What characterizes a healthy group?
One of my favorite books is T-Group Theory and Laboratory Method, a collection of essays on group dynamics from the 1950s and early '60s compiled by Leland Bradford, Jack Gibb and Ken Benne. These three men were among the originators of the T-group process in the late 1940s that today forms the basis of our Interpersonal Dynamics course at Stanford (more commonly known as Touchy Feely).
Benne's article on the history of T-groups references an earlier piece by Bradford that contains this list of "symptoms of group growth or strength," and I find it a useful tool to assess the health of any group in any setting:
A. Excellence of intercommunication among group members (common understanding, semantic sensitivity, permissiveness to discuss freely and not defensively, among others).
B. Group objectivity toward its own functioning (degree to which the group...[can] make and accept evaluations and analysis of its own functioning).
C. Acceptance of group responsibilities as members (willingness to accept and share leadership functions and membership responsibilities, as well as sensitivity to and encouragement of the potential contribution of each member).
D. Group cohesion or ego strength (sufficient to permit assimilation of new ideas and new members, to use conflict instead of being destroyed by it, to hold to long-term goals, and to profit from both failure and from success situations).
E. Group ability to inform itself and to think straight (ability to use resources both within and without the group and to detect and correct fallacies in group thinking).
F. Ability of group to detect and control rhythms of group metabolism (fatigue, tension, tempo, pace, emotional atmosphere).
G. Ability of group to recognize, control, and employ significant sociometric factors in its own growth.
H. Ability of group to integrate member ideologies, needs, and goals within common group traditions, ideology, and goals.
I. Ability of the group to create new functions and groups as needed and to terminate its existence when appropriate.
(Sociometry is the quantitative study of social relationships, which--like T-groups--enjoyed popularity in the 1950s and '60s before lapsing into obscurity. I'm not sure what Bradford is specifically referring to here, but I can imagine any number of factors: who talks most, who talks least, who talks to whom and how often, who initiates ideas, who agrees, who resists, etc.)
T-groups lend themselves well to this analysis because one of their functions is to serve as a sort of "meta-group"--to highlight group dynamics to the group's members as they are in the process of enacting those same dynamics.
But any group in which members feel sufficient safety and trust can use this list to assess their own effectiveness and health. I emphasize safety because naming and discussing group dynamics in any group is sure to generate anxiety among most, if not all, members and may even trigger strong feelings of defensiveness.
The key is to build safety and increase trust through a number of steps, including clarification of group norms, strengthening relationships among members, candid feedback (both positive and negative), individual disclosures, and a slowly but steadily expanding range of acceptable emotional expression. A challenge is that many of the social norms and display rules that influence our behavior in groups resist these dynamics, at least in conventional U.S. business culture. But it's worth noting that forward progress in any one of these areas tends to support progress in the others.
Photo by Emergency Brake. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.