Team work and Cognitive Style. A multi-methodological study of the relationship between cognitive styles and group processes

Vincenza Priola and Dr John L. Smith

University of Sunderland Business School

The principles of involvement and empowerment have become popular in western organisations during the past fifteen years. They represent one of the many responses that have emerged in managerial theories and practices in order to face complexity and continuous changes in the external environment. As a part of this process, the introduction of team work (from work teams to self managed teams) has received considerable attention and is believed to result in considerable organisational benefits.

It is known however that a number of factors influence the effectiveness of teamwork. For instance, research has shown that apart from the need to assemble a team containing the skills and knowledge required, other characteristics of group composition are critical for effective decision-making. Among the principle variables affecting their functioning are the personalities of the group members and their effect on the overall group processes.

One particular variable relating to personality which the author believes is partly responsible for shaping the overall effectiveness of work groups is cognitive style which refers to consistent differences in the way individuals perceive, organise, process and evaluate information. These differences manifest themselves as alternative approaches to problem solving, decision-making and the communication of ideas. This, therefore, affects interpersonal functioning and the way individuals interact with each other.

This paper will present the findings of a two-phase research project which explores the effect of individual cognitive styles on group processes in the light of two different types of task/setting (organic vs. Mechanistic). The paper will begin by presenting the findings of analyses of behaviour of self-managed teams engaged in real world projects (11 teams). Results are analysed according to the orthodox/positivist approach. It is argued that a quantitative analysis enabled us to understand group behaviour as connected to individual cognitive style in a rigid and accurate fashion. A risk of this representation however is that variability is concealed and that for the sake of repeatability, validation and categorisation much relevant information may be lost.

Without discrediting the approach and recognising its strengths, the second part of the paper will attempt to enhance initial findings by looking at the ways in which group members, involved in a mechanistic task, construct meanings, experience and practice of work-group. In particular, applying a discursive approach, it will explore the discourses on which members of three different groups (homogeneous-intuitivist, homogeneous-analytic and heterogeneous) draw upon in the light of their cognitive styles. The paper will end with a discussion on the potential impact of these findings on overall organisational behaviour.

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