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10 Group Work - Introduction
An Introduction to Social Psychology.
Although psychology is usually associated with qualities of the individual - emotions, intelligence, personality, development, etc. - social psychology concerns itself with such themes as the interactions between individuals, group behaviour and popular perception. The studies below give a flavour of how individuals’ judgements, attitudes and behaviour may be affected by other people.
Experiments showed people making blatant errors of judgement when others in group tasks - who were really actors - appeared to be doing the same thing. In other experiments, without the intervention of actors, different individual judgements within working groups often became increasingly similar over time.
In the famous Stanford Prison experiment, students, all selected as relatively balanced individuals, were divided randomly into guards and prisoners in a prison situation. Over a short time, they started to live their roles, with profound effects on their attitudes. Amongst other things, guards started to refer to individual prisoners in terms of character weaknesses or pathological defects; ‘prisoners’ adopted a cowed submissive posture. To emphasise how this situation was realistic for its participants, it should be noted that some prisoners begged to be let out, offering to forfeit their payments for taking part.
In a famous (but ethically unrepeatable) attempt to explain Nazi atrocities (i.e. sadists or obedient citizens?), members of the public were invited to take part in what appeared to be an educational experiment. ‘Students’, really actors, had to answer various questions. The members of the public, the real experimental subjects, were told by a man in a white coat to administer electric shocks when the ‘students’ gave wrong answers to questions. The real experiment was to see how far people would continue the punishments if an apparent authority urged them to do so. In spite of the ‘students’ writhing in pain and begging for the experiment to stop, the vast majority of these ordinary people were fully obedient and many continued to apply the electrical punishments to the highest possible levels of intensity. This experiment was replicated, with similar results.
Somewhat closer to everyday experience, experimenters set up mock confrontations between individuals, and other ‘situations’, in public places, to see how passers-by would intervene. It was noted that interventions were much more frequent when one person had already started to act than when no-one had done so.
Observations at a workplace examined how the interactions between two administrative offices, originally next to each other, changed when one office was relocated, moving upstairs. Relationships deteriorated, with people in one office being increasingly viewed as ‘different’ by the other.
Most of these studies can be read in more detail in any introduction to social psychology. How relevant are they, however, to guidance?
In general, they lend considerable support to Ken Roberts’ ‘opportunity structures’ theory, which considers peer groups and social class as most influential on career choice by young people. Socially transmitted prejudices against different types of people are likely to influence attitude formation among clients. Perceptions of other groups of students or colleagues are likely to influence working and student relationships. Other findings suggest ways of dealing with situations and how some of them are generated.
Small group experiments
Perhaps more relevant to careers education and group sessions for counsellors and other practitioners are studies pertaining to small groups, another area of social psychology.
These studies particularly focus on group dynamics. While providing conditions for human growth, groups are full of potential pitfalls; this volatility is illustrated by one model of group formation - 'forming, storming, norming and performing' - which is particularly about working groups.
źForming: people are unsure and inclined to find out what is going on, sizing up others without necessarily giving away much of themselves. A period of quiet politeness is likely.
źStorming: clashes of opinion appear, often at the expense of the task at least initially. Potential leaders appear.
źNorming: people get to consider each other, in terms of strengths and weaknesses as well as personal qualities. Group norms - commonly accepted behaviour for the particular group - become established.
źPerforming: at the end of this process, group members should now be able to concentrate on the task in hand.
Beliefs, attitudes and personalities can make a group's work rewarding, but can also cause frustration. When working with these factors, both as the raw material of the educator and as potential barriers, it is important for practitioners to consider the process as well as the content of sessions.
Group workers need to observe, interpret and then to act. A model that may be adapted to both long-term relationships with groups and to single sessions is that of the ground-breaking social psychologist Kurt Lewin. Changes in attitude may occur in three phases: the unfreezing of previous attitudes, changing attitudes and refreezing of new attitudes.
Unfreezing an 'unskilled group', where participants are unused to group work, requires the group to determine its own needs. More specifically for our current purposes, interventions may be needed to help members learn social skills, with an intention to achieve aims, immediate or longer-term. Such work may challenge or quietly undermine attitudes which hamper or cloud aspirations. Questioning, perhaps in the Socratic style of guiding students to an answer, may be used in the unfreezing process.
Attitudes may change, often unconsciously, during work on the task. Conscious challenging may also occur.
Summarising may be used to consolidate on learning, refreezing new attitudes at the end of a session and allowing reflection to reinforce learning (Kolb, 1984). A review of concluded work may mean some of the group themselves recognising changes in attitude.
Models of Guidance applied to groups
'Client-centred' (Rogerian) models are commonly used in group-work, stressing the ability of people to make conscious and responsible decisions, and to construct reality. This approach centres on the emotional and the immediate; embodied within the approach are practical skills which are widely applied in guidance and in counselling, often as part of an eclectic process model.
One such process model is Egan's 'skilled helper' (1998), with the 3 stages discussed in the chapter on interviews. Rogerian techniques emphasise listening to the client with empathy, transparency/congruence (Rogers, 1961), and 'unconditional positive regard' (Masson, 1992, considers these to be irreconcilable attitudes). While these may be preconditions for effective guidance, they need to be applied at the level of technique. In particular, methods of promoting group processes include questions, challenging and summarising.
Questioning may be used for a variety of purposes: starting conversation, expanding on points, obtaining illustrations, checking perceptions and obtaining information. These should be used sparingly and carefully, using open and closed questions as appropriate.
Helpful questioning means not merely 'probing' (Egan, 1998), but encouraging individuals to participate. This may free up group members who are resistant to sharing their perceptions of issues, as well as helping the reluctant to feel included. Questions starting with 'what do you think ...?' and 'can you tell me about ...? ' are typical.
Questioning may also stimulate self-awareness and interactions beneath the threshold of challenging. 'Why' and 'how' questions may be used, however, both to focus content and to challenge unsupported (or insupportable) assertions.
It was common in the 1970s to make a point of challenging attitudes and behaviour in terms of confrontation experiences. Egan (1998) now adopts the term 'challenging' as a more responsible approach to changing dysfunctional attitudes, thoughts and behaviours - 'blind spots' - which clients have not seen fit to alter themselves. This may include information sharing, disclosure of the practitioner's attitudes, immediacy, suggestions and recommendations, as well as confrontations when necessary.
Challenging may be appropriate in counteracting unrealistic expectations, which may be based on distorted perceptions of the world. Often emerging from community influences, these attitudes may relate to equal opportunities.
Immediacy, direct mutual talk, focuses on particular events in a session, maybe including direct praise or criticism of a comment or behaviour (Egan, 1998). This may be appropriate in periods of tension and other episodes within group dynamics.
Although clearly a part of Rogerian client-centred therapy, this may also be considered in terms of behavioural and social learning perspectives; comments will reinforce or provide cues for alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
Psychodynamic theories also suggest such dynamics as the transference and countertransference. Transference would mean members of the group unconsciously seeing the practitioner in a parental role (the 'child' state of transactional analysis). Countertransference means similar complications for the practitioner, viewing the clients in terms of significant other people.
Whichever model is involved, these interactions need to take into account the general ability and developmental stage of the group: this includes the previous experiences of the participants. Some form of assessment must be made 'on the hoof'.
Summarising has been mentioned hitherto in relation to the end of a session. In practice, however, summarising may be used at various points in the progress of a session. It may clarify content already covered, place different ideas in perspective, demonstrate mutual understanding and herald new directions (Brammer and MacDonald, 1996; Nelson-Jones, 1993). Egan (1998) also recommends summarising early on, when interactions seem to be going nowhere or clients get 'stuck'.
As well as the practitioner summarising to check that the group has the same understanding of concepts, participants themselves can be asked to summarise issues. Active learning is likely to strengthen the memory of what has been learned.
Group roles and power
The best known study of team roles are Belbin’s teams. Belbin’s study of successful team characteristics led him to describe 8 roles; it should be noted that these roles may be shared by persons in groups of less than 8.
źThe Chairman. Presides over the team, is well-disciplined, able to understand others and may delegate tasks.
źThe Shaper. A dominant person who is passionate about the task, whose drive is a spur to action.
źThe Plant. The source of ideas and proposals.
źThe Monitor-Evaluator. Analyses situations, sees flaws in arguments and acts as a checker of quality.
źThe Resource-Investigator. A popular person who develops new contacts and can act as the diplomat.
źThe Company Worker. A practical organiser, who turns ideas into practicable schemes. Trustworthy and efficient.
źThe Team Worker. Holds the team together by being supportive and encouraging the efforts of others.
źThe Finisher. Interested in details, ensuring jobs finish.
Each of these may have some weaknesses implicit in the area of strength. Training sessions often work on enabling team members to recognise each other’s strengths and create strategies for dealing with perceived team deficits.
Within groups, formal or informal, people have different types of power. One formulation suggests 6 power bases, some of which are important in all contexts, others in few.
wPhysical power. This is more likely to dominate in informal groups, for example within cohorts of students, or within particularly traditional or macho environments.
wResource power. This may mean the ability to allocate money or grant status. Managers usually have this.
wPosition power. Often referred to as legitimate or legal power, this comes with a role in an organisation. Particularly in bureaucratic environments, control may cover access to information, facilities or communications.
wExpert power. Although this is most likely to come to the fore in collegiate or small professional teams, this pre-eminence may occur anywhere. In guidance terms, the practitioner is likely to have this in a group session. Informally, one or more group members may also have this.
wPersonal power. Charisma or popularity may occur anywhere. It is hard to develop or examine, and may disintegrate.
wNegative power. All sorts of power can be used to disrupt. Within all organisations, this may also be totally independent of other power bases; someone determined enough can sabotage the efforts of others.
For more details of team roles and bases of power, see Charles Handy’s Understanding Organizations (1985), available in most libraries on Management shelves.
Group working, why do it?
In the case of group counselling, the rationale should be obvious. It should related to people who either share a need or problem; often, the latter may be an inability to get on with each other. A rationale should be available, as well as a plan with aims and expected results. This comment may seem obvious, but there was a time when group work was particularly fashionable and was often inappropriately favoured at the expense of individual guidance methods.
Welfare/advice and careers groups should be used to achieve specific learning outcomes. Plans for sessions should include activities - with times allocated - and objectives which may be measured to evaluate the success of the session.
Group sessions may provide information, saving time in sessions with individuals to meet specific needs. They may be used to challenge common perceptions or to discover levels of knowledge and needs.
They may also promote necessary services and appropriate usage of facilities. Individuals do not always know what they need or how to meet their needs.
There may be a flow circuit between group and individual work. Individual sessions may lead to an awareness of collective needs. Group sessions may lead individuals to become aware of needs and to seek individual work. Individual progress may lead to progress within further groups.
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