Size and Cohesiveness of a Group

Does the size of a group affect the group’s overall behavior? The answer to this question is a definite ‘Yes’, but the effect is contingent on what dependent variables you look at. The evidence indicates, for instance that smaller groups are faster at completing tasks than are larger ones, and that individuals perform better in smaller groups. However, if the group is engaged in problem solving, large groups consistently get better marks than their smaller counterparts. Translating these results into specific numbers is a bit more hazardous, but we can offer some parameters. Large groups—with a dozen or more members are good for gaining diverse input. So if the goal of the group is fact finding, larger groups will be more effective. On the other hand, smaller groups are better at doing something productive with that input. Groups of approximately seven members therefore tend to be more effective for taking action.

One of the most important findings related to the size of a group has been labeled social loafing. Social loafing is the tendency for individuals to expend less effort when working collectively than when working individually. It directly challenges the log that the productivity of the group as a whole should at least equal to the sum of the productivity of each individual in that group.

A common stereotype about groups is that the sense of team spirit spurs individual effort and enhances the group’s overall productivity. But that stereotype may be wrong. In the late 1920s, a German psychologist named Max Ringelmann compares the results of individual and group performance on a rope puling task. He expected that the group’s effort would be equal to the sum of the efforts of individuals within the group. That is, three people pulling together should exert three times as much pull on the rope as one person, and eight people should exert eight times as much pull. Ringelmann’s results, however, didn’t confirm his expectations. One person puling on a rope alone exerted an average of 63 kilogram of force. In groups of three, the per person force dropped to 53 kilograms And in groups of eight, it fell to only 31 kilograms per person.

Replications of Ringlemann’s research with similar have generally supported his findings. Group performance increases with group size, but the addition of new members to the group has diminishing returns on productivity. So more may be better, in the sense that the total productivity of a group of four is greater than that of three people, but the individual productivity of each group member declines.

What causes this social loafing effect? It may be due to a belief that others in the group are not carrying their fair share. If you see others as lazy or inept, you can establish equity by reducing. Another explanation is the dispersion of responsibility. Because the results of the group cannot be attributed to any single person, the relationship between an individual’s input and the group’s output is clouded. In such situations, individuals may be tempted to become ‘free riders’ and coat on the group’s efforts. In other words, there will be reduction in efficiency when individuals think that their contribution cannot be measured.

The implications for OB of this effect on work groups are significant. When managers use collective work situations to enhance morale and teamwork, they must also provide means by which individual efforts can be identified. If this isn’t done, management must weigh the potential losses in productivity from using groups against any possible gains in worker satisfaction. However, this conclusion has a Western bias. It’s consistent with individualistic cultures, like the United States and Canada that are dominated by self interest. It is not consistent with collective societies, in which individuals are motivated by in-group goals. For instance, in studies comparing from the United States with employees from the People’s Republic of China and Israel (both collectivist societies), the Chinese and Israelis showed no propensity to engage in social loafing. In fact, the Chinese and Israelis actually performed better in a group than when working alone.

Cohesiveness: Groups differ in their cohesiveness that is the degree to which members are attracted to each other and are motivated to stay in the group. For instance, some work groups are cohesive because the members have spent a great deal of time together, or the group’s small size facilitates high interaction, or the group has experienced external threats that have brought members close together. Cohesiveness is important because it has been found to be related to the group’s productivity.

Studies consistently show that the relationship of cohesiveness and productivity depends on the performance related norms established by the group. If performance related norms are high (for, example, high output, quality work, cooperation with individuals outside the group), a cohesive group will be more productive than a less cohesive group. But if cohesiveness is high and performance norms are low, productivity will be low. If cohesiveness and performance norms are high, productivity increases, but less than in the high cohesiveness/high norms situation. When cohesiveness and performance related norms are both low, productivity will tend to fall into the low to moderate range.