A necessary evil

Most managers spend the better part of their work lives in meetings. Managers who lead these sessions typically have little education or training in group dynamics or “what goes on in groups.” As a result, both managers and work groups often see meetings as a necessary evil. As healthcare organizations continue to move from traditional command-and-control models to participation-and-empowerment models, this view of meetings cannot survive. A successful manager must facilitate group interaction and teamwork or run the risk of creating an obstacle to continuous improvement and employee involvement.

Work group dynamics involves the interaction of two factors:

* Group members have individual needs, and each person’s needs differ; and

* A work group operates at two levels simultaneously, with events occurring at both “content” and “process” levels.

Content and process. The content of a group’s activity is the tip of the iceberg and includes visible or apparent occurrences. Content includes mission, authority, rules, exchange of information, and public agenda.

As with an iceberg, substantial group interaction occurs below the water line. Group process is less apparent than content but no less important in achieving group goals.

Process relates “how we do it,” including group members’ personal needs, informal leadership, norms, feelings, and hidden agendas. Effective groups lower the water line as much as possible, so that content and process are treated equally.

An ineffective group process will interfere with performance regardless of the competence of individual members. To avoid this problem, managers should pay attention to critical process issues: decision-making methods, quality of communication, and the roles group members may play.

Decision making. Many groups become stuck because they fail to discuss and agree on decision-making methods. At the start of a project or meeting, a manager should clarify decisions to be made and how the group will make them.

Quality of communication. A group process manager must develop an ability to recognize key characteristics of a group’s communication, including

* Direction: Does everyone feel free to communicate with all other members? Is communication centered around the manager?

* Openess: Do individuals feel free to express their feelings?

* Tone of group feelings: Enthusiasm? Belligerence? Boredom? Acceptance?

* Understanding: Is everyone making an effort to listen and understand before responding?

Roles people play. Group members tend to take several roles within a group. These roles fall under broad categories:

* Task roles involve getting the job done no matter what:

* Initiators contribute new ideas or encourage new directions;

* Summarizers pull things together, recap, or add perspective;

* Clarifiers help others understand what is occurring;

* Information seekers ask for input or direction;

* Information givers offer facts or background on issues; and

* Decision testers seek consensus.

* Maintenance roles involve ensuring that a job is done well and that the group feels good about it:

* Encouragers boost morale by commending others;

* Harmonizers mediate others’ differences; and

* Gatekeepers ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute.

* Non-group roles indicate concern that a person’s own needs are not being met:

* Blockers insist on their position and reject consensus;

* Dominators attempt to exert authority by manipulating the group or dominating conversations; and

* Avoiders withdraw.

When considering the roles that group members can play, four points should be kept in mind:

* Depending on the circumstances, any group member can play several roles;

* Non-group role behavior is not always bad. It means that someone’s needs are not being met; that someone may be saying, “Stop and let me make my point;” or that dealing with non-group behavior can help a group continue to grow;

* To get a job done, a group needs both task and maintenance role behavior; and

* A manager may have to fill roles not taken by others.

Work group dynamics can be used to perform more effectively, but managers must develop skills enabling them to act as observers and participants in the group process. By diagnosing what is happening in a work group and steering members toward effective behavior, managers can contribute to teamwork, quality, and productivity.

Edward A. Kazemek

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