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Define workgroups and work teams and note the distinction between them. Explain the four important groups and two important team concepts.



On July 3, 1988, the U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 persons onboard. Responsibility for firing the fatal missile was shared by several members of the Anti-Air Warfare Team. This team is supposed to be able to identify hostile aircraft correctly and to shoot only when threatened. Obviously something went wrong, and much of the blame can be placed on poor teamwork. Someone mistakenly identified the airliner as hostile, and over the next few stressful minutes, no one corrected the mistake. The Navy spent considerable time and effort since the tragedy trying to determine how best to prevent similar mistakes in the future, and in more than 2 decades since the Vincennes incident, the error has not been repeated. I/O psychologists were very much involved in this effort to improve teamwork through research (see this chapter's I/O Psychology in Practice).

The U.S. Navy is not the only organization in which people work in teams. Teams can be found in factories, hospitals, schools, and stores. Any job that requires the coordinated actions of more than one person can involve teams. Not all groups of people in organizations work in teams, however. In many work settings, we find groups of people who work relatively independently but still come in contact with one another. College professors, salesclerks, security guards, and teachers often do most of their work without the help of coworkers, although they come into contact with many other people in their organizations doing similar work. Even the most independent employees are affected by the behavior of others with whom they interact at work.

In this chapter, we turn our attention from the individual employee to groups of employees. We will see how the behavior of individuals is very much affected by the behavior of other people in the work environment. One cannot fully understand the behavior of individuals without considering the influence of others because people rarely work totally alone and unaffected by others.

We begin this discussion by distinguishing work groups from work teams. Four important group and two important team concepts will be discussed:



Group cohesiveness

Process loss

Team commitment

Team mental model

Next, the chapter covers the effects of groups on job performance. Techniques for enhancing group and team performance are included.

Objectives: The student who studies this chapter should be able to:

  •  Define workgroups and work teams and note the distinction between them.

  •  Explain the four important groups and two important team concepts.

  •  Summarize the findings on group performance.

  •  Talk about the advantages and disadvantages of group diversity.

  •  Discuss the procedures that can be used to enhance workgroup and team performance.


work group is a collection of two or more people who interact with one another and share some interrelated task goals. These two characteristics—interaction and interrelatedness—distinguish a group from just a collection of people. A university department faculty is a work group. The members of the faculty interact with one another from time to time, and they have interrelated goals involving the education of students. Each faculty member teaches courses that, taken together, constitute the requirements for the major course of study. On the other hand, all of the students of the university are not a group because they do not all interact with one another, although subsets of them do, and they do not all share interrelated goals. Rather, each student has an individual goal that is unrelated to the goals of other students.

work team is a type of work group, but a team has three specific properties (M. A. West, Borrill, & Unsworth, 1998):

  1. The actions of individuals must be interdependent and coordinated.

  2. Each member must have a particular, specified role.

  3. There must be common task goals and objectives.

For example, each person on a surgical team has a specific role. A surgeon does the cutting and sewing, a surgical nurse assists and hands instruments to the surgeon, and an anesthesiologist keeps the patient unconscious and monitors vital signs. The actions of these people are coordinated. The cutting cannot begin until the patient is asleep. The surgeon cannot sew unless the nurse hands him or her the tools. There is a common goal of successfully completing the surgery without losing the patient.

The distinction between a group and a team is an important one. All teams are groups, but not all groups are teams. A group consists of people who work together but can do their jobs without one another. A team is a group of people who cannot do their jobs, at least not effectively, without the other members of their team. For the remainder of this chapter, all group principles will apply to teams, but team concepts don't necessarily apply to groups.

Virtual Teams

As we discussed in Chapter 10, technology (computer-supported cooperative work) has made it possible for people to work in teams without face-to-face contact. These virtual teams communicate via e-mail, instant messaging, telephone, web cameras, and other technologies. Virtuality, however, is not an all-or-none phenomenon. Teams vary in their use of virtual tools such as e-mail and telephone (Kirkman & Mathieu, 2005), with some teams having members who are geographically separated, thus precluding face-to-face interaction, whereas others are located in the same place but choose to communicate virtually at least some of the time.

Comparisons of face-to-face with virtual groups suggest that the former often function more effectively. A meta-analysis of 52 studies that compared face-to-face with virtual groups shows that the virtual groups have worse task performance, take more time to complete tasks, and have lower group-member satisfaction (Baltes, Dickson, Sherman, Bauer, & LaGanke, 2002). Some of these findings might be due to the use of mainly text-based virtual tools in these studies. The use of richer media—for example, using video plus voice—results in better performance than just text alone (Martins, Gilson, & Maynard, 2004). Furthermore, the type of group task might also affect performance. As we will see later in the chapter, virtual brainstorming can be superior to the face-to-face version.


There are four important group and two important team concepts that underlie much group and team behavior. The first three (roles, norms, and group cohesiveness) describe important aspects of groups and teams that help us understand how they operate. The fourth (process loss) is concerned with what sorts of things happen in work groups and teams that prevent people from putting all of their efforts into job performance. Team commitment and team mental model are characteristics important to teams but not groups.


The concept of role implies that not everyone in a group or team has the same function or purpose. Instead, different individuals have different jobs and responsibilities in the group or team. In a surgical team, one person has the role of surgeon, another of nurse, and another of anesthesiologist. In a well-running work team, each role is clearly defined, and all team members know exactly what their roles are.

Formal roles are specified by the organization and are part of the formal job description. In a surgical team, each person's job title—surgeon, nurse, or anesthesiologist—defines the role in a formal way. There may be organizational documents, such as written job descriptions and job analyses, that define roles. Informal roles arise from group interaction rather than from the formal rules and specifications of organizations. Groups can invent roles that do not exist formally, or a group's informal roles can supersede the formal ones.

An example of an informal role in a work group is that of greeting card sender. It is common in a work group for employees to send cards to one another during special occasions, such as birthdays or weddings. A group member might take on the role of buying and sending cards at the appropriate times. An example of the informal superseding the formal occurs when one person has the formal title of supervisor, but another person is the actual and informal leader. This can occur in combat teams when the members view the lower-ranking experienced sergeant rather than the higher ranking but inexperienced lieutenant as the leader.

Groups vary considerably in the extent to which roles are specialized among members. In a surgical team, for example, the training and credentials are such that little overlap in roles can occur among the surgeon, nurse, and anesthesiologist. With other groups or teams, members can change roles or rotate responsibilities over time. In an academic department of a university, it is common for faculty to take turns being the chairperson.


Norms are unwritten rules of behavior accepted by members of a work group. These rules can cover everything from style of dress and manner of speech to how hard everyone works. Norms can exert powerful influences on individual behavior because many groups will strenuously enforce them. As illustrated in Figure 12.1, violation of norms will bring increasingly stronger pressure to bear on the violator, beginning by informing the member of the norm, then scolding the member for violation, and then punishing the member either verbally or physically (violence); when these steps are ineffective, the member will be ostracized (C. L. Jackson & LePine, 2003). A good illustration of norms can be found in Coch and French's (1948) classic study of a pajama factory with a piece-rate system. In this factory, employees assembled pajamas and could work at their own pace. Groups, however, would adopt production norms that specified how much members should produce. Coch and French documented the output of a worker who began to exceed the 50-unit per hour production norm of her work group. When group members pressured her, she restricted her output to about 45 units per hour. A short time later the group was disbanded, and within a matter of days the worker's output more than doubled.

Figure 12.1 Norm violators are informed, scolded, punished, and then ostracized from the group.

Work group norms can have a bigger impact on member behavior than supervisors or organizational practices. In the Coch and French (1948) study, production was restricted, even though a piece-rate system was in place. Employees would sacrifice the opportunity to make extra money to keep from violating group norms. Clearly norms could prove quite useful as a means of enhancing productivity if they could be appropriately directed. The changing of group norms can be difficult for the management of an organization, which must structure the changes so that it is in the best interest of the group to adopt them. For example, group incentive systems can be an effective means of getting groups to adopt high production norms. With such a system, all members of the group are given rewards, such as a monetary bonus, if the group achieves some specified level of performance. As demonstrated by Coch and French, however, incentive systems will not always motivate groups to perform well.

Group Cohesiveness

Group cohesiveness is the sum of forces attracting group members and keeping the group together. For a group to be highly cohesive, most, if not all, members must have strong motives to remain in the group. A high level of group cohesiveness has important implications for group behavior. Norms tend to be strongly enforced in groups that are highly cohesive. The violation of a norm, particularly an important one, can be threatening to a group's existence. If group continuation is vitally important to group members, the conformity to norms will be a critical issue. In the workplace, people are often dependent on their jobs for economic survival, and the work group can be as important as the family. Threats to the well-being of the group are taken seriously.

Cohesive groups strongly enforce their norms, and work groups might adopt norms for high or low productivity. For this reason, correlations between cohesiveness and job performance have been somewhat inconsistent across studies. However, a meta-analysis (Beal, Cohen, Burke, & McLendon, 2003) suggests that cohesiveness is more likely to result in high than low performance. For example, Man and Lam (2003) studied work teams in an international bank with offices in Hong Kong and the United States. Team members completed questionnaires asking about cohesiveness, and supervisors provided ratings of team performance. Results showed that cohesive teams are rated higher in team performance.


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