Strengths and Weaknesses of Groups
Many of us now routinely have to work in groups, either professionally or personally. From classroom learning, through university assignments, to projects at work, group working is becoming more and more standard.
Most of us will also recognise that groups can have both strengths and weaknesses—both for the group, and for the individuals involved. These strengths and weaknesses will vary with the purpose, structure and nature of the group. They will also change over time as the group evolves.
This page discusses both the strengths and weaknesses of groups, and explores some ideas for maximising the strengths, and overcoming some of the weaknesses.
Strengths and Advantages of Group Working
There are many strengths and advantages to working in a group, including making decisions as a group. These include:
The group’s work and decisions can draw on the knowledge, skills and experience of all members. This means that decisions can be informed by multiple perspectives, making them more likely to be based on stronger evidence—and therefore sounder.
Group working encourages members to develop and explore new ideas and perspectives. Research among students showed that those working in groups were more likely to try new techniques for problem-solving. They were also more open to new ideas. The thinking is that hearing different opinions can lead to changes in views, and therefore result in more willingness to hear new ideas.
Existing relationships can help to improve group cohesion. Where two or more people within a group already have a relationship, this can help to build group cohesion, by providing common ground.
Groups compensate for individual weaknesses and support personal development. In groups, individuals can compensate for their own weaknesses by drawing on the skills and strengths of others. However, they can also learn and get support from other group members to develop in areas of weakness.
Working in a group can satisfy the need to ‘belong’. Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs places the need to belong only three rungs up from the bottom. This means it is less crucial only than physiological needs (food, water and shelter) and feeling safe. Working in a group therefore meets a very basic need in all of us.
The challenges of group working can make success more satisfying. Working in a group is not always easy. Group members often feel far more satisfied by achieving a good result than those who work alone, who may feel that success is expected, or downplay their achievements.
Groups often provide unexpected learning opportunities. Working in groups gives opportunities for individuals to talk to others with similar problems and issues and share their experiences.
Groups can be a safe environment to improve individual understanding and support personal development. Individual behaviour, feelings and attitudes are greatly influenced by other people. Group members can therefore act as role models and provide reinforcement for changing behaviours through mutual support and positive feedback.
Groups may enable sharing of workloads and support networks. Working alone may lead to isolation or feeling unsupported. Formal requirements for group working can enable better sharing of work, and development of mutual support networks. This, in turn, can help to ensure that everyone can develop a better work–life balance.
You may also be interested in our guest post on the benefits to individuals of working in groups.
Weaknesses of Working in Groups
Many of the strengths of working in a group can also turn into weaknesses if not managed correctly. Groups also have specific weaknesses that stem from having several people working together.
Group decision-making can take a long time. Decisions made by groups are usually held to be better than individual decisions, because they draw on more perspectives and information. However, they can also take a long time to make, because of the need to explore these varying perspectives. Group leaders need to balance these two requirements to get the benefits of group decision-making without taking too much time.
Groups can be vulnerable to errors of decision-making, such as ‘groupthink’. This is especially true where group members are more similar, or value cohesion above results.
Existing relationships within a group can damage development of wider group cohesion. Where two or more people within a group already have a relationship, this can encourage the formation of subgroups or cliques within a wider group. This, in turn, can make it harder for other members of the group to fit in.
It takes time to develop full understanding of roles and responsibilities. Until that understanding develops, groups may be vulnerable to misunderstandings and miscommunications. This can result in work not being done, or being done twice.
Working in a group may dampen individuals’ sense of responsibility for decisions. A collective decision is owned by the group, not by any one individual. This means that individuals may be prepared to agree to more risk for the group than they would accept for themselves. They may also be more prepared to accept a bad decision because they will not be held personally responsible.
Care is needed to ensure that all group members feel equally able to contribute. More confident people may feel more able to contribute vocally, and those who get more ‘airtime’ may feel more ‘heard’ than others. Feeling unable to contribute may lead people to withdraw from the process.
Conflict may arise with a group for several reasons. Conflict can arise because individuals have different ways of working, or different ideas for achieving the group’s objectives, or even because they disagree with the group’s objectives. Open conflict can be helpful in clearing the air, but it can also lead to the group fragmenting into subgroups, or individuals leaving the group or withdrawing their cooperation.
One or two people may take control of the group, and essentially side-line others. This can lead to poorer decision-making, individual withdrawal, and refusal to sign off decisions. A similar split can arise if one or two people are prepared to put in a lot more effort to get the work done, and feel that others are taking advantage of them.
It may be difficult to maintain confidentiality within a group. This is simply because information shared by more people is more likely to be discussed or shared further.
Some individuals may withdraw cooperation, or even disrupt the group. Some people do not like being in a group situation. In particular, they may not like to express problems or share ideas with others. If forced to participate, these people may become disruptive or withdraw. Other people may become disruptive if the group process does not seem to be going the way they want—for example, if their ideas have been rejected, even after careful discussion and consideration.
Individuals may resent the pressure to conform to the group’s norms. This may lead to them withdrawing. They may also disrupt the group to the extent that the norms have to be re-evaluated. There is more about this in our pages on Group Life Cycle and Building Group Cohesiveness.
Organising a group needs resources, accommodation, time and on-going commitment. This is a fundamental issue with any group. Those involved need to be clear that those resources are available.
There is more about many of these weaknesses, and how to overcome them, in our page on Group Decision-Making.
Getting the Best out of Group Working
Group working is unmistakeably now a standard part of most people’s lives. It is therefore important to be able to get the most out of working in a group, without succumbing to the many weaknesses and disadvantages of group working.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this is awareness. Being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of group working puts you in a far stronger position to address both. Group leaders play a key role in overcoming weaknesses, for example, by ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to contribute, and that there is time for decisions to be discussed fully. However, group members can also play a role, by being open in their communication, and honest if the group process is not working for them. Our page on Building Group Cohesiveness contains other ideas, as does our page on group processes.