, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In my previous post about “Complexity and Daily Interaction” I wrote about how complex even the ordinary daily interactions are. Even in the ordinary dialogues between two people there are very complex processes involved. I even went far enough to say that the inner dialogue of a single person is actually complex enough for complex patterns to emerge.

In this post I will start to look at groups. Groups (or teams, I don’t make any distinction) are very relevant entities when looking at companies and larger organizations. Furthermore, it is quite evident that there are patterns that are specific to groups – patterns which can’t be found from individuals alone.

So, how do complex patterns of behavior emerge in groups? I will look at the general viewpoints coming from different branches of social psychology. I will look at individual, interpersonal and group (also inter-group) level phenomena to see how all this complexity builds up. And as you can see, there is no need to talk about the work tasks at all to see how complex these processes really are.

Group in an individual

There are several factors that draw people into groups. In organizational theories we often think that groups are purposefully formed as “teams” to make cooperation more efficient, but actually groups have been, and are forming with or without OD efforts. There are generally four reasons for this:

  1. Sociobiological reasons: Evolutionary processes of human development and culture
  2. Cognitive needs to understand the environment: The theory of social comparison says we clarify our minds by comparing our world-views with others in similar situations.
  3. Utilistic theory of maximizing the individual advantage by social exchange
  4. Democracy and equality are also better achieved in groups

Basically the interdependence of people is the basis of complex group phenomena. Interdependent people form norms and roles that are basis for the group cohesion. Norms are there to help group to achieve it’s goals, by increasing predictability and commonalities between people. On the other hand roles are separating the tasks of the individuals. Role positions also focus the norms differently between different group members. Leadership is a role that might enable leaders to affect the group’s norms more than other roles.

Group membership

There are many ways to examine the information networks inside groups. FIRO (Fundamental interpersonal relations orientation) theory looks at especially affection, control and inclusion. If these are spread evenly amongst the group members, the group cohesion is high. This might have both positive and negative consequences: Positive consequences are that people usually like to be involved with groups that have high cohesion. It is also easier to coordinate the tasks if people know the competences of other group members (transactive memory). Negative side is that the focus of the group is more often in the satisfaction level of the group members than the goals of it. Cohesion might also lead to “groupthink”, where there is strong pressure towards unity of thinking inside the group.

Kurt Lewin had a “theory of melting” that can explain why people’s behavior can change in the groups. He thought that the fixed attitudes and behavior of individuals can be “unfrozen” in a group, which makes it “fluid” and thus it is possible to change it. After the change this change could be “refrozen” again. Probably this kind of process happens also spontaneously, which explains many positive and negative changes that can be perceived when people join different groups.

Power relations in groups

Another important topic is that of the power relations and group membership. There are generally three viewpoints to the power: the subject, the object and the outsider view. Of course one could also say that these positions can change very quickly. It is also possible to change viewpoints and thus see these positions in different ways. French & Raven had a typology of social power that divided the power to different categories:

  • Reward & Coercive power (the possibilities of subject to reward/punish the object)
  • Referent, expert and legitimate power (how much the object identifies with the subject)
  • Informational power (the plausibility of the subject’s message)
  • Power of relationships

There are also many different interpretations on the nature of power. Disposition concept means that power is the control or resources. Coercion means the object’s resistance is overcome. Personality trait means the capability of manipulating others. McClelland thought the need for power is because the subject has an interest to affect others. Kipnis thought the control of resources inevitable leads to manipulation and limits the possibilities of the powerful to have close relationships. Warren Bennis said that the most effective leaders were capable of empowering others to perform exceptionally well.

Power is also status. The other group members observe the person’s competence, willingness to participate and the focus for the group. Based on those observations they set expectations on the person’s contributions. This builds his status and thus also his possibilities to affect the group.

Development of group membership

There really aren’t any specific entity called a “group”. What we perceive is a process, a pattern of people responding to each others. Like all complex patterns, also group patterns are somewhat predictable even though they are always also somewhat unpredictable. So, there are some specific dynamics that can be perceived.

Probably the most popular pattern was documented by Bruce Tuckman. It included five different phases that can be distinguished in most group formations. These patterns can also be visible in smaller scale when existing groups have new tasks, people etc.

  1. Forming: People are confused, goals and leadership are unclear, if there is a leader there’s strong dependence on that leader
  2. Storming: Conflicts arise, different opinions, rebellion, leaders and goals are challenged, unclear roles and norms
  3. Norming: Conflicts are being handled, norms and roles are established, people start to support each others and learn how to work in openly manner
  4. Performing: Beneficial structures of human relating are forming, division of work is optimized, roles are flexible.
  5. Adjourning: Tasks are finished, goals are achieved (or not), people move on to new challenges, celebrations and remembrance.

Quite similar pattern was documented also by Moreland & Levine. It was called the group socialization model. It also had five phases that based on psychological models of “evaluation” -> “commitment” -> “role transition”:

  1. Näyttökuva 2013-05-03 kohteessa 11.52.35 AMInvestigation: Official selection processes or already named new member.
  2. Socialization: Group teaches the newcomer the rules, goals and norms of the group and vice versa. If there are too many new members a storming stage might occur.
  3. Maintenance: Individual’s roles are periodically negotiated in relation to the new tasks and competences of the group.
  4. Resocialization: If the group isn’t successful in role negotiations, resocialization occurs. If this fails it might lead to some individuals’ displacement.
  5. Remembrance: Group members are remembering and learning from the past experiences with the person who is leaving.

Apart from the group forming patterns, it is also possible that different kinds of exclusion mechanisms are focused on certain individuals. Ostracism means that a group or certain group member is excluded from the group. Usually because of some purposeful or accidental breaking of norms. Also different forms of social isolation are used, such as not speaking to certain individuals or not involving them in activities. This can be also a form of bullying.

So, there are quite many common patterns that are usually seen in interpersonal relations between group members. When you think about how these patterns contribute to the complexity of ordinary daily activities, it is quite easy to see that we are living in extremely complex human world.


Leadership is another very relevant pattern when analyzing the group dynamics. The nature of leadership comes from the emergent group characteristics, such as the cohesion, power dynamics, communication and leadership. These characteristics shape the group and are also shaped by the group, at the same time.

The dynamics of leadership involves the leader, the subordinates and the situation. Some people propose the leadership is fully dependent on the situation – depending on the situation the leader can be a different person. Newer theories accept that leadership is more integrated in the persona of the leader and the subordinates. It is affective relationship where interdependence, goals and situation all play a part.

In groups it is usually possible to separate two types of leadership – task leadership and socioemotional leadership. Both types of leadership are related, but studies show there are usually two different individuals focusing on either side. When applying Interaction Process Analysis (IPA), it is highly unlikely that one person would get very high score on both sociometric scales. (This is also related to the group cohesion – if it’s not balanced there can be negative consequences, as we saw..)

Talk hierarchy is yet another pattern that can be perceived in groups. The people on top of the hierarchy use significantly more time than others. In a groups of 5 to 6, the top utilizes around 25% of time as the lowest ones use only about 5%. When the group size increases, this difference increases even more – at some point the lowest ones in the hierarchy don’t get to speak at all. Based on IPA, the task & emotional leaders are usually on the very top of talk hierarchy.

There are many types of leadership patterns that can be perceived, e.g. hierarchic, transactional and transformational. Transactional leadership focuses usually on vertical dyads, i.e. leader exchanges information, feelings and other things with each subordinate and this is how the leadership pattern is structured. This is also called Leader-Member-Exchange (LMX) theory. It is also important to see that there is no leadership without subordinates that give that status. Transformational leadership means that a person is able to initiate changes in the behavior, thinking and values of a the subordinates. Hierarchic leadership is already an old term which isn’t really taken seriously nowadays. However, it is notable that there are also “authoritarian personalities”. Erich Fromm had the view that it is not just a property of authority figure, but also an authoritarian situation which is created by people who want to submit under authority.


I will stop this already long post here. My goal was to prove that not only the everyday interactions that we can perceive amongst interdependent people, but also group level processes play a part in social complexity. Group formation and membership, power relations and leadership are all patterns that can be quite easily perceived in groups. These macro level patterns are affecting the micro level (interpersonal) interactions, and at the same time those micro level patterns affect this macro level.

If somebody thinks that complexity requires some special circumstances, like complex organizations, complex technological tasks, or certain level of disagreement or uncertainty, I think these posts clearly prove that it is nonsense. Ordinary interactions between people are enough. When there are enough people to form groups (actually just two people is enough for this) it adds yet another level of patterns. It doesn’t make it “more” complex, it just changes the focus and affects the interaction in different ways.

To make it seem even more complex, in a next post I plan to touch on the topic of inter-group processes… 🙂