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Teaching How to Work in Groups

Why Assign Collaborative Work?

What types of tasks should I consider assigning to groups?

The simplest answer is that groups are best at working on tasks that do not have one correct solution or answer. Thus, groups are better for putting together creative products and at solving complex problems that do not have a singular solution. The good news, then, is that groups, if managed properly, are better at most of the tasks we have set up in the Catalyst curriculum.

Are there advantages to working in a group?

There are many advantages, which is why collaborative “team work” has become the norm in virtually every aspect of the work world (corporate, non-profit, academic, etc.)

  • A diversity of perspectives often leads to better outcomes.
  • Groups tend to be more creative because brainstorming as a group has a “snowball effect.”
  • Bad ideas are likely to be challenged and discarded.
  • Buy-in is easier when it comes to implementing the ideas because everyone feels ownership of the decision.

Are there disadvantages to using a group to complete a task?

(Note: Most disadvantages occur when conflict in groups is mishandled.)

  • Perhaps counter-intuitively, groups may come up with riskier solutions than any individual working alone may have devised. In part, this can be explained by the shared responsibility of the decision. In extreme cases, Group Think may occur.
  • Groups take longer than individuals working on a problem.
  • Some people simply hate working in groups. (It’s wise to assure students that at some point in their lives they will have to collaborate with someone, so, even if they hate it, it’s best to learn how to do it well.)

 

Group Dimensions

When working in groups toward a common goal, there are two dimensions to keep in mind. Sometimes these dimensions are at odds with one another, but, if managed correctly, can and should enhance each other.

Task Dimension

This is about the group's assigned goal(s). We can assess this dimension by examining the group's productivity during the process.

Social/Maintenance Dimension

This references how well the group "gets along" and likes each other at a personal level. Conflict of this nature, if not managed well by positive maintenance roles, can harm a group's ability to complete its task.

The relationship between the task and social dimensions

We want groups to be cohesive, but only to a certain level. Put another way, there is an ideal amount of getting along that increases high-quality productivity. However, too much cohesiveness can decrease the amount and/or quality of the productivity. Groups that are too cohesive, for example, might enjoy spending time with each other so much that they neglect working on the actual task in favor of just having fun.

Another possibility is that overly cohesive groups are afraid to disagree with each other, when, in fact, conflict and disagreement is the main reason tasks are assigned to groups. An overly cohesive group may over-emphasize the importance of interpersonal harmony at the cost of careful decision-making. In its most extreme form, too much cohesiveness can result in "Group Think."

Roles in Decision-Making Groups

Group members can play numerous roles, often simultaneously, as they work together. These roles can be understood to fit into three broad categories: task roles, maintenance roles and anti-group roles.

Teaching students about these roles will allow them to reflect on their own behaviors and will provide a taxonomy of role types for self-reflection and peer evaluative purposes. The following is not an exhaustive list of possibilities, but is intended to provide the most commonly exhibited behaviors across a wide spectrum of possible roles.

Task Roles

Initiator: Gets the group started on its task by suggesting ideas or asking questions

Information/Opinion Seeker: Requests information and/or opinions of others

Clarifier:
Makes sure everyone is understanding an idea or argument in the same way to avoid confusion in the group's process

Summarizer: Condenses group progress into meaningful statements. Unifies seemingly disparate ideas.

Evaluator/Critic: Offers constructive criticism to test ideas.

Consensus Tester: Monitors and assesses group agreement; actively works toward achieving a consensus among the team.

Secretary/Recorder: Keeps track of what happened and what was decided. This role might be officially assigned to someone, or members also could take turns in this role.

Social/Maintenance Roles

Gatekeeper: Attempts to make sure everyone in the group has an opportunity to provide input. Might also work toward tempering a more dominant group member.

Encourager:Praises others when they contribute to the group. Positive feedback makes future contributions more likely.

Harmonizer/Tension Reliever: Exhibits behaviors that "fix" interpersonal conflicts. May use humor or other strategies to de-escalate conflict.

Cheerleader/Energizer: Motivates the group; provides positive feedback and reinforcement.

Anti-Group (negative) Roles

Dominator: Attempts to take over the group; won't allow others to speak. Desires to control all aspects of the process.

Hitchhiker: Does not contribute much to the group but still expects to take credit and earn the rewards of the group's efforts.

Clown: Jokes around constantly, in a way that prevents anyone from getting anything serious done.

Attention-Seeker: Uses the group to be the center of attention, often by constant complaining.

Aggressor: Insults others frequently, presumably out of insecurity or possibly to sabotage the group.

Avoiding Groupthink

Groupthink occurs when members of a team desperately seek resolution and consensus, but in order to reach that point often avoid the types of conflict needed to test ideas and make sure solutions are sound.

Conditions that can lead to Groupthink:

Rapidly approaching deadlines, but the group has not adequately managed its time. The pressure to get something done quickly, just to be done, often will lead to poor decision-making.

A dominant team member who is using the group to promote his/her own agenda. Many group members, especially younger, perhaps more timid students, might be reticent to introduce any conflict into the group. Yet, conflict is necessary. Assure students that disagreement, when done respectfully, is not negative behavior; in fact, it's one of the most important reasons to make decisions as a group!

Too much "cohesion." If a group really likes each other, they may avoid disagreements for fear it will disrupt the cohesiveness. See previous for how to avoid this.

A history of setbacks that have made the group feel insecure or embarrassed. Such a situation will create a lot of pressure for the group to undo its past failings.

Symptoms of Groupthink:

These are conditions and behaviors that, if unchecked or corrected, might push a group toward a poor decision. Instructors will notice that many of the group-, self- and peer-review forms throughout this site call attention to these symptoms and behaviors.

 Illusion of Invulnerability. The group is non-reflective about its own shortcomings and/or not aware that its decisions might be too risky.

Collective Rationalizing. Rationalizing occurs when groups attempt to justify something whether or not the justification is true.

Illusion of Unanimity. Everyone thinks everyone agrees, even if they really do not. This can occur if the group always avoids conflict rather than managing conflict.

Hubris/Moral Superiority Complex. The group comes to believe its decision/actions is morally superior to alternatives. When groups begin to think of decisions in absolute right or wrong terms, they often are unable and/or unwilling to see the risks of such decisions.

Stereotyping of Outsiders. Any evidence or opinions of people outside the group that contradict the group's thinking are dismissed because the source of the information is stereotyped as inferior in some way. For example, the group may think the faculty member is wrong about something, but only because it disagrees with the group's current thinking.

Ideas are adapted from: Janis, I. L. & Mann, L. (1977). Decision making: A psychological analysis of conflict, choice, and commitment. New York: Free Press.)

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