ManagementPeer-Reviewed Research

We Work

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  • A new model contributes to research about the dynamics of small group behavior.
  • It yields fresh insights into the behavior of a group that’s working toward a common goal.
  • Findings from the model are relevant to professional and private life, for anything from decision-making within families to activities by corporate teams.

You just got a promotion — along with a brand-new work team whose members barely speak to one another. But first-rate cooperation is essential if you’re going to deliver for your client. So you decide to spend a month getting to know each of your workers.

One is competent but bitter, frustrated by years of small mistakes by a colleague, mistakes that add to her own workload. Another, the one making the mistakes, seems so distracted he may as well be working at another company. Others have their own quirks. And to make matters worse, another department is set to merge its employees with your creaky, cranky team in a few months. How are you going to understand all these individuals, much less get them into shape as a unit?

For many managers, training and reading can help provide guidance. Others may hire an outside consultant and resort to team-building activities. But where does that outside expertise — not to mention training and reading — come from? It’s based on academic research.

Rice Business professor Utpal Dholakia and colleagues René Algesheimer of the University of Zurich and Richard P. Bagozzi of the University of Michigan are among the scholars updating what we know about the dynamics of group decisions. Starting with classic group behavior theory, the scholars developed a series of sociologically-based models for analyzing small teams.

To better understand the existing shared intentions and attachment between teammates, Dholakia and his colleagues used a novel set of questions to survey 277 teams of computer gamers, each comprised of three people. They ran the survey responses through variations of a classic model called the Key Informant, which depends on the observations of group members about the social relationships inside a group.

Next, the researchers applied a sociological theory called Plural Subject Theory, focused on what’s known as “we-attitude.” That’s exactly what it sounds like: verbally and actively treating an endeavor as a group project.

The core of this theory, the notion that successful teams frequently use collective pronouns when they discuss themselves and cognitively conceive of themselves as “we,” has been heavily studied. Groups whose members think in terms of “we” act more cohesively and are measurably more committed to collectively reaching their goal.

To enhance the way these attitudes are measured, Dholakia created multiple variations of a new model. These differ from previous models because they include information not just from a “key informant,” but from every member of a group. The researcher asks group members questions about themselves, their impressions of others in the group, their impressions about how others in the group think of each member and impressions about the group as a whole. This longer, more elaborate approach offers fresh insights about a group’s shared consciousness — which provides a valuable new research outcome.

The professors found that this revision of classic key informant model generally worked the best of the various group-analysis models they tested — even improving on the original key informant approach. Future researchers, Dholakia notes, should consider the context of the team situation to decide which configuration of members is best to analyze.   

So the next time you find yourself nonplussed by a chaotic group dynamic at work, remember you are in time-honored company — and that help is out there. By updating the key informant model, Dholakia and his colleagues have added to the analytical toolbox something that can help whip that team into shape. Whether it’s an army of accountants or a network of hospital workers, Dholakia writes, the first step to creating a real team is analyzing which intentions they truly share. 


Utpal Dholakia is the George R. Brown Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Algesheimer, R., Bagozzi, R. & Dholakia, U. (2018). Key informant models for measuring group-level variables in small groups: Application to plural subject theory. Sociological Methods & Research, 47(2), 277–313.