President’s Column

Craig Parks, Ph.D.
Craig Parks, Ph.D.

Getting Along in Groups

Regardless of which side of the political aisle you favor, I think we would all agree that civility between groups is in diminishing supply right now.  Every group seems to be mad at some other group(s).  This has led to calls, again on both sides of the aisles, for a return to calm, mannered conversation.

One can question how nasty the interaction truly has been.  Republicans in 1800 called John Adams a hermaphrodite, and the Federalists in turn labeled Thomas Jefferson an atheist who was hell-bent on opening the borders to foreign radicals.  In the 1884 election, James Blaine was called the “Continental Liar from the State of Maine” because of his past history of questionable business dealings, and James Garfield was exposed as having fathered a child out of wedlock.  And nothing we saw this year rivals 1828, when John Quincy Adams was alleged to have served as a pimp while ambassador to Russia, and Andrew Jackson was portrayed as a mentally unstable illiterate whose mother was a prostitute for the English Navy, and whose wife was a bigamist because she had allegedly married Andrew before her divorce was finalized.  Indeed, this campaign was so brutal that historians generally agree it was a major factor in Jackson’s wife dying of a heart attack a few weeks before Andrew’s inauguration.  But all of this aside, it is certainly clear from polling data that most Americans were unhappy with the tenor of the 2016 election season, and would like to see decorum returned to the process.

This, then, raises a question for me: How important is it for opposing groups to be calm and friendly while discussing their differences?  My colleague in Political Science here at Washington State, Cornell Clayton, is receiving media attention at the moment for suggesting that civility between disputing groups is not only not essential, but may be problematic for resolution of the disagreement.  His argument is that groups that feel powerless make their greatest strides toward rectifying the injustice by being belligerent, forceful, and in your face rather than polite.  By way of comparison, Cornell cites the unrest of the late 1960’s, which was considerably more vicious than today, and was marked by violence and assassination.  In 2016, the Democratic upstart who challenged the presumptive heir was not murdered, cities did not burn as a result of protests by African-Americans about mistreatment by law enforcement, campus buildings were not firebombed, and protesters did not get beaten at the political conventions.  Cornell notes that we emerged from that turbulent time with a centrist outlook that persisted for 40-plus years.

What implications does this line of argument have for those of us who work with small groups?  Quite a few, I think.  It implies that hostile behavior within the group needs to be investigated before it is suppressed.  It implies that group norms need to be periodically revisited and questioned as to whether they remain (or ever were) appropriate for the group.  It implies that different points of view need to be heard and processed, and if they cannot be acted upon, the inaction needs to be justified.  It implies that the majority preference is not always the best preference.  While these might seem common-sense statements to you, we know from much research that they do not often describe what occurs in a group.  Dissenters are pressured to conform, ostracized, and sometimes expelled from the group.  Group members who seek revenge and engage in vengeful acts are usually sending a message to group leaders that a situation needs correction.  Groups hang onto norms long past their sell-by dates, often to the group’s detriment.  Procedural injustice, or the sense that one is not being heard or taken seriously, is the form of injustice that individuals are most likely to report experiencing in a group.  “Majority rules” is by far the most common form of group decision-making rule.  This is not to say that groups need to be in a state of constant revision, or that majorities are never right, or that rebels are always right, rather my point is that too often groups get stuck in their ways, and this might occur with less frequency if we could arm groups with some tools that would encourage self-study and assist with modification of how they go about their business.  Our colleagues in organizational psychology have been working on this problem for a while, and have made small strides, but there remains much room for innovation.

My university has its accreditation review this coming fall, and so our self-study report is due over the summer.  As I write this, our Board of Regents is going over the (hopefully final) draft.  As a member of the team that assembled our magnum opus, I am proud of the report.  It tells a good story about WSU, highlights our successes, documents what we next need to work on.  But getting people to contribute to it was a headache.  Not because of the workload—most contributors had to write no more than a page or two—but because people did not want to engage in the analysis.  “Things are fine, so why do we need to do this?” was a common complaint I received.  How do we get past this mindset?  How do we encourage groups to take a step back, look at what they are doing, and listen to others who have thoughts about different ways to operate?  It’s not a problem that can be solved with one study, or even one series of studies, but it is a problem that we are well-positioned to tackle.