Group Formation


Management aims to integrate individual workers into effective teams, and this has become an important part of contemporary management practice in many prominent organisations.

Diane Coutu is quoted as saying that even in America’s tradition of individual agency, teams are considered key to success.[1]

This is why in many job interviews, the capacity to act as part of a team is considered a key skillset.

Kozlowski and Bell argue that organisations are in fact networks of interconnected teams as opposed to a collection of individuals.[2] The organisation of the workforce into teams by management is then linked to the promotion of the goals of the organisation (in other words the goals of senior management).

Common objections to team work have been noted by David Knights and Darren McCabe and compiled into three points:[3]

  • Disliking the intrusion team work has into their personal lives, causing them to distrust management
  • Not understanding the components of team work
  • Disliking the move away from individual work

Researchers such as Johnson and Johnson refer to groups in which people feel themselves to be part of a coherent unit as ‘psychological groups’.[4] Social psychologists study ‘group dynamics’ which comprises of how groups communicate and coordinate their activities, how they influence each other, what roles they play in the group, which members lead and which follow, how they balance a focus on the task with social issues and how they resolve conflicts.[5]

There is a key difference between an aggregate of individuals and a group. Trade unions are not immune to this either; although they might conceive of themselves as a group, if all members do not interact with each other and are not aware of each other then they are only an aggregate and not a group.[5]

In practice a psychological group cannot contain more than approximately 12 people, above that number the opportunity for frequent interaction between members (and hence group awareness) is greatly reduced.[5]

The Hawthorne studies

These were a set of experiments carried out in the 1920s and 1930s. They formed the basis of the Human Relations School of Management, which became the basis of Organisational Behaviour. In fact the first professor of Organisational Behaviour, teaching at Harvard Business school, worked on the Hawthorne Studies.[5]

For a more comprehensive account read the Wikipedia page on the Hawthorne Effect. In this article only key outcomes of the research relevant to labour will be selected and expanded upon.

Amongst other things, the Relay Assembly Test Room experiments (1927-1933) established a preliminary outcome that suggested the existence of the Hawthorne effect. This refers to the tendency of people being observed to behave differently from how they otherwise would, and the tendency for the group to which workers belonged to affect workers’ attitude toward and achievement of increased output. As a result of this the researchers in charge of the Hawthorne studies decided to interview 20,000 of the plant’s workforce. From these interviews they found there to be many informal, ‘gang-like’ groups within the formal working groups. These groups had their own leaders and ‘sidekicks’ who controlled production output.[5]

Bank Wiring Observation Room experiments (1931 – 1932)

(Part of the Hawthorne studies).

These experiments are the most relevant to labour in the Hawthorne studies. There were two important results, one was that within the three formal groups, there were two informal groups with their membership crossing the boundaries of the three formal groups. The second finding was that these groups developed informal rules of behaviour along with mechanisms to enforce them.

Roethlisberger and Dickson, two of the researchers, found that the informal agreements within the group were that you should not turn out too much work, you should not turn out two little work, you should not inform a supervisor of anything that might get another worker into trouble, and that you should not attempt to maintain social distance or act officiously.[6]

Between themselves, members of the informal groups agreed upon and enforced the rate at which work would be turned out. In other words, they themselves decided what a fair day’s output would be. To enforce it, they used ridicule, physically striking a co-worker on the upper arm, or total exclusion from the group of those that broke the rules.[6]

In this case, the social bonds between workers were more powerful than the controls and incentives of management. Roethlisberger and Dickson wrote:

The social organization of the bankwiremen performed a twofold function (1) to protect the group from internal indiscretions and (2) to protect it from outside interference… nearly all the activities of this group can be looked upon as methods of controlling the behaviour of its members.[6]

Scope for a workers appropriation of the results of the Hawthorne Studies?

Informal groups like those in the Bank Wiring Observation Room have been shown to exercise powerful control over the tempo of work, and the attitudes of workers.

Tom Peters, an American writer on business management practices, is quoted as saying in 1987 that ‘the modest-sized, task-oriented, semi-autonomous, mainly self-managing team should be the basic organisation building block’.[7] This was an important successor to Elton Mayo’s 1945 book The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization which placed informal groupings at the centre of managerial strategy, encouraging managers to act more like gardeners than engineers, building on the relationships that emerged naturally and using their skills to integrate individuals into groups rather than micro-managing. Eventually Mayo’s work was followed in the 1990s by team-based organisational models.

If certain strands of management science so openly acknowledge the existence of a culture of self-management and autonomy as a crucial building block to an effective work culture, it stands to reason that it can be leveraged to the benefit of the workers themselves, whose interest lies contrary to the management goal of driving down wages and increasing productivity. Whether this is in conjunction with trade union intervention or on its own, utilising the way in which informal groups can set the tempo of work could prove a useful tool in the struggle for higher wages and better working conditions.

For the pro-worker individual or grouping, group self-organisation is the means by which to generalise practices that limit the access of management to control of the workforce, and instead place this control in the hands of the workers themselves, with work dictated not from above but from below. If pro-worker individuals are able to view the workplace’s informal dynamics and identify who the ‘leaders’ and ‘sidekicks’ are (as seen by social scientists in the Relay Assembly Test Room experiments 1927-1933), they would be arming themselves with the same tools managers use to tap into self-organisation for the organisation’s, and not necessarily the workers’, benefit.

Group formation

George Homans, an American sociologist, developed in 1951 a theory of how groups come to be formed.[8] Homans proposed that groups exist within an environment which affects it physically, technologically and socially.[5] His argument was that management create the group's environment through their design of the physical workspace, their purchase of equipment and choices in job design and their choice of strategy, structure and culture. [5]

Homans developed the idea of an external and internal system. The external system refers to three required elements; required activities, required interactions and required sentiments.

Homans's external system

The external system describes formal organisation. From a workers' perspective there are certain 'givens' of their jobs, which meet the expectations of their managers. These are requirements that require individuals to perform certain activities, have certain interactions with others and have certain sentiments toward their work.[5]

Organizational Behaviour, by David Buchanan and Andrzej Huczynski, refers to a supermarket example to describe the external system:

The physical/technological/social environment is represented by the design and positioning of the checkout stations, the choice of scanning equipment, and the company's 'the customer is always right' policy. The supermarket management wants its checkout operators to scan customers' purchases (activities); greet them, offer to pack their bags, and say goodbye to them (interactions). They are also expected to have positive attitudes and feelings towards their customers and their employer (sentiments).

They further it by describing the ins-and-outs of how these elements relate to each other.

Each of these three elements reinforces each other. The more activities employees share, the more frequent will be their interactions, and the stronger will be their shared activities and sentiments (how much the other persons are liked or disliked). The greater the numbers of interactions between persons, the more will be their shared activities and the stronger their sentiments towards each other. The stronger the sentiments people have for one another, the greater will be the number of their shared activities and interactions. Persons in a group interact with one another, not just because of spatial or geographical proximity (called propinquity), but also to accomplish goals such as cooperation and problem-solving.

Homans's internal system

Homans's internal system is different, in that it relates not to the formal groups of the external system, but to the informal groups such as those seen in the Bank Wiring Observation Room experiments.

Homans defined another set of group members' activities, interactions and sentiments emerging from the physical/technological/social environment. He termed these emergent activities, emergent interactions and emergent sentiments, collectively making up the internal system, a definitive theory of informal groups within the organisation. These can occur irrespective of management, an example is that if a job is repetitive (referring to the technological context), operators might see how quickly they can perform it (emergent activity), to give their work more challenge. If employees are in close proximity to one another (physical context), they might engage in conversation (emergent interaction) despite company rules possibly forbidding it. Group members might start to see customers as annoying and develop anti-customer feelings (emergent sentiment).[5]

A workers understanding of Homans's systems?

Organizational Behaviour, by David Buchanan and Andrzej Huczynski, describes the internal and external system as interrelated. A change in one will apparently lead to a change in the other. This is in essence a dialectical relationship, and the book goes on to describe a similar relationship between the physical environment and the internal system (informal groups) and external system (formal groups).

Homans's systems are essentially useful sociological guides to how groups relate to the dynamics of the workplace and how individual interactions form into group relationships. They are a useful aid to anyone, not just managers, seeking to understand how informal groups emerge, and how they can be built into formal groups given the context of the workplace concerned.

Group development stages

Bruce Tuckman and Mary Ann Jensen claimed in 1965 (later refined in 1977) that groups pass through five discrete stages. These are:


Forming refers to the stage in which the individual is discovering how they fit into the group, discovering other peoples attitudes, and establishing ground rules. Members are dependent on a leader to provide them with ground rules and an action plan, and on tasks seek orientation on what they have to achieve.

Storming refers to the stage in which conflict occurs and members bargain with each other to find out what they and the group want out of each other. Group members reveal their own goals, likely provoking hostility if differences in goals exist. Early relationships formed in the Forming stage may be destroyed or disrupted. The key matter arising in this stage of group formation is how should the group organise itself to tackle its tasks.

Norming refers to the stage in which the group develops ways to work more closely and develop a sense of comradeship. This is when it is settled on who does what and how it will be done. Norms of behaviour are established, roles are allocated, a framework is created in which members can relate to one another, and a way of tackling expectations and individual failure is created. It is in this stage that a real sense of group identity and togetherness is created.

Performing refers to the stage in which the group has an effective structure and is primarily focused on accomplishing its objectives. Not all groups arrive at this stage, many getting stuck in an earlier, less effective stage. By now interdependence has become a norm, with members happy to work alone, in sub-groups or as part of the whole group. Collaboration and friendly competition may even occur.

Adjourning refers to the stage in which the group disbands, and individuals may reflect on how well or badly the group functioned.

These stages don't necessarily occur in sequence, and progress through them over time is not necessarily bound to occur. Furthermore, a group may pass through one stage several times, or become stuck on one stage. It has been found that groups tend to cycle back and forth between the different stages.[9] Read about it in more detail on Wikipedia.

Knowledge of group development is enhanced by studying the emergence of group norms.

Implications of group development stages for workers

For the pro-worker individual or group, the forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning stages of group formation hold implications for the adoption of a pro-worker agenda. Pro-worker individuals need to be active throughout the stages ensuring that values of solidarity are adopted by the group, while at the same time ensuring that the group can pass through the stages successfully. Work and wage labour will not be overcome simply through the impeding of group activity. Rather, what can be done is facilitating the group's social control over work output and group solidarity. Norming is the most important stage, because it is through this that group ties are solidified and the individual is subsumed in the group environment.

1. Coutu, Diane. 2009. 'Why Teams Don't Work'. Harvard Business Review 87 (5): 99-105.
2. Kozlowski, Bell, and S.W.J. 2003. 'Work Groups And Teams In Organizations'. Handbook Of Industrial And Organizational Psychology 12: 333-76.
3. Knights, David, and McCabe Darren. 2000. 'Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered: The Meaning And Experience Of Team-Working For Employees In An Automobile Plant'. Human Relations 53 (11): 1481-1518.
4. Johnson, David W, and Frank P Johnson. 2012. Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills. Englewood Cliffs, Harlow: Pearson.
5. Buchanan, David A, and Andrzej Huczynski. 2010. Organizational Behaviour. Harlow, England: Financial Times Prentice Hall.
6. Roethlisberger, F. J, W. J Dickson, Harold A Wright, and Carl H Pforzheimer. 1939. Management And The Worker. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
7. Peters, Tom. 1987. Thriving On Chaos. Handbook For A Management Revolution. New york.
8. Homans, George Caspar. 1951. The Human Group. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
9. Gersick, C. J. G. 1988. 'Time and transition in work teams'. Academy Of Management Journal 31 (1): 9-41. doi:10.2307/256496.