To start to understand the way people behave differently in group settings, we first need to define exactly what a group is. Now, there are a lot of different academic and sociological ways to do this, but the simplest version breaks down like this: A group is two or more people connected together by social relationships.1
Next challenge: what exactly IS a “social relationship”? If any collection of two or more people who have something in common can be considered a group, then anything from a family of 4 to a football stadium during a home game can be considered a group, and yet these two collections of people function and relate to each other in very different ways.
Groups can be broken down into 4 categories:1
Intimacy groups are collections of people like families, romantic couples and close friends, which exist in intimate social settings and are expected to last over a long period of time. A group of football fans would fall under the category of weak association, along with audience members at a concert or riders on a crowded train. Social categories are broad, over arching collections of people like “Christians” or “LGBT+ People” or “American Citizens.” While people within weak association groups and social categories may feel a vague sense of kinship with each other, they can’t be expected to know every other person within their group.
Task groups, which is the kind of group we’re going to focus on, are the kinds of groups you’re most likely to find within an office setting. Task groups can include sports teams, parent groups, work groups – basically any group of people that is working together is to accomplish a goal. This kind of group exists for different reasons than an intimacy group, and requires more structure than a weak association group, because they are striving towards a common purpose.
Structure is an important element of all groups, but especially so in task groups. The way in which groups are structured determines their dynamic, and how they function, and how they rely on each other. For all group structures, there is a certain amount of interdependence, or a sense of relying on each other in some way. However, the forms of this interdependence can change as the structure of the group changes.
The images1 to the left show several different structural forms groups can take. The first features one group member in a position of influence over the others, the second a sequential form of influence where the task pass along from member to member. Third, we see a kind of interdependence where all group members rely on each other equally. Lastly, were have a two-level structure, where tasks or information flow down through mediators, rather than directly from the source.
The ways that individual people react within these structures reflect how they define their member roles2. All people bring different experiences to the table, have different strengths and weaknesses, and these can dictate how well they can do in certain roles. Personality types can very strongly affect the success or failure of any given group. Group members who block communication, by shifting responsibility and blame to other member or by being too accommodating and unable to drive forward motion, can cause the structure of interdependence to fall apart.
Groups with members who are naturally inclined to be supportive of the others within their structure, or are particularly good at mediating conflicts, have as profound an impact on a group as their negative counterparts2. One of the tricks to making a task group function smoothly is identifying the people within the group with personality traits which will encourage productive workflow and putting them in positions within the group that will allow them to do so. The strength of the interpersonal relationships within a group can determined how well they function as a whole.