Group Formation Process – Stage 3: Group Work and Functional Familiarity

If the group deals successfully with the fusion assumption, it usually achieves an emotional state that can best be characterized as mutual accep­tance ’ The group will have had enough experience so that members not only know what to expect of each other—what we can think of as “func­tional familiarity”—but also will have had the chance to learn that they can coexist and work together even if they do not all like each other. The emotional shift from maintaining the illusion of mutual liking to a state of mutual acceptance and functional familiarity is important in that it frees up emotional energy for work. Being dominated by either the dependence or the fusion assumption ties up emotional energy because of the denial and defensiveness required to avoid confronting the disconfirming reali­ties. Therefore, if a group is to work effectively, it must reach a level of emotional maturity at which reality-testing norms prevail.

At this stage, a new implicit assumption arises, the work assumption— “We know each other well enough, both in a positive and negative light, that we can work well together and accomplish our external goals.” The group now exerts less pressure to conform and builds norms that encourage some measure of individuality and personal growth, on the assumption that the group ultimately will benefit if all members grow and become stronger. Many groups never get to this stage, leading to the erroneous generalization that all groups require a high degree of solidarity and conformity. In my own experience, high conformity pressures are symptomatic of unresolved issues in the group, and the best way to get past them is to help the group to a more mature stage of mutual acceptance, using individual differences as a resource instead of a liability.

Groups always have some kind of task, even if that task is to provide learning to its members, so the need to work, to fulfill the task, is always psychologically present. But the ability to focus on the task is a function of the degree to which group members can reduce and avoid their own anxieties. Such anxieties are intrinsically highest when the group is very young and has not yet had a chance to build up cultural assumptions to control the anxiety. Therefore, the emotional energy available for work is lowest in the early stages of group formation, a crucial point for leaders to understand so that they do not force task pressures prematurely, that is, before the members have worked out their authority and intimacy issues. On the other hand, the quickest way for the group to lose its ability to work productively is to question some of its cultural assumptions because such a threat re-arouses the primary anxieties that the cultural solutions dealt with in the first place.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

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