Understanding Groups at Work

By Allcorn, Seth | Personnel, August 1989 | Go to article overview

Understanding Groups at Work


Allcorn, Seth, Personnel


Understanding Groups at Work

Working as an HR manager in a large organization can be confusing and frustrating--particularly when "the way things work around here" is a source of confusion and frustration. A key to understanding how the organization works--or doesn't work--lies in understanding the kinds of groups that exist at work and how their dynamics influence behavior. After all, every organization consists of groups of people--work units, task forces, departments, divisions, etc.--and the HR manager may well be called upon for counsel when conflicts, personality clashes, employee bashing, or other problems develop within a group. Thus he or she needs to understand not only the group dynamics of the HR staff, but also those that influence the behavior of the company's other employees.

Common Symptoms

Just about everyone who has worked in a medium-size or large organization has witnessed the effects of ineffective groups. In some cases, an apparent lack of leadership at the senior level leaves the company without direction or drive; the culture seems to support managers who avoid confronting problems or taking risks.

In other cases, top management becomes overly caught up in the minutiae of leadership: New rules, policies, and procedures are constantly being drafted and put in place, but little of substance is accomplished.

In still other instances, politics take precedence over ability. People are rewarded for associating with the "right" clique, and good ideas that are contributed by the "wrong" people are ignored or discredited.

The Psychology of the Workplace

Managing individual and group behavior in organizations requires an understanding of the psychological aspects of organizational life. HR and other managers--as well as their employees--need conceptual frames of reference by which to understand complex interpersonal and group dynamics.

One particularly useful framework is derived from individual and group psychoanalytic theories, which form the basis for a model that explains the psychodynamics of large organizations. The model assumes that even though group behavior arises from a core of individual psychological processes, it can be understood when viewed as a whole. We will look at three group cultures that offer group members collective and individual psychological defenses against any anxiety they may feel as a result of their group membership. A fourth work group--the type of group that is desirable in the workplace--will then be discussed.

Work Group Typologies

The first three groups are what is called "defensive" in psychological terms. These are the homogenized group, the institutionalized group, and the autocratic group. Each offers its members a different solution to the same problem: anxiety arising from group membership. By contrast, the fourth group, which is the intentional group, deals with group participation in a nondefensive way. All four groups are dynamic. Change is driven by the members' individual needs for security and self-esteem and by threats to the group's existence that come from the operating environment. Below is an analysis of each of the four groups. A summary of the differences is presented in the boxes on pages 34 and 35.

THE HOMOGENIZED GROUP

The homogenized group is the most primitive of the three defensive groups. Members behave as though the group lacked effective leadership and a clear agenda or task, even though these may be present to some degree. Members are uncertain as to what to do and how to act, and they feel isolated from their work and from one another. Participation in the group is unrewarding, since individuals feel neither secure nor good about the group and themselves. The group culture discourages members from offering direction or asserting leadership. Members may become hostile toward others, the group, and those who assigned them to the group, although hostility is often suppressed by other group members, and rarely expressed. …

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