Building Group Cohesiveness

See also: Group Life Cycle

Working in groups is a key activity for people in most personal and professional settings. There are many different types of group which can be broadly divided into two categories, depending on whether the task or the experience of the group is the central concern.

Groups are dynamic in both structure and process. Usually group cohesiveness and group norms develop to enable the group to achieve more than individuals would be able to on their own.

The aim of a group is usually to bring about some change, support or insight into either the individual, the group as a whole, or the environment.  Whilst groups may well encounter internal problems and conflict at certain stages, when they are working effectively groups provide a positive, supportive environment in which to develop and learn new interpersonal skills.

The Development of Group 'Norms'

One way in which a group becomes cohesive is through the development of group 'norms', that is the standards of behaviour and attitudes to which the group abides – the groups rules.  All groups have a set of norms they may apply to everyone in the group or to certain members only. Some norms may be strictly observed, whilst others may be more flexible.

As a group develops, these norms help to minimise individual differences in personality.  Norms operate at the group level rather than at the individual level. Group norms usually operate to maintain the group and preserve its integrity, rather than to check individual actions.

Group norms may be explicitly set out in a constitution.  In this case, a new group member would be given a list of rules and regulations, aims and objectives.  This is most likely to be standard practice in a long-standing group.  However, group norms evolve over a period of time and in newly formed-groups they are often unspoken or implicit.  A new member of a group will gradually become aware of what the group norms are and  will usually make an attempt to alter their behaviour to conform to the norms.  One very obvious group norm is the wearing of particular clothes or having hair styled in a distinctive way – in certain groups it may be appropriate to wear a suit for example. If members conform to the identity and norms of that group, it shows that they belong.

When members habitually refuse to conform to the group norms, they may become marginalised within a group or in extreme cases, expelled. When disruptive members are not expelled, this may lead to the breakdown of the entire group or to a major restructuring of norms and values.

In well-established groups it may be appropriate to occasionally look at the norms from an objective point of view. Do the norms help the progress of the group?  It may be discovered that certain norms actually hold back progress within a group and therefore should be examined. Do all group members understand the norms, are norms consistently broken?

These questions may lead to norms being listed in a formal way – a group constitution.  If norms are consistently being broken then perhaps they are not appropriate for the group.

Examples of Group Norms

The following list gives examples of the type of norms you may expect when you join or set up a group.

Obviously, different groups with different membership and different aims and objectives will employ different sets of norms.

  • Meet at x venue and at x time.
  • Dress smartly but casually.
  • Begin and end on time.
  • Attend as many meetings as possible, minimum of 70%.
  • Listen carefully to the current speaker.
  • Do your homework; be prepared before the start of a meeting.
  • When speaking keep your point relevant and concise.
  • Do not use hostile or inappropriate language or body language.
  • Be polite and courteous.
  • Show respect to other members of the group and their ideas.
  • Work on the goals and objectives of the group.
  • Do not talk or hold side conversations whilst others are talking.
  • Turn off your mobile phone for the duration of meetings.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Groups

There can be both strengths and weaknesses to working in groups.

These strengths and weaknesses will vary according to the purpose, structure and nature of the group.  Strengths and weaknesses will also change over time as the group evolves (see Group Life-Cycle) and in relation to other dynamics which the group encounters.

The following list of group strengths and weaknesses is therefore generic and cannot be complete:

Possible Group Strengths

  • Through group cohesiveness, a group’s members can gain a sense of belonging, respect and trust.
  • A group is not dependent on the skills of one person. In a group it is possible for an individual to take on different roles. Each role will reflect how individual skills and responsibilities change with time.
  • Because skills, experience and knowledge are pooled, there are greater resources to be drawn upon.
  • Groups can support individuals, share problems and provide mutual help and encouragement. Groups give the opportunity for individuals to talk to others with similar problems and share their experiences.
  • A group can be a safe environment to bring about individual understanding and development.  Because individual behaviour, feelings and attitudes are greatly influenced by other people, group members can provide role models and reinforcement through mutual support and positive feedback.
  • People may feel less isolated and intimidated than in a one-to-one situation. Shared workload and support networks.

Possible Group Weaknesses

  • It may be difficult to maintain confidentiality within a group.
  • Some individuals do not like being in a group situation and they may not wish to express problems or share ideas with others in a group setting.  Such people may become disruptive or withdraw.
  • Individuals may resent the pressure to conform to the group's norms.
  • Group labels can lead to stigmatisation and to overcome this, some groups are renamed e.g. renaming the 'Alcoholics Support Group’, to 'The Cafe Society', may change outsiders’ perceptions of the group.  Whilst the new name may be less socially stigmatised, such anonymity can lead to outsiders not knowing the group's role.
  • Organising a group needs resources, accommodation, time and on-going commitment.