Group Behavioral Structure

What are the Major Concepts of Group Behavior?

Work groups are not unorganized crowds. They have an internal structure that shapes members’ behavior and makes it possible to explain, predict and influence a large portion of individual behavior within the group as well as the performance of the group itself. This internal structure defines member roles, norms, conformity, status systems, group size, group cohesiveness and formal leadership positions. In this entry, we’ll take a closer look at how the first three: roles, norms and conformity, shape group behavior.

What are Roles?

A role refers to behavior patterns expected of someone who occupies a given position in a social unit.

In a group, individuals are expected to do certain things because of their position (role) in the group. These roles are generally oriented towards either getting work done or keeping group members happy.

Think about groups that you have been in and the roles that you played. Were you continually trying to keep the group focused on getting its work done; or providing information, elaborating on issues and topics related to what the group was working on? If so, you were filling a task-related role.

Or were you more concerned that group members had the opportunity to offer ideas (in the role of encourager), or were you trying to propose a compromise to settle some conflict within the group?

If so, you were performing a relationship role—or what is sometimes called a maintenance-related role&mash;to enhance group member satisfaction and smooth the internal functioning of the group.

Important Hint!  

Task-related roles are roles (or behaviors) that help the group to focus on the task at hand.

Maintenance-related roles are behaviors that help to maintain good interpersonal relationships within the group.

Both roles are important to the ability of the group to function effectively and efficiently. The task-related roles are needed to focus on the task at hand and get the job done.

In contrast, the maintenance-related roles are needed to keep the group healthy and its members happy so that it stays together. In groups that do not appoint or select a leader, individuals who effectively perform numerous task and relationship roles are likely to become group leader.

Important Hint!  

Maintenance-related roles are behaviors that help to maintain good interpersonal relationships within the group.

Groups that formally appoint or select a leader typically assign many of the task and relationship roles to that leader. Formal and informal leaders are expected both to help the group achieve its goals and to maintain internal processes.

However, there may be instances when some members perform self-oriented roles or dysfunctional roles that may hinder or even undermine the team’s progress. For example, some team members may gain a sense of power by dominating others or blocking others’ attempts to get things done.

Important Hint!  

Self-oriented roles are dysfunctional behaviors that may hinder or even undermine the team’s progress.

Some may even withdraw and make minimal or no contribution at all to the group and what it is trying to do. Typically, individuals who perform these roles have little concern for the group or its goals and are often harmful for the group’s functioning. If not managed well, self-oriented roles can seriously damage the group’s performance as the individual is focused on satisfying his or her own individual needs which may be at the expense of the group.

A general problem that also arises in understanding role behavior is that individuals play multiple roles, adjusting their roles to the group to which they belong at the time. They read their job descriptions, get suggestions from their boss and watch what their co-workers do.

When that individual is confronted by different role expectations, he or she experiences role conflict. Employees often face role conflicts. For instance, a young university lecturer’s colleagues may want him to give out very few high grades on assignments in order to maintain the department’s reputation for having tough standards, whereas students want him to give out lots of high grades to enhance their final marks. To the degree that the lecturer wants to satisfy the expectations of both his colleagues and his students, he faces role conflict.

Examples of Role Behaviors
Task-related rolesMaintenance-related rolesSelf-oriented roles
InitiatorHarmoniserBlocker
Information seekerCompromiserDominator
Opinion giverGatekeeperWithdrawer
ElaboratorEncouragerRecognition seeker
CoordinatorFollower

How do Norms Affect Group Behavior?

All groups have established norms, acceptable standards that are shared by the group’s members. Norms dictate output levels, absenteeism rates, promptness or tardiness, the amount of socializing allowed on the job and so on.

An example of how norms influence behavior is the ‘arrival ritual’ among the following group of office workers at a law firm. The workday begins at 8 am.

Most employees typically arrive a few minutes before 8 am and put their jackets, bags and other personal items on their chair or desk so that everyone knows they are ‘at work’. They then go down to the company cafeteria to have coffee and a chat. Any employee who violates this norm by starting work promptly at 8 am is teased and pressured, to encourage behavior that conforms to the group’s standard.

Although each group has its own unique set of norms, there are common types of norms in most organizations that focus on effort and performance, dress and loyalty. Probably the most widespread norms are related to levels of effort and performance.

Work groups typically provide their members with explicit cues on how hard to work, what level of output to maintain, when to look busy, when it is acceptable to slow down, and the like.

These norms are extremely powerful in influencing an individual employee’s performance. They are so powerful that performance predictions that are based solely on an employee’s ability and level of personal motivation often prove to be wrong.

And dress norms frequently dictate the kind of clothing that should be worn to work. Of course, what is acceptable dress in one organization may be unacceptable in another.

Finally, loyalty norms influence whether individuals work late, work on weekends, or move to locations they might not prefer to live in.

One negative aspect of norms is that being part of a group can increase an individual’s antisocial actions. If the norms of the group are such that it tolerates deviant behavior, someone who normally would not engage in such behavior might be more likely to do so. For instance, one study suggests that those working in a group were more likely to lie, cheat and steal than were individuals working alone. Why? Because groups provide anonymity, thus giving individuals—who might otherwise be afraid of getting caught—a false sense of security.

How do Conformity Influence Group Behavior?

Because individual want to be accepted by groups to which they belong, they are susceptible to conformity pressures. The impact that group pressures for conformity can have on an individual member’s judgment and attitudes was demonstrated in research by Solomon Asch.

In his conformity experiments, groups of seven or eight people who sat in a classroom were asked to compare two cards held up by the experimenter. Once card had three lines of different length and the other had one line that was equal in length to one of the three lines on the other card (see Figure below).

Examples of Cards used in the Asch study
Figgure showing Examples of Cards used in the Asch Study

The object was for each group member to announce aloud which of the three lines matched the single line. Asch wanted to know what would happen if members began to give incorrect answers. Would the pressure to conform cause individuals to align with the others?

The experiment was ‘fixed’ so that all but one of the members (the unsuspecting subject) had been told ahead of time to start giving obviously incorrect answers after one or two rounds of these matching exercise.

Over many experiments and trials, the unsuspecting subject conformed over a third of the time; that is, the person gave answers he or she knew were wrong but which were consistent with the replies of other group members.

These conclusions are based on research that is over 50 years old. Are they still valid? Research does suggest that levels of conformity have declined since Asch’s studies. However, this does not mean that managers should ignore conformity since it can still be a powerful force in groups.

As group members, we often want to be considered one of the group and to avoid being visibly different. We find it more pleasant to be in agreement and harmony—to be a positive part of the group—than to be disruptive, even if disruption may be necessary to improve the effectiveness of the group’s decisions. So, we conform.

But conformity can go too far, especially when an individual’s opinion differs significantly from that of others in the group. When this happens, the group exerts intensive pressure on the individual to align his or her opinion to conform to other’s opinions, a phenomenon as groupthink Opens in new window.