The Differences between Groups and Teams. A Comparative Conceptual Analysis and Practical Implications

Term Paper, 2014

16 Pages



Introduction... 3

The Differences between Groups and Teams... 4

Groups and teams in social psychology... 4

Leadership in groups and teams... 6

Implications and Discussion... 8

Conclusion... 11

References... 13


Groups are inherent to the existence of human beings. The well-known Aristotelian statement about men being social animals by nature encapsulates the importance of groups in that grouping is a fundamentally social phenomenon (Thibaut, 1959; Wetherell, 1996). Human beings and their animal ancestors have always been grouping in order to fulfil needs of social bonding, reproduction and to survive (Tomasello, 1999). Whereas survival is not their primary purpose anymore, different kinds of groups are still present in contemporary societies.

One variety of groups that has gained increasing attention in organisational and academic realms is the team. The concepts of group and team have unwarily been used as seemingly interchangeable without a clear conceptual differentiation (e.g. Ellemers, De Gilder, Haslam, 2004). In the literature on leadership in teams, for example, it has been argued that leaders in teams ought “to do, or get done, whatever is not being adequately handled for group needs” (Hackman Walton, 1986, p. 5). Likewise, in organisational contexts, it has been claimed that “teams and groups are really just the same thing” (Paulus Van der Zee, 2004, p. 477).

Tackling the absence of a clear conceptual and practical distinction between the two terms, the essay at hand forges a comprehensive synopsis of the key differences between groups and teams in the broader field around social psychology. It argues that differentiating between these concepts is of crucial importance both in organisational and scholarly contexts mainly because teams function on the micro rather than the macro level. After a brief overview of the dissimilar appearances of groups and teams in the literature, the two terms are related conceptually before a comparative analysis through the concept of leadership illuminates further key differences. Subsequently, a discussion of potential implications for organizational and academic contexts precedes the final conclusion.

The Differences between Groups and Teams

Groups and teams in social psychology

It is useful to first establish an understanding of the different research traditions and literatures surrounding groups and teams. Teams usually involve field studies in real-world and organisational settings, whereas group studies are conducted in controlled research laboratories, often using experimental designs (Paulus Van der Zee, 2004). Popular press has echoed this division by juxtaposing empirical group literature in opposition to popular angles on teams (Kayser, 1994). In the social psychology literature, chapters on groups and group dynamics rarely cover teams (e.g. Baron Kerr, 2003; Thibaut, 1959). Likewise, organizational and management literature hardly features group chapters (e.g. Swezey Salas, 1992). While this tendency certainly paints an imbalanced and mutually exclusive picture, it is true that teams mostly occur in organizational settings, whereas groups naturally form in various other contexts apart from the organizational one, such as religious faith groups or sports fans.

From a social psychological perspective, a group can be defined as “two or more individuals who are connected to one another by social relationships” (Forsyth, 2010, p. 3). The size of a group ranges from very small numbers of people, such as dyads, to very large collectives, such as crowds, communities and nations (McGrath, Arrow, Berdahl, 2000; Simmel, 1902). Most groups tend to have between two and seven members (Forsyth, 2010; Hare, 1976). The web of social, interpersonal relationships at the heart of a group is based on connectional links between the individual members of that group (Forsyth, 2010; Levi, 2011). Accordingly, even though many groupings of people or collections of individuals may seem highly distinctive and unique at first sight, the links conjoining the individual group members embody the critical element that all groups have in common.

One particular form of a group is referred to as team. In general terms, teams are designated groups of individuals, which are supposed to form a unit that works together toward a common goal (Franz, 2012; Salas, Cooke, Rosen, 2008; West, 2004). More specifically, a team is “a distinguishable set of two or more people who interact, dynamically, interdependently, and adaptively toward a common and valued goal/object/mission, who have each been assigned specific roles or functions to perform, and who have a limited life-span of membership” (Salas, Dickinson, Converse, Tannenbaum, 1992, p. 4). Teams vary in size, but generally remain rather small and do not exceed 15 individuals (Guzzo, Dickson, 1996; Salas et al., 2008). These general definitions serve as an expedient point of departure for the following comparative examination of how groups are different from teams.

On a first note, teams possess important properties of a group in that they feature interpersonal relationships between the individual team members. However, in terms of orientation and function, teams can be considered a special kind of group, which has the function of making its members work together and is oriented primarily toward collectively achieving a particular goal or task (Kozlowski Ilgen, 2006; Sundstrom, De Meuse, Futrell, 1990). By contrast, a group might form based on general similarities of group members, who do not necessarily collaborate toward a shared task (Levi, 2011).

The structured, goal-oriented and task-focused nature of teams becomes clear when considering the example of a team of surgeons, surgical assistants and nurses trying to save a patient’s life in the operating theatre (e.g. Catchpole, Mishra, Handa, McCulloch, 2008; Undre, Sevdalis, Healey, Darzi, Vincent, 2006). Here, a relatively small set of people come together and “dynamically, interdependently, and adaptively” (Salas et al., 1992) interact and react in concert according to the patient’s situation. Saving the patient’s life is the team’s shared goal and upon its successful or unsuccessful completion, the team dissolves again. On the contrary, a family exemplifies the idea of a group in that the family is not necessarily working towards a specific common goal with an expected outcome. In a prehistoric context, families might be seen to have had the goal of surviving together and producing offspring. Thus, there might have been a shared, pragmatic goal but no higher entity or institution that expected a certain outcome of the group, as it is generally the case with a team (Franz, 2012).

Following this, an additional important difference between groups and teams emerges as teams often are subject to or part of a superior entity that defines goals and expects certain outcomes (Guzzo, Dickson, 1996; Ilgen, Hollenbeck, Johnson, Jundt, 2005). Sometimes, the team itself resembles this superior entity, for example when a group of independent journalists or artists comes together to start a project without any commissioner or contracting authority. Even in this case, there is a sense of expected outcome due to the very fact that the team has been formed in the first place. In addition to such formalized expectations, teams can experience varying performance episodes (Marks, Mathieu, Zaccaro, 2001), whereas groups are more stable and rarely have to ‘perform’ under time pressure. This illustrates the importance of the time factor in teams (Levi, 2011).

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The Differences between Groups and Teams. A Comparative Conceptual Analysis and Practical Implications
London School of Economics
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differences, groups, teams, comparative, conceptual, analysis, practical, implications
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Christoph Rosenthal (Author), 2014, The Differences between Groups and Teams. A Comparative Conceptual Analysis and Practical Implications, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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