The Dark Side of Group Cohesion

October 31, 2019

This second article on Group Cohesion Theory has been adapted by Dave Wagner from the LAFDLA presentation of Michael Ellington – LAPD retired.

One of your goals as a fire service leader is to build cohesive, high performing teams. Competition between these cohesive teams can benefit the overall organization, but competition becomes conflict when it turns dysfunctional – when it impacts negatively upon organizational performance.

The symptoms of conflict are sometimes blatant and obvious, such as loud arguments or physical fights. It can also be more subtle. When one company denigrates the work of another, when mechanics take longer than necessary to maintain the vehicles of the rated members who have been rude to them, or the battalion chief does not give an overworked company a break, then intergroup conflict has become dysfunctional.

“Groupthink occurs when individuals lose the ability to think for themselves and rely on the group to make their decisions…”

Most of the time, the problem is not the villainous scheme to subvert the mission, but an honest difference in what is seen as the best way to get the job done. Organizational policies and procedures, or even individual leaders, can “set the stage” for conflict between groups to erupt. Consider, for example, the built-in conflict between the In-Service Training Division and field units. IST’s job is to bring all members into compliance with state training requirements, pro-actively address work environment shortcomings, mitigate civil liability, and improve the professionalism and knowledge base of all Department personnel. Contrast these goals with those of field resources – they run calls, deal with community relations problems, rookie training issues, and citizens screaming to go to the hospital. In this example, and in hundreds of others that will occur during your career, the members of each of these work groups will feel righteous and correct in their attempts to achieve their own objectives. Bolstered by the cohesive effect of their “team,” they will staunchly defend their own positions and aggressively attack any other point of view. From the organizational perspective, do you see any better way to use and manage such differences?

Groupthink

Groupthink is another potential hazard of high group cohesiveness. This happens when individual group members lose the ability to think for themselves and rely on the group to make their decisions. Opinions held by the majority or by key group members are considered unanimous and alternative views are not encouraged. Overly cohesive units can be suspicious of contradictory opinions voiced by outsiders. Any outside information that contradicts the group’s opinion may be purposefully concealed from the team. Poor or irrational decisions can be the result of this type of groupthink.

Group Norms

Another situation in which group cohesion may not contribute to higher performance is when teams’ norms conflict with organizational goals. Researchers found that when such conflict is high, higher team cohesion actually results in lower task performance.

Potentially negative outcomes can occur when highly cohesive groups exert pressure on their members to conform to group norms. While this adherence to norms has many benefits for the group as a whole, the same mechanism may result in negative social consequences. For example, the fact that abuses against individual members in military units, which tend to be highly cohesive, can go for long times unexposed, can be attributed in a large part to the tight norms of these very cohesive groups.

In a competitive atmosphere like a firehouse, the norm of a cohesive group may be to isolate themselves from outside influences. Examples are inter-shift rivalries that are taken beyond friendly and constructive competition, or the exclusion of a new member who transfers in with an unknown or unwarranted reputation. Leaders with any degree of emotional intelligence will recognize these situations early on and work to defuse them.

Resistance to Change

Members of cohesive teams tend to rely heavily on other team members and resist external ideas and input. This can lead to self-imposed isolation and a feeling of superiority over other groups within the organization. As a result, these groups find it difficult to change their behaviors and values, particularly when the change is driven by external forces. Even if an individual member of the team becomes convinced of the need for change, it may be difficult to put into practice due to the strength of the group dynamic.

Leadership decisions and strategies can be customized for the situation. Informed, enlightened leaders do not seek to eliminate conflict, but to use such disagreements to diagnose and repair systemic weaknesses. Then, with the benefit of some good, healthy competition, the performance of the organization can be launched to new heights of effectiveness and growth.

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