“Groupy Once More”: J. Richard Hackman on Group Behavior and Performance

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This week family and friends of the late Richard Hackman, who passed away in January, gather in Cambridge, Massachusetts to celebrate his life and work. He devoted his career as a social and organizational psychologist to studying what makes groups from spies to orchestras to sports teams (he was a huge fan of Harvard Women’s Basketball) work well both in terms of their ability to accomplish a goal and to enhance individual satisfaction.  For a bibliography, see his website and buy his books here. Thankfully, he still had opportunity to complete the definitive catalogue raisonee of group behavior research, a chapter on Group Behavior and Performance in the Handbook on Social Psychology (2010).

In his honor, I went back to re-read this masterful survey (co-authored with Nancy Katz) on the study of groups. It covers the major theories, research questions, thinkers and their writings. For anyone working on democratic engagement and participatory democracy and thinking about crafting mental models for how to engage groups in governance, the chapter advances our evidence-based understanding of:

1.     When should groups be used and when not? What kinds of tasks do they perform well?

2.     How does group performance compare to that of individual engagement?

3.     What differentiates groups that realize their full potential and the potential of their members from those that do not?

In the chapter, Hackman outlines the history of organizational psychology.  The exigency to leverage scientific expertise to combat Nazism in World War II gave rise to the formal study of what makes teams – in that case infantry squads – work. In 1945, Kurt Lewin founded the Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT. This “action research” center was devoted to conducting controlled experiments in the laboratory and the field on group communication. Challenged by the experience of the Holocaust, Lewin was explicitly normative: “research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.”

What started as a project in psychology, however, has pervaded other disciplines, including political and policy sciences.  Social psychology’s interest in groups waned by the 1970s in response to the pervasive individualism of the 1960s. Interest in groups did not disappear, however, and today there are scholars in business schools and computer science departments who look at permanent and temporary (what Hackman called sand dune teams) groups online and off in a variety of organizations. (I studied in a law school where Richard’s work on purposive groups had a huge impact on my own interest in groups as the fundamental unit of democratic culture.)  It is not surprising that those concerned with re-imagining governance and who want to invigorate democratic engagement are looking to this literature on what makes groups work.

Studying dynamic, living, changing organisms like groups is, Hackman explains, a hard and imperfect science and fraught with ideological conflict. Hackman contends that there will never be a “definitive” study of groups given the different metrics for success, the different tasks groups perform and the diverse ways, including synchronous and asynchronous, that they work. Some researchers focus on whether the group accomplished its productive purpose while others measure to what extent the experience of working in a group contributes to individual well being.  Those who focus on process also study whether the way the group was organized made it function more or less well. (Citizen engagement researchers could do well to learn from this typology. We tend to focus either on the outcome, such as what app we built, without thinking about the benefits of getting engaged. Alternatively, others focus on the salutary benefits to individuals of participating in a deliberative process without inquiring as to the outcomes).

Hackman created another very useful typology for understanding the multiplicity of tasks that people acting in groups undertake. Groups do different things. Track teams perform “disjunctive tasks” where performance is measured by the best member. There are “conjunctive tasks” like a roped together group of climbers, who perform at the level of the least competent member. “Additive” tasks like a tug of war or many crowdsourcing projects are the sum of the parts. “Compensatory” tasks are those specific kinds of crowdsourcing projects that average the results of member contributions like a prediction market. “Complementary” tasks involve the assembly of smaller parts into a whole such as we find on Wikipedia. When we begin to take apart the different ways that groups function, (Hackman studied all of these), we begin to gain insight into how to design ways for groups to participate in different tasks of governance.

Over the years, Hackman and Katz discuss in the chapter, how we’ve evolved different approaches to studying the different aspects of group behavior. While action research emphasizes the normative goal of improving the work of the group, the psychodynamic approach studies the emotional state of groups as epitomized by Le Bon’s study of The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. The network approach analyzes the relationship between group members and tracks the changing patterns of network ties. The process approach is to look at how the group interacts, often using computational tools. Its major advance is to “capture nuance and meaning and to produce a rich and data-based understanding of how group members interact.  The decision-analytic approach focuses either on “qualitative, case-based methods” or “highly quantitative and largely laboratory-based” methods. It is this model that gave rise to Irving Janis’ work on groupthink that has had such a negative influence on policymakers willingness to embrace more citizen consultation.

Finally, the complex systems approach is a more recent trend emerging from the natural sciences to model mathematically the evolving patterns of group behavior over time. The chapter contains even more comprehensive yet concisely articulated analysis of the approaches to group analysis and recent studies of compositional diversity, the role of moderation, the effect of training, and the impact of the broader values of the system in which the group operates. As groups move more online, these different approaches are being revisited with an eye towards understanding how working at a distance changes (or doesn’t) these earlier insights.

One of the important insights in this chapter to thinking about the role of groups in democratic life is the way groups work together to create a shared mental model.  “When group members share the same mental model, coordination is enhanced and the likelihood of miscues is lessened.” Today we lack these shared mental models for how networked publics outside of government can work together with professionals inside government to solve problems.

We understand what it means to vote in an election or sign a petition. But we are only just beginning to comprehend how the kinds of tasks that groups can perform together (see above) can be applied to addressing public problems. Instead of guessing jellybeans in a jar, we are learning that groups that aggregate predictions can help us understand complex policy issues. Instead of additive social tasks, we are now beginning to realize that people can also crowdsource the collection of data to fight disease and improve people’s quality of life. Thanks to Hackman’s research and the rise of technologies for distributed communication, we now have an opportunity for more people to engage in the life of our democracy and make our democratic culture stronger and more robust.

Creating an organizational culture that emphasizes shared, public interest over individual self-interest is the essence of democracy. But designing the processes for more and more distributed purposive groups to do public work and take on the tasks of governance requires drawing on Hackman’s research.

Without insights from the social sciences we cannot know how to compose teams, how to organize their work together, how to define their tasks and how to create incentives for group based collaboration that achieves a goal and enhances satisfaction. We surely don’t know how to do this online without drawing on what he’s taught us about team effectiveness offline. “It is reasonably well established, for example, that performance is facilitated when teams are small and compositionally stable with clear, but permeable, boundaries and interdependence for some consequential, shared purpose.”

While in the chapter Hackman and Katz describe the field as a whole, it is stunning to note how much of the literature and how many important insights he contributed to the field. As we stand on the threshold of the opportunity to redesign our democratic institutions to incorporate the work of outside groups in governance, his analysis, passion and humor will be profoundly missed. While technically a psychologist, Hackman should go down in history as one of the great and important political thinkers of our time.


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