Communication Currents

The Group Link

August 1, 2010
Organizational Communication

When an individual joins an organization, a relationship begins -- a relationship defined and created in communication. Relationships between members and organizations are linked to employee satisfaction, commitment, decision-making influence, and other important outcomes. But how does one communicate and maintain a sense of commitment and identification with something as intangible as an organization? The answer, in part, is through groups. Groups are an important part of our lives, including our experience with organizations.

We were interested in how groups link individuals and organizations by centering on the communication concepts of identity and organizational identification. Broadly defined, identity refers to a sense of self grounding in values, beliefs, and the like. Individuals identify with organizations when they perceive their identity as similar to the organizations; that is, they share the values, beliefs, and goals of the organization. They “disidentify” with the organization when their personal identity conflicts with some element of the organization; for example, a person might disagree with an organizational decision or policy. Individuals communicate their identities, including their organizational identity, through a variety of ways including interaction with others, language, clothing, use of physical space, and other decisions people make about their lives.

We studied a Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) church in the Western United States. The church is a large organization with approximately 2,500 members and provides opportunities for group interaction via their Sabbath School classes (SSCs). These groups meet weekly and are open to any who want to attend to discuss issues related to the church and the larger SDA organization. Interviews with members and videotaped meetings from all seven SSC groups active at the time of this case study revealed three ways groups link individual members to the larger organization.

First, groups provide individuals with an important connection to the organization. In particular, groups help members link their individual identity to that of the larger organization, essentially helping them feel a part of the organization. One participant in our study explained that the group influenced his identity as an Adventist by providing a place to explore or a process of “finding out what I thought” about Adventism. Another put it clearly, stating, “My class is one of my ways of staying connected to the church.”

When members' identities conflict with that of the organization because of different values or disagreements with organizational policies or decisions, they often experience internal conflicts and uncertainty regarding continued membership in the organization. Group interaction helps individuals manage such internal conflicts by providing opportunities for discussion and learning how to restructure or rethink their relationship with the organization. In particular, group interaction exposes members to new and different ideas that help maintain consistency between an individual identity and an aspect of the organizational identity. As one participant in our study explained, being exposed to more ideas in the SSC group “broadens my understanding of the church as a whole, more than just me” and “helped me to better understand …the church and how I fit into the church.”  

Restructuring was also revealed in videotapes of group interaction. For example, during one meeting a member noted that the Church's strict Sabbath observance requirements were a source of struggle and inconsistency growing up. As he stated, “We couldn't ride our bicycle on Sabbath but we could get in our car and go for a ride.” The group discussed the issue at length until one member said, “There is a story in the bible that Jesus told where he separated the sheep from the goats. And they came back to him and said, 'why am I a goat or sheep?' The answer wasn't how you kept the Sabbath, or didn't keep the Sabbath; it was how you treated those around you.” Another replied, “I really agree with the sheep and the goat story. One of my personal struggles is remembering that God works with individuals differently.”

In this example, via group interaction, members constructed an organizational identity accepting of multiple approaches to Sabbath observance. This insight helped group members to reduce their internal conflict by restructuring their personal and organizational identities, essentially drawing those identities closer together.

Sometimes members accept, rather than attempt to resolve, conflicts between their personal identity and the organization's identity. In such cases, groups function as a buffer between the individual and the organization, providing a safe and comfortable environment for recognizing and accepting times when personal and organizational identities are in conflict. As one interview participant explained, “it is wonderful to go and share my views and talk with other people who share their ideas. And that is so refreshing after a week of keeping my personal opinions to myself.” Another told of a period during which she experienced serious doubts about the local SDA organization. At that time, her family life was in turmoil and she felt unsupported by the church.

The SSC group helped her through that experience, not by helping her restructure her identity to be consistent with that of the organization, but instead by providing support and allowing her to disidentify with the organization. As she explained her struggle, she concluded,'After a long time the one thing that really helped me during that time was my Sabbath School Class… [it] really helped me to understand that I was to stay close to God… that I had to divorce the church from the [SDA] institution.I had to do that for my own sanity.”

Organizational groups are typically considered important contexts for work-related activities such as brainstorming and decision making. As our study shows, organizational leaders should also recognize groups as important ways for individuals to maintain links with the larger organization. Such groups could include more traditional forms used in organizations such as task forces, ad hoc committees, and standing committees.

Organizational leaders should also encourage and support groups specifically designed as places for open discussion such as management and staff support groups and member groups organized around various interests. For example, many universities have women faculty groups (often sponsored by national organizations), various minority faculty and staff employee groups, or faculty and staff interest groups. Such groups are important contexts in which various employee groups can discuss their unique circumstances, needs, and (dis)connections with the larger organization.

Groups can also help organizations and members navigate organizational change by helping to reduce the stress and disunity that organizational change often entails. Providing a context for members to express their experiences could also offer opportunities for multiple perspective-taking and/or the generation of innovative ideas for dealing with organizational concerns. This could be accomplished through a variety of mediums including face-to-face and computer-mediated formats. Regardless of the purpose or format, groups are a key element in maintaining healthy individual-organization relationships.

About the author (s)

Deborah Silva

Walla Walla University

Associate Professor

Patricia M. Sias

Washington State University