Group Structure and Process

Group structure defines the relationships among different members of the group. It prescribes their social roles (rights, obligations, and ways of behaving) and determines their social status, that is, the esteem in which they are held by others. Social structure is evidenced in organizational charts, policies, and regulations; official job descriptions; and informal rules regarding how things should be done. Group processes such as communication and decision making are channeled by structure and revealed in the ebb and flow of social interaction over time.

Authority refers to the power vested in a position. People who are high in the pecking order (the NASA administrator, the chief astronaut, the mission commander) have the right to tell underlings what to do. People who outrank us may have additional forms of power, such as the power to reward us (put us in line for choice assignments) or punish us (assign us unpleasant duties or get us fired). They may know important inside information that we would like to have, such as knowledge of upcoming assignments. By selectively withholding and divulging such information, they can exert even more control.

The power of social roles is evident in one of the tragedies that befell mountain climbers ascending Mount Everest in the spring of 1996.21 On that ascent there was a sharp distinction between the guides, who had absolute authority and were not to be questioned, and the clients, who had paid fees of up to sixty-five thousand dollars to be escorted to the summit. The clients were quite varied in terms of fitness and ability, ranging from those with extensive climbing records who had already ascended the mountain (and who found the price cheap relative to organizing their own expeditions) to marginally competent but wealthy people intent on realizing their personal dreams.

One client was a highly fit journalist. As the members of this particular expedition were straggling down the mountain during a ferocious storm, a guide approached the journalist client to see how he was doing. Of the pair, the guide was suffering the most from exertion, lack of oxygen, freezing temperatures, and other rigors of the climb. In true superior-subordinate fashion, the conversation dwelt on the welfare of the journalist. Yet, it was the guide who died on the mountain and the journalist who returned home. In retrospect, the journalist realized that the guide's fatigue and confusion were apparent, but the structure of the relationship was such that the issue of the guide's welfare never came up. If the guide and the journalist had been participating as equals, the journalist believes, he would have immediately recognized the true condition of the guide and insisted that they both return to camp, instead of standing by while the guide wandered off looking for stragglers.


Leaders take the initiative in social situations, plan and organize action, motivate others, and elicit cooperation to reach common goals. In the course of this, leaders help the group understand the task at hand, work cooperatively and harmoniously with one another, and withstand threats from outsiders. It's tempting to think of leadership as a oneway process with the leader telling everyone else what to do, but a closer look reveals that leadership is a much more complex interactive process. Leaders respond to suggestions, advice, encouragement, and criticism. In addition, by recognizing and accepting a person as leader, group members validate the leader's status.

When we interpret other people's behavior, we are more likely to focus on their skill, motivation, personality, and other internal forces than on the environmental conditions that act upon them. For example, we may be more likely to attribute aircraft accidents to pilot error than to misleading or faulty information presented to the pilot in the cockpit. This focus is particularly sharp in Western societies, which emphasize individual responsibility and initiative. Given this focus, it is not surprising that many discussions of space crew leaders tended to dwell on leaders' traits.

Jack Stuster's review of effective leaders in isolated and confined settings suggest that, among other things, leaders are alert and have good problem-solving abilities, have good interpersonal skills and the motivation to apply them, are democratically oriented, have high self-confidence, and are credible, flexible, and adaptable.22 Joseph Kubis describes the effective space crew commander as competent, goal or achievement oriented, and interpersonally sensitive, with an awareness of human needs and the importance of opportunities for their satisfaction.23 John Nicholas and Larry Penwell suggest that successful extended-duration crew leaders will be hard working, optimistic, and respectful of the crew. They should be able to take charge during emergencies but otherwise follow a more democratic approach that allows crewmembers to participate in the decision-making process.24

As implied by these descriptions, leaders must engage in two types of activities: instrumental activities that get the work done, and relational activities that promote satisfaction and harmony within the group. Instrumental activities are emotionally neutral acts that include orienting group members to the work, providing fuel for the discussion, answering their technical questions, organizing and coordinating them, and giving them a sense of purpose and direction. Relational activities are emotionally toned acts aimed toward maintaining positive attitudes, preserving group integrity, and building morale. Giving people emotional support by listening carefully and offering reassurance, soothing hurt feelings, and telling jokes to break the tension are among the relational activities that help build morale.

According to Robert Helmreich, Clay Foushee, and their associates, the strong, silent, macho or "stick and rudder" individuals who keep their emotions to themselves and lack sensitivity to other people may have made great test pilots and fine choices for solo space missions.25 However, when we turn to crews consisting of two, three, or more individuals—such as crews of large, multiengined aircraft or space missions from Gemini forward—relational skills are equally important.

One early study found that, in comparison to less effective airline pilots, more effective pilots recognized the need for sensitivity to other crewmembers' feelings.26 They knew that it was important to communicate with other crewmembers so that they all had the necessary information. These pilots did not see themselves as infallible, and they encouraged subordinates to question their actions when necessary. The less effective pilots tended toward more authoritarian or directive leadership styles and were less likely to acknowledge their own limitations.

On the whole, pilots of multiengined aircraft who are sensitive to other people are rated more highly by their crews and perform at a higher level than pilots who have high technical competence, limited interpersonal skills, and a large ego. It is leaders who have high scores in both dimensions whom we hope to find leading space expeditions.

Perhaps instrumental and relational activities are best viewed as tools that can be used as needed. If crewmembers are uncertain what to do, the leader may have to draw heavily on instrumental skills. If, on the other hand, there is flagging motivation or conflicts that keep the group from moving ahead, the leader may draw on relational skills to resolve conflicts or encourage buy in. Then again, if the crew is both willing and able to do the job, perhaps the wisest strategy for the leader may be one of receding into the background and letting the group forge ahead.27


Prompt, accurate communication is vital. If crewmembers remain silent at the wrong time, their fellow crewmembers may not receive essential information. Yet, if everyone continually bombards everyone else with information, progress slows and chaos could reign. If there is an imbalance it is usually due to too little communication rather than too much. For example, if an aircraft or shuttle pilot seems deeply preoccupied or somehow unapproachable, subordinates may fail to volunteer crucial information. In fact, some aircraft accidents might have been prevented if there had been more open communication with the pilot.28

Mary M. Connors points out that several factors complicate person-to-person communication in space.29 The high noise levels during takeoff can make it difficult for people to communicate with one another. The high background noise emanating from life support equipment can make it difficult for people to hear one another, particularly if there is reduced air pressure within the cabin. Astronauts reported that, in the cavernous interior of Skylab, their voices dropped off quickly and they had to shout to be heard. International crewmembers who lack fluency in a common tongue may have difficulty following instructions (particularly in dangerous situations when they are under stress), and they may run afoul of interpersonal difficulties. A crewmember who inadvertently chooses the wrong words when trying to provide someone from another country with emotional support may come across as sarcastic or hostile.

Much communication occurs nonverbally—through facial expressions, postures, gestures, and tenor of voice. Unfortunately, under conditions of microgravity fluids tend to pool in such a way that space-farers' faces seem puffy and less expressive. In addition, as a spacefarer floats around in various positions and orientations, his or her body language may be lost. Furthermore, notes Connors, distancing cues become less reliable. One way we can tell how other people feel about us is by how close they stand. On Earth, it takes energy for people to move away from one another, but in microgravity it takes energy for them to remain nearby.

Alan Kelly and Nick Kanas's survey of spacefarers underscores the need for fluency in a common language and confirms that ambient noise and facial swelling hinders communication between crewmem-bers.30 Space sickness also makes it difficult to communicate—perhaps no big surprise. Certain types of complex communication, such as reading, writing, and gesturing, tend to decline over time. On the other hand, shared experiences and the excitement of spaceflight, living together in close quarters, and isolation from Earth tend to facilitate communication among spacefarers.


Group norms are the formal and informal rules that prescribe particular ways of looking at the world and doing things. Norms define what is right and proper in the eyes of the group.31 Norms arise in part as carryovers from other situations. Some of the military norms prevalent in the early days of spaceflight were carried over into the civilian space program. Norms are based also on precedents set over time. Something that is done in the same way again and again becomes "the way things are done around here." Generations of cosmonauts have watched a patriotic movie entitled The White Sun of the Desert the night before departure, and have (in an unrelated ritual) urinated on the right rear bus tire at the launch site. (Women take part by bringing bottles of urine.)32 Norms are based also on specific events in the group history. Certain critical incidents involve behaviors that become standard later on.

People who step out of line in isolated environments may endanger everyone else. Because of this, such settings may intensify pressures to conform. Deviants who violate the ways of the group are likely to provoke sharp comments and other actions intended to get them to shape up and "get with the program." People respond to nonconformists first by directing more comments their way and then by ostracism; that is, by treating that person as if he or she no longer exists. The recalcitrant nonconformist is psychologically if not physically rejected from the group.

Observations of Antarctic personnel underscore two adverse consequences of rejection. First, the rejected person may simply drift off mentally and in this way deprive the crew of his services. Whereas in some Antarctic settings it may be possible for someone else to take up the slack, this is less likely to be true in space where crews are kept as small as possible. Second, because the crew is isolated there is nowhere else for that person to turn for companionship. After a tiff with one's family, coworkers may seem warm and nurturing, and after a dispute at work it is the family that comforts one. In an isolated location there are no such buffers, and a downward spiral may ensue. In Antarctica and perhaps in space rejection can lead to the long-eye syndrome also known as a "twelve mile stare in a six mile room."33


Cohesiveness refers to the bonds that tie group members to one another. Cohesiveness is, in essence, the social glue that makes some groups more grouplike than others. In comparison to members of non-cohesive groups, members of cohesive groups take greater pleasure in group membership, are more involved in the group, and are more dedicated to the group's goals. Unless we are contemplating our enemies, we prefer a highly cohesive group to a loosely knit assemblage of people who care little for one another and lack commitment to the cause.

Most of the conditions known to strengthen cohesiveness should work to the benefit of space crews. People take more pride in reaching difficult goals than in attaining easy ones, and a high price of membership (or severe initiation) tends to fortify a group.34 There certainly is a high price of admission to a space crew. A spacefarer's initiation includes surviving a long and tough selection process, undergoing rigorous training, enduring dangerous and difficult living conditions, and all of the other challenges discussed in this book.

Groups take pride in seeing themselves as set off from and better than other groups. This is illustrated by the sense of elitism among those Antarctic personnel destined to stay for the winter, who feel superior when they compare themselves to "summer tourists," who will soon depart for home. Expedition astronauts selected for a special mission (such as a trip to Mars) may consider themselves better than crews selected for routine shuttle flights. Most crucial of all, the mission itself is a goal of overriding importance that should maximize teamwork and minimize conflict.

Cohesiveness tends to increase adherence to group norms. If group norms favor high levels of productivity and achievement, as is likely in the case of a space crew, then high cohesiveness is associated with high performance. If, on the other hand, norms favor doing as little as possible or goofing off (such norms sometimes develop among some work groups), then high cohesiveness may actually undermine performance. There seems to be little risk of this right now, but the situation may arise at some future time when space becomes home to large numbers of industrial workers.

Cohesive groups tend to have tight boundaries. There is a sharp distinction between the "in group" and the "out group." This helps the group ward off threats from external parties but may also contribute to intergroup conflict. Tight boundaries also make it difficult for an outsider or newcomer to join a group. This was seen in the FNG (fucking new guy) phenomena among U.S. troops in Vietnam, which kept newcomers from being assimilated into a combat team until they had proven themselves under fire.

Decision Making

We can arrange decision-making processes along an autocratic-democratic continuum. At the autocratic end of the scale, the leader makes unilateral decisions. As we move from the autocratic to the democratic end of the scale, we find a number of strategies whereby the leader consults with followers but then makes the decisions on his or her own, and then strategies where people vote. Democratic decision-making includes representative democracies, where a few people vote as representatives of their constituencies, and full democracies, where everyone votes. Finally, there is discussion to consensus. Under the latter procedure, the group keeps talking about the issue until everyone reaches full agreement.

The best or most effective strategy depends on several considera-tions.35 One is the amount of time available. If there are tremendous time pressures, then the leader is not able to solicit the members' opinions and an autocratic decision is the only possibility. The leader's expertise is important too. If he or she is more knowledgeable than the average crewmember, then attending to followers' ideas could lower the quality of the decision. If the leader is relatively inexperienced, it makes sense to listen to the wisdom of the group. Another consideration is group buy in. In part because we like to be consulted, and in part because we have a better understanding of decisions that we have helped make, we are more likely to accept democratic decisions. If the group reaches consensus there are no "losers," and for this reason the decision is easy to implement.

When should decisions be made by support personnel and when should they be made by the commander and crew in space? This is not an easy call. The actual flight crew is only a small part of the mission. It also includes people who track and monitor the flight, undertake recovery, and the like. It would not do, for example, for a crew to make an arbitrary, unilateral decision to remain in orbit for a couple of extra days or come home a week early. Under many conditions mission control makes the difference between life and death. On occasion, fellow astronauts have entered simulators and solved problems that were endangering their colleagues in space. Yet, there are many areas where a decision could be made on the ground or in space.

NASA has a reputation for micromanagement, that is, looking over the astronauts' shoulders and controlling their every move. In the early days of spaceflight, this made considerable sense. Ground-based personnel using telemetered data had a better understanding of the course of the mission than did the flying astronauts. It was ground personnel, not the astronaut, who had evidence that the Mercury capsule's reentry shield might be detached and who struggled with the possibility that John Glenn would be incinerated on reentering the atmosphere. Communication with the space capsule was instant, assured by strategically located centers that provided almost continuous communication as the capsule orbited Earth. Onboard computers of that day were limited by today's standards. Retaining centralized control—trying to manage everything from Earth—makes sense when people in Moscow or Houston have a lot more knowledge and expertise than do people aboard the craft, when they have a good understanding of the conditions confronting the spacefarers, and when there is excellent communication between Earth and space.

Today, powerful computers are carried into space. These contain data banks and programs that will help the crew make good decisions onboard. As crews become larger, there will be more expertise within the crew, and this also will contribute to good decisions at the local level. As spacefarers travel to Mars and beyond, communication with

Earth will take longer and longer. These delays mean that crews must become more self-reliant, particularly in emergency situations that demand prompt responses.

Shifting decision-making authority from NASA to the space crew is consistent with the emerging managerial practice of empowerment; that is, letting the people who are closest to the problem make the decision. Empowerment means that mission planners and managers would disseminate information to crewmembers rather than "playing it close to the vest." They would ask crewmembers questions rather than tell them what to do, give them the freedom to make choices, and provide the support they need for implementation and follow-through. Empowerment is based on the belief that (1) those closest to a problem are the ones most likely to find a solution to it, (2) jobs become more rewarding when people make decisions for themselves, (3) work is done quicker because there is less need for information to be shuffled from place to place, and (4) the manager's time is better spent on other activities such as working on budgets or planning the next mission.

NASA is changing its communication strategy as we enter the era of the ISS, and this will result in less communication with the crew.36 There will be fewer people in the Mission Control Center, except during some specialized operations. This gives the support personnel freedom to work on other jobs during the long ISS missions. (They can be rapidly summoned if need be.) Eventually, computers will communicate between ground and spacecraft, and people will be out of the loop unless the computer determines that human intervention is necessary. Otherwise operations will proceed with minimal intervention from the ground.


Interpersonal tensions are heightened as a result of the frustrations and hardships of the environment coupled with no opportunity for escape. People in isolated and confined groups are aware that the situation is explosive, and they work hard to keep their feelings under control. Some believe that they must "walk on eggshells," and they long to return to a place where they can be more forthright and direct when dealing with others. During one early Salyut mission, two cosmonauts had barely settled in when they had a falling out, and they essentially ignored each other for the duration of the mission, even though they were cooped up in a single module.37 In early 2000, during a long-duration mission simulation for the ISS, two male participants got into a drunken brawl and pressed unwanted affections on a female participant. She successfully fought them off, but for the remainder of the confinement the knives were carefully hidden from the brawlers. The chances of friction with another crewmember may increase with mission length, but it is not necessary for people to be cooped up with one another for a month or more to find one another irritating.

Unpleasant personal characteristics or mannerisms loom large in isolation and confinement. Perhaps because people who are dirty, who snore, or who have other obnoxious habits are impossible to escape, other people's patience with them quickly wears thin. Almost every Antarctic team boasts someone who delights in never bathing and in wearing the same filthy clothes for weeks at a time.

Real or imagined slights may assume large proportions. Chester Pierce described the role of micro-aggressions—barely detectable aggressive acts—that have strong cumulative effects.38 Micro-aggressive acts include inappropriate facial expressions (such as grimacing or grinning), contradiction, sarcasm, and anything else that undermines the victim's sense of self-worth. Because each of these assaults is small, it is difficult for the aggrieved party to convince others that he or she is being maltreated or to mount an effective defense.

Inequity, or unfair work assignments, is another source of conflict. In a study of a long and dangerous Antarctic trek, Gloria Leon and her colleagues found that giving some people less desirable assignments than others—consigning them, perhaps, to the equivalent of permanent dish-washing duty at home—caused tensions.39 Perhaps above all, leaders must recognize that part of the job is to listen carefully, offer emotional support, and find creative ways to resolve grievances and disputes without lowering performance expectations or making special concessions. This requires sensitivity, skill, and a determination to meet the relational obligations of leadership.


A classic finding in sociology is that a three-person group will break up into a coalition of two persons against one, "the outsider." A Mir simulation study conducted at Moscow's Institute for Biomedical Problems by Vadim Gushin and his colleagues found that despite the best intentions to form a cohesive group, two different three-person crews split into two-one subgroups, with the majority quite critical of the outsider.40 The coalition considered the outsider infantile and impractical, and later criticism extended to his professional credentials, as well as his behaviors. These divisions occurred despite efforts by all three persons to view each other positively and to develop cohesiveness by becoming similar to one another psychologically.

There are many ways that crews of different sizes could break up into warring factions. Typically, notes Larry W. Penwell, intergroup conflicts are evidenced in own group bias (an inflated evaluation of one's own group and discrimination against the "out group").41 Each group tends to deny its own weaknesses and contributions to the problem, and sees the other group as an enemy. Hostility between the two groups increases and communication declines. Leaders adopt more authoritarian styles, and followers become more compliant. In fact, to reassert their hold over their groups, some leaders may agitate their groups about real or imagined enemies.

Some sailing expeditions of the nineteenth century combined scientists and seamen. These two groups, notes Ben Finney, had very different backgrounds and interests.42 On the whole, the seamen were uneducated and preoccupied by practical matters. They were used to taking their lives in their hands and enduring harsh discipline. The scientists, on the other hand, were educated, oftentimes wealthy, and devoted to abstract, otherworldly pursuits. They were not subjected to the same harsh disciplinary measures as the seamen. When hostility arose between the two groups, the seamen found ways to undermine the scientists' work, either by failing to cooperate fully or by sabotage.

Divisions along occupational lines have been observed in Antarctica and in outer space. Harland reports that in the Russian space program, when a third seat was added to Soyuz and the two cosmonauts were joined by a physician, the doctor was considered an outsider.43 Similarly, foreign researchers were not viewed as members of the cosmonaut team, but as guests to be looked after. In the U.S. space program, we might expect a division between the pilots and the mission specialists, who are the "real" astronauts, and the payload specialists, who are less versed in spacefaring but have specific scientific or other duties. This division may be exacerbated because the payload specialists tend to be assigned only one mission and may not join the crew until after it has already completed most of its training.

Divisions along gender, ethnic, and national lines are other possi bilities. At least one cosmonaut refused to serve on the ISS under an American commander, and was transferred to a Mir crew.44 Penwell adds that divisions might form among people who live in different modules on a space station or who arrive at a destination such as Mars via a different spacecraft.45

Conflicts with Mission Control

Tense relations and conflicts with mission control deserve serious attention. The recent Mir simulation studies conducted by Vadim Gushin and his associates found that, after about a month in isolation, crews tended to become more egocentric and more sensitive when communicating with mission control. Also after about a month, communication decreased. To some extent this is understandable because the simulated crew had many of their questions answered during the early weeks of confinement and developed increasing autonomy over time. However, there was also evidence of psychological withdrawal: subjects were shutting themselves off psychologically and were filtering or censoring what they said to the support personnel. The effect could be more or less pronounced, depending on the specific mission control team (it took four such teams to provide continuous support). Some teams had better styles for communicating. The researchers point out that nonoptimal communication styles can have adverse psychological effects as well as can restrict the flow of crucial information. One type of communication that did increase over time was crewmember requests for information about what was going on in the outside world.46 Spacefarers have had emotionally charged exchanges with mission control and on occasion have failed to follow instructions.47 In one instance, begging off on the grounds that he had a head cold, an astronaut failed to don his required space helmet as the space capsule returned to Earth. In another instance, an astronaut removed biosensors intended to monitor heart function. Eugene Cernan reports that one early Apollo crew ignored instructions, broke rules, and regaled listeners with a stream of snide comments and complaints.48 "For eleven days they did two things extraordinarily well," Cernan writes: "successfully performing every test and pissing off about everybody in the program, from grunt engineer to flight director." None of these astronauts ever flew again. But the most celebrated and controversial episode during the early years of the U.S. space program was the so-called Skylab rebellion.

In essence, NASA had planned every moment of every day for this crew's three-month mission. Headquarters' plans did not, however, take into account the time required to erect the apparatus or the difficulty of doing work in space. The crew considered it unrealistic to wake up at the designated time, go straight to work, break to eat, go back to work, have supper, and then return for sleep. At one point, the crew insisted on completing an experiment, rather than abandoning it in midstream just to start the next experiment on schedule, and they even took a couple of days off.

There are two interpretations of this. According to the more dramatic account, set forth in H. S. F. Cooper's book A House in Space, tensions mounted until the Skylab crew refused to complete assigned work and essentially staged a sit-down strike.49 According to the milder account, the crew had worked very hard during its first few weeks in space, and at one point, fearful of cumulative fatigue, arranged to take a day off and adjust their work schedule.50

Hostility to and even occasional defiance of mission control may serve some useful purposes for a crew. The tensions generated within the group may be relieved by redirection to outsiders. That is, it might be better to become angry with someone hundreds of thousands of kilometers away than with the person strapped into the adjacent canvas couch. Furthermore, perceiving mission control as a common enemy can enhance cohesiveness within the group.

Jerry Linenger reports fairly severe conflicts with Russian mission control during his five months aboard Mir.51 Although he was pleased with the harmony within the crew, he was disappointed with the manner in which the ground control interacted with the crew, breaking promises, yelling, and blaming the crew for everything that went wrong. He believed that ground control personnel couldn't be trusted and that, rather than providing the crew with support, they were the crew's nemesis. Meanwhile, as is common in cases of conflict, people on the ground saw the crew as the problem. As might be expected from prior research on conflict and cohesiveness, Linenger found that strained relations with support personnel strengthened the bonds among the crewmembers.

Refusing to wear a helmet, directing rude comments to the ground, and even participating in a "sit-down strike" seem rather far removed from, say, refusing to obey a direct order to return to Earth or pushing an unclad NASA official out of an air lock. In any case, there have been conflicts in space and there will be conflicts again. At some point, some of these conflicts may have grave consequences. We cannot hope to eliminate conflict, but selecting people with interpersonal sensitivity, as well as providing awareness training and skilled leadership that attends to both the work-related and emotional needs of the crew, should keep conflict from becoming too destructive.

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