Individuals In Groups


Groups can have a powerful impact upon the behaviour of their members, this was first shown in the Hawthorne plant by Elton Mayo in the 1920s. Studying the behaviour of individuals in groups makes for interesting reading. Available management literature describes how management's enthusiasm for groups is tempered by social science research that sees mobs and street crowds as something dangerous. For the pro-worker individual, groups and collective decision-making can be seen as a politically essential part of activity; this is evident in the long tradition of workplace assemblies held by Spanish syndicalist unions the Confederación General del Trabajo, Confederación Nacional del Trabajo and Solidaridad Obrera. These unions demonstrate through their very practice that it is through the collectivisation of grievances that individual workers forge a group identity and social bond from which antagonism can stem.

An important example of how managers and the state are aware of how group processes develop the sense of shared identity, can be seen in the specificities of trade union legislation in the United Kingdom. It is now a legal requirement for trade unions to conduct strike ballots through private (ie. postal) ballots. While the justifications for this are steeped in democratic ideology, it also directly reduces the sense of deindividuation and common power that workers can discover through voting for or against industrial action on the shop floor. To read more about this, see the section on deindividuation.

Despite this singing of praises about group processes for pro-worker activity, groups can also have a negative impact upon individuals, and if poorly implemented can extinguish individual critical thinking. This page aims to examine the relationship between the individual and the group, and assess both the positives and negatives, with the intent to avoid bias.

Group Identity

Henri Tajfel and John Turner argued in 1986 that when individuals consider themselves more important that the group, the group cannot function effectively.[2][1] In management literature, the question of how much an individual should subsume themselves in a group is a continuing debate.

To begin with, there exist theories of group identity that can seem superficially to be close to what is termed 'identity politics', a sometimes maligned bracket of politics that encompasses some strands of feminism, ethnic and LGBTQ politics. Despite the flaws of identity politics, and whatever the reader's opinion on it, group identity should be seen as a totally different theory and is useful insofar as it helps to theorise and explain how a group's collective identity is formed.

Tajfel and Turner developed what they called a social identity theory, positing that an individual's self-concept is formed not just from their personal identity, but is also based on their group membership. Group formation is thus seen as an adaptive process by which they move from feeling and thinking as an individual to feeling and thinking as a representative of a group. Joining a group lowers self-awareness and increases what is termed group awareness. The roles individuals play in groups influence and shape their attitudes and behaviour.

The component of an indvidual's self-concept that is derived from their membership of a group is named social identity. It fulfills two functions; first it defines a person, second it prescribes appropriate behaviour. This occurs through social comparison; Tajfel asserts that in order to evaluate your own opinions and abilities, you not only compare yourself with other individuals with whom you interact, but also compare you own group with similar 'out-groups'. This comparison process is known as social categorisation. An example described by management literature is that if a person is motivated, they will categorise people as more, equally or less motivated.[1]

Individuals also self-categorise; this is an essential part of how individuals transform into group members. Social categorisation and self-categorisation minimise perceived differences between members of a group, and differences between the in-group and out-group. (Out-group refers to other groups or individuals, while in-group refers to the group the individual belongs to). It is from this process that individuals who are part of the in-group assume a social identity, and begin to view other people from this standpoint.[1] Self-esteem can be enhanced by group membership, but if a group doesn't gift its membership with raised feelings of pride, management literature states that individuals will either try to change the group's perceived status, or will detach from the group altogether. This kind of social identification may lead to conflict between groups in an organisation, but it can be effectively managed to improve performance in both groups.[1]

Management literature describes the process of categorising and identifying as one inherent to humans as social animals. In an organisation, it is the desire to belong and differentiate the self from others that leads to individuals offering control of their attitudes, thoughts and ideas, to fellow group members and managers who deem what is appropriate for the group. Managers gain control of the workforce through the way in which team-working formations are arranged. For the pro-worker individual or group, increasing the groups autonomy relevant to management can be seen as a transitional goal, prior to forming workers' antagonism. It is through an understanding of how group identity functions that this can be brought about.

Social representation theory

Social representation theory was developed by Serge Moscovici, a Jewish Romanian-born social psychologist with a colourful history including working as a mechanic and a welder before his career in social psychology, participation in communist and anti-stalinist politics, participation in the Romanian anti-Nazi resistance movement throughout the Second World War and involvement with the suppressed French artistic movement of Lettrism.

Moscovici developed a theory that when an individual joins a group, its members will construct and transmit complex and unfamiliar ideas to them in straightforward and familiar ways. Through this social representations are transmitted and accepted in a modified form by the new members of the group, helping these new members to make sense of what is going on around them within the group and the organisation.[3][1] Management literature describes that 'the explanation of some occurence is simplified, distorted, and ritualized by the group, and becomes a 'common-sense explanation' which is accepted as orthodoxy among its members, and is then communicated to new members. Social representations are a group's theories about how the world works and are used to justify actions. The prefix 'social' reminds us about the collective way in which reality is jointly manufactured, accepted and shared.'[1] In this way, social representation theory helps to explain what are termed Chinese whispers.

Management literature goes on to describe that as a new company recruit, an individual discusses their role with the group with existing members. During these interactions, representations are presented, developed, adapted and negotiated before being incorporated into their existing belief framework. This occurs during the period of socialisation, shortly after the individual joins the group.[1] Moscovici's theory emphasises the interactive nature of the process between the individual and other group members.

As a result of these interactions and social representations, the group's members develop a shared frame of reference. New group members learn about different assumptions, ideas, beliefs and opinions held by fellow group members about their common work situation.[1] Some agreement is essential for the members of the group to work together on a particular task, and for this reason a shared view is essential for the group to develop. As group members work together, they find that views begin to coalesce. It is through the shared frame of reference and social representations that a group-level process equivalent to the formation of an organisational culture occurs.

Group influences on individuals' performance

These headings are derived from the headings featured in Organizational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan, the textbook from which much of this research is derived. This page has been structured this way so as to present the concepts in as clear a manner as possible.

Social influence, social facilitation and social inhibition

Social influence is a concept delineating how an individual's attitudes and behaviours are influenced by others.

Social facilitation describes the effect that the presence of others has on enhancing an individual's performance. This was observed by Norman Triplett[4] and then by Floyd Allport,[5] both American psychologists.

Social inhibition describes the effect that the presence of others has on reducing an individual's performance.

Social facilitation and social inhibition are both dependent on the presence, or lack, of a group synergy. A positive synergy is often described as 2+2=5. In other words the sum total of a group's efforts is greater than the addition of individual members contributions had they been working separately.

Social compensation and social loafing

Social compensation refers to individuals increasing their effort and working harder when working as part of a group.[6][7]

Social loafing refers to individuals working less hard when part of a group.[7] This is an example of a negative synergy, summarised as 2+2=3.

How do managers prevent social loafing?

Management literature describes social loafing as occurring when the task a group is intended to perform is perceived as unimportant, simple or boring, when group members assumed their individual output was not identifiable, when the nature of each person's contribution was similar to that of the others and when group members expected their colleagues to loaf.

Managers often make assumptions about human nature and expect that social loafing is a natural state that must be prevented by skilful managerial techniques. In books Behaviour in Organizations[8] and Social Psychology[9], these techniques are outlined, and are summarised in Organizational Behaviour by Andrezj Hucynski and David Buchanan. These techniques comprise of a carrot and stick approach:

  • Make work more involving: Raise commitment to successful task performance, and encourage members to perform at a high level.
  • Upgrade task: Increase the perceived importance of the task in the group members' eyes.
  • Increase group significance: Increase the significance that the group has for its individual members.
  • Strengthen group cohesion: Make the group size small, with membership attractive and stable, with common goals; facilitate member interaction.
  • Identify workers: Point out each member's individual contribution in order to prevent their getting away with a 'free ride'.
  • Reward contributions to the group: Reward members for helping others achieve the common goal, and not just for their individual contributions.
  • Threaten punishment: Fear of punishment prevents loafing and gets members to 'pull their weight' in the group.

A workers' perspective of social loafing

For the pro-worker individual or group, individual social loafing or social compensation could be considered a danger to group solidarity; if a member sees another member working a great deal harder or less hard than them they may develop a negative view of that person that may impede attempts to develop a group solidarity in which individuals identify their co-workers as equals deserving of as much respect as they are. In the Bank wiring room experiments at the Hawthorne plant, it was found that individuals ridiculed overly productive members of informal groups, nicknaming them 'speed king'.[1] All members of a group participating in collective social loafing could be seen as a technique for a group to gain control over their work output and ease the burden of work, but it is quite a weak form of workers' activity that can only be seen as a stepping stone to more coherent activity.

Group influences on individuals' behaviour and group norms

Sherif's autokinetic effect

Muzafar Sherif was an important Turkish-American academic who proved instrumental to the founding of modern social psychology.

Sherif developed an experiment in which he placed a group of people in a darkened room with a light shining on a wall and asked them to say aloud the direction in which they thought the light was moving. In reality, the light was not moving at all - the perception of movement was in fact an optical illusion termed the 'autokinetic effect'. What Sherif was testing was the way in which a group environment would affect an individual's judgement. The discovery Sherif made was that initially the group's answers were wildly different, however after a period of saying aloud their perceptions of the way in which the light was moving, their answers began to converge. Eventually the members of the group began to see the light moving in the same direction. This evaluated the concept of group norms, in which a concept is established either formally or informally by a group. It was found that when a group norm emerged, it became the basis for subsequent judgements, showing that the group norm had developed into a permanent frame of reference for individual behaviour.[10]

To read more about group norms visit the Wikipedia page.

Sherif posited that every group develops a system of norms in order to organise and manage itself. These norms guide behaviour and facilitate interaction by specifying the kinds of reactions acceptable in a given situation.[1] These norms can be divided into two categories; pivotal norms and peripheral norms. Pivotal norms are socially defined standards relating to behaviour and beliefs that are central to the group's objective and survival, while peripheral norms are the same but refer to norms that are not crucial to a group's objective and survival.[1] If group members violate a pivotal norm the group's survival and ability to achieve its objectives can be impeded.

David Feldman's work on group norms

David Feldman developed the concept of group norms further in 1984. He argued that the purpose of group norms was to facilitate group task achievement or group survival, increase the predictability of group members' behaviour, reduce embarassing interpersonal problems for group members and express the group's core values and define their distinctiveness.[11][1]

Feldman also iterated on how group norms develop. He defined four ways in which this occurs.

  1. Initial pattern of behaviour. Group expectations are formed from the first behaviour patterns that occur in a group. An example is that if the first speaker in a group shares their emotions, a precedent can be set for the group to discuss their emotions, and this can become a group norm.
  2. Explicit statement by a supervisor or co-worker. Another way in which a norm may come to be established is if someone explicitly state an expectation.
  3. Critical events in the group's history. An example of a critical event may be if a shop-floor employee gives a suggestion that is then criticised and ridiculed by their supervisor. This would establish a norm in which other employees would avoid making suggestions.
  4. Transfer behaviours from past situations. If individuals carry over behaviour from past situations, they can increase the predictability of group member's behaviours in new settings.[11][1]

Negative and positive sanctions

Group norms by their very existence develop a series of interactions termed group sanctions. These are mechanisms via which the group enforces adherence to the norms, once they are established. Norms are only ultimately changed by the group itself, and attempts by managers or outsiders to change them will be resisted. A positive sanction is a reward, and a negative sanction is a punishment.

The earliest examples of negative sanctions observed by researchers, were those in the Bank Wiring Observation Room component of the Hawthorne Studies. These sanctions were termed 'binging', and comprised of the norm violator getting their ear flicked or getting tapped painfully on the upper arm, by a member of the group. This indicated to the norm violator that the group found their behaviour unacceptable, and attempted to introduce compliance to restore the norm.


Conformity refers to a change in an individual's belief or behaviour in response to a real or imagined group pressure.[1] Conformity with a norm has a tendency to increase under certain conditions. It tends to increase if a group is smaller. Members who perceive of themselves as possessing a low status in a group tend to conform more, and feel that they have to earn the right to be deviant from a group's norms.[1] Those who feel as though they are not fully accepted by the group may also become high conformers. Explaining group behaviour can be heavily aided by diagnosing a group's norms and its members' conformity. Conformity is distinctly difference from obedience, the latter of which is defined as a situation in which an individual changes their behaviour in response to a direct command from another. Norms, and conformity to them, are best explained as a social construct that allow an individual to make sense of seemingly unconnected facts and events and allow them to feel in control of situations.

Conformity carries with it a cost. If conformity is allowed to dominate, with little chance for the input of dissenting views, there is a chance that the group will make grave errors of judgement, leading to them taking actions that may be unwise. The concept of groupthink, to be explored in a future chapter of this project, is invoked as a negative result of excessive conformity within a group.

The earliest study of conformity to group norms can be found in those carried out by Solomon Asch, a pioneer of social psychology, in the early 1950s.[12][13][14] Asch created an experiment where individuals were placed in a group and had to compare a line against set of lines, in order to guess the length. Within the group were individuals that, unbeknownst to the others, had been instructed to lie about which line was correct. Asch found that individuals yielded to the group pressure because of three factors:

  1. Distortion of perception. This was a rare distortion for group members to experience, but occurred when subjects convinced themselves to see the lines the way that the other group members judged.
  2. Distortion of judgement. This distortion tended to occur when subjects suffered from 'primary doubt' and a lack of confidence. Individuals yielded because they didn't understand the task or didn't want to spoil the experiment. They convinced themselves that their perceptions were inaccurate and that the perceptions of the majority were correct.
  3. Distortion of action. Subjects that conformed to this distortion did so in the full knowledge that they were wrong, but yielded because they feared being excluded, ostracised or considered eccentric. They deliberately suppressed their own judgement.

Asch's experiment was replicated in 1981, but instead using networked computers with individuals placed at each terminal. It was found that the tendency toward conformity was substantially reduced, suggesting that a computer-mediated communication environment reduces group conformity.[15]

The nature of conformity to group norms is expanded upon by Stanley Milgram's experiments in studying the yielding of individuals to authority. This was directly influenced by inquiry into the nature of the Holocaust, and why so many individuals participated in sending so many people to their deaths.

To read more about Milgram's experiments, see the Wikipedia page.

Organizational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan states that a number of different factor contribute to influencing individual conformity to norms. Personality, self-confident others, dissenting others, uncertainty, organisational culture (collectivist or individualist), and education and upbringing all contribute.

Altering group norms

For an individual seeking to deviate from a group norm, there exist several options. An individual can attempt to persuade others to their viewpoint, alternatively the other members of the group might persuade the individual to conform to the group's existing norm. The greater the individual's status within the group, the more able they will be to persuade other members (and the less likely other members will be able to persuade them), and the more easily it will be to alter a group's norm.

Another possible response to an individual dissenting from a group's norms will be that if the group is of little importance to the individual (and if the individual is free to leave the group) they will leave the group. Another option is that (if the individual is of little importance to the group) they will conform to the group's norms or else be rejected by the group. However, if the individual is important to the group (for example, because their status, power, popularity or special skills are great), the group may tolerate the individual's deviant behaviour and beliefs so that the individual isn't lost. The result is that the power a group has to influence its members toward conformity to its norms depends on three factors:[1]

  • The positive and negative sanctions a group has at its disposal.
  • The member's desire to avoid negative sanctions such as social and physical punishments or expulsion from the group.
  • The degree of attraction that the group has for an individual member and the attraction that group members have for each other. This last factor is named group cohesion.

Group socialisation

Group socialisation is a term for how a new member, upon being admitted to a group, is transmitted a set of group norms. To read about it in detail, see the Wikipedia page.

It is best described as an educational process. Initial transgressions of group norms by the new member tend to be shown to them gently. When disharmony arises on a matter of importance to the group, the conflict is resolved through the encouragement of the transgressing individual to conform, through persuasive communication.

The idea behind group socialisation suggests that it is an important process in which thoroughly socialised new members are less likely to transgress norms and require the administration of sanctions.

For pro-worker individuals, it is important to note that when a work group is socialising a new member, the organisation will be doing the same, possibly leading to a conflict of values and expected behaviours between the group and the organisation. For the pro-worker individual, this could be an area exploited for the collective gain of the group, persuading the adoption of grassroots values of solidarity and the calming of the pace of work against an organisation's possible values of exploitation and disrespect for the lives of individual workers. The name applied to the socialisation of individuals by the organisation is termed organisational socialisation.

This is best summarised by saying that if the picture of organisational life an individual is presented with by the organisation is congruent with the picture held by the workforce, they will accept it. However, if not, they are more likely to adopt the picture held by their own work group.

In the workers' movement this could be best shown by unions in industries that claim to hold a caring attitude toward the workforce. For example, at Jimmy Johns, a gourmet sandwich chain, the Industrial Workers of the World were able to demonstrate that the sandwiches were not the picture of gourmet standard that the organisation promoted, but were in fact prone to passing on colds to customers due to the organisation's unwillingness to provide workers with paid sick leave.


Deindividuation is a concept in social psychology that refers to the way in which individuals lose self-awareness, self-monitoring and personal identity when they become part of a group.

In Organizational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan, deindividuation is said to occur through the combination of arousal (ie. when social facilitation in a group stimulates performance), and diffusion of individual responsibility (ie. that found in social loafing).

The origins of the theory of deindividuation can be found in the works of Gustave Le Bon,[16] a pioneer in the field of crowd psychology, but also a believer in racial and male superiority. It was later solidified into a coherent theory by three American social psychologists; Leon Festinger, Albert Pepitone and Theodore Newcomb in 1952.[17] Deindividuation is best summarised in this quote by Marion Hampton in 1999:[18]

There are moments when we can observe ourselves behaving irrationally as members of crowds or audiences, yet we are swept by the emotion, unable to check it. In similar groups too, like committees or teams, we may experience powerful feelings of loyalty, anxiety or anger. The moods and emotions of those around us seem to have an exaggerated effect on our own moods and emotions.

Organizational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan invokes a mixture of situations to describe deindividuation. These include the hunters in Lord of the Flies, 'antisocial behaviour' at protests (such as demonstrators fighting police) and military and corporate culture that require the wearing of uniforms.

Deindividuation and workers' organisation

Deindividuation plays a pivotal role in pro-worker activity on the shop floor. Hogg and Vaughan state that the subsuming of the individual into a collective body weakens the restraints against impulsive behaviour, increases sensitivity to immediate cues or current emotional states, increases the inability to regulate individual behaviour, lessens concern about evaluations by others and lowers the ability to engage in rational planning.[19]

In short, it heightens and sharpens the emotional element of the human psyche at the expense of the rational element. This may help to explain phenomena such as 'spontaneous' (a troublesome term) wildcat strikes in which workers walk off the job with little prior planning, and certainly without going through the lengthy process of obtaining a strike mandate through postal ballots.

A pro-worker opinion of deindividuation may posit that it is a state of being that cuts through the individualistic frameworks of rational thinking that are permeated by capital into our daily lives, and creates a moment of heightened emotion from the realisation of collective workers power. Combining a theory of deindividuation with Moscovici's theory of minority influence leads to a possible use of shopfloor assemblies to create a workers' deindividuation in which a pro-worker minority can argue for the use of collective action and develop a workers' antagonism that would have been otherwise unthinkable had it been proposed on a one-to-one basis with individual workers.

In short, deindividuation, while devised as a broadly negative concept to demonise 'mob man' as fickle and impulsive, by elements of the intelligentsia that saw danger in crowds, it can also be thought of as an important in-built component of shopfloor democracy, causing it to lean slightly toward antagonism. The negative side is that it doesn't favour rational thinking, suggesting that the use of shopfloor assemblies may only be a component of pro-worker activity and not the be-all and end-all, requiring individuals to be strategising on an individual basis as well.

Minority or individual influence upon a group

The opposite of conformity and compliance can be found in examining another area of Serge Moscovici's works. Moscovici was interested in what he termed minority influence. He coined the word compliance to refer to the process by which a majority influences a minority, and the word conversion to refer to the process by which a minority persuades a majority.[20] Compliance occurs through the threat and use of negative and positive sanctions, while conversion occurs through the use of persuasion. It has been said that minority influence occurs more easily when those that listen to the minority are not required to publicly acknowledge a change in their own opinion. Moscovici emphasised that consistency played a key role in the conversion process.

Huczynski summarised in 2004 the different writings on minority influence, stating that for the minority to influence the majority, they must:[21]

  • Become viable. Take a position that others are aware of; make themselves heard; and overcome the illusion of unanimity.
  • Create tension. Motivate those in the majority to try to deal with their ideas.
  • Be consistent. Stick unswervingly to the same position. Do not take a variety of positions that disagree with the majority.
  • Be persistent. Restate the consistent position in the face of others' opposition.
  • Be unyielding. Avoid compromising.
  • Be self-confident. This raises self-doubt within the majority, leading them to reconsider their position.
  • Seek defectors. Defections from the majority increase the self-doubt of the remaining majority and free its doubters who may have self-censored themselves to speak out, perhaps encouraging more converts.

Organizational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan states that before the 1980s, the idea that a minority could influence a majority was not a widely held view among social psychologists. It was largely due to Serge Moscovici and his colleagues that this was overturned.

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