Group Formation Through Originating and Marker Events

All groups start with some kind of “originating event” : (1) An environ­mental accident (for instance, a sudden threat that occurs in a random crowd and requires a common response), (2) a decision by an “originator” to bring a group of people together for some purpose, or (3) an advertised event or common experience that attracts a number of individuals. Human relations training groups start in the third mode—a number of people come together voluntarily to participate in a one- or two-week workshop for the advertised purpose of learning more about themselves, groups, and leader­ship (Bradford, Gibb, & Benne, 1964; Schein & Bennis, 1965; Schein, 1993a). The workshops are typically held in a geographically remote, iso­lated location and require full, round-the-clock participation—hence “cultural islands. ”

The staff of the workshop, usually one “trainer” per ten to fifteen par­ticipants, has typically met for several days to plan the basic structure of lectures, group meetings, focused “exercises” designed to bring out certain points about leadership and group behavior, and free time. The staff mem­bers start out with their own assumptions, values, and behavior patterns in initiating the groups and therefore will bias the culture that is eventually formed. But culture formation really occurs in the T (training) group, the key component of every workshop. The T group consists of ten to fifteen strangers who will meet for four to eight hours every day with one or two staff members. Because such groups typically develop distinct microcultures within a matter of days, what goes on in these groups is crucial to an under­standing of culture formation.

When the group first comes together, the most fundamental issue fac­ing it as a whole is “What are we really here for? What is our task?” At the same time, each individual is facing basic social survival issues such as “Will I be included in this group?” “Will I have a role to play?” “Will my needs to influence others be met?” “Will we reach a level of intimacy that meets my needs?” These are in the microcosm the central issues of identity, authority, and intimacy that were discussed in Chapters Six and Nine on culture content.

As the group gathers in its appointed space, the participants begin to display their own coping style for dealing with new and ambiguous situa­tions. Some will silently await events; some will form immediate alliances with others; and some will begin to assert themselves by telling anyone who cares to listen that they know how to deal with this kind of situation. Statements about the goal of “learning about ourselves” have been spelled out in the training literature, in the workshop brochure, in the initial intro­ductory lecture to the entire workshop, and again by the staff member who launches the group. Some people may even have had prior experiences with similar groups, but initially everyone is acutely aware of how ambigu­ous the words of the staff member are when he or she says: “This is the first meeting of our T group. Our goal is to provide for ourselves a climate in which we can all learn. There is no one correct way to do this. We will have to get to know each other, find out what our individual needs and goals are, and build our group to enable us to fulfill those goals and needs. My role as staff member will be to help this process along in any way that I can, but I will not be the formal leader of the group, and I have no answers as to the right way to proceed. There is no formal agenda. So let’s begin.” The staff member then falls silent.

1. How Individual Intentions Become Group Consequences

The general model for understanding the formation of “groupness” and cul­ture is to observe closely how in the formative stages individuals initiate various actions, but what happens immediately after an initial act is a group response. If person A makes a suggestion, and person B disagrees, it may appear to be just two members of the group arguing, but the emotional real­ity is that the other members are witnesses and make their own collective choice on whether to enter the conversation or not. Only two people have spoken, but the group has acted and is aware of having acted as a group.

Return now to our training group ’s earliest moments. In the silence that follows the staff member’s introduction, each person experiences feel­ings of anxiety in the face of this ambiguous agenda and power vacuum. Even if that silence is only a few seconds long, it is usually a key “marker event” that almost everyone remembers vividly at a later time. Even though all the members usually come from the same macroculture and share the same formal language, everyone is aware that this group is a unique combi­nation of personalities and that those personalities are initially unknown. What makes the initial silence a marker event is that every person is aware of his or her own emotional response to the sudden silence. Group members can recall clearly at a later time how they felt when the typical crutches of the formal agenda, leadership structure, and procedural rules were deliber­ately removed as part of the training design. This novel situation heightens members’ awareness of how much they typically depend on the structures and rules of the social order. The group is deliberately thrown onto its own resources to allow members to observe their own feelings and reactions as they cope with this initially “norm-less” and “rule-less” situation.

Each member brings to this new situation a wealth of prior learning in the form of assumptions, expectations, and patterns of coping, but, as the group gets started by someone’s making a suggestion or revealing a feeling, it immediately becomes apparent that there is little consensus within the group on how to proceed, and that the group cannot become a copy of any other group. Thus, even though individual members bring prior cultural learning to the new situation, by definition this particular group starts out with no culture of its own. Goals, means, working procedures, measure­ments, and rules of interaction all have to be forged out of new common experience. A sense of mission—what the group is ultimately all about— develops only as members begin genuinely to understand each other’s needs, goals, talents, and values, and as they begin to integrate these into a shared mission and define their own authority and intimacy system.

How does group formation now proceed? Often, the very first thing said by any person in the group will become the next marker event if it succeeds in reducing some of the tension. For example, one of the more active mem­bers often will initiate with a suggestion of how to get started: “Why don’t we go around the group and each introduce ourselves?” or “Let ’s each say what we are here for” or “I feel pretty tense right now, does anyone else feel the same way?” or “Ed, can you give us some suggestion on how best to get started?” and so on.

The silence is broken, there is a huge sigh of relief, and the group becomes aware through this joint sensing of relief that it is sharing something unique to itself. No other group in the world will have this particular pattern of initial tension and manner of resolving the initial silence. Members also become aware of something that is easy to forget—that a person cannot, in an interpersonal situation, “not” communicate. Everything that happens has potential meaning and consequences for the group.

If that initial suggestion fits the mood of the group or at least of some other members who are ready to speak up, it will be picked up and may become the beginning of a pattern. If it does not fit the mood, it will elicit disagreement, counter-suggestions, or some other response that will make members aware that they cannot easily agree. Whatever the response, how­ever, the crucial event of group formation has taken place when the group, including the staff member, has participated in a shared emotional reac­tion. What makes the event shared is the fact that all members have been witnesses to the same behavior on the part of one of their members and have observed the responses together. After the meeting, they can refer to the event, and people will remember it. This initial sharing is what defines, at an emotional level, that “we are now a group; we have been launched.”

The most fundamental act of culture formation, the defining of crude group boundaries, has occurred with this shared emotional response. Everyone who has shared the response is now, by definition, in the group at some level, and anyone who has not shared the experience is initially not in the group. This feeling of being in or out of the group is quite con­crete, in that any person who did not attend and witness the event cannot know what happened or how people reacted. A new member who arrives one hour late will already feel the presence of a group and will want to know “what has gone on so far.” And the group will already feel that the newcomer is a “stranger” who “has to be brought on board.” Members will remember at a later time “how painful it was to get started” and will tell stories of what happened in the first meeting.

Thus, in any new group situation—whether we are talking about a new company, a task force, a committee, or a team—though the initial behav­ior of founders, leaders, and other initiators is individually motivated and reflects their own particular assumptions and intentions, as the individuals in the group begin to do things together and share experiences around such individually motivated acts, “groupness” arises.

2. Building Meaning Through Sharing Perceptions and Articulating Feeling

I nitially, this groupness is only an emotional substrate that permits the defining of who is in and who is not. For the group to begin to understand its sense of groupness, someone must articulate what the experience has been and what it means. Such articulation is again an individual act, motivated by individual intentions to lead, or to be a prophet, or whatever, but the consequences are group consequences if the articulation “works,” if things are stated in a way that makes sense and helps group members to understand what has happened and why they are feeling the way they are. For example, to break the silence a member might say “We all seem to be pretty tense right now,” or “I guess we won’t get much help from the staff member,” or “I don’t know how the rest of you feel, but I feel the need to get going, so here’s a suggestion….” Such statements help to make some sense of the sit­uation and are, therefore, crucial components of what we call “leadership” and can be understood as acts of culture creation if the process imparts meaning to an important shared emotional experience and provides some relief from the anxiety of meaninglessness. Some of the deepest and most potent shared experiences occur within the first few hours of group life, so the deepest levels of consensus on who we are, what our mission is, and how we will work are formed very early in the group’s history.

3. Leadership as Timely Intervention

To help this process of understanding and articulation, the staff member or some group member will choose moments when something vivid has happened and ask the group to reflect and name what they saw or felt. For example, to break the silence one member says, “Let’s go around the table and introduce ourselves…” The silence continues. Another member then says, “I would like the staff member to tell us how to proceed. . . . ” More silence. A third member then says, “Ed isn’t going to tell us anything, we have to figure this thing out ourselves. . . . ” More silence. A fourth member then says, “My name is Peter Jones and I would like to learn more about how I relate to other people.” Peter looks around expectantly for response but nothing happens. Ed, the staff member, might then say, “What is hap­pening here? Can we quickly review what has just happened in the last few minutes and talk about what we see going on and how we feel about it.”

Various members then come in to tell what they observed and how they felt about it. One of the members may point out that the staff member ’s refusal to be the authority figure has created a power struggle in terms of whose suggestion will get the group going. The silences after the various member suggestions were a kind of decision to resist, not to go along with what a member had suggested. By recognizing this resistance, the group mem­bers are learning one of the most powerful lessons of how social systems work. Collectively not acting on what a member proposes is a powerful group decision, a kind of decision that is very common and that received a collo­quial name in the workshops—a “plop.” In other words, a suggestion to act was made, and it plopped. Plops mean that the group was not willing to grant a level of authority to a given member to tell the group what to do.

At the same time, if the staff member ’s suggestion to examine what has just happened gets the group going, the group has also learned some­thing very important about leadership—that one can lead by focusing on the process of what is going on instead of making content suggestions. Such “process analysis” enables the members to speak about their perceptions and feelings in a nonevaluative context and with the sense that every­one ’s perceptions and feelings have an equal social value. An individual can have different perceptions and feelings but cannot tell another member that their experiences were wrong or less valuable. In such process analysis, the group is creating cultural neutrality and making it possible to actu­ally observe in a nonevaluative way the different cultural norms members bring to the group from their prior cultural experience. It is this kind of exploratory conversation that makes the workshop a “cultural island.” The T-group is creating a new culture by beginning to understand and act on what members learn about each other’s cultures that they brought with them into the group.

The mission of the group begins to be understood in terms of a shared insight that the learning occurs through a process of shared reflection on whatever action has taken place. But the issues of authority and intimacy don’t go away. The underlying assumptions that members bring to the group around authority and intimacy issues have to be confronted and dealt with if the group is to make any progress toward being able to work on a task together. You can think of this process of group formation in terms of stages as shown in Table 12.1.

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

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