13 February 2008

Groups, Teams, Cliques, and Gangs - Part One

First, a disclaimer.

What follows is based on my own observations and opinions. I won't have a lot of linked references for this post, or for its sequel. I'm talking about things I've seen, lived through, seen others live through. Things I've pieced together and interpreted with little or no input from anyone face to face, even from mental health professionals I have known as colleagues.

I will do my level best, however, to credit people whose writing has helped me to think about this issue, and there are a number of such people and books. I've listed them at the end of the second post in this series. If anything I write here strikes a chord, reminds a reader of something they've read elsewhere, please chime in. I think I've listed all of my 'prime movers', but I don't want to leave anyone unacknowledged; just as importantly, if other voices are discussing the same issue in similar terms, that kind of synchronicity can be incredibly valuable.

A large part of the reason for this disclaimer is that I find much of the writing on social psych issues to be quite neutral in terms of values. For me, though, the continuum that leads any bunch of people from a group through a team to a clique to a gang is all about values, all about emotions, all about intentions, and not neutral at the most important points in the progression.

Which also makes it all about choices.

That being said... I shall now proceed to cheat. I've just Googled the definition of 'group', to see how far my understanding deviates from the norm. Not much. The definitions I find are mostly variations on the theme of 'a bunch of people who happen to be connected in some fashion or other'. And I'd be inclined to agree. I'm not talking about 'group' in a special context, like 'special interest group', 'encounter group', etc.

I'll define a group, then, as a collection of individuals who happen to be 'grouped' together by virtue of location, occupation, or interest. That covers the people standing on the platform waiting for Metro, people who work together in offices without being particularly 'bonded' to one another, the patrons who happen to be in any particular restaurant on any given evening, or the entire University of Maryland Class of 1986 [to select a random place and year].

In this context, a group is emotionally neutral. And, precisely because of that neutrality, people will feel limited 'connection' to a group. There won't be a strong sense of duty or commitment to it, there won't be any feeling that 'the whole is larger than the sum of its parts'. I don't think there's a huge sense of group togetherness, one for all and all for one-ness, among folks trying to pile in to a Metro car during the morning rush hour. If anything, the opposite seems to be true: it's every person for him- or herself.

A team, to me, is the first step away from the emotional neutrality and ... non-affiliativeness ... of a simple group. A team is a group with a common goal, and the members of a team - unlike the members of most groups - generally have specific roles to play, and rules to play by as well. These roles and rules are usually quite overt, openly specified, and clear to all participants. In fact, without the roles and rules, there isn't a team. The roles and rules may be fairly flexible, as on a beach volleyball team - where everyone's a player and there's not much worrying over who calls the shots. They may be quite rigid, as on a surgical team. My qualitative observation has been that the rigidity of the roles and rules in a team correlates very well to the intensity of the team's focus on its particular goal. For beach volleyball, the goal is basically to have a good time and play a structured activity more or less by the rules; for a heart transplant team, the goal is a lot more serious, and there's a great deal more at stake.

I also see the intensity of emotional commitment to a team as being a function of the intensity of its goal -- for the duration of time the team spends working together on that goal. That little temporal qualifier is important. Football teams had better be able to pull together, commit to the common goal of winning the game, and put any interpersonal differences aside, while the game is on. But afterwards, the various team members may go quite separate ways, even making arrangements to leave this team for a primary rival. Transplant surgical teams had better be able to pull together similarly. After the patient is in the recovery room, the scrub nurse can shake his or her head over the prima donna qualities of the lead surgeon - or vice versa, to be fair - but in the crucial minutes of that surgery, personal differences must be set aside. Teams of any kind that cannot do this will fail, often spectacularly.

From group to team, then, we move from having some loose association to having a shared purpose, and from having no particular emotional bonds to having at least an emotional commitment to the team's stated task. We also move from loose roles and rules or none at all, to roles and rules that are more or less specific depending on the purpose of the team. And interestingly, teams also often wear unique, special attire - team uniforms, surgical scrubs, or single-breasted grey worsted suits, vs. double-breasted black ones - when they are acting as a team, when members are in their specific roles.

[Part Two follows immediately.]

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