Stage 1 of Group Development: Dependency and Inclusion

This is the first stage of the psychodynamic model of group development, and starts the moment the group is formed and meets for the first time.

When a group is first formed, there is a very high level of uncertainty.  No group rules and norms have been defined, there is no clear communication structure, roles are unclear, and what is acceptable and unacceptable has not become clear.  The human need for belonging is very strong, and most people will at this stage therefore display behaviour that can be interpreted as exchanging acceptance for acceptance.  People accept others, in the hope that they will, in turn, be accepted.

Communication Structures

The communication structure is one of the first structures that form.  The moment a group gets together, people start communicating.  That would be the only logical way for things to move forward.  As they communicate, a communication structure emerges and is very quickly sub-consciously accepted and thus institutionalised.

The group’s inhibited behaviour at this stage, makes it difficult, almost impossible, for people to be able to truly judge each other’s ability to contribute to the effectiveness of the group. 

The way people communicate at this stage, is often not the way they would communicate if they were in a setting with less anxiety where they felt more secure.

A lot of the communication styles displayed at this stage is not based on what the group really needs, but based on a combination of the background from which people come, and their perception of what constituted expected communication styles in this group, which is in turn based on their perceptions of the other people in the group.

At this stage, communication often skims over important decisions.  Decisions are not challenged, for fear of rejection, and, in fact, are most often made through a process of covert exchanges which are not noticed.  This process of covert exchanges establishes who speaks to whom about what, when, and how does that communication take place.

The communication structure is core to the group’s ability to execute tasks.  Everything is done through communication.

Communication structures are generally highly resistant to change. 

Considering all the above together, we see that here lies an important convergence of problems.  The communication structure, which, as pointed out above, is likely to be formed ineffectively, will be resistant to change but it will be used by the group to try and achieve it’s goals and perform its tasks.

If a group does not consciously make the effort to revise its communication structures later in the group’s life, these structures can become a hindrance to the group’s effectiveness, and cause regression from later to earlier stages when problems or difficult tasks are faced.

Goals and Tasks

You might want to first read some general comments about goals and tasks over here, before looking specifically at how these are handled in the first stage of group development.

When we consider the tension and anxiety that is present in a group at formation, we realize that there are many covert goals that are being worked on, which members are not even aware of – but which could seriously hinder effective working towards clarifying goals and tasks.  So team members could be sub-consciously pre-occupied with forming opinions of each other, creating team structures, assigning roles, trying to figure out their own roles and so on, whilst only partly focusing on the goals and tasks that are being discussed.

Knowing what a group’s goals and tasks are, is in itself a daunting task, and the inhibited communication during this stage does not make that easier.

As we will see just now when we get to the leadership role – there is normally pressure on the leader at this stage to take the lead – and that includes the lead regarding clarifying goals.  It would be expected of the leader to clarify these, and because of the inhibited communication at this stage, the leader is unlikely to be challenged.  What is not made clear is unlikely to be requested to be clarified.  People would not want to stand out at this stage and risk rejection from coming across as being too challenging, neither would they want to risk being rejected (physically or emotionally) for being stupid and being the only one not understanding the goal.

Consequently, it would seem as if the group is committed to the goals, and clear on the meaning of these goals, when in reality, the commitment and the clarity is very superficial.

For the group to accurately select the tasks that would lead to goal attainment would be very difficult for the following reasons:

  • As explained above, the group is likely to still be unclear about the real meaning and implications of the goals.
  • Being newly formed, the group has no experience of each other’s capabilities in relation to the chosen goals, and in order to be accepted, most people would be likely to at least have implied an overstated ability, rather than an understated one.
  • They have even less ability to estimate their abilities as a group.
  • In trying to make positive impressions, in discussions, group members are likely to be quick to commit to tasks, rather than to be seen as on-committal or shirking

The consequence of all of this, is that newly formed groups tend to select tasks that are beyond their abilities, and commit to deadlines that they are unable to meet. 

This can strongly impact the group’s development later, as this could create an early experience of failure in the group, which will hinder progress to further stages and the formation of a group culture.

However, this risk typically does not become clear in the first stage, so during this stage, the general feeling is one of positive security that goals will be achieved through the well selected tasks.

Status and Roles

You can first read some general comments about roles here.

In the first stage, many things that would support effective role assignment, is unclear, and unlikely to be clarified, since communication is inhibited.

If there is misalignment between the expected and the perceived elements of a role, these are unlikely to surface at this stage, unless they are very obvious.  If a person were to start enacting a role, it would be based on this superficial understanding, and if there are fundamental misalignments here, it is unlikely to be noticed.

Tasks and goals, as we have seen, are unclear, so role assignments would be based on misinformation regarding these.

The group has not learnt to communicate openly and freely, and so there is likely to be a strong expectation on the leader to assign roles.  The leader will be doing this based on his or her deficient understanding of the goals and tasks, the levels of commitment to these, and the personalities, skills and abilities of team members relating to these.

It is therefore highly unlikely for these role assignments to be done very appropriately.  However, it has to be done, and will be done.

The challenge that will arise later is that it is quite difficult for people to change their roles, once they are in a role.  A role becomes part of a person’s identity both in the way he sees himself and the way others perceive him.  A cleaner might have all the ability and skills needed to run a company, but if you make him or her the CEO overnight, the chances of success ill be limited merely by the lack of confidence people will have in that person’s abilities to fulfil this role.  They would see the person as “a cleaner doing a CEO’s job.”

Leadership – a Special Role

The leader’s role is often the one clearly defined role in the team, and it is a role which, even in the most liberal of organisations, does carry a certain age-old expectation with it – which is the expectation to LEAD and to LEAD for the good of the team.  With that comes an expectation that the leader does actually know what he is doing.

This is the only certain thing in the group at this stage, and so we find that there is undue pressure on the leader at this stage to clarify and set goals, lead the process of generating the tasks to do these, assign the roles people need to fulfil to execute these tasks, and then model the type of behaviour that would lead to the success of the team.

This undue pressure, however, is often not sensed as pressure at this stage.  The leader is treated well by the team in that his or her decisions are almost always unquestioned, and he or she would experience a strong sense of support. 

Because there are little to no behavioural norms formed as yet, the team would take its cue from the leader and members would behave in ways that are similar to the way the leader behaves.  This will further enhance the leader’s sense of security (they all think and act just like me – this is the perfect team!).

Leaders would typically be the first to use power-tactics in the group, and they would use it with more ease and more quickly than any other team members.  The team would reward this by accepting almost any power tactics used at this stage, giving the leader a sense of power and success.

A wise leader would remember, however, that this is just a phase, and that the benevolent dictator role that he or she is playing at this stage must pass if the group is to grow.

Group Processes

In terms of group processes we will look at conformity and deviation, as well as cohesion and conflict.

Conformity and Deviation

Research has shown that when people are in ambiguous situations, they tend to increase conforming behaviour.  A new group, is an ambiguous situation in many ways, and so we find the tendency to conform to be high during this stage.

However, there are not yet clearly defined group norms to which to conform, and so the group tends to conform to the norms as displayed by the behaviour of the leader.  A group in the first stage of development therefore often seems to think and act a lot like the leader does.

Because people’s fear of rejection is so high, they are unlikely to deviate much from these leader-based norms, and very quickly, these will begin to appear to be the group’s norms – as they will now be displayed by all the group members.

It seems that whether a leader is a good or a bad leader, and whether he or she wants to have this type of influence is irrelevant.  Members expect guidance from the leader, they take it, and they respect, at this stage, that guidance regardless of how good or bad it is (within reason), and so they conform and begin to create a team culture.

This may seem excessive, but it serves to create a culture of predictability – which creates security in which people can begin to consider the possibility of being themselves.

Cohesion and Conflict

Cohesion is the result of:

  • Member attraction to the group
  • interpersonal attraction
  • group morale
  • group effectiveness
  • methods of conflict resolution
  • the timing of leader feedback

Because not all of these have developed at this stage, cohesion in the first stage is based on member attraction, interpersonal attraction and leader feedback.  Let’s look at each of these:

Member Attraction

Member Attraction is based on the reason people would be attracted to join a group in the first place, and this normally refers to:

  • A basic human need to affiliate with others
  • Agreement with the values and goals of a group
  • Likelihood of the activities of the group being rewarding and attractive
  • The perceived ability of the group to meet needs outside of itself

Considering the inhibited communication at this stage, and the natural tendency to put our best foot forward, it is common for a team in the first stage, to feel that the levels of all the above are high.

Interpersonal Attraction

Interpersonal attraction is increased by

  • Physical attractiveness
  • Attitude similarity
  • Economic similarity
  • Racial similarity

Of these, physical attractiveness and racial similarity are outside of the control of group members.  However, at this stage it is common for group members to minimise or deny the impact of e.g. racial differences, thereby trying to minimise the impact this would have on attraction.  People also often tend to take more care with their appearance when part of a new group, than part of an existing group.  A man is more likely to arrive at work unshaven if he’d been in the team for many years, than if it’s his third day there, for example.

Attitude similarity at this stage is often sub-consciously faked, in being more agreeable and in the fact that a lot of lead is taken from the leader, in terms of which attitudes are acceptable and which are not.

Economic similarity cannot be directly influenced in the short term, but through being careful about the information you make known and what you hide, you can adjust the perception that people have of economic status.  It is not uncommon for wealthy people in a new group to understate their economic status, and for poorer people to overstate theirs.

Leadership Feedback

Positive feedback from the leader at this stage increases cohesiveness.  Because of the dependence on the leader at this stage, positive feedback is a strong and important indicator of acceptance – acceptance which is strongly sought after because of the human need for belonging.

So we see that cohesiveness is high, albeit superficial at this stage.  Cohesiveness is superficial in real terms, in that it is built on shallow perceptions of one another, increasing the perceptions of sameness.  However, in terms of perception, cohesion is strong and solid, because the sameness is perceived as real. 

Conclusion

Effectively, this whole fist stage can be seen as a masquerade.  Every person has evaluated as quickly as possible the situation, chosen from his or her repertoire of behaviours, styles, skills and abilities the ones that seem most appropriate to this situation, built a mask that displays only those, and displayed this mask to the team.

Concerns regarding the goals and tasks are suppressed for the sake of acceptance – and added to the mask is an acceptance of goals and tasks as they have been discussed.

Lack of clarity regarding these, is also suppressed – and the masks displayed says that we are all quite clear about the tasks, and highly committed to them

Roles have been assigned based on each mask, and although some members might have some concern regarding the role assignments, the masks say that everyone is happy with his or her role assignment.

The leader’s power tactics are shown as accepted by the masks, and the leader can hardly do anything wrong.  Our masks all love the leader, and the leader’s mask says he or she loves us all.

When we look around, and we see our masks all looking very similar, we feel close to each other, and group cohesiveness is high.  Our masks say that we all love each other.

This has mostly happened sub-consciously.  If you point this out to people, they might become aware of this behaviour, but for the most part, every person believes that he or she has acted in good faith towards everyone else.

The consequence of this is that everyone assumes that everyone else has also acted in good faith.

All of this together creates a secure, predictable environment, in which people begin to feel that it is safe to be themselves.  Bit by bit they all drop their masks, and suddenly the real person behind each mask comes out. This then is how the explosion is triggered that takes the team into its second stage – a stage of counter-dependency and conflict.

 

This article is based on information from the book Group Processes A DEVELOPMENTAL PERSPECTIVE by Susan A Wheelan, Second Edition.

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