Category Archives: Psychology of Teams

Psychology of Teams

There has been extensive research into what constitutes an effective team. The position taken in the team building program is that if we can reflect on our own behavior, and we are willing to communicate openly and honestly, then everything will is possible. However some understanding of the psychology of teams is useful for long term team development.

The discussion will begin with a review of the Social Identification and Social Representation theories. Will Schutz’s FIRO theory of team development is discussed in a separate paper.

In simplest form, social identification is our human tendency to see the world in terms of “them-and-us” – to see ourselves as located in various social groups, which are different from “the others”. Social representations are the shared beliefs or assumptions which we pick up from others and adjust until they fit into our own personal beliefs and opinions.

team psychology

Social Identification Theory

By nature we humans are social animals. We like to associate ourselves in groups which help to define who we are, and from which we gain some esteem. These groups include work groups, sport groups, gender groups, religious groups…

There seems to be two main reasons we do this:

  1. we have a strong tendency to classify most things in life. This makes a complex world easier to understand.
  2. we all have a desire for positive self-esteem. We can gain this from groups we feel proud of, which provide the status we desire. It was first thought that strong ‘us-and-them’ attitudes in the work place where not constructive; these attitudes would inhibit communication and interaction outside the group. Research now confirms that conflict between teams is not inevitable, conflict will only develop only when there is rivalry for resources. In normal circumstances, teams should be able to work well together. The most practical meanings we can draw from this theory are: the importance of a sense of belonging to the team, and the importance of a sense of pride in the team. For a group of coworkers to work well as a team, the team must are well defined. The purpose and direction of the team must be clear, ‘membership’ of the team must be apparent, and team member roles must be well defined. A loose collection of coworkers in, for example, a business area does not constitute a team. If coworkers do not gain esteem from their team they will detach themselves, or they will try to change to team’s status. Detachment could take a number of forms. It could mean non co-operation, or resistance to working together. It could even result in a high coworker turn-over rate. Managers and team leaders can help to develop team pride in a number of simple ways; for example:
  • promoting the achievements of the team.
  • increasing the team’s professionalism through training and development. Management is implicitly saying, “ we believe in you, we believe you are worth the investment”.

Essentially, the social identification shows us that people have a very fundamental tendency to see the world in terms of “them-and-us” groups and that they are also highly motivated to feel proud of belonging to the group that they belong to. It is an ancient source of motivation, derived from the fact that human beings are social animals; team working taps directly into this source of motivation. Belonging to a team allows people to feel special – to feel that ‘their’ group is distinctive and competent. And by doing this, it also gives people a direct source of positive self-esteem, which motivates them to keep up the team’s working quality and make sure that they continue to do well.

Social Representation Theory

Groups of people develop shared attitudes, beliefs and assumptions. The theory (developed by Serge Moscovici, 1984) asserts that these are really mini-theories about how the world works. In the team they provide the basis for behavior; they are used to justify action.

These representations are not normally swallowed whole by team member, they are normally negotiated sub-consciously through conversation to fit into our personal set of values. The team will have a wide range of beliefs, for the team to function well it is not necessary for members to follow all the beliefs, only the core beliefs.

For instance, the organization may say ‘we value team work’ but they reward coworker according to individual achievements. Coworker will be aware of this and behave accordingly. Or, the organization may say we value quality, but purchasing decisions may always seem to be based on price alone. It is not difficult to guess where the team will placed their energy.

Ideal representations are task focused, valuing activities and practices which encourage efficient work practices. They encourage task-oriented interactions, so that intervening to help someone out, or consulting with other team members to the best way of doing something, is seen as ordinary working activity rather than exceptional.

Managers and team leaders can encourage the adoption of positive beliefs through respectful treatment, and open communication with the team. They need to ensure the organization supports the teams, and that team’s objectives really are consistent with the organizations objectives and ways of working.

Social representations, then, are generally accepted assumptions about reality which explain and make sense of what is going on around us. They also reflect issues of power and social relations within their social context. They may appear through symbols, through words and images, or through actions, but they really are all about how social life, or working life, operates.

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