Everyday Groups: Group Well Being and Member Support

Today, much of our work is done in groups. Whether on a Federal committee, on a project team in support of Agency mission or at home serving our communities, much of what we do is through participation in groups. What makes a group successful (or not)?

Thanks to Jonathan Grudin of Microsoft Research for the wonderful reference to Joseph McGrath’s Time, Interaction and Performance (TIP): A Theory of Groups. Prior to 1991, behavioral research focused on controlled studies of small groups in well defined experiments. Experiments accurately measured a group’s ability to produce results, known as its production function. Experiments typically included solving single task problems. The researcher supplied the complete set of resources required to solve the problem and group members were kept in isolation during the experiment. Needless to say, this approach of measuring how groups produce the best output is a very Industrial Age approach, in the same vein as the famous time and motion studies conducted by the industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor.

Today, thanks to McGrath’s research, we know that group success is about much more than widget output. Factors such as the overall well-being of the group and support for members in that group are critical for a group’s success in the real world over a period of time. Group well being describes the activities of the development and maintenance of the group as a whole and the relationships among members. Member support describes the ways in which the individual is embedded within the group and the relationship between the individual and the group as a whole. These two functions encapsulate the nature of interaction in McGrath’s Theory. To gauge the effect of time, McGrath studied the effect on group functions when groups are embedded in society and groups whose members change.

All too often the groups in which we work focus exclusively on the production function with little regard to group well being and member support. But I believe that emphasizing group well being and member support leads to better outcomes. This is especially true as our groups become more geographically dispersed and we have less day to day contact. Professor Steve Kelman of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in his post entitled Collaboration success – The Facebook model redux cites a study in which what Kelman calls personalized groups were 18% more successful than depersonalized groups in achieving settlement in a negotiation. Kelman’s personalized groups are composed of negotiators who had pictures and biographies of their negotiating partners and were able to exchange emails prior to starting their negotiation.

McGrath’s group well being is most likely at work in personalized groups. Because members were able to personalize relationships through pictures and biographies, group production increased significantly. Kelman’s post on personalized groups doesn’t speak to member support, but I think there are many stories out there to be told about member support. Do you have a story to tell about your role in a group? It could be a success, or how the group could have done better with more member support. Where do you see the role of leadership in member support?

What about group well being? Have social media, or collaboration tools changed group well being in your groups?