This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Organizational Psychology for Managers
Imagine that first day on a new job working with a group of strangers: there you are, staring at your partners, wondering what to do. You donít want to admit that you donít know; after all, perhaps youíre in this group by accident. Sure, they said that the selection process was careful, but they must have made a mistake in your case. If anyone realizes just how little you know, theyíll surely ask you to leave!
The good news is that everyone else feels the same way!
If youíre lucky, a manager or team leader has already been assigned. Theyíll clear up your confusion and get things going. If there is no formally appointed manager or leader, however, that can be a problem. It is truly amazing how long it can take to get nothing done. Often enough, though, the mounting pressure of an impending deadline will force someone to take charge or perhaps simply do the project themselves. The latter case, in particular, tends to trigger more than a little resentment!
The dominant characteristics of stage one groups are dependency and inclusion. Members are primarily concerned with their place in the group; the greatest fear is banishment. Consider that exile from the community was, for much of history, seen as a fate worse than death. Indeed, even today with all our technology, survival completely apart from the group which is civilization is extremely difficult!
Thus, members of stage one groups have a very strong focus on appearing competent. Making a mistake is perceived to be tantamount to risking membership in the group. Unfortunately, with many of the companies I work with, that is also the reality (thatís why Iím working with them! Itís not easy to change.). As a result, members are afraid to take risks or admit to mistakes, preventing effective error correction from taking place. The unwillingness to make mistakes or appear less than competent also means that members will often fail to ask questions, leading to confusion about objectives, and are unwilling to accept help lest that be seen as a sign of weakness.
Another characteristic of stage one groups is that the group does not know how its skills match up with the task at hand. Indeed, in a very real sense, the group does not know what its skills are as a group. It takes time and exploration for the group to discover their strengths and weaknesses and how they can support one another to maximize their strengths. Thereís a reason the Red Sox have Spring Training, and even then they sometimes never get it together.
Communications in the group will tend to be polite, distant, sometimes appearing formal, or at least extremely careful, in nature. Because group members do not really know how they stand with one another, no one wants to offend anyone else. Conflict is seen as disruptive to the harmony of the group, proof that members are not committed or loyal. There is a great deal of ďgo along to get alongĒ taking place.
Itís been argued, granted somewhat sarcastically, that to know oneself is the ultimate form of Freudian aggression. By contrast, in a group, the person most people wish they could work with is themselves. Since thatís not actually possible, similarity is the next best thing.
Groups seek common ground. This commonality may be physical, stemming from gender, skin color, size, etc. It may be based on background, nationality, education, or culture. The more diverse the group, the more likely the group will demand conformity as a way of building similarity. The conformity may be based around dress, time spent at the office, where and when to eat lunch, or buying in to some particular ideology. IBMís blue suit and tie dress code was part of the effort to create similarity in the company and became a cultural icon; a political partyís efforts to require all members to buy into a particular orthodoxy is another way of building similarity. Conformity can also be based around dislike of an outside group or a member of the group who does not buy into the groupís values. Stage one groups are quick to punish such deviants, initially with the goal of bringing them back into the fold. Should that fail, they are usually shunned or exiled. Conformity works best when it focuses on issues that actually help the group get the job done. When conformity focuses on trivial or irritating topics such as requiring everyone to eat lunch together or always show up at the same time, it tends to stifle creativity and individual expression. This causes resentment and reduces group performance.
A strong leader can often be enough to provide the focal point, or at least a focal point, of similarity for the group. Members are usually extremely loyal to the leader, and will rarely question his judgment. When there are questions, they are usually relatively polite and restrained, at least as defined by the cultural norms of the organization. Think of the image of the 1950s manager who takes care of his employees and to whom the employees will go with work or personal problems.
Lacking a strong leader, the group may not coalesce at all. If the group does coalesce, it is often around something trivial or inappropriate: a particular style of dress, eating lunch at a certain restaurant, or in opposition to the schedule, mannerisms, or style of a particular team member. These early attempts at similarity actually produce conformity. Some conformity is necessary for the group to function; too much is stifling. Lacking leadership, the group will not be productive until a leader emerges. As distressing as this fact is for many people, leaderless groups simply donít function.
The more diverse the group, the greater the need for conformity: the less the members appear to have in common, the more they need to create common ground. On the flip side, the higher the intelligence and self-esteem of the members, the more they resist conformity. As you might imagine, a diverse group of highly intelligent, competent, confident individuals is going to be struggling with two opposing psychological imperatives. Skillful leadership is particularly important here!