Psychology in the workplace

For decades, research into teamwork and the group dynamic has been at the forefront of social psychology. When individual psychology plays second fiddle to the psychology of a group, the room for error is substantial. The ability to seamlessly engage with all your colleagues is easier said than done, but why?

One of the leading researchers into the psychology of teamwork, Tuckman, makes it sound easy enough. Tuckman’s theory of the 4 stages of teamwork separates the group dynamic into 4 easy steps: forming, storming, norming and performing. The stage where the group is ‘forming’ sees every member of the group sizing each other up, evaluating competition, analysing weaknesses and so forth. Storming begins soon after, when individual members warm to the idea of being part of a group effort, which leads on to the norming stage. Members start to come together as part of the developing process, causing the group to start performing. This is when the group shows increased focus on a common goal, and the group begins to work efficiently.

Easy enough? When the group dynamic is explained in this sense, it makes the copious amounts of research into teamwork seem like such a waste of time. Unfortunately for Tuckman, however, there are a number of variables and circumstances which can rock the boat and unsettle a group of workers.

Tuckman’s theory is detailed enough, yet it focuses purely on the working life of an office. Those that have worked in an office will realise their job consists of more than turning up, getting work done and going home. There is an office life and an office culture. This is why conformity is such a big issue in the workplace.

Conformity in the academic sense is the tendency to align your attitudes, beliefs and behaviours with those around you. Putting it into context, conformity is fitting in with your work mates. When starting a new job, you will be walking into a group which is already performing, so fitting in straight away isn’t easy.

The existing group will have their routine and their way of doing things, and nine times out of ten it will be different to the way things were done at your previous job. Changing and adapting to the new environment is normal. As a new employee, it is natural for you conform so that you don’t feel out of place in the office.

But what are you actually conforming to? It can be the smallest of details, from everything from the way you dress to socially expected behaviour. If the majority of your colleagues wear suits to work and you turn up in a t-shirt and jeans, it is human nature for your colleagues to immediately disassociate themselves from you, so it is right to be worried to begin with.

In terms of socially expected behaviour, you may walk into an office which has a strong drinking culture, for example. Again, you would be expected to submerge yourself into that culture in order to fit in. It all seems a bit much, but that is the way humans work, unfortunately.

Once you have settled into the group dynamic, it is important to understand the different levels and different aspects of working as part of a team. Each member of a business needs a different set of skills. The divide in a business can be seen as the leaders, such as a boss or a supervisor, and the employees. Leaders need to make sure they establish a clear team mission, accept group consensus whenever possible and share power and deemphasise individual glory and recognition. With employees, they need to make sure that as a group, they achieve synergy to produce content that is better than the sum of individual contributions.

Leaders are a fundamental part of any business or team. For a group to be successful and efficient, someone always has to lead. Typically, there are two types of leaders: democratic and autocratic. Countless studies suggest that women have a more democratic style of leadership, whereas men are more autocratic. This means that women will listen to the group consensus before making a decision, whereas men will tend to do what they believe is right.

The style of leadership can have a less than negative effect on the group, however. Theorists who study the field of social psychology believe that the more power a leader has, the more independent they feel. This is why teams can so often resent their employers, as leaders are separate from the group effort, to an extent.

With the different aspects of a group dynamic explained, it’s time to analyse the potential problems that can effect a groups ability to work together efficiently.

One of the most renowned areas of study in the world of psychology is the in-group and the out-group. Thankfully, it helps explain some of the problems behind teamwork. The in-group is the group that you are a member of which forms your social identity, and the out-group is the group which you discriminate against. The perfect example of this is rival football teams, if you were an Arsenal fan, Arsenal would be your in-group and Chelsea would be the out-group. Simple enough, but it in the context of an office and things become tricky.

When you join a new workforce as part of a job, you will be automatically viewed as a member of the out group. Changing your social identity and conforming is the only way to be recognised as part of the in- group. The cohesion in a team needs to be achieved as soon as possible, as if members of the existing group view the new member as someone from the out-group, then this is poisonous for any office. The need for a common goal is vital, something that all parties can commit to.

Problems for any team will come and go, but it is important for everyone to realise that the whole is greater than its individual parts.

So, what do teams need to strive for in order to be successful?

Writing for The Economist, Benjamin Voyer believes that teams need to be as small and as cohesive as possible, with clear boundaries of who does what and who is responsible for what. The main aim, however, is for teams to achieve the 3 C’s: collaboration, coordination and communication.

Charlie Atkinson