Building Group Cohesiveness

See also: Group Life Cycle

Working in groups is a key activity for people in most personal and professional settings. However, building effective groups and teams is not always easy. One key aspect of effective group working is developing group cohesiveness or cohesion: a sense shared by all the members that they belong to the group.

Group cohesion develops as groups start to share a sense of a common purpose or aim, and particularly as they begin to achieve success. It also comes through shared group norms, or agreed ways of working or behaviour.

This page describes ways in which both leaders and group members can help groups to develop cohesion.

1. Establish a Clear Objective for the Group

The most important aspect of developing group cohesion is to help the group unite around a shared goal or purpose.

Leaders should therefore establish a clear purpose for the group before it is even created.

Having a clear purpose will ensure that you can recruit the right people for the team, and choose those who are best able to contribute to achieving the group’s objectives. The objective should be explained clearly to all those invited to join the group, so that they can decide whether they can contribute effectively, or if they wish to decline.

It follows that when you are invited to join any group, you should consider the objectives, and whether you agree with them, and can help to deliver. If you don’t or can’t, it is best to decline the invitation politely.

At the group’s first meeting, the leader should reiterate the objective, and explain the vision for achieving it. This should include any ideas about how each member is expected to contribute, especially if any bring any specialist knowledge. It is also helpful to explain whether the group is focused on taking action or simply a ‘talking shop’ that will provide advice or act as a sounding board for ideas. This can avoid misunderstandings further down the line.

2. Recruit a Fully Diverse Group

Diversity is crucial to successful group functioning.

Ensuring that you have broad diversity within your group membership avoids many of the potential weaknesses of groups.

However, a more diverse group will have less in common. It may therefore be harder to develop cohesion, especially early on, than in a group with just one or two members who are ‘different’. It is therefore tempting to go down a route of ‘tokenism’ (see box) for the sake of initial group cohesion.

What is tokenism?

‘Tokenism’ is the inclusion in a group of just one or two people from a minority group, whether age, sex, ethnic background, or disability. This is usually done so that you can say that you have ‘representation’.

However, this is a mistake.

The problem with tokenism is that it doesn’t work.

Research shows that the ‘token’ person often feels unable to speak up, or express their views, especially when they are different from the majority view. The token person will often end up leaving the group in frustration—and you have then lost all the potential benefits of diversity. You actually need at least three or four people with a minority view to work together.

Tokenism also doesn’t work in the sense of developing group cohesion. The similar members bond, but exclude those who are ‘different’, reducing group effectiveness.

Group leaders should therefore recruit group members taking into account their backgrounds, experience, skills and knowledge. They should aim for a group with a wide range of skills and experience, and a good gender and age mix.

A more diverse group will be forced to work to create group cohesion, because the common ground will be much less obvious. Developing a shared approach will require more communication and more effort in the short term—but this will pay off in the longer term.

3. Support the Development of Group ‘Norms’

One way in which a group becomes cohesive is through the development of group ‘norms’, or the standards of behaviour and attitudes to which the group abides (see box).

Effectively, these are the group’s rules. All groups have a set of norms that may apply to everyone in the group or to certain members only. Some norms may be strictly observed, whilst others may be more flexible. Norms may also be written, for example, in a constitution, or they may be unwritten or implicit. Implicit norms are much harder for newcomers to learn.

Examples of Group Norms

Examples of some group norms might include:

  • Meet at x venue and at x time.
  • Dress smartly but casually.
  • Begin and end on time.
  • Attend as many meetings as possible, minimum of 70%.
  • Listen carefully to the current speaker.
  • Do your homework; be prepared before the start of a meeting.
  • When speaking keep your point relevant and concise.
  • Do not use hostile or inappropriate language or body language.
  • Be polite and courteous.
  • Show respect to other members of the group and their ideas.
  • Work on the goals and objectives of the group.
  • Do not talk or hold side conversations whilst others are talking.
  • Turn off your phone for the duration of meetings.

As a group develops, norms help to minimise individual differences in personality. Group norms usually operate to maintain the group and preserve its integrity, rather than to check individual actions.

Group members implicitly or explicitly agree to abide by the group norms. This is a key part of group membership.

If members habitually refuse to conform to the group norms, they may become marginalised within a group or even expelled. If several members refuse to conform, this may be a sign that the group’s norms are evolving. It may be appropriate to look again at those norms, to see if they remain applicable and relevant, and particularly if they support the group to achieve its aims.

4. Practise Working as a Team or Group

Groups need to practise working together

Working with other people is a skill—and it takes time to learn about other people’s strengths and weaknesses. Team-building activities often get a bad press, but they do have a place in developing group cohesion. The key point is to ensure that they are relevant and useful, rather than ‘wacky’, and certainly not embarrassing for anyone.

When a group first forms, it can be helpful to engage in activities such as developing ‘group rules’ that are specifically designated as an exercise to help the group to understand its own processes. Afterwards, seek feedback from group members about the process, what helped and hindered it, and how they felt. You can even do this anonymously, especially if the process was difficult for some people, and collate the feedback to inform the group as a whole.

5. Use Tools to Improve Understanding of Each Other’s Strengths and Weaknesses

We all have strengths and weaknesses—but we often don’t like to boast about our strengths, or admit to our weaknesses.

Using tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators, Belbin’s Team Roles, or the Johari Window, can encourage people to be more open about themselves and others.

This, in turn, increases people’s understanding of others, and particularly how they prefer to think and behave. This improves tolerance of differences within the group—and therefore enables a more diverse group to become more cohesive more quickly.

This approach also enables the group to take advantage of individual strengths and weaknesses by using people’s strengths as much as possible. It becomes possible to decline a task because it is not a strength, or offer to work with someone based on complementary skills. This, in turn, improves the group’s effectiveness.

6. Encourage Open Communication, Including Feedback

It cannot be stressed enough: clear and open communication is essential for effective group working.

Group members must be able to communicate with each other, and with the group leader. The group leader must also be able to communicate with them. This will improve understanding of group aims, tasks, and desired outcomes.

Giving and receiving effective feedback is also crucial for improving performance. Being able to explain how someone else’s actions made you feel is an important part of building common ground, and establishing norms.

There is more about this in our page on Giving and Receiving Feedback.

7. Start to Deliver Small Wins

One of the best ways to develop group cohesion is to achieve something together.

This will demonstrate in concrete terms that the group is capable of achieving—and therefore bring the group closer together in celebrating its success. In a large group, one way to do this is to set up subgroups, and give them small tasks. However, there is a danger that this will set the subgroups up as competition with each other—and therefore decrease cohesion. The alternative is to focus on some ‘quick wins’: relatively easy tasks that can be accomplished quickly.