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Journal of Management Education

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Can’t We Pick our Own Groups? The Influence of Group Selection Method on Group Dynamics and Outcomes

Kenneth J. Chapman, Matthew Meuter, Dan Toy and Lauren Wright Journal of Management Education 2006; 30; 557 DOI: 10.1177/1052562905284872

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CAN’T WE PICK OUR OWN GROUPS? THE INFLUENCE OF GROUP SELECTION METHOD ON GROUP DYNAMICS AND OUTCOMES

Kenneth J. Chapman Matthew Meuter Dan Toy Lauren Wright California State University–Chico

In today’s business world, the ability to work efficiently and effectively with others in a group is a mandatory skill. Many employers rank “ability to work with a group” as one of the most important attributes for business school grad- uates to possess. Therefore, it is important for instructors to understand the factors that influence group dynamics and outcomes and students’ attitudes toward group experiences. The objective of this research is to test whether the method of group member assignment (i.e., random or self-selected) affects the nature of group dynamics and outcomes, and students’ attitudes toward the group experience. The results indicate that the method of group member assignment does influence group dynamics, attitudes toward the group experience, and group outcomes.

Keywords:

group dynamics; group selection methods; student teams

Learning to work together in a group may be one of the most important inter- personal skills a person can develop since this will influence one’s employabil- ity, productivity, and career success.

—Johnson and Johnson (1989, p. 32)

Is the ability to work well in a group as important as Johnson and Johnson suggest? It is interesting to note that the quotation above regarding the impor- tance of learning how to work well in a group is from 1989. In 1989, corpora-

JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT EDUCATION, Vol. 30 No. 4, August 2006 557-569 DOI: 10.1177/1052562905284872 © 2006 Organizational Behavior Teaching Society

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tions were increasingly recognizing the value of using groups and teams to accomplish goals. In 1987, 28% of the Fortune 1000 firms reported using work teams; by 1994, 68% of these firms were using work teams (Lawler, Mohrman, & Ledford, 1995). A survey by Gordon in 1992 indicated that 82% of companies with over 100 employees used teams, and Blanchard, Carew, and Parisi-Carew (1996) stated that managers were spending any- where from 60% to 90% of their time in group-related activities. Further- more, a survey of 240 managers (Antonioni, 1996) revealed that they were, on average, working on three different team projects, with several managers stating they were on up to 12 teams at any given time. Johnson and Johnson’s provocative statement made in 1989 is even more accurate today. The ability to work efficiently and effectively with others in a group is not merely important to a business student’s success; it is mandatory. As the use of teams has become common within organizations, recruiters are actively seeking students who can demonstrate their ability to work well in a group. In fact, many employers now rank ability to work well in a group as one of the most important attributes they look for when interviewing college graduates (Harris Interactive, 2003). Business schools have responded by increasing the number of group experiences students have during their col- lege tenure (e.g., Bacon, Stewart, & Stewart-Belle, 1998; Chapman & Van Auken, 2001; Gardner & Korth, 1998; Reingold, 1998). In a survey of 32 business schools, Chapman and Van Auken (2001) found that students had, on average, participated in eight group projects. The objectives of all this group work in a classroom setting are that stu- dents will (a) learn the importance of the “four C’s” of teamwork—commu- nication, collaboration, cooperation, and compromise (Katzenbach, 1997) and (b) be better prepared to enter the group-oriented workplace. However, using group projects in a class can also have significant drawbacks (e.g., Ashraf, 2004; Batra, Walvoord, & Krishnan, 1997; Comer, 1995). Common problems with group projects include “free riders” (i.e., students who do not do the work but get credit because of the team’s efforts), grade inflation because of some students getting higher grades than normal, lack of exposure to all aspects of a project, and difficulties related to group dynamics. To avoid many of the pitfalls of group projects, instructors should make every effort to structure, implement, and control group projects in an extremely intentional and well-thought-out manner (Chapman & Van Auken, 2001).

Authors’Note: Please address correspondence to Kenneth J. Chapman, California State University– Chico, College of Business, Department of Finance and Marketing, Chico, CA 95929-0051; e-mail: kchapman@csuchico.edu.

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Given the ubiquity with which group projects are used in business and business education, it is important for instructors to better understand the fac- tors that influence group efficiencies and effectiveness. One such factor that is directly under the control of the instructor is the manner in which students are assigned to their groups. The primary issue addressed in this article is whether the method of group member selection influences student group project dynamics, attitudes toward the group experience, and group outcomes.

Background

Research by Connerly and Mael (2001) found that approximately 50% of students reported that they had been allowed to select their own teammates in their courses, whereas the remaining 50% had been assigned to teams by an instructor. In addition, anecdotal evidence from colleagues suggests that most instructors use one of two methods to assign students to groups:

students select their own group members or the instructor randomly assigns students to groups. Other methods of determining group composition are cer- tainly possible (e.g., Blowers, 2003). For example, the instructor can evaluate students’ skills relevant to a team project and then select teams based on a strategy of optimizing the distribution of these skills across the teams (Michaelsen & Black, 1994). Another alternative is a hybrid approach in which the instructor allows those students who want to select their own groups to do so and then assigns the remaining students randomly to groups. Because the random and self-selected methods appear to be most commonly used for group assignment, they are the focus of the current study.

RANDOM ASSIGNMENT METHOD OF GROUP COMPOSITION

In the purest form, using random assignment for group composition means that each student in the class has an equal likelihood of being selected into a group. The instructor decides how many groups to have in the class and then randomly assigns students to each group (e.g., using a random number table). Random assignment to groups has some advantages. This method is rela- tively easy for instructors to implement and gives the appearance of being fair (Bacon, Stewart, & Anderson, 2001). Random assignment is “fair” in the sense that each student has an equal likelihood of being in any particular group. In addition, some would argue that the random method more accurately reflects the workplace (Blowers, 2003). In the work environment, employees

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typically do not select their work groups but are assigned to work in cross- functional teams, quality circles, or groups to meet project and client demands. It is this lack of individual control over the assignment to the group that makes the use of random assignment in the classroom similar to group assignments in the workplace. Although random assignment to groups has some advantages, it leaves the process of group composition purely to chance, and groups may or may not come together well. Bacon et al. (2001) stated, “In its reliance on chance, ran- dom assignment is not far off from a game of roulette in casting players into winning or losing teams” (p. 8). Thus, although giving the appearance of being fair, Bacon et al. (2001) argued that the process is actually quite unfair and can easily lead to groups that do not have good skill sets or diversity.

SELF-SELECTION METHOD OF GROUP COMPOSITION

The self-selection method of group assignment allows students to choose their own group members. Students appear to first select friends to work with and then, if necessary, make additions to the group based on someone’s seat- ing proximity or by adding students who are known as “good” group mem- bers. The self-selection method is quite easy for the instructor to administer, and some evidence suggests that it may lead to better group dynamics and outcomes (e.g., Bacon, Stewart, & Silver, 1999; Mello, 1993; Strong & Anderson, 1990). Perhaps one of the biggest problems with allowing self-selected teams is the cronyism that occurs. This often leads to less diverse teams and students who are left over after the initial round of selection. This “remainder prob- lem” (Bacon et al., 2001) can lead to some students feeling left out. Even after they are added to a group, these students may find it difficult to break into the self-selected group’s social network. This lack of cohesiveness between the initially self-selected group and the student assigned to the group can cause the assigned student to not contribute as much and once again feel left out.

WHICH METHOD OF GROUP ASSIGNMENT IS BEST?

Research in this area offers little guidance regarding the advantages and disadvantages of group assignment alternatives (see review by Bacon et al., 2001). In fact, only a handful of published articles have specifically investi- gated whether the methods instructors use to assign students to groups influ- ence a group’s efficiency and effectiveness (e.g., Bacon et al., 1999; Connerly & Mael, 2001; Mahenthiran & Rouse, 2000; Muller, 1989). Unfor- tunately, most of the published work that addresses this topic has not used an

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experimental design, is anecdotal in nature, or has only researched a single method, thus limiting the conclusions that can be drawn from the articles. One of the earliest articles to give advice on ways to form student groups was put forth by Feichtner and Davis (1985). Feichtner and Davis found that students were more likely to report having a positive experience when their groups were formed by the instructor. The authors proposed a “Profile for Failure,” or what not to do when forming groups. The first item on their list is that instructors should not allow students to form their own groups; that is, contrary to what many instructors do, Fiechtner and Davis were strongly against allowing students to self-select into groups. However, Bacon et al. (1999) found that when MBAs were asked about their best and worst group experiences, the self-selection method of group assignment was associated with the best team experiences whereas random team assignment was related to the worst team experiences. Connerley and Mael (2001) also found a positive, although extremely weak, correlation (r = .10, p < .05) between students who stated their groups had been self-selected and reports of satisfaction with the group outcomes. Although these two studies imply self-selection might lead to better group dynamics and out- comes, the results need to be interpreted with caution because of their nonexperimental designs. In one of the few comparative studies, Muller (1989) found a “modest advantage” for balancing students’ skills across groups compared to ran- domly assigning students to groups. In another comparative study, Mahen- thiran and Rouse (2000) found that satisfaction and grades related to group work increased when students were allowed to be in a group with a friend compared to groups that had been formed through random assignment. It is important to note that in both studies, compared to the alternative, randomly assigning students to groups led to inferior outcomes (i.e., attitudes, grades, satisfaction). Muller and Mahenthiran and Rouse were the only two studies that used a quasi-experimental approach to test between-group selection methods. More research that directly compares methods is necessary to better understand if one method is better than another. The research to date has not rigorously or adequately addressed if method of group assignment makes a difference in the nature or valence of group dynamics and outcomes. In particular, an experiment needs to be conducted that tests the two most commonly used methods of group assignment: self- selection and random assignment. Thus, the objective of the current research is to address this issue more rigorously by testing how the method of group member assignment (i.e., random or self-selected) affects the nature of group dynamics, attitudes toward the group experience, and group outcomes.

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Method and Sample

The research was conducted on marketing students at a residential American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)–accredited business school in northern California. Courses selected for participation included Consumer Behavior, Marketing Research, Sales Force Manage- ment, and Strategic Marketing Management. All of these courses included a group project as part of the class requirements (e.g., a semester-long research project including primary and secondary data collection, data analysis, and a written and oral presentation). A total of 16 sections participated in the research. Two treatment conditions, random or self-selected assignment to groups, were achieved by having instructors utilize one method or the other for the group project in various sections of the courses they were teaching. In seven sections, students were allowed to select their own group members (self-selection condition); in nine other sections, students were randomly assigned to groups (random assignment condition) by the instructor. At the end of the semester, surveys were administered in each class. Stu- dents were instructed verbally and in the written introduction of the survey to focus their thoughts on the group project they had worked on for this particu- lar course. Surveys were collected from 583 respondents. There were 337 respondents in the random condition and 246 in the self-selection condition. Group sizes ranged from two to six, with the modal group size being four. Most of the students were seniors (80.5%) or juniors (14.0%), and a majority were male (61.8%).

MEASURES

A variety of group dynamic, attitude, and outcome measures were col- lected. The group dynamic measures assessed interactions among the stu- dents and processes within their groups (see Table 1 for details). Many of these measures were adopted from prior research on group dynamics (e.g., Chapman & Van Auken, 2001; Deeter-Schmelz, Kennedy, & Ramsey, 2002). Attitude toward the group experience was assessed with a semantic differ- ential scale. A series of eight bipolar 7-point itemized scales was used to assess how the respondents felt about working in the group (see Table 2). This scale has been used previously and appears to have good psychometric properties (Chapman & Van Auken, 2001). A principal components factor analysis with varimax rotation demonstrated the unidimensionality of the scale as all items loaded onto a single factor, explaining 66.96% of the vari- ance. The Cronbach’s coefficient alpha for the attitude toward the group scale has satisfactory reliability (alpha = .93; Nunnally, 1978).

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TABLE 1

Mean Responses on Group Dynamic Measures Based on Method of Group Assignment

 

Random

Self-

Group Dynamic Measure a

Overall

Assignment

Selected

Good communication with each other Were enthusiastic about working together Took interest in each other Resolved conflict effectively Comfortable asking other members for help Confident in group members’ abilities Members followed through on commitments During meetings, group was task oriented Group used meeting times well At meetings, group went straight to work Completed work of other members Worried about my grade on group project Could have worked together better Achieved harmony by avoiding conflict Group argued quite a bit

5.55

5.39

5.78***

5.03

4.82

5.33***

5.14

4.91

5.46***

5.71

5.60

5.86*

5.58

5.47

5.73*

5.36

5.16

5.63***

5.51

5.41

5.64*

5.37

5.48

5.22*

5.40

5.43

5.37

4.94

5.15

4.66***

3.39

3.59

3.12**

3.76

3.88

3.59

4.02

4.14

3.86

5.07

4.98

5.19

1.95

1.98

1.91

a. Ratings are based on a 7-point scale where 1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree.

Significance of difference between random and self-selected groups: *p .05, **p .01. ***p .001.

TABLE 2

Mean Attitude Measures Based on Method of Group Assignment

 

Random

Self-

Attitude Measure a

Overall

Assignment

Selected

Overall attitude toward group Bad/good experience Waste of time/good use of time Valueless/valuable Unsatisfactory/satisfactory Not enjoyable/enjoyable Useless/useful Undesirable/desirable Ineffective/effective

5.22

5.14

5.33*

5.51

5.45

5.60

5.15

5.07

5.25

5.16

5.05

5.30*

5.36

5.27

5.49

5.19

5.13

5.27

5.31

5.21

5.44*

4.79

4.77

4.82

5.30

5.19

5.45**

a. Ratings are based on a 7-point itemized scale where 1 = unfavorable and 7 = favorable.

Significance of difference between random and self-selected groups: *p .10, **p .05.

Data on a variety of outcomes were also collected. The set of outcome measures included such measures as achievement of goals, willingness to work with the group again, anticipated grade for the group project, the acqui-

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TABLE 3

Mean Group Outcome Measures Based on Method of Group Assignment

 

Random

Self-

Outcome Measure

Overall

Assignment

Selected

Achieved goals a Group took pride in work a Made new friends a Individual is proud of work produced a Enjoyed working with group a Desire to work with group again (1 = definitely not, 4 = definitely) Effectiveness of group as a learning tool (1 = very ineffective, 4 = very effective) Degree of conflict (1 = minor, 7 = extreme) Self-assessed grade on quality of group’s work (0 to 100)

5.47

5.39

5.58

5.33

5.21

5.49*

5.17

4.94

5.49***

5.51

5.39

5.68*

5.43

5.27

5.64**

3.13

3.06

3.22*

3.03

3.01

3.06

2.69

2.85

2.50

89.77

89.53

90.11

a. Ratings are based on a 7-point scale where 1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree. Significance of difference between random and self-selected groups: *p .05, **p .01, ***p .001.

sition of new friends, and effectiveness of the group as a learning tool (see Table 3).

Results

MANIPULATION CHECK

The primary objective of the current research was to investigate whether random versus self-selected group assignments made a difference on a vari- ety of group dynamics, attitude, and outcome variables. We believed that one of the primary differences between random and self-selected groups would be the degree to which students knew each other in their groups. Specifically, the randomly assigned groups should include a larger number of students who did not know each other compared to those groups where membership was self-selected. To test for these differences, students were asked to assess how well they knew each of their group members prior to starting the project (1 = did not know at all, 7 = good friend). A new variable was created that reflected the average degree to which each respondent knew fellow group members. Students’ average familiarity with their group members in the random assignment condition was 1.62

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compared to 2.23 in the self-selection condition (t = 6.24, p = .000). The stu- dents in the random assignment condition reported that prior to the group project, they did not know 84.5% of their fellow group members (ratings of 1 and 2 combined on the 7-point familiarity scale). Students in the self-selected groups reported they did not know 72.7% of their group members prior to starting the group project. Furthermore, students in the random assignment treatment reported that only 4.3% of the assigned group members were good friends (ratings of 6 and 7 combined on the familiarity scale), whereas the self-selected group stated that 10.4% of their group members were good friends. These differences in initial degree of social connectedness are statis- tically significant ( χ 2 = 46.57, p < .001). Overall, these results suggest that the random versus self-selection methods of group assignment did have the expected effect of influencing the degree of initial social connectedness within the groups.

IMPACT OF GROUP ASSIGNMENT METHOD ON GROUP DYNAMICS

The data presented in Table 1 suggest the method of group assignment did influence group dynamics. Of the 15 measures of group dynamics, 10 were statistically different because of treatment condition. Compared to students who were randomly assigned to groups, the students in the self-selected groups had better communication with each other, were more enthusiastic about working together, took more interest in each other, and were more con- fident in other team members’ abilities. They were also more likely than stu- dents in the randomly assigned groups to resolve conflict effectively and to be more comfortable asking others in their group for help. The students in the self-selected groups also indicated that it was less likely that group members would do others’work. Compared to the self-selected groups, students in the randomly selected groups felt that members used time in group meetings more efficiently and that the group was more task oriented.

IMPACT OF GROUP ASSIGNMENT ON INDIVIDUAL ATTITUDES TOWARD THE GROUP

The method of group assignment had a modest effect on students’ atti- tudes toward the group. Students in the self-selected groups had a slightly more positive overall attitude toward their group experience than those in the randomly selected groups (means of 5.33 and 5.14, respectively). These stu- dents felt that the group process was more valuable, useful, and effective than their counterparts in the random selection groups.

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IMPACT OF GROUP ASSIGNMENT ON OUTCOME MEASURES

The impact of group assignment method on outcome measures was fairly consistent with the results found for the group dynamics variables. Of the nine outcome variables, five were statistically significant because of treat- ment condition. In each case, the statistically significant differences indi- cated a more positive outcome in the self-selected condition. Students in the self-selection groups took more pride in their work, tended to make more new friends, were more proud of the work produced by the group, enjoyed working with the group, and were more likely to say they would work with the group again. Looking at the results in aggregate, it is also noteworthy to consider the relatively high (i.e., positive) ratings across all group dynamics, attitude, and outcome measures. For example, of the eight semantic differential items relating to group attitudes, all but one were above 5 on a 7-point scale. A simi- lar pattern emerges on the group dynamics measures, with very few of the rat- ings on the 7-point scale falling below 5. These findings suggest that students seem to enjoy their group projects. It appears that a majority of students are working together efficiently and effectively.

Discussion and Conclusion

Feichtner and Davis’s (1985) “Profile for Failure” (p. 70) when using stu- dent groups advised instructors not to allow students to form their own groups. Based on our results, self-selected groups are not a “profile for fail- ure.” In fact, our findings are consistent with other research (Bacon et al., 1999; Mahenthiran & Rouse, 2000) in indicating that the self-selection method of group assignment is preferable to random assignment. Compared to the earlier studies that have investigated the influence of method of assignment on group dynamics, attitudes, and outcomes, the experimental nature of the current study and the variety of measures used provides a considerably improved understanding. Compared to students who were randomly assigned to a group, students in self-selected groups consis- tently rated their groups higher on several dimensions of teamwork, gener- ally had fewer concerns about working in their groups, and had slightly better group attitude and outcome measures. However, students in the self-selected groups reported lower assessments of their group’s efficiency and slightly higher degrees of conflict. Our research found that randomly assigning stu- dents to groups led to inferior group dynamics ratings, slightly less positive attitudes about the group experience, and slightly lower group outcome ratings.

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Fortunately, most groups were able to overcome any process challenges they may have faced to create outcomes that were generally very favorable. For both types of groups, the overall attitude was generally positive, degree of conflict was moderate, and their feelings were similar about the effective- ness of the “group experience” as a learning tool. In general, these results are consistent with the findings of Chapman and Van Auken (2001), who in a study across 32 schools found that students’ overall attitude toward their group experience was relatively positive (5.22 on a 7-point scale). We believe students’ generally positive group experiences may come as a surprise to many instructors. Conversations with colleagues suggest that pro- fessors believe many students do not have positive experiences in their groups. It may be the case that instructor skepticism about students’ experi- ences in groups is adversely affecting the use of groups in business courses. Instructors may avoid group work because of a belief that group projects increase the likelihood of interpersonal problems between students. Further- more, instructors who believe that students do not like group projects may avoid them for fear of negatively affecting their course evaluations. A pro- ductive avenue for future research would be to systematically compare stu- dent and instructor perceptions regarding group projects to assess if large differences exist. The two main concerns with allowing students to self-select into groups appear to be the potential for cronyism within the groups and the idea that when students are employed they will be assigned rather than allowed to self- select into a work group. As far as cronyism is concerned, we found that the degree to which students select friends into their groups is not as great as we previously thought. Given the social nature of marketing students, the cama- raderie within the major, and the residential setting of the college where the research was conducted, we expected that self-selected groups would have a much larger number of acquaintances and friends than the random selection groups. Although the degree of social connectedness was statistically differ- ent between the conditions, to our surprise, the current results did not indicate the presence of a substantial friendship network within the self-selected groups. Contrary to our a priori beliefs, we now believe that self-selected groups may simulate “real-world” work groups more closely than randomly assigned groups. The composition of a team in the workplace would likely include a person or two who knew each other plus others. This is very similar to the composition of the groups in the self-selection condition. In fact, it is highly unlikely that a team in the workplace would be selected on a completely ran- dom basis.

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Although the current study results tend to support the use of self-selected groups over random assignment, the knowledge of which activities are typi- cally performed better by each type of group is informative. With the under- standing that self-selected groups are weaker at time management, instruc- tors can provide specific tips and training tools to address this skill if self- selected groups are used in a classroom setting. When randomly assigned groups are formed, instructors should stress the need for teamwork (perhaps through team-building exercises before the semester-long group project begins). Overall, it appears that self-selected groups do add more value to students’ experiences with group work. If allowing students to select their own groups means they communicate better with each other, have a greater degree of enthusiasm, take more pride in their work, and have a slightly more positive attitude toward working in a group, we say, “Fantastic! Let them select their own groups.”

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