Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 259
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Fine Points of Cohesion

Researcher explores the link between close knit work groups and performance.

Researchers studying the performance of work groups have examined numerous qualities of group composition and functioning over the years. They've been looking for factors that will explain why some groups are very productive while others are not. One popular target for their study has been group cohesion.

Group cohesion is a term researchers invented to describe a condition of work groups that helps members feel close to each other. It has three components: 1) interpersonal attraction (people in a group feeling attracted to each other for friendship), 2) group pride, and 3) shared commitment to the work of the group. Common sense suggests that groups that posses these qualities will work well together and achieve more than groups that do not. However, researchers are cautious about common sense. They like to test it if they can, but cohesion has proven to be a slippery subject to study.

Daniel Beal, from Purdue University, is interested in the performance of work groups, and he was surprised recently when he read the conclusions of a review article prepared by a colleague. The colleague had reviewed studies that explored the connection between group cohesion and performance and had concluded that group cohesion did not affect performance. This conclusion seemed impossible to Beal, so he conducted a careful review himself. He corrected mistakes he felt his colleague had made, and he included several, more recent studies in his analysis. Beal did obtain findings that contradicted the earlier review. His findings support the value of cohesion, but he also learned fine distinctions about cohesion that managers and supervisors can use in managing their work groups, and here's the best of it.

Beal found that group cohesion matters most when efficiency is important. Members communicate clearly, quickly, and they coordinate their actions with an ease and elegance that resembles ballroom dancing. When such group efficiency occurs in an environment that rewards it, groups possessing the elements of cohesion gain a competitive advantage. For example, in a retail setting, efficient restocking may or may not be important depending upon the volume of merchandise that needs to be set out, the number of people available to do the work, and the time they have to accomplish it. Stores with cohesive restocking crews, limited time and people, and large volumes of merchandise will make more money than similar stores whose restocking crews lack cohesion. There will be more merchandise on the shelves available for customers to buy.

Group cohesion also matters when the flow of work in a group requires joint actions to complete it. For example, piano movers can't work alone. They must work together to move a piano.

Group cohesion also matters when the work flow requires many handoffs or exchanges. These occur when a work in progress is passed between group members and each completes an operation and then passes the work on to another person. The more these exchanges occur, the more important group cohesion becomes in providing groups with a competitive advantage.

Of the three components of group cohesion, Beal found that the most important was commitment to the work of the group. Next in importance was group pride, and then came interpersonal attraction. This is a reverse order of what one would expect based on the definition of group cohesion as a feeling of closeness with one's co-workers resulting in improved functioning as a group, and this is good news for managers and supervisors.

The best way to influence an employee's commitment to the work of the group is for the supervisor to care about the work him/herself, and to make these feelings clear to employees. This leadership creates a shared motivation among group members to do well on a task. It's also easy to do.

The best way to influence group pride is to emphasize the difficulty of becoming a member of the group and to speak of the distinction that follows for individuals who are selected. Adding another interview to the selection process accomplishes this goal. Such actions and comments enhance the status that comes with group membership.

Finally, Beal recommends directing performance feedback to the entire group and matching incentives to the measurement of this performance. He further recommends concentrating this feedback on exchanges of work between group members with a goal of creating a smoother work flow.

Reference: Beal, Daniel, Robin Cohen, Michael Burke, and Christy McLendon (2003) Cohesion and Performance in Groups: A Meta-Analytic Clarification of Construct Relations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88 (6), 989-1004.

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