How to Work Well with Others: The Psychology Behind Group Work

Do your perceptions change when someone discusses an opinion different from your own? Do you find yourself more engaged when your teammates smile and agree with you, or do you find yourself lost for words when someone is talking over you, uptight, and not listening? Did you know that research shows 5 specific personality traits that reflect positive leadership? That you have a powerful impact on others — and they may have the same impact on you — emotionally or mentally — through imitation?

Two words come into play when dealing with group work: Social contagion.

What exactly does this mean?

Social contagion theory (also known as emotional contagion theory) is a psychological phenomenon indicating that, to a certain degree, people have power and influence over you. You are somewhat of a product of whom you know, such as your close friends.

Your friends can help shape your perceptions, outlook, values, culture, emotions, and behaviors

It’s based on interpersonal relationships we form, but it’s not just limited to the people we know.

Social contagion happens in many places on the internet, from human rights campaigns to changing your profile picture to the equal sign to support marriage equality. You may be influenced because of how many people are doing it.

left: person in field jumping for joy. right: man hitting forehead with hand in frustration
Which of these describes your experience with group work? Photo credits—Left: Be-Younger.com; Right: Andrew McCluskey

Social scientific research continues to confirm the idea that attitudes, belief systems, behaviors, and the effects of others can most definitely spread through populations with great speed, like an epidemic.

But isn’t it peculiar to find yourself (or watch someone else) be convinced of something, because another person tends to explain themselves more assertively or dominantly? This spreading of ideas can directly affect groups through imitation and conformity to specific ideas.

Assertiveness is not the same as leadership

In a study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, individuals with a dominant personality trait consistently upheld significant influence among others in a group setting. Dominance personality traits include assertiveness; independence; confidence; and fearless, original thinking.

However, this does not necessarily mean that people can attain influence by acting only assertively or forcefully, as research shows. Behavior such as bullying and intimidation does not show results for influential success. Rather, leadership skills, interpersonal skills, and emotional intelligence play a huge role with traits such as assertiveness, making the dominant-trait individual appear competent — even if they actually lack competence.

Individuals high in a dominance trait tend to:

  • speak more
  • gain more control over group processes
  • hold increased levels of perceived control over group decisions

In contrast, people with high leadership skills:

  • possess social skills that allow them to take lead
  • communicate very well
  • motivate others

Good communication requires listening — and can make a huge difference in group work. For example, by listening to various opinions, you could take the lead by incorporating all of them, or explaining why only one of them will work. Teammates should feel they have a voice, which is very important, but if you want to be more influential, you can be more engaged, (talkative), show how motivated you are (while motivating others), and share your own perceptions frequently. Your peers will view you as someone they can look up to and work well with.

This could be a “confidence boost” for the next time you are ill-prepared to discuss something out loud.

You can be more influential by imitating those with influence

Mirror neurons are brain cells that activate when we observe someone performing an action and when we perform the same action—for example, throwing a ball and then watching someone throw a ball back to you. Neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons help people read into the minds of others and empathize with them.

Mirror neurons have helped developmental and evolutionary psychologists understand human behavior, and how the brain can observe the actions of others to help us understand our world. A research study at the University of Washington showed that infants and adults do indeed imitate adults to understand perceptions of themselves and others, and to understand how they might be different or similar.

Another study conducted at the University of California shows that culture can influence mirror neurons. When participants in the study looked at someone who shared their culture, the mirror neurons had higher activity compared to when the participant looked at someone who didn’t share the same culture.

This shows that mirror neurons have an important role in imitation learning, physical actions and other peoples’ behavior.

So, what can you do?

Do what the best influential novice can do: observe and imitate the social constructs of someone you respect.

What behaviors do influential people typically demonstrate?

  • They express their opinions more frequently.
  • They make more direct eye contact.
  • They use a relaxed, expansive, and welcoming posture.

In school and work, we have the ability to think and speak for ourselves and with one another. We’re in our own personalized groups — such as friends, students, colleagues, teachers, and staff. At Penn State World Campus, we often connect with and influence others through our integrative chat rooms, email, discussion forums, and social networks.

Some personality traits are more effective for group work

A study conducted at Yale University compared the influence of one person who consistently displayed positive or negative emotions. The findings? The group with one member focusing on positive emotions had improved cooperation, less conflict, and higher perception of task performance.

Aside from being positive, what are the top personality traits involved with group work?

Two researchers explored these personality traits. Warren Norman in 1963 coined the name the Five-Factor Model, and Lewis Goldberg, in 1990, the Big Five on the basis of these traits. These traits have been supported by research such as job performance, job satisfaction, turnover rate, and interpersonal skills among colleagues.

“Big Five” personality traits

  1. Extraversion — talkative in nature; outgoing; and associated with behaviors such as being sociable, gregarious, active, and assertive
  2. Agreeableness  friendly, cooperative, good-natured, flexible, courteous, and tolerant 
  3. Conscientiousness  particularly self-disciplined, organized, thorough, hardworking, and achievement-oriented
  4. Emotional Stability  calm, secure, poised, relaxed, aware, and rational
  5. Openness to Experience  imaginative, original, intelligent, artistically sensitive, attentive to inner feelings, and intellectually curious

Conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability are positively related to job performance, according to a Vanderbilt University study. In addition, emotional stability and agreeableness are strongly related to team work which involved interdependently working with other employees versus other people, such as customers or clients. This shows that these personality characteristics are important for work and predicting work outcomes among employees.

Further research in this area examined this question: How does the team’s composition of personalities influence team members’ level of satisfaction? Results found that the more agreeable and emotionally stable team members are, the more satisfied they are with their team.

On the other hand, the more dissimilar team members are from their teammates in regards to conscientiousness, the less satisfied they are with their team. Team work satisfaction increases with teammates if they are more agreeable and emotionally stable; are similarly conscientious; similar in nature; and less extraverted. Overall, agreeableness and emotional stability had the greatest effects on satisfaction within a team.

Final thoughts

It’s okay if you are not a leader or the most influential. Some people like to follow others. People sometimes don’t even realize they can be a leader until something they believe in or are passionate about becomes the center of their universe. Then, their influence can become contagious.

What personality traits do you find in people and yourself that promote excellent group work?

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