Problem Solving and Ineffective Problem Solving

Problem Solving in Groups

Research shows that groups follow many different approaches to problem solving. Some groups move linearly through a series of steps to reach consensus and some move in a spiral pattern in which they refine, accept, reject, modify and combine ideas as they go along. Whether groups move in something approximating an orderly pattern or go in fits and starts, those groups that arrive at high quality decisions are likely to accomplish certain tasks during their deliberations. These tasks include identifying a specific problem, analyzing the problem arriving at criteria that an effective solution must meet, identifying possible alternative solutions to the problem, comparing the alternatives to the criteria and determining the best solution or combination of solutions.

Defining the Problem

Much wheel spinning takes place during the early stages of group discussion as a result of members not understanding their specific goal. It is the duty of the person, agency or parent group that forms a particular work group to give the group a charge, such as “work out a new way of selecting people for merit pay increases.” However, rarely will the charge be stated in such a way that the group does not need to do some clarification of its own. Even when the charge seems clear, effective groups will want to make sure they are focusing on the real problem and not just symptoms of the problem. Let’s look again at the charge “work out a new way of selecting people for merit pay increases.” What is wrong with this as a problem definition? “Work out a new way of selecting” is too general to be meaningful. A clearer question would be “What are the most important criteria for selecting people for merit pay increases?”

As early as possible, the group should formally state the problem in writing. Unless the group can agree on a formal definition of the problem, there is little likelihood of the group’s being able to work together toward a solution.

Effective problem definitions have these four characteristics.

1. They are stated as questions. Problem solving groups begin from the assumption that solutions are not yet known, so problems should be stated as questions to be answered. For example, the merit pay committee might define the problem it will solve as follows: What are the most important criteria for determining merit pay increases? Phrasing the group’s problem as a question furthers the spirit or inquiry.

2. They contain only one central idea. If the charge includes two questions “Should the college abolish its foreign language and social studies requirements?” the group should break it down into two separate questions: Should the college abolish its foreign language requirement? Should the college abolish its social studies requirement?

3. They use specific and precise language to describe the problem. For instance, the problem definition “What should the department do about courses that aren’t getting the job done?” may be well intentioned and participants may have at least some idea about their goal, but such vague wording as “getting the job done” can lead to problems later. Notice how this revision makes the intent much clearer: “What should the department do about courses that receive low scores on student evaluations?”

4. They can be identified as a question of fact, value or policy. How we organize our problem solving discussion will depend on the kind of question we are addressing: a question of fact, value or policy.

Questions of fact are concerned with discovering what is true or to what extent something is true. Implied in such questions is the possibility of determining truth through the process of examining facts by way of directly observed, spoken or recorded evidence. For instance, “Did Smith steal equipment from the warehouse?” “Did Mary’s report follow the written guidelines for the assignment?” and “Do the data from our experiment support our hypothesis?” are all questions of fact. The group will discuss the validity of the evidence it has to determine what is true.

Questions of value concern subjective judgments of what is right, moral, good or just. Questions of value can be recognized because they often contain evaluative words such as good, reliable, effective, or worthy. For instance, the program development team for a TV sitcom aimed at young teens may discuss, “Is the level of violence in the scripts we have developed appropriate for programs designed to appeal to children?” or “Is the proposed series of ads too sexually provocative?”

Although we can establish criteria for “too sexually provocative” and “effectively” and measure material against those criteria, the criteria we choose and the evidence we accept depend on our judgment. A different group of people using different values might come to a different decision.

Questions of policy concern what courses of action should be taken or what rules should be adopted to solve a problem. “Should the university support international workers rights?” and “Where should the new landfill be built?” are both questions of policy. The inclusion of the word should in questions of policy makes them the easiest to recognize and the easiest to phrase of all problem statements.

Analyzing the Problem

Analysis of a problem entails finding out as much as possible about the problem and determining the criteria that must be met to find an acceptable solution. Three types of information can be helpful in analyzing problems. Most groups begin by sharing the information individual members have acquired through their experience. This is a good starting place, but groups that limit their information gathering to the existing knowledge of members often make decisions based on incomplete or faulty information.

A second source of information that should be examined includes published materials available through libraries, electronic databases and the Internet. From these sources, a group can access information about the problem that has been collected, analyzed and interpreted by others. Just because information is published, however, does not mean that it is accurate or valid. Accuracy and validity are especially an issue when the information comes from an Internet source and the group will also have to evaluate the relevance and usefulness of the information.

A third source of information about a problem can be gleaned from other people. At times, the group may want to consult experts for their ideas about a problem or conduct a survey to gather information from a particular target group. “Doing Research.”

Once group members have gathered information, it must be shared with other members. It is important for group members to share new information to fulfill the ethical responsibility that comes with group discussion. To overcome this tendency, groups need to ask each member to discuss the information he or she has uncovered that seems to contradict his or her personal beliefs about the issue. When addressing a complex issue, separate information sharing from decision making by holding separate meetings spaced far enough apart to enable members to think through their information.

Determining Solution Criteria

Once a group understands the nature of the problem, it is in a position to determine what tests a solution must pass in order to solve the problem. The criteria become the decisive factors in determining whether a particular solution will solve the problem. The criteria that are selected should be ones that the information gathered has suggested are critical to successfully solving the problem.

The criteria that the group decides on will be used to screen alternative solutions. Solutions that do not meet the test of all criteria are eliminated from further consideration. For example, a local citizens committee is charged with selecting a site for a new county jail. The group arrives at the following phrasing for the problem: “Where should the new jail be located?” After the group agrees on this wording, they can then ask the question, “What are the criteria for a good site for a new jail?”

In that discussion, suppose members contribute information related to the county’s budget, the need for inmates to maintain family contact, concerns about proximity to schools and parks and space needs. After considering this kind of information, the group might then select the following criteria for selecting a site:

Maximum cost of $500,000 for purchasing the land.
A location no more than three blocks from public transportation.
A location that is one mile or more from any school, daycare center, playground or youth center.
A lot size of at least ten acres.

When groups discuss and decide on criteria before they think about specific solutions, Kathryn Young and her colleagues (2000) suggest that groups increase the likelihood that they will be able to avoid becoming polarized and will be more likely to come to a decision that all members can accept.

Identifying Possible Solutions

For most policy questions, many possible solutions are possible. The trick is to tap the creative thinking of group members so that many ideas are generated. At this stage of discussion, the goal is not to worry about whether a particular solution fits all the criteria but to come up with a large list of ideas.

One way to identify potential solutions is to brainstorm for ideas, Brainstorming is a free association procedure generating as many ideas as possible by being creative, suspending judgment and combining or adapting the ideas of others. It involves verbalizing your ideas as they come to mind without stopping to evaluate their merits. Members are encouraged, however, to build on the ideas presented by others. In a ten or fifteen minute brainstorming session, a group may come up with twenty or more possible solutions depending on the nature of the problem. For instance, the group working on the jail site question might mention ten or more in just a few minutes of brainstorming, such as sites that individual members have thought of or that they have heard others mention.

Evaluating Solutions

Once the group has a list of possible solutions, it needs to compare each solution alternative to the criteria that it developed. During this phase, the group must determine whether each criterion is equally important or whether certain criteria should be given more weight in evaluating alternative solutions. Whether a group weighs certain criteria more heavily or not, it should use a process that ensures that each alternative solution is thoroughly assessed against all of the criteria.

Research by Randy Hirokawa (1987) confirmed that high quality decisions are made by groups that are “careful, thoughtful and systematic” in evaluating their options (p. 10). In another study, Hirokawa (1988) noted that it is common for groups to begin by eliminating solutions that clearly do not meet important criteria and then to compare the positive features of solutions that remain.


A group brought together for problem solving mayor may not be responsible for making the actual decision, but it is responsible for presenting its recommendation. Decision making is the process of choosing among alternatives. The following five methods differ in the extent to which they require that all members agree with the decision and the amount of time it takes to reach a decision.

1. The expert opinion method. Once the group has eliminated those alternatives that do not meet the criteria, the group asks the member who has the most expertise to select the final choice. This method is quick and it is useful when one member is much more knowledgeable about the issues or has a greater stake in implementation of the decision.

2. The average group opinion method. When using this approach, each member of the group ranks the alternatives that meet all the criteria. These rankings are then averaged and the alternative receiving the highest average ranking becomes the choice. This method is useful for routine decisions or when a decision needs to be made quickly. It can also be used as an intermediate straw poll to enable the group to eliminate low scoring alternatives before moving to a different process for making the final decision.

3. The majority rule method. When using this method, the group votes on each alternative and the one that receives the majority of votes (50 percent + 1) is selected. Although this method is considered democratic, it can create problems for implementation. If the majority voting for an alternative is slight, then there may be nearly as many members who do not support the choice as there are those that do. If these minority members object strongly to the choice, they may sabotage implementation of the solution either through active or passive means.

4. The unanimous decision method. In this method, the group must continue deliberation until every member of the group believes the same solution is the best. As you would expect, it is very difficult to arrive at truly unanimous decisions and to do so takes a lot of time. When a group reaches unanimity, however, it can expect that each member of the group will be fully committed to selling the decision to others and to helping implement the decision.

5. The consensus method. This method is an alternative to the unanimous decision method. In consensus, the group continues deliberation until all members of the group find an acceptable variation, one they can support and are committed to helping implement. Members of a consensus group may believe there is a better solution than the one that has been chosen, but they feel they can support and help implement the one they have agreed to. Although easier to achieve than reaching unanimity, arriving at a consensus is still difficult. Although the majority rule method is widely used, selecting the consensus method is a wise investment if the group needs everyone’s support to implement the decision successfully.

Constraints on Effective Decision Making

Following a structured problem solving process should help groups be more effective, but groups may still face cognitive, affiliative and social constrains that can be interface with constructive decision making (Gouran & Hirokawa, 1996; Janis, 1989.)

Cognitive constraints occur when a group feels under pressure as a result of a difficult task, a shortage of information or limited time. Signs of cognitive constraints are comments like “How do they expect us to get this done in a week?” or “We’ve got it ton of material to sift through.” Overcoming these constraints requires a group to assure itself that the task is important enough to give the necessary time and compensate for the difficulty. For instance, overhauling the method of producing a product will take more time than most would like to spend, but if the overhaul is a necessity to keep a company above water, then the time is well spent.

Egocentric constraints occur when members of the group have high needs for control or are driven by other personal needs. These people see issues in terms of a “win lose.” They feel that by getting the group to accept their position they “win.” If the group chooses another alternative, they have suffered a personal loss. What drives egocentric individuals is not necessarily a strong preference for one alternative but the need to be “right.” Statements like “Well, I know that most of you are new to the commission and have lots of ideas, but I have served in this capacity for the past five years and so I know what won’t work” are sure signs of egocentrism. Egocentric constraints are difficult to overcome, but egocentric individuals are not incapable of rational thinking. Inviting them to verbalize the information upon which they are basing their conclusions can sometimes help them to modify their position and move into problem solving.

Summary (Participating in Group Communication)

Effective groups meet several criteria: They develop clearly defined goals, have an optimum number of diverse members, work to develop cohesiveness, establish norms and establish a good working environment.

Once groups have assembled, they tend to move through five stages of development: forming, getting people come to feel valued and accepted so that they identify with the group; storming, clarifying goals while determining the roles each member will have in the group power structure; norming, solidifying rules for behavior; performing, overcoming obstacles and meeting goals successfully and adjourning, assigning meaning to what they have done and determining how to end or maintain interpersonal relations they have developed.

Once the group has reached the performing stage, they begin to move through a series of steps of problem solving, including defining the problem as a question of fact, value or policy; analyzing the problem; determining solution criteria; identifying possible solutions; evaluating solutions and deciding.

Throughout the problem solving process, members need to deal with the cognitive, affiliative and egocentric constraints that groups encounter.

The Physical Setting and Stages of Group Development

The Physical Setting

A good working environment is important for group effectiveness. The physical setting in which a group works should be located conveniently for most members. It should be at a comfortable temperature and the space should be of appropriate size for the size and work of the group. The space should be comfortably furnished and contain all the resources the group needs to perform its tasks. Seating should be arranged to facilitate group interaction.

When a group meets on an ongoing basis, it will want to choose a location that is convenient for its member. By choosing a location that is easily accessible, the group makes it easier for all members to attend. When locations are chosen that are inconvenient for members, a norm of lateness or absence may develop.
The temperature of the room in which a group meets affects the way in which the group interacts. People in rooms they perceive to be too warm are not only uncomfortable but may feel crowded, which results in negative behaviors. Similarly, when the temperature of a room or meeting place is too cold, group members tend to become distracted.

The space in which a group meets should be appropriate for the size and composition of the group and the nature of what they are trying to accomplish during their time together. When the space is too big for the group, members will feel overwhelmed and distant from each other. In some cases, they may have trouble hearing one another. When the space is too small, the group will experience feelings of crowding. We have all found ourselves in situations in which room size contributed to negative experiences. Men and women seem to differ on their space preferences. Women generally find smaller rooms more comfortable than do men, who prefer larger spaces (Freedman, Klevansky, & Ehrich, 1971).
The physical setting can affect both group interaction and decision making. Seating can be too formal. When seating approximates a board of directors seating style. Where people sit indicates their status. In this style, a dominant submissive pattern emerges that can inhibit group interaction. People who sit at the head of the table are likely to be looked to for leadership and are seen as having more influence than those members who sit on the side. People who sit across the table from one another interact with one another more frequently but also find themselves disagreeing with one another more often than they disagree with others at the table.

Seating that is excessively informal can also inhibit interaction. For instance, the three people sitting on the couch form their own little group; the two people seated next to each other form another group and two members have placed themselves out of the main flow. In arrangements such as these, people are more likely to communicate with the people adjacent to them than with others. In such settings, it is more difficult to make eye contact with every group member. Johnson and Johnson (2000) maintain that “easy eye contact among members enhances the frequency of interaction, friendliness, cooperation and liking for the group” (p. 174).

The circle, generally considered the ideal arrangement for group discussions and problem solving. Circle configurations increase participant motivation to speak because sight lines are better for everyone and everyone appears to have equal status. When the location of the group meeting does not have a round table, the group may be better off without a table or with an arrangement of tables that makes a square, which approximates the circle arrangement.

Stages of Group Development

Once assembled, groups tend to move through stages of development. Although numerous models nave been proposed to describe the stages of group development, Tuckman’s (1965) model has been widely accepted because it identifies the central issues facing a group at each stage in its development. He named these stages forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. Research by Wheelen and Hochberger (1996) has confirmed that groups can be observed moving through each of these stages. In this section, we describe each of the stages of group development and discuss the nature of communication during each phase.


Forming is the initial stage of group development during which people come to feel valued and accepted so that they identify with the group. At the beginning of any group, individual members will experience feelings of discomfort caused by the uncertainty they are facing in this new social situation. Politeness and tentativeness on the part of members may characterize group interactions as members try to become acquainted with others, understand how the group will work and find their place in the group. During forming, any real disagreements between people remain unacknowledged as members strive to be seen as flexible. During this stage, if the group has formally appointed group leaders, group members depend on them for clues as to how they should behave. Members work to fit in and to be seen as likable.

Anderson (1988) suggests that during forming we should express positive attitudes and feelings while refraining from abrasive or disagreeable comments, we should make appropriately benign self disclosures and wait to see if they are reciprocated and we should try to be friendly, open and interested in others. This means using active listening and empathizing skills to become better acquainted with other members of the group and smiling, nodding and maintaining good eye contact to make conversations a bit more relaxed.


Storming is the stage of group development during which the group clarifies its goals and determines the roles each member will have in the group power structure. The stress and strain that arise when groups begin to make decisions are a natural result of the conflicting ideas, opinions and personalities that begin to emerge during decision making. In the forming stage, members are concerned about fitting in, whereas in the storming stage, members are concerned about expressing their ideas and opinions and finding their place. One or more members may begin to question or challenge the formal leader’s position on issues.
Storming, if controlled, is an important stage in a group’s development. During periods of storming, the group is confronted with alternative ideas, opinions and ways of viewing issues. A though storming will occur in all groups, some will manage it better than others will. When storming in a group is severe, it can threaten the group’s survival. When a group does not storm, it may experience group think, a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in group pressure (Janis, 1982, p. 9). To avoid group think, we should encourage constructive disagreement, we should self monitor what we say to avoid name calling and using inflammatory language and we should use the active listening skills we studied earlier with emphasis on paraphrasing and honest questioning (Anderson, 1988).


Norming is the stage of group development during which the group solidifies its rules for behavior, especially those that relate to how conflict will be managed. As the group successfully completes a storming phase, it moves into a phase where members begin to apply more pressure on each other to conform. During this phase, the norms or standards of the group become clear. Members for the most part comply with norms, although those who have achieved higher status or power may continue to occasionally deviate from them. Members who do not comply with norms are sanctioned.

During norming, competent communicators pay attention to the norms that are developing. Then, they adapt their communication styles to the norms of the group. When communicators who are monitoring norm development determines that a norm is too rigid, too elastic, or in other ways counterproductive, they initiate a group discussion about their observations. As you would expect, these conversations are best received when the person initiating them uses the skills of describing behavior using specific and concrete language.


Performing is the stage of group development when the skills, knowledge and abilities of all members are combined to overcome obstacles and meet goals successfully. Through each of the stages, groups are working to accomplish their goals. Once members have formed social bonds, settled power issues and developed their norms, however, they “get in the groove,” becoming more effective at creative problem solving and task performance. During this stage, conversations are focused on problem solving and sharing task related information, with little energy directed to relationship building. Members who spend the group’s time in chitchat not only detract from the effectiveness of the group but risk being perceived as unprepared or lazy. Performing is the most important stage of group development. This is the stage in which members freely share information, solicit ideas from others and work to solve problems.


Adjourning is the stage of group development in which members assign meaning to what they have done and determine how to end or maintain interpersonal relations they have developed. Some groups are brought together for a finite time period, whereas for other groups work is continuous. Regardless of whether a group is short term or ongoing, all groups experience endings. A short term project team will face adjourning when it has completed its work within the time period specified for its existence. Ongoing groups also experience endings. When the team has reached a particular goal, finished a specific project, or lost members to reassignments or resignations, it will confront the same developmental challenges faced by short term groups in this phase.

Keyton’s (1993) study of the adjourning phase of group development points to two challenges that groups face during this phase. First, groups need to construct meaning from their shared experience by evaluating and reflecting on the experience. They may discuss what led to their successes or failures, recall events and share memories of stressful times and celebrate accomplishments. Second, members will need to find ways to sever or maintain interpersonal relationships that have developed during the group’s life together. During this phase, people in the group may explore ways to maintain contact with those they have particularly enjoyed working with. They may continue the relationship on a purely social level or plan to undertake additional work together.

Keyton thinks that it is especially important for groups to have a termination ritual which can range from an informal debriefing session to formalized celebrations with group members and their friends, family and colleagues. Whatever form the ritual takes, Keyton believes such a ritual “affects how they [members] will interpret what they have experienced and what expectations they will take with them to similar situations” (p. 98).

The phases of group development explain the work that groups must do to aid the socioemotional development of the group. How the group develops through these phases is important to how effectively it works. But achieving group goals is also the result of how well the group uses the problem solving process. We now turn our attention to understanding the problem solving process and the communication skills that provide the focus for the performing stage of group development.

Group Communication, Cohesiveness and Norms

Participating in Group Communication

Members of the Alpha Production Team at Meyer Foods were gathered to review their hiring policies. At the beginning of the meeting, Kareem, the team facilitator, began, “You know why I called you together Each production team has been asked to review its hiring practices. So, let’s get started. “After a few seconds of silence, Kareem said, “Drew, what have you been thinking?”
“Well, I don’t know”, Drew replied, “I haven’t really given it much thought.” (There were nods of agreement all around the table.)
“Well,” Jeremy said, “I’m not sure that I even remember what our current policies are.”
“But when I sent you the email notice of this meeting, I attached preliminary analysis of our practices and some questions I hoped each of us would think about before this meeting,” Kareem replied.
“Oh, is that what that was ?” Byron said. “I read the part about the meeting, but I guess I didn’t get back to look at the attachment.”
“Look,” answered Kareem, “I think the CEO is looking for some specific recommendations from the team.”
“Kareem, anything you think would be appropriate would be OK with me,” Dawn added.
“Well, how about if we each try to come up with some ideas for next time,” Kareem suggested. “Meeting adjourned.”
As the group dispersed, Kareem overhead Drew whisper to Dawn. “These meetings sure are a waste of time, aren’t they?”

Perhaps you have been part of a work group at school, at work, or at your church. If so, the opening dialogue probably sounds familiar. When group meetings are ineffective, it is easy to point the finger at the leader, but often, as is the case with this group, the responsibility for the “waste of time” or other ineffectiveness lies not with one person but with the complex nature of communication in group settings. Because most of us spend some of our time interacting in group settings, we need to learn how group process works and how to participate in ways that maximize group effectiveness.

In this chapter, we examine how people working in groups solve problems and make decisions through the interactions that they have. We begin by examining characteristics of groups that affect how members communicate to solve problems effectively and make decisions. Next, we discuss how groups develop and the kinds of communication that occur during each stage of group development. Then we consider strategies effective groups use to solve problems and make decisions. Finally, we describe three constraints that limit the effectiveness of groups and suggest communication tactics for overcoming each constraint.

Characteristics of Effective Work Groups

A work group is a collection of three or more people who must interact and influence one another to accomplish a common purpose. A group is more than an aggregation of individuals. Six people riding in an elevator are not a work group. Should the elevator stop and become stuck between floors and the people begin to talk with each order to solve the problem of how to get the elevator moving, they would become a work group.
Effective work groups have clearly defined goals to which members are committed; have an optimum number of members who represent diverse personalities, knowledge bases, skills and viewpoints; develop appropriate levels of cohesiveness; conform to rules and norms that facilitate the open exchange of information, ideas and opinions and conduct their work in a physical setting that encourages interaction.

Clearly Defined Goals

A group goal is a future state of affairs desired by enough members of the group to motivate the group to work toward its achievement (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 78). Goals become clearer to members and members become more committed to goals, when they are discussed. Through these discussions, members are able to make sure goal statements are specific, consistent, challenging and acceptable.
First, goal statements must be specific. A specific goal is precisely stated, measurable and behavioral. For example, the crew at a local fast food restaurant that began with the goal of “increasing profitability of the store” made the goal more specific and meaningful by revising the goal statement to read: “During the next quarter, the second shift night crew will increase the profitability of the store by reducing food costs on their shift by 1 percent through reducing the amount of food thrown away due to precooking.”
Second, goal statements must be consistent. Consistent goals are complementary; that is, achieving one goal does not prevent the achievement of another. To meet the consistency test, the team will have to believe that reducing the amount of precooking will not interfere with maintaining their current level of service. If they do not believe that these two goals can be accomplished simultaneously, they will need to reformulate the goals so that they are compatible.
Third, goal statements must be challenging. Challenging goals require hard work and team effort; they motivate group members to do things beyond what they might normally accomplish. The crew determined that a goal of 1 percent was a significant challenge.
Fourth, goal statements must be acceptable. Acceptable goals are seen as meaningful by team members and are goals to which members feel personally committed. Because people tend to support things that they help to create, group members who participate in setting their own goals are likely to exert high effort to see that the goals are achieved. Likewise, a group member who does not believe a goal is reasonable or just is likely to be unmotivated or to resist working toward accomplishing the goal. Because the members of the crew helped to formulate the profitability goal, they are more likely to work to achieve it.

Optimum Number of Diverse Members

Effective groups are composed of enough members to ensure good interaction but not so many members that discussion is stifled. In general, as the size of a group grows, so does the complexity it must manage. For example, Bostrom (1970) reminds us that the addition of one member to a group has a geometric effect on the number of relationships. When only Jeff and Sue are in a group, there is only one relationship to manage. But when a third person, Bryan, joins them the group now has four relationships to manage (Jeff Sue, Bryan Jeff, Bryan Sue, Bryan Sue Jeff). As groups grow in size and complexity, the opportunities for each member to participate drop, leading to member dissatisfaction (Gentry, 1980). When many people cannot or will not contribute, the resulting decision is seldom a product of the group’s collective thought (Beebe et al., 1994, p. 125).
So what is the “right” size for a group? It depends. In general, research shows that the best size for a group is the smallest number of people capable of effectively achieving the goal (Sundstrom, 1990); for many situations, this might mean as few as three to five people. As the size of the group increases, the time spent discussing and deciding increases as well. This argues for very small groups because they will be able to make decisions more quickly. However, as the goals, problems and issues become complex, it is unlikely that very small groups will have the diversity of information, knowledge and skill needed to make high quality decisions. For many situations, then, a group of five to seven or more might be desirable.
More important than having a certain number of people in a group is having the right combination of people in the group. Notice the heading of this section was “optimum number of diverse members.” To meet this test, it is usually better to have a heterogeneous group rather than a homogeneous group. A homogeneous group is one in which members have a great deal in common. By contrast, a heterogeneous group is one in which various demographics, levels of knowledge, attitudes and interests are represented. For example, a group composed of seven women accounting students would be considered a homogeneous group, a group composed of male and female students from three different colleges would be considered a heterogeneous group.
Effective groups are likely to be composed of people who bring different but relevant knowledge and skills into the group discussion (Valacich et al., 1994). In homogeneous groups, members are likely to know the same things, come at the problem from the same perspective and consequently, be likely to overlook some important information or take shortcuts in the problem solving process. In contrast, heterogeneous groups are likely to have different information, perspectives and values and consequently, discuss issues more thoroughly before reaching a decision.


Cohesiveness is the degree of attraction members have to one another and to the group’s goal. In a highly cohesive group, members genuinely like and respect each other, work cooperatively to reach the group’s goals and generally perform better than noncohesive groups (Evans & Dion, 1991). In contrast, in a group that is not cohesive, members may be indifferent toward or dislike each other, have little interest in what the group is trying to accomplish and may even work in ways that prevent the group from being successful.
Research (Balgopal, Ephross, & Vassil, 1986; Widmer & Williams, 1991) has shown that several factors lead to developing cohesiveness in groups: attractiveness of the group’s purpose, voluntary membership, feeling of freedom to share opinions and celebration of accomplishments.

1. Attractiveness of the group’s purpose. Social or fraternal groups, for example, build cohesiveness out of devotion to service or brotherhood. In a decision making group, attractiveness is likely to be related to how important the task is to members. If Daniel is part of a group of students who must develop a computer program using the language they are learning in class, the cohesiveness of the group will depend in part on how interested the group is in developing such a program.
2. Voluntary membership. When we are forming groups, we should give people some control over joining. So important is this for fostering cohesiveness that each recruit in the all voluntary military of the United States is allowed to choose his or her specialty. Likewise, Daniel’s group is likely to develop cohesiveness more easily if they are able to volunteer to work on the task of developing a computer program.
If group members are appointed, or if group members are having a little difficulty really getting comfortable with working together, a group may benefit from team building activities designed to help the group work better together (Clark, 1994). Often this means having the group meet someplace outside of its normal setting where they can engage in activities designed to help them recognize each other’s strengths, share in group successes, and develop rituals. As they learn to be more comfortable with each other socially, they are likely to become more comfortable in the group setting as well.
3. Feeling of freedom to share opinions. Feeling comfortable in disagreeing with the ideas and positions of others is an important aspect of group cohesion. If Daniel’s computer science group is comfortable sharing contrasting ideas without fear of being chastised, they are likely to develop more cohesiveness.
Moreover, group members should feel free to converse about their goals very soon after the group is formed. During this discussion, individual members should be encouraged to express their ideas about the goals of the group and to hear the ideas of others. Through this discussion process, the group can clarify goals and build group commitment.
4. Celebration of accomplishments. Groups should be encouraged to set sub goals that can be achieved early. Groups that feel good about the work they are a accomplishing develop a sense of unity. Once early sub goals are accomplished, the group can celebrate these achievements. Celebrations of early achievements cause members to more closely identify with the group and to see it as a “winner” (Renz & Greg, 2000, p. 54).
Keep in mind that the more heterogeneous the group the more difficult it is to build cohesiveness. We know that heterogeneous groups generally arrive at better decisions, so we need to structure group conversations that can develop cohesiveness in all types groups. This is why team building activities, development of freedom to express controversial ideas and celebration of achievements are so important with heterogeneous groups.
In addition, members should be taught to communicate in ways that foster supportive patterns of cooperative interaction. Groups become cohesive when individual members feel valued and respected. By using the skills of active listening, empathizing, describing and collaborative conflict management, you can help heterogeneous groups become cohesive.
Moreover, groups should set aside specific times during which the group stops working on its task and instead focuses on team relationships, enabling members to discuss and resolve personal differences before these hurt team cohesiveness and team performance.


Norms are expectations for the way group members will behave while in the group. Effective groups develop norms that support goal achievement (Shimanoff, 1992) and cohesiveness (Shaw, 1981). Norms begin to be developed early in the life of the group. Norms grow, change and solidify as people get to know one another better. Group members usually comply with norms and are sanctioned by the group when they do not.
Norms can be developed through formal discussions or informal group processes (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 28). Some groups choose to formulate explicit ground rules, prescribed behaviors designed to help the group meet its goals and conduct its conversations. These may include sticking to the agenda, refraining from interrupting others, actively listening to others, requiring full participation, focusing argument on issues rather than personalities and sharing decision making.
In most groups, however, norms evolve informally. When we become part of a new group, we try to act in ways that would have been considered appropriate in other groups in which we have participated. If the other members of our new group behave in ways that are consistent with our interpretation of the rules for behavior, an informal norm is established. For example, suppose Daniel and two other group members show up late for a meeting. If the group has already begun discussion and the latecomers are greeted with cold looks, showing that other members of this group do not abide by being late then this group will develop an on time norm. A group may never discuss informal norms that develop, but all veteran group members understand what they are and behave in line with the expectations of these informally established norms.
When group members violate a group norm, they are usually sanctioned. The severity of the sanction depends on the importance of the norm that was violated, the extent of the violation and the status of the person who violated the norm. Violating a norm that is central to a group’s performance or cohesiveness will generally receive a harsher sanction than will violating a norm that is less central. Minor violations of norms, or violation of a norm by a newcomer, or violations of norms that are frequently violated will generally receive more lenient sanctions. Group members who have achieved higher status in the group (for example, those that have unique skills and abilities needed by the group) receive more lenient sanctions or escape sanctioning.
Some norms turn out to be counterproductive. For example, suppose that at the beginning of the first meeting of a work group a few folks start cutting up, telling jokes and stories and generally ignore attempts by others to begin more serious discussion. If the group seems to encourage or does not effectively sanction this behavior, then this dallying behavior will become a group norm. As a result, the group may become so involved in these behaviors that work toward the group’s goals gets delayed, set aside, or perhaps even forgotten. If counterproductive behavior such as this continues for several meetings and becomes a norm, it will be very difficult to change.
What can a group member do to try to change a norm? Rem and Greg (2000) suggest that you can help your group change a counterproductive norm by (1) observing the norm and its outcome, (2) describing the results of the norm to the group, and (3) soliciting opinions of other members of the group (p. 52). For instance, you might observe whether every meeting begins late, note how long dallying tends to continue, determine whether discussion is productive and judge whether extra meetings are necessary. Then you could start the next meeting by reporting the results of your observations and asking for reaction from group members.

Characteristics of Effective Work Groups

Characteristics of Effective Work Groups

A work group is a collection of three or more people who must interact and influence one another to accomplish a common purpose. A group is more than an aggregation of individuals. Six people riding in an elevator are not a work group. Should the elevator stop and become stuck between floors and the people begin to talk with each order to solve the problem of how to get the elevator moving, they would become a work group.
Effective work groups have clearly defined goals to which members are committed; have an optimum number of members who represent diverse personalities, knowledge bases, skills and viewpoints; develop appropriate levels of cohesiveness; conform to rules and norms that facilitate the open exchange of information, ideas and opinions and conduct their work in a physical setting that encourages interaction.