When people begin to interact, individual differences appear. Some people talk more than others, some seem better able to lead, others seem to have more knowledge than the average group member. These differences, which produce inequalities among people along a variety of dimensions, are the basis for the formation of group structure. As differences become apparent, relationships are established among the various parts of the group; those relationships that become stable are referred to as group structure. The formation of group structure is one of the basic aspects of group development.
Three major factors influence group structure: (1) the requirements for efficient group performance, or for attaining the goals of the group; (2) the abilities and, motivations of group members; and (3) the physical and social environments of groups. Groups form for any number of purposes, some to solve problems, as did the Eclipse Group, others for social reasons. Regardless of why they form, their members usually take their goals seriously; and the structures they invent are predetermined by those goals. Structure is also influenced by the characteristics of the groups' members; for instance, individuals who like to dominate others may try to establish a centralized power structure with themselves at the center. People who appear knowledgeable may emerge as task leaders. Physical, cultural, and organizational climates directly affect group structuring and provide the opportunity for numerous other variables to influence it, too.
Any number of dimensions can be used to establish group structure. Here we focus on only two sets of group structural variables: position (or status) and roles.
Position and Status
A person's position in a group is his place in the social system. It identifies his relative standing with regard to such dimensions as leadership, power, and knowledge. Status is the evaluation of that position by others. It is the rank or prestige which defines the position. Ascribed status is attributed to people through no action of their own, because of such factors as birth, sex, or age. Achieved status is based on individual accomplishment and includes such factors as education, work experience, and abilities.
Status contributes to a number of group processes and behaviors. For instance, high-status people both receive and initiate more communication than do low-status people and send more positive and more task-relevant messages. The high-status person is in a culturally valued position in the group. Once a person gains status in the group, she builds up idiosyncracy credits, or a bank account of credits that allows her to deviate without reprisal later on. These credits can be used to lead the group in a new direction. Status often, but not always, protects a person from severe sanctions for unacceptable behavior. For example, a study of destructive obedience in the military (in which an officer carries out orders from a superior with disastrous consequences) found that the superior officer who gave the orders was held more responsible for the outcome than his subordinate.
Each position in a group structure has associated with it a role, which is the set of behaviors expected of the occupant of the position. The boss is expected to do certain things that are not expected of the custodian. The reverse is also true. Roles have three aspects. The expected role is what is expected of a person in a particular position. The perceived role is the set of behaviors the occupant of the position believes he should engage in. The enacted role is the set of behaviors the occupant actually carries out.
The role a person chooses to enact is, at least in part, a function of the impression he wants to make on other people. Roles exert important influences on the perceptions and evaluations of individuals made by other group members. Because role expectations specify the kinds of behaviors the occupant is expected to display, roles often bias perceptions about the role occupant. For example, students generally expect their professors to be smart and may assume that an English professor who makes a statement about the United States economy is right, even though economics is not his field of expertise.
Individuals occupy different roles in different groups. In most instances, the behaviors specified by these roles are not, incompatible as long as different roles are not salient at the same time. Thus, for example, military officers are often seen in church even though they belong to an organization that specifically teaches people to kill. Under some circumstances, however, an individual with different roles in different groups is called on to enact incompatible roles simultaneously. This frequently happens to working mothers, who are expected to be at work while they need to care for a sick child. When this happens, the person will resolve the conflict by enacting the role required by the group that is most important to her.
Group structure has important implications for managers, who, like Tom West, are often in a position to structure new groups to do various things. West essentially structured the Eclipse Group based on the skills needed to accomplish each of its two primary tasks. A manager would do well to think about what he wants his group to accomplish and then analyze what structure will facilitate achieving those goals. Perhaps he wants to reduce (or increase) the possibility that structuring will take place on the basis of power. Perhaps he wishes to maximize differences on a particular dimension, such as knowledge. Managers must be sensitive to the effect status has on group members and to how information about status helps us understand what is expected of us in any situation and what is expected of other people.
People play many different rolesâ€”usually more than one role in their work organizations. Managers should attempt to make these roles compatible and, where that is impossible, allow sufficient flexibility that employees do not get into terrible conflict situations. The feature "Temporary Groups" illustrates how managers might develop temporary groups with different structures to accomplish various goals.