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Conformity, Cohesiveness, and Deviance in Organizational Settings

management, business, organization, conformity, cohesiveness, deviance

Conformity, cohesiveness, and deviance are three key features of groups related to norms.


Conformity refers to yielding to group pressures when no direct request to comply with the group is made. A classic study illustrates nicely what conformity is: male college students were asked to participate in visual perception experiments, during which confederates of the experimenter gave incorrect judgments. What did the real subjects do? Thirty-two percent of all responses to this situation conformed to the incorrect answer. However, the distribution of responses is important because they showed a wide range. In one study 13 of the 50 subjects never yielded to the majority on any of the critical trials, whereas 4 subjects yielded on 10 or more trials. So, some subjects conformed, but others did not.Conformity is more apt to occur in these relatively ambiguous situations than in unambiguous ones.
Four general classes of variables influence conformity to group norms: (1) personality characteristics of group members, (2) stimuli that evoke conformity, (3) situational factors, and (4) intragroup relations. Personality characteristics that influence conformity are intelligence, age, self-blame, and authoritarianism. People of low intelligence and those high on self-blame or authoritarianism are more likely to conform than are people with the opposite characteristics.
Stimulus characteristics include all aspects of the situation that are related to the norm to which the individual is conforming. As indicated previously, the more ambiguous these characteristics, the greater the conforming behavior. Situational factors include all aspects of the situation except the stimuli. Group size, unanimity of the majority, and group structure are situational characteristics. Conformity increases with group size up to some point; the point probably depends on the nature of the problem and of the setting. Unanimity of the majority increases conformity, as does decentralized group structure. Intragroup relationships include the kind of pressure exerted, the composition of the group, how successful the group has been in the past, and the degree to which the person identifies with the group. All of these variables influence conformity.
The return-potential model explains conformity to behavioral expectations. It suggests that for each relevant behavior, a curve can be drawn that specifies the amount of potential approval or disapproval (return) an individual will receive from the group. At the beginning of a group's existence a moderately talkative person receives approval, and a person who shows extreme behavior—either too little or too much talkativeness—receives disapproval. As time passes, the return potential changes. At first, the point of ideal behavior increases; that is, to contribute to the group, people must become more talkative. Then the range of tolerable behavior decreases—the group grants approval for a narrower set of behaviors. Finally, the intensity of the group's feeling increases, and the person receives more positive evaluations for meeting the group's expectations or more negative evaluations for not doing so.
The group may have the same expectations for all its members, or expectations may vary depending on the individual. Generally, however, those people occupying the same role in a group will be subject to the same expectations. A group's expectations for an individual are based on (1) the group's own characteristics, for example, the need for a particular set of skills; (2) the environment in which it operates, for example, resource availability; and (3) the characteristics of the person being evaluated, for example, her status or abilities.


Another important group characteristic is cohesiveness, the spirit of closeness—or lack of it—in a group. Group cohesiveness is the resultant of all the forces acting on members to remain in the group. Studies of group cohesiveness emphasize the number, strength, and pattern of attractions of group members.
Groups with similar attitudes are more cohesive than groups with dissimilar attitudes, successful groups are more cohesive than unsuccessful groups, and groups with clear paths to goals are more cohesive than groups lacking clear paths. These are commonsense relationships. What is not common sense is that conflict within the group sometimes increases cohesiveness. It is the nature of this conflict that determines whether it helps or harms cohesiveness. Conflict over principles has negative effects; conflict over matters that assume adherence to principles enhances cohesiveness.
The most important consequences of cohesiveness are probably group viability and productivity. According to many theories of group functioning, a group's first order of business is resolving internal problems. Unless it solves these problems, the group will die. Thus, some minimal cohesiveness must exist if it is to continue to function as a group. Homogeneity in group tenure provides a degree of cohesiveness. Those who are attracted to a group presumably want it to succeed and thus work hard at helping it obtain its goals. Indeed, highly cohesive groups are more effective at achieving their goals than are uncohesive groups. Among management's most important tasks, then, are to ensure group cohesiveness and to keep group goals consistent with those of the organization. These tasks are among the functions of socialization.


Groups exert tremendous pressure for uniformity among members which often results in deviance. Although the pressure to conform is great, members of groups do deviate. A classic study of group problem solving illustrates what groups do to deviates. The researcher arranged for one member of a group to maintain a position on a discussion topic quite at odds with the positions of the other group members. Initially, the deviate received a great deal of attention from the group, with members directing more communication to him than to each other. After it became clear that the deviate was not going to change, group members directed their communication to each other, even rejecting the deviate.
Pressures toward uniformity can be intense, particularly if the issues are important to the group. Nonetheless, deviates are important to organizations because they bring fresh ideas and provoke at least a sensitivity to differences. Thus managers should take care not to allow the stamping out of all deviance. Frequently, a group member will take a deliberately deviant or "devil's advocate" position to challenge or test a group's decision. Managers often play this role to test the quality of their subordinates' recommendations. Deviates sometimes find themselves playing the role of whistle-blower.
Related to deviance is multiculturalism. Cultural diversity has both positive and negative effects on group functioning. Diversity hinders group functioning because it is more difficult for members to perceive situations and act on them in similar ways. Thus cohesiveness is difficult to obtain, and opportunities exist for higher levels of mistrust and communication problems than in single-culture groups. On the other hand, culturally diverse groups also have the potential to work more productively than homogeneous groups because their wide range of human resources allows them to function more creatively. To function effectively, groups need to perceive, evaluate, and interpret situations in a variety of ways and to evaluate many alternatives. Thus their diversity enables multicultural groups to invent more solutions than can monocultural or unicultural groups.

The Free-Rider Effect

"The term 'free rider' refers to a member of a group who obtains benefits from group membership but does not bear a proportional share of the costs of providing the benefits. 'Cheap rider'is a more accurate term for such a group member because receiving benefits from group membership typically involves some cost. The free rider is seen as someone who promotes self-interest—the desire for benefits—over public interest—the need to contribute to the activity that produces those benefits.
The assumption of classic economic theory that rational actors will try to minimize their costs relative to the benefits they receive is at the base of free-rider theory. The larger the group, the greater the free-rider effect.
What can managers do to counter free riding? Coercion and special incentives to promote desirable behavior will help. Through effective use of power, design of organizations (including the size of organizational units), and control of access to rewards and punishment, management influences the incentive system of group members. At a routine level, this influence may be achieved by offering financial incentives or special forms of recognition to particular group members. Ultimately, managers should attack the free-rider problem by attempting to broaden the individual's concept of self-interest. This can possibly be done through creating, communicating, and maintaining a strong organizational culture.

A concept related to free riding is social loafing which is exemplified in two experiments. Subjects were asked to clap and cheer as loudly as they could, first alone and then in groups of two, four, and six people. As group size increased, individual effort dropped, presumably because individuals believed their own performance could not be identified. A cross-national study of social loafing showed that it was more prevalent in American managers, who generally have individualistic beliefs, than in Chinese managers, who hold collectivist beliefs. Managers can counter social loafing by making the overall task more challenging, by assigning each person a somewhat different task, and by holding individuals accountable for specific aspects of performance.


When groups really become cohesive over an issue, polarization occurs. Americans are overly inclined to do things in groups which creates undue conservatism because people in groups are often afraid to take risks. Research, however, showed a startling phenomenon. Individuals in groups frequently made riskier decisions than if they had made the decisions alone. This shift toward group risk came to be known as the "risky shift."
Later research showed a shift not just toward risk but toward whatever was the dominant position of the group, thus producing group enhancement of a prevailing individual tendency. Apparently, the subjects of the original experiment were predisposed toward risk, but other groups are predisposed toward other things, including conservatism. The phenomenon came to be known as group polarization.

There are two commonly accepted explanations of polarization. The social comparison position argues that pressures toward accepting one position or the other result from learning about the position of others in the group. In the persuasive argument view, groups coalesce around a more forcefully argued alternative when initial discussions reveal no clearly favored argument. Managers should be aware that group polarization does take place and that it often leads to groupthink which is best avoided.

Published: 2007-04-27
Author: Martin Hahn

About the author or the publisher
Martin Hahn PhD has received his education and degrees in Europe in organizational/industrial sociology. He grew up in South-East Asia and moved to Europe to get his tertiary education and gain experience in the fields of scientific research, radio journalism, and management consulting.

After living in Europe for 12 years, he moved to South-East again and has worked for the last 12 years as a management consultant, university lecturer, corporate trainer, and international school administrator

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