Groups and Groupwork

Part I

What is a Group?



What is a group?

What is the one group we are all part of?

What makes us a group?

What are the principal characteristics of groups?

How does a group evolve or develop?

The characteristics of effective groups.

Types of group.




We are all part of at least one group and most of us will acknowledge membership of several groups and may be identified by others as belonging to several other groups.


What is the one group we are all part of?

Homo sapiens.  This is one group we have not volunteered to join, nor is it one that we can ordinarily opt to leave.

There are, however, many other groups that we move into naturally and by virtue of changes in circumstance over which we may or may not exercise control, and amongst these are groups distinguished by such criteria as:

Age, Ethnicity, Religion, Environment, Education, Social activity, Geographical location, Political affiliation, Sports activity, Work, Leisure.


What makes us a group?

(a)    We perceive ourselves as being part of a group.

(b)   Others perceive us as belonging to a group.

(c)    We choose to regard ourselves as part of a group.

(d)   We subscribe to membership of a group.

(e)    We can be described or defined by similarities.

(f)    We are more than merely the sum of the members.


What are the principal characteristics of groups?

(a)    Natural or artificial.  A natural group would be, for example, the human race as already mentioned, but it might also be a family or societal group into which we have been born.  An artificial group is one that has been created for a specific purpose, and one which we may or may not elect to join.

(b)   Fixed or flexible.  The former are those whose numbers or members are non-variable, because they are subject to criteria imposed from outside. A natural group comes into this category.  Others could include those distinguished by race, religion, or ethnicity.  Flexible groups are those where membership is optional and defined by a specific activity such as work, sports or politics.

(c)    Location.  The group here is identified by its environmental boundary.  Thus it might be a school, a hospital, a sports facility.  Membership of this group would automatically place members within another group, or other groups.  For example, a student would be not only a member of the group comprising other students at the same school, but also part of that larger group of others who are studying.

(d)   Purpose.  The aim of the group will define its status.  For what purpose has it been established or is it being maintained.  Is its aim to nurture, to teach, to effect change?

(e)  Size.  The number of members will affect the characteristics and behaviour of a group.  Generally large groups will behave differently from smaller groups.  Members of large groups tend to be more readily disillusioned or disgruntled with group performance and feel themselves less involved in any decision-making process.  The relationships between members of large groups will also be different (or subject to different influences) from those of small groups.  Large groups are more dependent upon a "leader"; smaller groups frequently need no leader.

(f)  Open or closed groups.  There is some overlap here with earlier definitions and the distinction is largely self-explanatory.  An open group has a "shifting" membership: members join and members leave.  A closed group is fixed for life: the life of the group, or the life of the individual members.

(g)  Formal or informal groups.  The former are those groups that have been consciously created to accomplish a collective task.  The group will perform formal functions and is held collectively responsible for its tasks.  An informal group is a collection of individuals who become a group when its individual members develop interdependencies, influence each others behaviour, and contribute to mutual need satisfaction.

(h)  Task.  To an extent this follows on from (d) Purpose.  A group is usually formed when there is a task that cannot be achieved by one person. What activity or activities will the group use to achieve its purpose?  Is the aim to be primarily discussion or action?  Or a combination of the two?  What outcome or goal has been set for the group and what action will be taken in order to achieve that end?

(i)   Duration.  How long will the group survive?  Has it been established, or is it in existence, for a finite period of time?  Or is its life to be defined by the achievement of a purpose which, once attained, will herald the end of the group?


How does a group evolve or develop?

Tuckman and Jensen (1965, 1977) [1] suggested that groups pass through five clearly defined stages of development which they labelled forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning.


This is the orientation phase.  A collection of individuals that have not yet melded into a group. Each is seeking to learn about the attitudes and backgrounds of the others and to ascertain how they fit in, and establish ground rules.  They want to discover the nature of the common issues and to learn what they each are required to do or capable of doing to achieve their objective.


This is the conflict phase.  It can be very uncomfortable for the individuals.  It is a period of negotiation, where individual goals are revealed and examined and, in the revelation, hostility may be encountered.  Relationships established in the forming phase may be disrupted, and the key issues at this stage are the management of conflict and the organisation of group objectives.


The cohesion stage.  Members of the group work out ways of collaborating and develop closer degrees of relationship and cooperation.  Rules are established for behaviour and roles are allotted and tasks allocated.  It is the beginning of the group structure.  Conflicts are resolved and members start to experience the sense of belonging to the group.


An effective structure has evolved.  Objectives have been established and the need now is to get on with the job of fulfilling them.  Many incipient groups never reach this stage.  Independence is now replaced by interdependence.  Sub-groups develop, tasks are allotted, and problem-solving activity results.

Adjourning. [Sometimes called "Mourning"]

The final stage.  The objective has been attained, the task completed.  Group members consider what they have achieved and decide on whether or not they should disband.  This stage is just as important to positive outcomes as are the preceding four stages.  It is important to ensure that all group members feel completed and prepared to give up any further dependency on the group.


The characteristics of effective groups

In The Human Side of Enterprise [2], Douglas McGregor provided the following distinctions between an effective and an ineffective group:

1.  An informal, relaxed atmosphere in the group which shows that the members are involved and  interested.

2.  Full participation by all members in the discussion which remains focused upon the task.

3.  Acceptance by all of the group objective.

4.  Members listen to each other and are not afraid to make creative suggestions.

5.  Disagreements are not swept under the carpet but fully discussed and either resolved or lived with.

6.  Most decisions are reached by consensus.

7.  Criticism is frank and frequent without degenerating into personal attacks.

8.  People are free to express their feelings about both the task and the group's mode of operation in achieving that task.

9.  Actions are clearly assigned to group members and are carried out by them.

10. Leadership within the group shifts from time to time and tends to be based on expert knowledge rather than on formal status or position.

11. The group is self-conscious about its own operation and regularly reviews the way it goes about its business.


Types of group

Carl Rogers [3] has identified a number of group classifications many of which will be featured in our next section: What is Groupwork?

(a)   The T-Group (T standing for "Training"), as originally devised tending to emphasize human relations skills.  

(b)  Encounter Group (or basic encounter group), which tends to emphasize personal growth and the improvement of interpersonal communication and relationships through an experiential process.

(c)  Sensitivity Training Group.  May resemble either of the above.

(d)  Task-oriented Group.  Widely used in industry and focusing on the task of the group in its interpersonal context.

(e)  Sensory Awareness Groups.  Emphasize physical awareness and expression through movement, spontaneous dance, and so on.

(f)  Creativity Workshops.  Creative expression through various art media is the focus, while the aim is individudal spontaneity and freedom of expression.

(g)  Team Building Group.  Used in industry to develop more closely knit and effective working teams.

(h)  Synanon Group.  Developed in the treatment of drug addicts by the Synanon organisation.  Tends to emphasize almost violent attacks on the defences of the participants.





[1] Tuckman, B, 1965, Development sequences in small groups, and Tuckman, B and Jensen, N, 1977 Stages of small group development revisited.

[2] Douglas McGregor, 1960, The Human Side of Enterprise, McGraw Hill.

[3] Carl Rogers, 1970, Encounter Groups



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