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Working as a Group

Student and Academic Services Division

When students are asked to work together on a group assignment, they often find it harder to get the work done effectively than they would if working alone. On the other hand, when a group works well, it can be more productive and energizing, and can produce more outstanding results than the members might have achieved individually.

So how can you ensure that your group will be effective? How do you manage the fact that one person seems to be taking over, three people don't know where to start, one person never turns up to meetings and two people are complaining of doing all the work?

The answer is to be aware that the group process needs as much attention as the group task. Dealing with the group process effectively will ensure that these difficulties are less likely to arise and if they do, they can be dealt with in a way that gets the group back on track, rather than leaving everybody blaming each other.

Look at the following list of things that can happen in groups. No doubt you can think of examples from your own past experience:

Things that can happen in groups:

  • An unofficial group leader emerges, and everybody looks to that person for approval, or to tell them what to do.
  • Whenever a certain group member makes a suggestion, it is ignored, but if someone else suggests the same thing, they are congratulated on a good idea.
  • People in the group habitually make fun of one person.
  • At each meeting fewer people turn up, leaving a small group to do all the work.
  • Certain topics are never raised, even though some members feel privately that they should be talked about.
  • A group member is faced with a tricky situation. She pretends she can cope, rather than let the group know that she is struggling.
  • Certain members of the group seem to do all the talking at meetings, while others are silent. The talkative ones feel that the others are not pulling their weight. The quiet ones get together outside of meetings and bitch about the talkative ones.
  • Meetings become progressively less task-focussed over time. Instead they are more like social gatherings.
  • Members of the group who are not the same as the others are actively or subtly pushed out.
  • Some members of the group drop out because they feel unfulfilled by it, or feel they cannot cope.
  • Members find themselves or others saying things at group meetings which contradict what they are saying outside of the group.
  • The group votes to take an action which most (or even all) of the members privately disagree with.

When members are unaware of how groups operate, they tend to blame other members of the group for the above problems (eg "She's too bossy", "He doesn't pull his weight"). Understanding these problems as issues of group process rather than the fault of individuals, means the issues can be addressed in a non-blaming way, bringing about more goodwill, co-operation and cohesion in the group.

Stages of Group Development

When groups get together to perform a task, they go through several well-documented stages. There are various models used to describe these stages. Two are listed below.

Cog's Ladder Model

  • Polite Stage
  • Why We're Here
  • Bid for Power
  • Constructive
  • Esprit

Tuckman Model

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing
  • Mourning

The Forming stage of the Tuckman model, comprises the Polite stage and the Why We're Here stages of the Cog's Ladder model. Group members who have not worked together as a group before, or who may not even know each other, will be polite at first, hesitant about speaking their minds and mindful of how others perceive them. At some stage, perhaps by the second meeting, or even after five minutes, someone will draw attention to the task at hand, and the group's attention will be drawn to that. Members are then thinking of themselves in relation to the task - what they might have to contribute etc.

Helpful for the Forming stage are: clear structures and times, responsible leadership, clarity of task, clarity of boundaries, facilitation of getting to know one another.

Bid For Power, or Storming begins when group members begin to engage with the group and the task. Members put forward ideas about how things should be, and a kind of power struggle takes place. If there is a designated group leader, that person may be challenged. Storming may seem like an uncomfortable or unwelcome process, but it is necessary before the group can settle into a generally accepted way of doing things. Without it, members would be disengaged from the group and unclear about where they stand in relation to the group.

Helpful in the Storming stage are: being able to take feedback without collapsing, leader not giving in to threats or blackmail, validating people's rights without giving up one's own, flexibility, "I'm okay, you're okay" stance

Norming is the stage where the group begins to form its own 'culture' or generally accepted understandings about how things will be done. Group norms may be overt and written, like ground rules, or unspoken, unacknowledged practices that arise.

Helpful in the Norming stage are: explicit queries around group norms, flexibility around norms, considering the value of particular norms, explicit statements of leader's and members' values, discussing group norms rather than letting them just happen

Once the group culture is established, the group can really start to work. (The Performing, or Constructive stage.) Esprit is a bonus stage - it is what happens when a group is working so well that the synergy created brings about an excellence which goes beyond the sum of the individual contributions.

In the Performing stage, group leadership is usually shared around, the designated leader becomes more of a participant, but is ready to stand in where necessary.

Mourning means the way the group approaches the ending of its task, finishing off and acknowledging the ending of the group's unique relationships.

Helpful in the Mourning stage are: specific acknowledgement of the ending, realistic plans and procedures, reminiscing, accepting recognition, praise etc, allowing time for goodbyes.

The following article explains what a group needs in order to function effectively. I am unsure of the source of the article, so if you know where it comes from and who wrote it, please let us know!


Wherever people gather in a formal or organised way, as distinct from a street crowd or mass of spectators at a sports event or an aggregate of people in an elevator, there quickly emerge within the group identifiable needs which have to be met if the group is to become more effective. It has been discovered that these needs may be grouped under three basic classifications:

1 Task
2 Maintenance
3 Individual

1 Task Needs

Every group has some task confronting it. Sometimes it is a task chosen by the group; sometimes it is superimposed. It may be a long term task, or one that involves only one or two meetings. The task may vary from washing the washing the dishes to planning a national centennial celebration.

Most groups in which we are involved are conscious of the task need, and may operate mainly on this level. It is the task need which brings a group together but it will not necessarily keep it together.

Some of the task needs of a group are:

  • A Clear Purpose Or Objective
    Any group flounders and bogs down if the purpose of the group is not clearly understood by its members, or if members are not committed to the group's purpose. Therefore, knowledge of and commitment to the purpose constitutes basic task needs.
  • Facts Necessary to Understand the Task
    For instance, a Building Committee needs factual knowledge concerning such matters as architects, contractors, availability of capital etc.
  • Procedure By Which To Get The Job Done
    Groups need an organised plan for understanding their task. Group members - not necessarily the chairperson - help the task along by suggesting methods of procedure.
  • Leadership
    From both designated leader and group members.
  • Communication
    A group's task can be achieved only if there is a meeting of meaning and attitudes and feelings among the members of the group.
  • Time
    A group must have time commensurate to its task.
  • Facilities And Equipment
    The adequacy of facilities and equipment can help or hinder a group in the fulfillment of its task.
  • Staying On Course
    A group cannot fulfill its task unless the members of the group retain a sense of direction.
  • Moving Ahead
    A group can achieve its goals only if there is a consistent concern among its members to keep moving toward the goal.
  • Testing For Progress
    A group needs to check periodically to inform itself regarding progress already achieved in the direction of its goal.
  • Evaluation

Where a testing for progress may deal with the more technical aspects of a group's achieving a particular goal, evaluation involves the wider context of the standards and principles of the total community of which the group is a part. For example, the Service Club that reaches its financial objective but did so through the use of lotteries which is contrary to its own code. As the word itself suggests, evaluation involves placing a value on.

2 Maintenance Needs

The second major area of group needs is Maintenance. Every group has some awareness of itself as a group, and is faced with the need to maintain its own life. Unless this need is met, the group's task cannot be fulfilled.

Some of the group maintenance needs are as follows:

  • Morale
    A sense of buoyancy, courage and satisfaction arising out of such things as common conviction of the group, finding appreciation and acceptance, and a sense of group achievement.
  • Cohesion
    Certainly the degree of group solidarity or cohesiveness is the result of a complex of forces ranging from fear of a common enemy to zeal for the group's task. Good cohesion is attained when a group matures to the point where its members work together in an interdependent way, and where each member is making his/her own particular contribution toward the task of the group.
  • Atmosphere
    Groups, like plants, require a proper atmosphere if there is to be growth and fruitfulness. Groups tend to function best in an atmosphere that is friendly and permissive; where personal feelings, convictions and other contributions can be made without fear of ridicule or rejection. Atmosphere is also improved when members know each other at a deeper level.
  • Communication
    A group needs a common language that is used and understood by all. When members "speak past" each other by the use of terms that do not register meaningfully to their hearers, that group is hindered in its task and weakened in its own corporate life. It is also well for us to remember that what may be suitable and even necessary language in one group may be resented and unintelligible jargon in another.
    Communication may be verbal, but also non-verbal, such as posture, facial expression and general attitude.
  • Standards
    Every group develops its own standards, its own code of behaviour, its own boundaries and limitations, its own written code or unwritten code that says "This is the way we do things". Standards tend to stabilise the group and to keep it on course.
  • Full Participation
    A group tends to fall apart when there are members who are not fully involved in the full life of the group.
  • Achievement
    A group cannot be healthy without a sense of accomplishment seen in the light of the values and purposes of the group.
  • Dedication
    "Life is Commitment" and the group's vitality can be measured in terms of the members' dedication to the task of the group.

3 Individual Needs

We have already mentioned the importance of the individual and the value of sensitivity to his/her needs. Each individual brings to the group his/her own particular history, the influence of other groups to which he/she belongs, and also his/her own personal needs within the group. These include the following:

  • Acceptance and recognition as a person
  • Encouragement and support from others in the group
  • Being heard
  • Participation; responsibility; self expression
  • Status in the group
  • Sense of achievement
  • Being needed
  • Concern and interest from others in the group
  • "Creature " needs - hard chair, hot rooms, tired people, smoke
  • Freedom
  • Challenge
  • Needs arising from membership in other groups

It is at this level of meeting individual needs that many groups are found wanting. Groups tend to be task-centred, and their members so task-driven that often the individual gets lost in the shuffle. When this happens, personal needs are not only unmet but are heightened. Many groups bog down in terms of both maintenance and task because group members are either insensitive to or heedless of the needs of the individual members of the group. Perhaps one of the reasons for a group neglecting individual needs is that group members look upon the meeting of individual needs as an obstacle or even a threat to both the maintenance and the task of the group. However, the penalty that a group pays for not meeting the needs of individuals is the socially unacceptable behaviour patterns which develop as symptoms of unmet needs. Successful group work involves a 'balancing act' between Task, Maintenance and Individual needs.


Look back at the list of Things that can Happen in Groups.

- For each one, think about which of the three sets of group needs has been neglected, in order for this problem to arise.

- Armed with this information, what would be a helpful way of meeting that need and getting the group back on track?


We hope this has been a helpful introduction to working with others on a project. If you think your group needs more help, counsellors are available to meet with you as a group at the Student Counselling Service.

Back to main Counselling page

Page Content: Stephanie Hills