The Dynamics of Intense Work Groups: A Study of British String Quartets

By Murnighan, J. Keith; Conlon, Donald E. | Administrative Science Quarterly, June 1991 | Go to article overview

The Dynamics of Intense Work Groups: A Study of British String Quartets


Murnighan, J. Keith, Conlon, Donald E., Administrative Science Quarterly


The Dynamics of Intense Work Groups: A Study of British String Quartets

This paper focuses on the relationship between the internal dynamics and success of a population of intense work groups, professional string quartets in Great Britain. We observed three basic paradoxes: leadership versus democracy, the paradox of the second violinist, and confrontation versus compromise. The central findings indicate that the more successful quartets recognized but did not openly discuss the paradoxes. Instead, they managed these inherent contradictions implicitly and did not try to resolve them. The discussion addresses the study of intense work groups, the forces that drive these paradoxes, and potential applications to other organizational groups. Groups are elemental organizational units that are stimulating ever-increasing empirical and conceptual research (Bettenhausen, 1991). This paper presents a different perspective by reporting a study of British string quartets, an unusual example of particularly intense work groups. This study focuses on the relationship between the quartets' internal dynamics and their success as a group. Our research began inductively, using semi-structured interviews, archival analysis, and limited observation as methods. The considerable time since our original data collection has provided the opportunity to use the recent literature to formulate a set of testable hypotheses. Thus, this study offers a mixed inductive-deductive approach to the relationship between intra-group interaction and success. Quartets are a unique form of work group in at least two important respects: they are self-governing (Hackman, 1987), essentially constituting their own organization, and their task is extremely intense, being artistic, immediate, complete, and reciprocally interdependent (Thompson, 1967). We determined from the data that the string quartets we studied faced three important paradoxes: the leadership versus democracy paradox, the paradox of the second fiddle, and the conflict paradox of confrontation versus compromise. Smith and Berg's (1987) central notions--that groups face inherent, unresolvable paradoxes and that they must accept, confront, and manage them--provided an organizing framework for our analyses. Analysis reveals that, in this context, successful string quartets understand and implicitly manage their inherent group contradictions while less successful quartets do not.

THE STRING QUARTET

String quartets are particularly intense work groups. Members are reciprocally interdependent (Thompson, 1967), using each other's outputs as their own inputs, and vice versa. Their interdependence is also complete and immediate: Their work is done only as a unit; they cannot perform a string-quartet composition without all of the members working together simultaneously. They are artists who collaborate; they must simultaneously devote their concentration to their own and to each other's playing. Many quartet players commented in the interviews that the ability to listen and respond to each other was the most important characteristic that differentiated quartet players from soloists. A string quartet is composed of two violinists, a viola player, and a cellist; their collective task is to reach a high level of coordinated sound. Two labels can characterize the subtly different styles of string-quartet performance: With the European style, sound comes from the quartet as a single, unified musical source. With the American style, the quartet sounds like four voices, combined harmoniously; the members retain their individuality but relate to each other's sound in an organized way. String quartets choose most of their material from the traditional repertoire, including 16 compositions by Beethoven, 84 by Haydn, and numerous pieces by Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, and others. Groups increasingly play the work of twentieth-century composers, such as Bartok, Tippett, and Simpson. Each group tries to achieve a unique interpretation and a forceful presentation each time it plays a piece. …

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