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Within-Group Social Dynamics

Joining a group requires an individual to subordinate their own self-interest in order to benefit the group. It is this sacrifice that supports the efficient achievement of the task goal. Self-interest is more than simply personal gain or material well-being. It reflects demands for recognition, esteem and other emotional enhancement. For example, I once ran some workshops for UK Police Helicopter units. Typically, only one or two pilots were on the unit payroll and leave or sickness was covered by a contracted pilot from an agency, often recently retired from the military. Police helicopters are fitted with a range of sensors and aids for supporting ground operations. A crewman sitting in one of the front seats directs the sensors. The first problem often encountered with a short-term contract pilot was that they were used to being the ‘captain’ and sitting in the left-hand seat, as is the convention in almost all multi-seat aircraft. However, depending on the equipment installation, the ‘pilot’ might sit on the right. This could bruise some egos. Furthermore, when arriving on task, the pilot might prefer to arrive with the target area on their side of the aircraft so that they can evaluate the approach in case of hazards. Unfortunately, the helicopter needed to be positioned so that the crewman can assess the scene and begin to deploy the sensors. Again, a source of dissatisfaction for some. My examples might seem quite trivial. A case of rampant ego, maybe. But it illustrates that, for some, subordinating ego and prior experience to better meet the needs of the team and the task can be emotionally difficult. The issue here is whether these factors lead to disruptive behaviour. In critical teams, even an adverse comment can undermine confidence in peers.

Teams are convened to achieve goals that cannot be accomplished reliably by individuals. The task, by default, shapes the performance of the team. The discussion of violations in the last chapter showed how teams adapt to circumstances and modify tasks. Fatigue-related performance impairment or a lack of competence might require individuals to compensate for others. All of these factors will shape the performance of the team. Compensating for others requires individuals to be willing to invest effort. The police helicopter example illustrates how team members have specific tasks assigned to them, have a nominated position within the team but they also play a role in the group. So, the helicopter pilot is the nominated captain of the aircraft, their task is to fly the aircraft but their role is to act in support of the other crew at the appropriate time. A role is more than just the specific job an individual has been assigned in a group. A role captures ‘all the other stuff you have to do’. The nature of roles creates two problems: role conflict and role ambiguity. Role conflict reflects the fact that, sometimes, there might be too much to do at a specific moment or that actions might seem contradictory. Therefore, something has to be shed or traded off. Role conflict might be actual or simply perceived. So, changes in procedures might increase workload at specific phases of flight but, if we go back to the discussion of stress, my perception of demand might create tension but the actual demand is within my capacity. Role ambiguity reflects the fact that, in the absence of clear guidance, individuals create a version of what their role demands, which might differ from what others expect. In particular, role ambiguity can give rise to different understandings of an individual’s freedom of action and the extent of their authority. The ambiguity that surrounds role construction supports drift at the individual level.

Opportunities for idiosyncratic role construction also flow from an individual’s status. Status can be described as group stratification in response to evolutionary selection pressure. High-status individuals have access to rewards (food, reproduction) denied to lower status group members and high status usually grants greater latitude in terms of conduct. Within formally constituted teams, an appointed position within the immediate (the crew) or extended (supporting agencies) group is a source of status. The legitimate power associated with status is usually derived from job descriptions, terms of reference or, in some cases, even a legal mandate. The effective exercise of power, and use of authority, is associated with accepting responsibility and being held accountable. Role ambiguity, in particular, can lead to modes of behaviour that undermine group cohesion.

The social dynamic that flows from the existence of roles and status in the group is, in part, engineered (the organisation formally appoints individuals to positions and defines responsibilities) but also negotiated (individuals are tolerated, or compensated for, until behaviour exceeds a threshold). These forces, although ephemeral, are tangible. One way we try to constrain variability in group behaviour is to appoint a gatekeeper, or ‘leader’.

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