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Motivating and managing staff groups.

The staff members of a medium-sized CPA firm look forward to a monthly luncheon paid for by the firm. During the meal, employees are recognized and complimented by managers for good performance on specific jobs. If the function lasts over an hour, employees charge the firm for the additional time, so the activities tend to keep moving along. The firm has found the luncheons to be powerful staff motivators.


As a firm's size increases, teams handle the greater and more complex workload. These groups have a number of assets; they are creative, good at identifying problems and innovative. They generally have a greater sum of knowledge and, in many cases, are better at making decisions than individuals alone.

However, while they can be useful in many ways, groups also have characteristics that can diminish their effectiveness and that of the firm. Supervisors should be familiar with three common phenomena--group norms, group think and group shift.

Group norms. The standards adopted by a group may be positive or negative. For instance, a work group may adopt a standard output level for its members. Someone who performs significantly above or below this level may experience adverse reactions from other staff who encourage compliance with the norm. For employees performing at very high levels, management must provide extra compensation, awards, letters of commendation or other forms of appreciation to help counter any negative reactions from average or poor performers. Managers also must encourage all members to strive for higher levels of achievement. This can help raise the standard for output and, with it, overall performance. For example, one firm posted staff members' chargeable hours on its bulletin board; the staff responded by attempting to increase their hours.

Group think. Group think occurs when committee or work team members avoid criticizing other members' ideas. The drive for concurrence becomes more important than the thorough and honest evaluation of alternatives; group members view a matter only from one perspective. Those who have doubts or alternative ideas don't propose them. One result is that only one solution to a problem is considered or a few are but they are not fully examined. Thus, group think can lead to diminished committee or team performance.

Group shift. Group shift occurs when a group adopts a position similar to but more extreme than the initial positions of individual members. For instance, if members of a personal financial planning committee started out more likely to take risky positions than conservative ones, then their final committee position may well be even riskier than initial individual attitudes.


There are a number of ways firm owners and managers can shape these group characteristics to work to their advantage.

Create the right environment. Firms can influence group norms and individual attitudes by treating staff fairly and rewarding individuals for accomplishments that benefit the organization. One firm has found it beneficial to be quite flexible in giving time off to employees for special purposes. For example, an employee requested and was granted one month's leave to prepare for the CPA examination. This valuable employee had been unsuccessful on the exam in the past.

Another approach is to set aside overtime in a time bank. One firm allows employees to accumulate as many as 80 hours to be taken at a later time. As of September 1 each year, any time remaining in the bank is reimbursed in csh. The same firm stresses the positive in its employee evaluation process. Evaluations are based on specific rather than general criteria and are designed to be constructive rather than critical. Written evaluations are first prepared at lower levels but must be approved by a partner before they're presented to the employee.

A supportive environment helps create and maintain positive work attitudes. A considerate management style that demonstrates concern for the well-being, comfort, status and contributions of each member of the firm will help build a positive environment. In addition to the above examples, effective practices include fair and equitable work assignments, acknowledgement of above-average work and immediate and positive feedback on performance.

Satisfaction and perceptions of fairness also are enhanced by respect for and courtesy toward each individual, by listening to the opinions and ideas of others and through fairness and consistency in granting promotions, pay increases and other rewards. Demonstrated consideration for subordinates and rewards for good performance can pay large dividends in greater loyalty and commitment to the firm and its goals.

Control membership. Owners and managers should select team members who will both offer their own opinions and listen to and consider the views of others. Such individuals are less likely to adopt the group think attitudes that restrict sharing of different viewpoints and exclude evaluation of alternatives. One firm we surveyed is careful to integrate into work groups those who tend to discuss their views at length with those who prefer to talk less and get on with the job at hand. This firm also attempts to include both experienced and inexperienced staff in groups whenever possible.

Monitor group procedures. Another useful technique is to encourage members to present and discuss their positions on each agenda item to generate more active participation. This prompts better evaluation of the choices available. The discussion of alternative points of view can be carried to an extreme, but a well-chosen group leader can keep the group on track while still allowing fair evaluation of various options. Including both talkers and doers, as discussed above, also may help.

Another effective procedure is to require that membership be changed periodically to introduce new ideas and personalities.


While committees and work teams are useful and necessary for getting things done, they have characteristics that must be considered and controlled to ensure they function effectively. Establishing an environment conducive to positive group norms can help ensure that group performance is in the best interests of the firm. Decisions that exclude new and possibly better ideas can be avoided by encouraging discussion.

Firms that understand group characteristics can help inspire more effective committee and work team performance.
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Article Details
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Author:Putnam, Karl B.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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