“Have you ever been a stranger to yourself? Many many times…” (Picard)
We all live in groups; family groups, work groups, society at large etc. In our individualized society we sometimes focus on ourselves and how we can improve our own behaviour and make our lives better. But people tend to forget that they are always embedded within a mishmash of different groups and a large part of who we are is determined by the groups we are embedded in. Saying that our behaviour is partly determined by the groups we are a part of isn’t meant to imply we have no agency. We have agency to the degree we can engineer some of the groups we are a part of; we can decide what these groups aims are and design them to better fulfill our aims.
In this blog-post I want to discuss group interactions and how structural dynamics can sometimes lead people to behave in ways that seem out of character when judged by their previous behavioural patterns. I will explore how these structural dynamics can result in difficulties in small group interactions. For simplicity sake I will focus primarily on workplace interactions; though these interactions can occur in any small group. Finally I will discuss scientific techniques that help minimize the possibility of such group conflicts. A good example of our behavioural patterns being determined by structural features can be seen in Peter Turchin’s work on history which through cross cultural comparisons details how we sometimes get dragged into wars revolutions etc. Our decisions are sometimes made by structural features of our social environments. So, even though we like to think we are the author of our decisions, our choices are determined by outside factors. In his ‘Ages of Discord’ Turchin discussed some factors that may have led to periodic breakdown of agrarian societies. The agent’s living in the agrarian society would have believed that they were making decisions x or y for various different reasons. However, Structural Demographic Theory argues that population growth in excess of productivity can have several effects on social institutions: (A) It leads to persistent price inflation, falling real wages, rural misery, urban migration, and increased frequency of food riots and wage protests, (B) Rapid expansion of population results in elite overproduction which results in an increasing number of aspirants competing for limited resources, (C) Population growth leads to expansion of army and bureacracy and to rising real costs (‘Ages of Discord’ p. 11). Turchin reworked this principle in order to describe revolutionary leaps in industrial societies; (1) The Neo-Malthusian Principle, (2) the principle of elite over- production, (3) the structural demographic causes of political instability. Turchin’s theory explains human behaviour as being governed by laws of which we are not aware. We may give reasons for acting in the way we do but the reasons we give may be nothing other than rationalisations; our behaviour may actually be caused by structural features that are outside of our control. While Turchin’s analysis details large societal fluxuations his work is an example of structural features influencing individual decisions. As we will see later in this structural features also have effects on people’s interactions in small groups as well. We may give certain reasons to explain our interactions within our group but the reasons we give may be pure rationalisations; likewise our speculations as to why our colleagues behave towards us in certain ways may be pure fiction as well. For this reason it is useful to try to understand group interactions in a scientific manner instead of relying on folk-psychological speculations. Nonetheless, with the science of group interaction still in its infancy any theory of group behaviour will still rely somewhat on folk psychology in its explanations.
In daily interactions with one another people typically engage on a personal level. They interpret each others behaviour in terms of their shared history of interactions, and by interpreting gossip and other pieces of information to update their implicit models of each other. However, aside from using implicit models of who a person is when we interpret each others behaviour we also think using abstract categories. When we talk to other people we are unconsciously categorizing them in various different ways; so a person can be interpreted under classes such as Mother, Professor, British, etc.
In a work-place environment people are typically bracketed into various different groups. You have Managers, Front line workers, Admin staff etc. When interacting with each other people can interpret each other using folk psychology (attributing various different beliefs/desires) to each other; and these folk psychological ascriptions can be skewed by the type of categorisation we implicitly employ when interpreting each other. Thus, consider two employees who are interacting with each other in work; they will have a shared history together, common experiences in the job, and all of these connections will be interpreted under various different emotional hues depending on the relationship. In these interactions some abstract ways of categorising each other can become salient, and the abstract categorisation can become the primary mode of interpreting the others behaviour. A concrete example may help.
Consider two people talking in work one of whom is a nurse and the other is a health care assistant. While these people have an incredibly complex network of relations with each other, in some situations the abstract category of nurse or health care assistant can become important. Psychologist Matte Blanco (1975) noted that in times of emotional stress humans can engage in thinking that involves thinking of an entire category in terms of a subset of that category. Thus in an argument between a nurse and a healthcare assistant they may end up as seeing each other; almost primarily, as representatives of an entire category. Furthermore how the category is structured can depend on arbitrary associations that make up the concept. Work in concept acquisition done by relational frame theorists has shown that our concepts have rich interconnections that are strung together in a somewhat arbitrary manner as a result of our contingent life experiences. Now a health-care assistant will have a string of associations attached to the term Nurse and he may not even be entirely conscious of what these associations contain. However, if in his dispute with the Nurse he more and more thinks of her in terms of the abstract category of Nurse this will mean that he will be thinking of her in terms of an abstract, arbitrary set of associations that he is not aware of. When this occurs, rich interpersonal relationships between the two people can be pushed to the background and people end up thinking of each other in terms of a static set of associations that they have internalized. This can lead to rigid thinking, a decrease in terms of compromise and an inability to understand the person you are talking to as a person.
Furthermore people don’t converse in isolation. These people in the discussion will be operating within a network of other people. And a lot of people will fall under the category of ‘Nurse’ or ‘Health Care Assistant’, and if people start identifying with a particular category then there is a danger that unconscious categorisation combined with humans innate territorial nature will result in interacting in an increasingly territorial manner in their dealings with each other.
Obviously a work-place where people are unconsciously interacting with each other in terms of evolutionary driven emotional behaviour isn’t ideal. The question is whether we can design our groups interactions in ways that can minimize these type of rigid emotional thought processes from infecting group interaction.
Firstly, it is important to note that the abstract rigid structures which can have a structuring and polarizing effect on interactions are multifarious so a variety of different factors will influence workers thinking; ‘race’, ‘class’, ‘attractiveness’ etc will infect thinking. People will implicitly rank people into various different categories and will typically rank the importance of these categories so implicit aligences may shift depending on context. One person may think the ‘Nurse’ ‘Care Staff’ divide is important but something like ‘Class’ may be more important to them so in interactions their implicit rank value system will inform how they form aligences. These factors will have a recursive feedback loop where one person thinks that another person has been disloyal to their group and shifts their attitudes towards that person. This information will spread throughout the community and may again have negative consequences for group interaction.
A useful tool that may help with group interactions is a discovery made by the nobel prize winning economist Elinor Orstrom. She researched how groups managed the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons is a situation where individuals acting independently in their own self interest, act in ways that are bad for the common good. By empirically studying groups that successfully managed to overcome the tragedy of the commons, Orstrom managed to distill out the core rules they were following. Furthermore it has been shown that groups who adopt these rules increase their productivity and harmonious group interaction.
Below we will look at Orstrom’s 8 core design principles for group interaction and see how they can be applied to workplace interaction:
Strong Group Identity and Understanding of Purpose: As we discussed above people interacting can all be grouped into various different categories and these categories can rigify in people’s minds in times of stress and this can cause intense conflicts. However, if the overall group has a strong identity and everyone understands the purpose of the group this can operate like a kind of guiding light that focuses people away from interpersonal conflicts and towards achieving the purpose of the group.
Proportional Equivalents between benefits and costs:
Again conflict can be reduced and people will be less likely to build up lingering resentments if the rationale behind the various different benefits people receive relative to each other is explained in terms of the costs accrued by the people doing the work.
Fair and Inclusive decision making:
People don’t like being dominated. But they do like structure. Talking as a group about what you want to do and the best way of doing it is a great way of developing team spirit. But a clear leader within the discussion is necessary.
Monitoring agreed upon behaviours:
Some structure in place where agreed rules are monitored by independent staff.
If work isn’t done direct friendly criticism is necessary with incremental sanctions if work continues to be undone.
Fast and Fair Conflict resolution
Rather than let issues fester management need to step in quickly with ways to minimize disputes.
There needs to be some kind of authority within a group that helps form a common purpose. If the group is a small group within a larger organisation then that small group should have decision making capacities slightly independent of the overall organisation. This gives people a sense of agency and responsibility to the small group they are a part of.
Polycentric Governance: Apply the above seven principles in an attempt to relate collaboratively with other groups that your own group is nested within.
Ostrom’s core design principles have been shown to have great explanatory value in explaining how successful group interaction can be achieved. Her principles show that if a group is organized in a particular way this will select for a type of behaviour that benefits the overall group. The psychological principles which we discussed earlier can result in tensions occurring during times of stress and such psychological stressors can result in people thinking game theoretically in terms of rigid abstract categories. Groups structured according to Orstrom’s core design principles have been empirically demonstrated to have created successful group interaction. Using her core design principles may be a way of successfully avoiding people’s darker psychological nature’s destroying group dynamics.
We saw above how at a large scale societal level there is evidence that group dynamics can result in people’s behaviour switching based on structural features of their group and this can have dramatic effects from wars to workplace disputes. Work such as Ostrom’s can help in designing our groups in more effective manner. But much scientific study is needed to help us create more nurturing groups that people can thrive in.
“Have you ever been a stranger to yourself? Many many times…” (Picard)