Jeff Lane was at his wits end. As a newly appointed production manager, he had tried virtually everything to get his work group to come up to production standard. The equipment was operating properly, and the group had the training and experience to meet expectations, yet it was not performing well. What was wrong? And what could he do to correct the situation?
Managers and supervisors frequently face such a dilemma-standards that should be met but aren't for what seems like no apparent reason. What Jeff Lane and other managers/ supervisors sometimes fail to realize is that within every organization there are often informal group pressures that influence and regulate individual behavior.
Informal groups formulate an implicit code of ethics or an unspoken set of
standards establishing acceptable behavior In Jeff's department, the informal group may have established a norm below that set by the organization, subtly exercising control over its members regarding the amount of output.
Dynamics of informal groups
Informal groups almost always arise if opportunities exist.
Often, these groups serve a counter organizational function, attempting to counteract the coercive tendencies in an organization. If management prescribes production norms that the group considers unfair, for instance, the group's recourse is to adopt less demanding norms and to use its ingenuity to discover ways in which it can sabotage management's imposed standards.
Informal groups have a powerful influence on the effectiveness of an organization, and can even subvert its formal goals. But the informal group's role is not limited to resistance. The impact of the informal group upon the larger formal group depends on the norms that the informal group sets. So the informal group can make the formal organization more effective, too.
A norm is an implied agreement among the group's membership regarding how members in the group should behave. From the perspective of the formal group, norms generally fall into three categories-positive, negative, and neutral. In other words, norms either support, obstruct, or have no effect on the aims of the larger organization.
For example, it the informal group in Jeff's shop set a norm supporting high output, that norm would have been more potent than any attempt by Jeff to coerce compliance with the standard. The reason is simple, yet profound. The norm is of the group members own making, and is not one imposed upon them. There is a big motivational difference between being told what to do and being anxious to do it.
If Jeff had been aware of group dynamics, he might have realized that informal groups can be either his best friend or his worst enemy. He should have been sensitive to the informal groups within his area and he should have cultivated their goodwill and cooperation and made use of the informal group leadership.
That is, he should have wooed the leadership of the informal group and enlisted the support of its membership to achieve the formal organization's aims. The final effect of his actions might have been positive or negative, depending upon the agreement or lack of it between the informal group and himself.
Harnessing the power of informal groups is no easy task. The requirements include: an understanding of group dynamics and, an ability to bring about changes in informal group norms that positively reinforce the formal organization's goals.
As a starting point, managers and supervisors should at least be aware of the reasons behind informal group formation and the properties and characteristics of these groups.
Formation of informal work groups
Individuals are employed by an organization to perform specific functions. Although the whole person joins an organization, attention is usually focused on the partial person, the part of the individual doing the job. Because people have needs that extend beyond the work itself, informal groups develop to fill certain emotional, social, and psychological needs.
The degree to which a group satisfies its members needs determines the limits within which individual members of the group will allow their behavior to be controlled by the group.
Sense of belonging
Several major functions are served by informal groups. For example, the group serves as a means of satisfying the affiliation needs of its members for friendship and support. People need to belong, to be liked, to feel a part of something. Because the informal group can withhold this attractive reward, it has a tool of its own to coerce compliance with its norms.
Identity and self esteem
Groups also provide a means of developing, enhancing, and confirming a person's sense of identity and self-esteem. Although many organizations attempt to recognize these higher needs, the nature of some jobs-their technology and environment-precludes this from happening. The long assembly line or endless rows of desks reinforce a feeling of depersonalization.
Another function of groups is to serve as an agent for establishing and testing social reality. For instance, several individuals may share the feeling that their supervisor is a slave driver or that their working conditions are inadequate. By developing a consensus about these feelings, group members are able to reduce the anxiety associated with their jobs.
All for one, one for all
Finally, the informal group serves as a defense mechanism against forces that group members could not resist on their own. Joining forces in a small group makes the members feel stronger, less anxious, and less insecure in the face of a perceived threat.
As long as needs exist that are not served by the formal organization, informal groups will form to fill the gap. Since the group fills many important needs for its members, it influences member behavior.
Leadership of informal work groups
Informal groups possess certain characteristics that, if understood, can be used to advantage. While many of these characteristics are similar to those of formal organizations, others are unique. One attribute of informal groups is rotational leadership.
The informal leader emerges as the individual possessing qualities that the other members perceive as critical to the satisfaction of their specific needs at the moment; as the needs change so does the leader. Only rarely does a single individual possess all of the leadership characteristics needed to fill the various needs of the group.
Unlike the formally appointed leader who has a defined position from which to influence others, the informal leader does not possess formal power. If the informal leader fails to meet the group's expectations, he or she is deposed and replaced by another. The informal group's judgment of its leaders tends to be quicker and more cold-blooded than that of most formal groups.
The supervisor can use several strategies to affect the leadership and harness the power of informal groups. One quick and sure method of changing a group is to cause the leader to change one or more of his or her characteristics. Another is to replace the leader with another person.
One common ploy is to systematically rotate out of the group its leaders and its key members. Considering the rotational nature of leadership, a leader may emerge who has aims similar to the formal goals of the organization. There are problems with this approach, however. Besides the practical difficulties of this, this strategy is blunted by the fact that group norms often persist long after the leader has left the group.
A less Machiavellian approach is for the supervisor to be alert to leaders sympathetic to the supervisor's objectives and to use them toward the betterment of the formal group's effectiveness. Still another method is to attempt to 'co-opt' informal leaders by absorbing them into the leadership or the decision-making structure of the formal group. Co-opting the informal leader often serves as a means of averting threats to the stability of the formal organization.
Remember, though, a leader may lose favor with the group because of this association with management, and group members will most likely select another leader.
Informal Work Group Communication (The Grapevine)
Another characteristic of the informal group is its communications network. The informal group has communications processes that are smoother and less cumbersome than those of the formal organization.
Thus its procedures are easily changed to meet the communication needs of the group. In the informal group, a person who possesses information vital to the group's functioning or well-being is frequently afforded leadership status by its members. Also, the centrally located person in the group is in the best position to facilitate the smooth flow of information among group members.
Knowing about informal group communication the supervisor can provide a strategically placed individual with information needed by the group. This not only enhances the stature of this individual perhaps elevating him or her to a leadership position but also provides an efficient means of distributing information. Providing relevant information to the group will also help foster harmony between the supervisor and the informal group.
By winning the cooperation of informal group leaders the supervisor will most likely experience fewer grievances and better relationships.
Informal group cohesiveness
A third characteristic of informal groups is group cohesiveness-the force that holds a group together. Group cohesiveness varies widely based on numerous factors-including the size of the group dependence of members upon the group achievement of goals status of the group and management demands and pressures.
For example group cohesiveness increases strongly whenever the membership perceives a threat from the outside. This threat produces the high anxiety that strong group cohesiveness can help reduce.
If the supervisor presses the group to conform to a new organizational norm that Is viewed as a threat to the security needs of group members The group will become more unified in order to withstand the perceived threat. Thus management can limit its own effectiveness by helping to increase the group's cohesiveness. With the passing of the threat the group tends to lose its cohesiveness.
Perhaps paradoxically the most dangerous time for group cohesion is when things are going well. Supervisors can use the factors that affect group cohesiveness to increase their own effectiveness.
Decision making process involvement
For instance a supervisor can involve the informal group members in the decision-making process. Input from group members will not only reduce their feeling of alienation but also improve communication between the supervisor and subordinates thereby reducing potential conflict.
Where group participation in decision making is not practical the supervisor should carefully explain the reasons to play down what might be seen as a threat to the group. In some cases the supervisor may want to increase the groups cohesiveness deliberately devising situations that put one group into competition with another. If this gambit is carefully controlled the solidarity that results may bring a higher level of performance.
The danger of this strategy is that the supervisor may be unable to control the reaction of the group. The ploy could backfire bringing competition and dissension within the group.
Informal group norms or values (unspoken rules)
The final characteristic of informal groups is the establishment of the groups norms (values). As we discussed earlier, norms keep a group functioning as a system instead of a collection of individuals.
Norms are of great importance to the informal group in controlling behavior and measuring the performance of members. Because norm (values) violations threaten a group's existence, departures from the norm usually carry severe sanctions.
The members must either conform or sever their group affiliation.
The latter action is unlikely, especially if the individual values group
membership to satisfy certain needs.
Two points are important to note about the norms of informal groups.
First, where both formal and informal norms exist, the informal norms transcend the formal. At moments when norms conflict with organizational objectives, organizational effectiveness suffers.
Second, members of an informal group may be unaware that the norms of the group influence their behavior. Norms are particularly potent because without knowing it members would not even think of acting otherwise-norms are that ingrained into their behavior pattern.