11.3 Improving Group Performance

Learning Objective

  1. Review the ways that people can work to make group performance more effective.

As we have seen, it makes sense to use groups to make decisions because people can create outcomes working together that any one individual could not hope to accomplish alone. In addition, once a group makes a decision, the group will normally find it easier to get other people to implement it because many people feel that decisions made by groups are fairer than those made by individuals. And yet, as we have also seen, there are also many problems associated with groups that make it difficult for them to live up to their full potential. In this section, let’s consider this issue more fully: What approaches can we use to make best use of the groups that we belong to, helping them to achieve as best as is possible? Training groups to perform more effectively is possible, if appropriate techniques are used (Salas et al., 2008).

Perhaps the first thing we need to do is to remind our group members that groups are not as effective as they sometimes seem. Group members often think that their group is being more productive than it really is, and that their own groups are particularly productive. For instance, people who participate in brainstorming groups report that they have been more productive than those who work alone, even if the group has actually not done all that well (Paulus, Dzindolet, Poletes, & Camacho, 1993; Stroebe, Diehl, & Abakoumkin, 1992).

The tendency to overvalue the productivity of groups is known as the illusion of group effectivity, and it seems to occur for several reasons. For one, the productivity of the group as a whole is highly accessible, and this productivity generally seems quite good, at least in comparison with the contributions of single individuals. The group members hear many ideas expressed by themselves and the other group members, and this gives the impression that the group is doing very well, even if objectively it is not. And on the affective side, group members receive a lot of positive social identity from their group memberships. These positive feelings naturally lead them to believe that the group is strong and performing well. Thus the illusion of group effectivity poses a severe problem for group performance, and we must work to make sure that group members are aware of it. Just because we are working in groups does not mean that we are making good decisions or performing a task particularly well—group members, and particularly the group leader, must always monitor group performance and attempt to motivate the group to work harder.

Motivating Groups to Perform Better by Appealing to Self-Interest

In addition to helping group members understand the nature of group performance, we must be aware of their self-interest goals. Group members, like all other people, act at least in part for themselves. So anything we can do to reward them for their participation or to make them enjoy being in the group more will be helpful.

Perhaps the most straightforward approach to getting people to work harder in groups is to provide rewards for performance. Corporations reward their employees with raises and bonuses if they perform well, and players on sports teams are paid according to their successes on the playing field. However, although incentives may increase the effort of the individual group members and thus enhance group performance, they also have some potential disadvantages for group process.

One potential problem is that the group members will compare their own rewards with those of others. It might be hoped that individuals would use their coworkers as positive role models (upward social comparison), which would inspire them to work harder. For instance, when corporations set up “employee of the week” programs, which reward excellence on the part of individual group members, they are attempting to develop this type of positive comparison.

On the other hand, if group members believe that others are being rewarded more than they are for what they perceive as the same work (downward social comparison), they may change their behavior to attempt to restore equity. Perhaps they will attempt to work harder in order to receive greater rewards for themselves. But they may instead decide to reduce their effort to match what they perceive as a low level of reward (Platow, O’Connell, Shave, & Hanning, 1995). It has been found, for instance, that workers who perceive that their pay is lower than it should be are more likely to be absent from work (Baron & Pfefer, 1994; Geurts, Buunk, & Schaufeli, 1994). Taken together then, incentives can have some positive effects on group performance, but they may also create their own difficulties.

But incentives do not have to be so directly financial. People will also work harder in groups when they feel that they are contributing to the group and that their work is visible to and valued by the other group members (Karau & Williams, 1993; Kerr & Bruun, 1983). One study (Williams, Harkins, & Latané, 1981) found that when groups of individuals were asked to cheer as loudly as they could into a microphone placed in the center of the room, social loafing occurred. However, when each individual was given his or her own personal microphone and thus believed that his or her own input could be measured, social loafing was virtually eliminated. Thus when our contributions to the group are identifiable as our own, and particularly when we receive credit for those contributions, we feel that our performance counts, and we are less likely to loaf.

It turns out that the size of the group matters in this regard. Although larger groups are more able than smaller ones to diversify into specialized roles and activities, and this is likely to make them efficient in some ways (Bond & Keys, 1993; Miller & Davidson-Podgorny, 1987), larger groups are also more likely to suffer from coordination problems and social loafing. The problem is that individuals in larger groups are less likely to feel that their effort is going to make a difference to the output of the group as a whole or that their contribution will be noticed and appreciated by the other group members (Kerr & Bruun, 1981).

In the end, because of the difficulties that accompany large groups, the most effective working groups are of relatively small size—about four or five members. Research suggests that in addition to being more efficient, working in groups of about this size is also more enjoyable to the members, in comparison with being in larger groups (Mullen, Symons, Hu, & Salas, 1989). However, the optimal group size will be different for different types of tasks. Groups in which the members have high ability may benefit more from larger group size (Yetton & Bottger, 1983), and groups that have greater commitment or social identity may suffer less from motivational losses, even when they are large (Hardy & Latané, 1988).

Groups will also be more effective when they develop appropriate social norms. If the group develops a strong group identity and the group members care about the ability of the group to do a good job (e.g., a cohesive sports or military team), the amount of social loafing is reduced (Harkins & Petty, 1982; Latané, Williams, & Harkins, 1979). On the other hand, some groups develop norms that prohibit members from working up to their full potential and thus encourage loafing (Mullen & Baumeister, 1987). It is also important for the group to fully define the roles that each group member should play in the group and help the individuals accomplish these roles.

Cognitive Approaches: Improving Communication and Information Sharing

Even if we are successful in encouraging the group members to work hard toward the group goals, groups may fail anyway because they do not gather and share information openly. However, the likelihood of poor information search and information sharing, such as that which occurs in groupthink, can be reduced by creating situations that foster open and full discussion of the issues.

One important method of creating adequate information sharing is to ensure that the group has plenty of time to make its decision and that it is not rushed in doing so. Of course, such a luxury is not always possible, but better decisions are likely to be made when there is sufficient time. Having plenty of time prevents the group from coming to premature consensus and making an unwise choice. Time to consider the issues fully also allows the group to gain new knowledge by seeking information and analysis from outside experts.

One approach to increasing full discussion of the issues is to have the group break up into smaller subgroups for discussion. This technique increases the amount of discussion overall and allows more group members to air more ideas. In some decision-making groups, it is standard practice to set up several independent groups that consider the same questions, each carrying on its deliberations under a separate leader; the subgroups then meet together to make the final decision.

Within the group itself, conversation can be encouraged through the use of a devil’s advocate—an individual who is given the job of expressing conflicting opinions and forcing the group (in a noncombative way) to fully discuss all the alternatives. Because the opinions of the devil’s advocate challenge the group consensus and thus may hinder quick group decision making and group identity, the individual who takes the job may not be particularly popular in the group. For this reason, the group leader should formally assign the person to the role and make it clear that this role is an essential part of group functioning. The job can profitably be given to one of the most qualified group members and may sometimes rotate from person to person. In other cases, it may be useful to invite an expert or another qualified individual who is not a regular member of the group to the decision-making meetings to give his or her input. This person should be encouraged to challenge the views of the core group.

The group leader is extremely important in fostering norms of open discussion in decision-making groups. An effective leader makes sure that he or she does not state his or her opinions early but rather, allows the other group members to express their ideas first and encourages the presentation of contrasting positions. This allows a fuller discussion of pros and cons and prevents simple agreement by conformity. Leaders also have the ability to solicit unshared information from the group members, and they must be sure to do so, for instance, by making it clear that each member has important and unique information to share and that it is important to do so. Leaders may particularly need to solicit and support opinions from low-status or socially anxious group members. Some decision-making groups even have a “second-chance meeting” before a final decision is made. In this final meeting, the goal is to explicitly consider alternatives and allow any lingering doubts to be expressed by group members.

One difficulty with many working groups is that once they have developed a set of plans or strategies, these plans become established social norms, and it becomes very difficult for the group to later adopt new, alternative, and perhaps better, strategies. As a result, even when the group is having difficulty performing effectively, it may nevertheless stick with its original methods; developing or reformulating strategies is much less common. The development of specific strategies that allow groups to break out of their existing patterns may be useful in these cases. Hackman and Morris (1975) suggest that it can be helpful to have outside observers who are experts in group process provide feedback about relevant norms and encourage the groups to discuss them. In some cases, the consultation may involve restructuring the group by changing the status hierarchy, the social norms, or the group roles, for instance. These changes may help reduce conflict and increase effective communication and coordination.

Setting Appropriate Goals

One aspect of planning that has been found to be strongly related to positive group performance is the setting of goals that the group uses to guide its work (Latham & Locke, 1991; Weldon & Weingart, 1993). Groups that set specific, difficult, and yet attainable goals (e.g., “Improve sales by 10% over the next 6 months”) are much more effective than groups that are given goals that are not very clear (“Let’s sell as much as we can!”). In addition, groups that set clear goals produce better attendance. Goals have been found to be even more important in determining performance than are other incentives, including rewards such as praise and money.

Setting goals appears to be effective because it increases member effort and expectations of success, because it improves cooperation and communication among the members, and because it produces better planning and more accurate monitoring of the group’s work. Specific goals may also result in increased commitment to the group (Locke & Latham, 1990; Weldon, Jehn, & Pradhan, 1991), and when the goals are successfully attained, there is a resulting feeling of accomplishment, group identity and pride, a commitment to the task, and a motivation to set even higher goals. Moreover, there is at least some evidence that it is useful to let the group choose its own goals rather than assigning goals to the group (Haslam, Wegge, & Postmes, 2009). Groups tend to select more challenging goals, and because they have set them themselves, they do not need to be convinced to accept them as appropriate. However, even assigned goals are effective as long as they are seen as legitimate and attainable (Latham, Winters, & Locke, 1994).

One potential problem associated with setting goals is that the goals may turn out to be too difficult. If the goals that are set are too high to actually be reached, or if the group perceives that they are too high even if they are not, the group may become demoralized and reduce its effort (Hinsz, 1995). Groups that are characterized by a strong social identity and a sense of group efficacy—the belief that they can accomplish the tasks given to them—have been found to perform better (Little & Madigan, 1997; Silver & Bufanio, 1996, 1997). Fortunately, over time, groups frequently adjust their goals to be attainable.

Group Member Diversity: Costs and Benefits

As we have seen, most groups tend to be made up of individuals who are similar to each other. This isn’t particularly surprising because groups frequently come together as a result of common interests, values, and beliefs. Groups also tend to recruit new members who are similar to the current members, in the sense that they have personalities, beliefs, and goals that match those of the existing members (Graves & Powell, 1995).

There are some potential advantages for groups in which the members share personalities, beliefs, and values. Similarity among group members will likely help the group reach consensus on the best approaches to performing a task and may lead it to make decisions more quickly and effectively. Groups whose members are similar in terms of their personality characteristics work better and have less conflict, probably at least in part because the members are able to communicate well and to effectively coordinate their efforts (Bond & Shiu, 1997). In some cases, a group may even ostracize or expel members who are dissimilar, and this is particularly likely when it is important that the group make a decision or finish a task quickly and the dissimilarity prevents achieving these goals (Kruglanski & webster, 1991).

Although similarity among group members may be useful in some cases, groups that are characterized by diversity among members—for instance, in terms of personalities, experiences, and abilities—might have some potential advantages (Crisp & Turner, 2011; Jackson & Joshi, 2011; van Knippenberg & Schippers, 2007). For one, assuming that people are willing to express them, diverse interests, opinions, and goals among the group members may reduce tendencies toward conformity and groupthink. Diverse groups may also be able to take advantage of the wider range of resources, ideas, and viewpoints that diversity provides, perhaps by increasing discussion of the issues and therefore improving creative thinking. Bantel and Jackson (1989) appraised the diversity of top management teams in 199 banks and found that the greater the diversity of the team in terms of age, education, and length of time on the team, the greater the number of administrative innovations. Diversity has also been found to increase positive attitudes among the group members and may increase group performance and creativity (Gurin, Peng, Lopez, & Nagda, 1999; McLeod, Lobel, & Cox, 1996; Nemeth, Brown, & Rogers, 2001).

Extreme levels of diversity, however, may be problematic for group process. One difficulty is that it may be harder for diverse groups to get past the formation stage and begin to work on the task, and once they get started, it may take more time for them to make a decision. More diverse groups may also show more turnover over time (Wagner, Pfeffer, & O’Reilly, 1984), and group diversity may produce increased conflict within the group (Kim, 1988).

Diversity in gender and ethnic background in group members may be either beneficial or harmful to a group. In terms of potential benefits, men and women bring different orientations to the group, as do members of different ethnic groups, and this diversity in background and skills may help group performance. In a meta-analysis of gender diversity, Wendy Wood (1987) found that there was at least some evidence that groups composed of both men and women tended to outperform same-sex groups (either all males or all females) at least in part because they brought different, complementary skills to the group. However, she also found that groups made up only of men performed well on tasks that involved task-oriented activities, whereas groups of women did better on tasks that involved social interaction. Thus, and again supporting the importance of the person-by-situation interaction, the congruency of members and tasks seems more important than either member characteristics or group characteristics alone.

However, although ethnic and gender diversity may have at least some benefits for groups, there are also some potential costs to diversity. Tsui, Egan, and O’Reilly (1992) found that highly diverse groups had lower cohesion and lower social identity in comparison with groups that were more homogeneous. Furthermore, if there are differences in status between the members of the different ethnic or gender groups (such as when men have higher status than women), members of the group with lower status may feel that they are being treated unfairly, particularly if they feel that they do not have equal opportunities for advancement, and this may produce intergroup conflict. And problems may also result if the number of individuals from one group is particularly small. When there are only a few (token) members of one group, these individuals may be seen and treated stereotypically by the members of the larger group (Kanter, 1977).

In sum, group diversity may produce either process losses or process gains, but it is difficult to predict which will occur in any given group. When the diversity experience is not too extreme, and when the group leaders and group members treat the diversity in a positive way, diversity may encourage greater tolerance and also have a variety of positive group functions for the group (Crisp & Turner, 2011; Nishii & Mayer, 2009).

Key Takeaways

  • A variety of approaches may be taken to help groups avoid group process losses and to increase the likelihood of process gains.
  • It is important to help group members avoid the illusion of group effectivity and to monitor group performance.
  • Providing rewards for performance may increase the effort of the individual group members, but if the rewards are not perceived as equitable, they may also lead to upward social comparison and a reduction in effort by other members.
  • People will work harder in groups when they feel that they are contributing to the group and that their work is visible to and valued by the other group members. This is particularly likely in smaller groups.
  • Adequate information sharing is more likely when the group has plenty of time to make its decision and is not rushed in doing so. The group leader is extremely important in fostering norms of open discussion.
  • Groups that set specific, difficult, and yet attainable goals have been found to be more effective than groups that are given goals that are not very clear.
  • Group diversity may produce either process losses or process gains, but it is difficult to predict which will occur in any given group.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

1. Analyze each of the following in terms of the principles discussed in this chapter.

a. In 1986, the scientists at NASA launched the space shuttle Challenger in weather that was too cold, which led to an explosion on liftoff and the death of the seven astronauts aboard. Although the scientists had debated whether or not to launch the shuttle, analyses of the decision-making process in this case found that rather than obtaining unbiased information from all the relevant individuals, many of those in the know were pressured to give a yes response for the launch. Furthermore, the decision to launch was made as the result of a yes vote from only four of the responsible decision makers, while the opinions of the others were ignored. In January 2003, a very similar event occurred when the space shuttle Columbia burned and crashed on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Analysis of the decision making leading to this decision suggests that the NASA team members again acted in isolation, again without fully considering the knowledge and opinions of all the team members, and again with disastrous consequences.
b. John, Sarah, Billy, and Warren were assigned to work on a group project for their psychology class. However, they never really made much progress on it. It seemed as if each of them was waiting for the other person to call a meeting. They finally met a couple of days before the paper was due, but nobody seemed to do much work on it. In the end, they didn’t get a very good grade. They realized that they might have done better if they had each worked alone on the project.

2. Imagine that you were working on a group project that did not seem to be going very well. What techniques might you use to motivate the group to do better?
3. Consider a time when you experienced a process gain in a group. Do you think the gain was real, or was the group influenced by the illusion of group effectivity?


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