getting down to work. The #1 goal of a learning group is to learn, not to become fast friends. Cohesive groups are not necessarily more effective groups, but effective groups tend to become more cohesive over time.

3. Norming. All groups develop informal rules that guide member’s behaviors—norms—but not all norms facilitate group productivity. One of the key differences between a group and a team is a team is collaboratively structured—members know their roles and responsibilities and they recognize that the group’s overall performance is determined by their personal contribution to the group. Successful groups do not tolerate people who do their own thing: the slackers, control freaks, partiers, and so on. They define expectations and monitor members’ behavior, being careful to not wait too long before intervening to clarify the group’s standards. If someone in your group fails to respond to emails, misses meetings, or shirks work, intervene immediately–do not wait.

4. Performing. With goals, procedures, and norms in place, the members are ready to go to work on the project. But highly effective groups do not do their work individually. They continue to collaborate across the duration of the work phase—in short, they use teamwork to reach their goals. They resist the temptation to break the project down into parts and assign the parts to members. Instead, they work as a team, communicating ideas, offering support and suggestions, and helping each other learn the material the group is reviewing. During the performing phase the group also carefully monitors its time and its methods. Groups, even more so than individuals, have a difficult time calibrating the time they will need to do their work (the planning fallacy). Effective groups often appoint one person who is the time-keeper—always responsible for reminding the members of deadlines.

So, why did Ava’s group founder, whereas Ethan’ prospered? Ava’s group failed to harness the power of their five minds, and so the result was less—far less—than the sum of the parts. Ethan’s group formed, stormed, normed, and performed its way to success, confirming the adage, “none of us is smart as all of us.”

[Donelson R. Forsyth, a social and personality psychologist, holds the Colonel Leo K. and Gaylee Thorsness Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. A fellow of the American Psychological Association, he researches and writes about ethics, groups, and related topics. Dr. Forsyth is the author of the Noba module “The Psychology of Groups” http://noba.to/trfxbkhm]

Bion’s Theory of Assumptive Cultures

December 17, 2011 2 comments

Group psychotherapists often discuss the work of W. R. Bion, who offered up a host of insights into groups and their processes in his writings, but particularly in his book Experiences in Groups, which was published by Tavistock in 1959 but then circulated much more widely in 1961 (when printed by Basic Books).  Bion was a classically trained psychoanalyst, who with his colleague John Rickman used groups as part of treatment program carried out during World War II at a Northfield Military Hospital. The treatment they implemented there was radical for times, but includes the basic principles found in most group-level approaches to change—flattened status structures, development of a therapeutic milieu, focus on the group and its dynamics (the “here and now” perspective) rather than on events external to the group, and the development of trust and openness.

Those experiences in the group apparently puzzled Bion considerably, and he spent a number of years reconciling those experiences with his formal training with (and psychoanalysis by) Melanie Klein.  The result was his creative theory of assumptive cultures.  Like many organizational theorists Bion believed that a group members embrace a set of shared beliefs that functions in ways that are similar to the functions of “culture” in a society—defining correct behavior, establishing rituals, organizing status structures, and so on.  But Bion uniquely suggested that groups shift from one culture to another rapidly—perhaps instantaneously—and that these shifts betray the fundamental irrationality of individuals when in groups. His key terms include:

Group mentality: “the unanimous expression of the will of the group, contributed to by the individual in ways of which he is unaware, influencing him disagreeably whenever he thinks or behaves in a manner at variance with the basic assumptions” (p. 65).

Group culture: “the structure which the group achieves at any given moment, the occupations it pursues, and the organization it adopts” (p. 55).

Work group culture: relatively standard, “normal,” group structures, designed to facilitate the attainment of group goals and also satisfy group members’ needs.

Basic assumptive culture: The tendency for the group to structure itself, spontaneously, “guarding itself” from certain one of the basic fears, or conflicts, that groups illicit in their individual members. These basic fears are “fight-flight,” “dependency,” and “pairing”.

Valency: “Freud turns to discussion of something that crops up under a variety of names, such as ‘suggestion’, ‘imitation,’ ‘prestige of leaders’, ‘contagion’. I have used ‘valency’ partly because I would avoid the meanings that already adhere to the terms I have listed, partly because the term ‘valency,’ as used in physics to denote the power of combination of atoms, carries with it the greatest penumbra of suggestiveness useful for my purpose. But it I mean the capacity of the individual for instantaneous combination with other individuals in an established pattern of behavior–the basic assumptions” (p. 175).

When in the working group culture members are focused on the group’s task and its issues, they communicate with each other openly and honestly, and they react rationally rather than emotionally. But when something within the situation arouses individuals fears and anxiety (often, fears and anxieties they do not even recognize at the conscious level) then the working group culture gives way to one of the basic assumptive cultures.

  • Dependency culture: The group seems to be excessively dependent on the leader or on the group itself. Members may complain of being neglected, misunderstood, or criticized; they may compete like frivolous siblings for a mother’s attention; they may idealize the group and its leaders; or they may become passively compliant, even sullen, in response to the leader’s requests. The group may not express their needs overtly, but at an unconscious level they are disappointed that the leader is not an all-knowing sage who can magically fulfill all their needs.
  • Fight/flight culture: the group feels threatened either by an internal source–such as a clearly dissatisfied group member or an intervention by the therapist that is rejected by a client—or by an external source—such as the existence of other groups that seem superior or alternatives for their members or their leader. The group may feel it must have a powerful leader who will lead them to victory against their enemies, or guide their retreat to safety. These unrecognized anxieties trigger considerable conflict within the group, as some members of the group challenge the leader’s authority, others take sides as subgroups form to support or rebel against the leader, and some withdraw. A stubbornly quiet, low-energy group may be one that is resisting the leader, or retreating from the work that must be done.
  • Pairing assumption: the group’s focus shifts from the group-as-a-whole to one (or more) dyadic pairs within the group. During this phase the group members may find themselves discussing romantic expectations and fantasies, speculating about sexual alliances between the group’s members, and struggling to create an idea or insight that will resolve their anxieties.

Bion’s analysis is dense with insights about groups and their dynamics.  A selective sample follows:

p. 168: “The individual is a group animal at war, both with the group and with those aspects of his personality that constitute his ‘groupishness.’

p. 169: “No individual, however isolated in time and space, should be regarded as outside a group or lacking in active manifestations of group psychology.

p. 170: “A group acting on basic assumption would need neither organization nor a capacity for co-operation. The counterpart of co-operation in the basic-assumption group is valency–a spontaneous, unconscious function of the gregarious quality in the personality of man.

p. 171: “Le Bon described the leader as one under whom a collection of human beings instinctively place themselves, accepting his authority as their chief; the leader must fit in with the group in his personal qualities and must himself be held by a strong faith in order to awaken the group’s faith. His view of the leader as one who must fit in with the group in his personal qualities is compatible with my view that any leader is ignored by the group when his behavior or characteristics fall outside the limits set by the prevalent basic assumption.

p. 172: “In work-group activity time is intrinsic: in basic assumption activity it has no place. Basic-assumption group functions are active before ever a group comes together in a room, and continue after the group has dispersed. There is neither development nor decay in basic-assumption functions, and in this respect they differ totally from those of the work group.”

p. 175: “I do not in the least believe that there is a reduction of intellectual ability in the group, nor yet that ‘great decisions in the realm of thought and momentous discoveries and solutions of problems are only possible to an individual working in solitude’ (McDougall, 1920).

Group Development

Nearly every theorist who has wondered about some aspect of groups and their dynamics has also speculated about regularities in the way groups change time. Indeed, the issue of groups changing over time is so central to the study of groups that Cartwright and Zander (1968, p. 7) defined group dynamics to be the scientific study of groups and “the laws of their de­velopment.”

For example, Parsons, Bales, and Shils (1953) hypothesized that all social organizations must adapt to their environment (Adaptation), develop and enact methods for attaining their group’s goals (Goal Attainment), structure and regularize intermember relations (Integration), and satisfy each members need to feel connected to and not rejected by the group (Latent Pattern Maintenance). Bales (1970), in extending this model to groups, suggested most groups deal with these functions sequentially, moving from Adaptation to Goals Attainment to Integration and then to Latent Pattern Maintenance.  Hare (2009) later suggested LAIG as the order, identified subphases and shifts from a task focus to a relationship (socioemotional) focus. Schutz (1958) suggested groups meet individual members’ needs to give and to receive inclusion (I), control (C), and affection (A), but that from the outset groups repeatedly cycle through intervals where interaction focuses on I, C, and A, in turn, until the group reaches its conclusion, where the sequence shifts to A, then C, and lastly I.  Other theoriests, such as Arrow (1997), Bennis and Shepard (1956), Braaten (1975), Brabender and Fallon (2009) Burnand(1990), Heinen and Jacobson (1976), Hill and Gruner (1973), Karterud (1989), Kuypers, Davies, and Glaser (1986), Lacoursiere (1980), Mabry (1975), MacKenzie (1994), Maples (1988), Sarri and Galinsky (1974), Stock and Thelen (1958) Tuckman (1965; see, too, Tuckman & Jensen (1977), and Wheelan (1994), offer theoretical models of group development that describe regularities that often emerge across groups in a variety of contexts.

Model of Group Development

A. Paul Hare's L-A-I-G model of group development, with subphases.

Most of the theories that consider the changes that occur in groups over time use the word development to describe this change, but only rarely consider the implicit connotations that this term carries.  New groups—ones that have just formed—are different from experienced groups. The committee meeting for the first time will act in ways that are very different from its interaction patterns of its 10th meeting, the team playing its first game of the season will not perform in the same way it will on its last game, and partygoers at 2AM act very differently than they did at the party’s start at 8PM.  But have these groups developed or merely changed. Development implies maturation, or the progressive and predictable emergence of a set of typical qualities in living organisms over time. Biologically, development (or epigenesis) is the result of the interaction of both nature and nurture: the organism’s genotype determines, to a large extent, how it will change as it moves through its life course, but the actual qualities it exhibits—its phenotype—is the result of the interaction of the genotype and the organism’s environment. Group development, as a form of social and psychological development, assumes that a group becomes more “mature” over time, suggesting that it will become better organized, or more effective, or more able to meet members’ needs. Yet, just as a child is considered to be “healthy” and “normal” even though he or she has not reached maturity, the developing group is also considered to be normal across the entire lifespan of the group. Even during the group’s initial formative stage members should gain psychologically and interpersonally from the experience. The successfully developing group is one that is able to profit at each of its development milestones, but in some cases the course of development may result in a dysfunctional group. Although time is thought to result in a gradual emerging of potential within a group (or in a person), development is contextually dependent. The concept of development also suggests that, at some point, the organism is no longer progressing with the passage of time, and is in fact deteriorating—at some point the group is no longer developing but aging. In some cases the changes that take place in groups may be better described as “unraveling” or “unfolding” rather than “developing.”

Other Related Musings

  1. Nearly all experts on groups assume that the changes groups manifest over time are relatively predictable. Groups do not change in unpredictable, random ways, but rather they exhibit regularities in their structure and interactions the longer their duration. The theories of development vary when describing the expected sequence of these changes, using such terms as stages, phases, cycles and even life courses of development. These terms of often used interchangeably, even though they vary somewhat in the meaning and implications. If a group passes through stages, then development proceeds.  Phases, in contrast, implies a lack of clarity in the movement from one stage to the next, and admits to the possibility of recurring phases. A life cycle suggests that groups may return, repeatedly, to earlier points in group history, and work through repeatedly issues and experiences.
  2. A life-course approach suggests that the more flowing, gradual, continuous process of change may be difficult to identify if one examines just one time period within a group.  Most theorists admit group development may be discontinuous, constant, rapid, or slow, but they do not discuss in detail issues of continuity and discontinuity.  Doe groups develop in a smooth, even flow, like a tree or stream flowing, or more stage/phase like, even transformative, as the group shifts from one form to another?  In a related vein, do groups have sensitive periods, critical period in their development?  Are there better times, than others, for a group to reach particular goals or to make progress towards greater maturity and functionality?
  3. Nearly all theories of development posit a work stage, but “work”—that is, a stage when members are dealing well with one another, making decisions rationally, and expending maximal effort in the direction of the group’s tasks—can occur at all stage in the group’s development.  Even during the group’s initial formative stage, the group members are working—albeit, on the task of exchanging information and developing relationships.
  4. What causes the change? External events? Some internal event, unique interaction. Abrupt, unexpected, planned, orchestrated by leader, inevitable unfolding. Or is group development akin to biological develop, in that groups, by their nature, follow patterns of change in all but the most unusual of environmental contexts?
  5. Developmental approaches offer descriptive accounts of the typical progression of the typical group by asking what is changing in the group and when do this change typically take place.  But only rarely to these theories explain why these patterns emerge.  One of the best known theories of group development, Tuckman’s (1965) rhymical model of forming-storming-norming-performing (and adjourning) offers little in the way of explanation of why these stages occur and why in this sequence.
  6. Theorists have used a variety of terms to describe the way groups development, including Change is multilevel and multidimensional; multilevel because it occurs within the individual members, within the pairs of association that link members to one another and to the group’s therapist, and within the group as a whole and multidimensional because it involves changes in affect, cognition, behavior.   But what is the relationship between the group-level change and adaption and the individual level change?
  7. Some aspects of change over time that occurs in groups have not been examined, directly, in extant theories of development.  For example, it may be that groups become increasingly real over time—entitative—to the point that they exist independently of the individual members (in a sense) and become increasingly influential.  Also, do groups get more rational over time…through continuous, guided, careful communication groups increase members’ integration/understanding/uncovering of unrecognized (unconscious) motives, emotions, and anxieties needs with rational, explicit, socially acceptable motives, emotions, and needs (primary process thinking and secondary process thinking).  Also, groups develop a shared history (transactive memory) that grows longer and more detailed over time. Applying life history theory of evolution to groups, one could argue that the occurrence, duration, and experience of key events in a group lifetime are shaped by group’s key consensual goal—maximize efficiency, productivity, and members’ satisfaction—to produce progress towards that essential goal.
  8. What are the common domains of change? What characteristics, qualities, and processes within the group the undergo change over time:  Norms, roles, conflict, communication, task focus, leadership, attraction, cohesion, etc….