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Group observation: Red Dwarf

This is an assignment written as a part of a unit on BA (Hons) Communication and Media named Groups, Teams and Organisation. The essay was written as a group, alongside Geo Willis, Jess Gatford and Kay Tang and observes various elements of group interaction in the television programme Red Dwarf.

This observation looked at the three parts of the Red Dwarf special, Back to Earth, in order to provide the required amount of group interaction. Content analysis of this material will be discussed with reference to the following aspects: group dynamics, effective communication and discussion, roles, leadership, decision-making, passivity and assertiveness, listening, stress and motivation. The size of the group is important regarding communication. Brilhart & Galanes (1998) suggest that smaller groups are able to achieve effective communication, as larger groups can complicate discussion and hinder task performance. The group that will be analysed consists of four members of a space crew, Lister, Kryten, Rimmer and Cat. All members are from very different backgrounds and bring different characteristics and qualities to the group. It should be noted that their dysfunctionality, used for comedic effect, and their status as an emergent (rather than an appointed) group often means that their behaviour as a group is atypical. This will be taken into account where theory is applied, as it may not be directly relatable to a fictional, comedic group, but is still relevant to the analysis of the group interaction.

Brilhart & Galanes state that “Communication involves encoding, sending, hearing, interpreting, and responding to messages” (1998:50). There are several factors that enable people to communicate effectively. A large part of the ability to communicate effectively is the skill of listening. Listening comprises the steps of hearing and interpreting. Signs of good listening skills include the ability to pay attention to context and the feelings of the speaker through verbal and non-verbal communication, by helping the speaker to clarify points by asking questions and by the ability to interpret silences accurately. In Red Dwarf, three of the characters display signs of good listening skills these being: Lister, Kryten and Rimmer. In direct contrast, Cat demonstrates evidence of poor listening skills such as asking questions about an issue that has already been explained and making comments that are deemed irrelevant to the discussion of the group’s goal.

Another determinant of effective communication is the level of ‘noise’. Within interaction, ‘noise’ refers to any interference within any stage of communication creating confusion and misunderstanding between group members (Brilhart & Galanes, 1998). Noise can include literal distracting sound, conscious and subconscious thought and the misunderstanding of meaning. This is an evitable factor that can cause misunderstanding and distraction during the sending and receiving of messages and therefore complete understanding between members is impossible. Noise distraction is evident in the scene in Red Dwarf where Rimmer is unfocused and preoccupied listening to music, rather than other group members as they face a dilemma. Study of behavioural functions revealed that Rimmer has a tendency to withdraw more so than other group members. Additionally, Kryten was found to block more within group interaction. These are both examples of non-functional behaviour (Benne & Sheats, 1948 cited McKenna, 2006) that can hinder group performance and task success. It has been suggested that groups work as an ‘open system’; they are interdependent and therefore behaviours and actions of members affect the whole group’s ability to complete tasks and reach goals (Brilhart & Galanes, 1998).

An important part when looking at groups as a system is group dynamics. These include leadership, decision making, Groupthink (Janis, 1982) and effects of group communication. A key element of group dynamics is the formation of groups. There are four distinct stages of group formation, according to Tuckman’s model (1965): forming, storming, norming and performing. The group in Red Dwarf are a pre-established group, currently in the performing stage. This stage is characterised by interdependence and flexibility, there is a state of trust between group members as such there is a high degree of comfort and the group are focussed – all group members are equally task-orientated and relationship-orientated. Roles and responsibilities will change according to situational needs without discussion; this shall be elaborated upon later in the analysis.

As the group is at the performing stage, they can be said to be cohesive. Piper et al (1983 cited Gist  et al, 1987) identifies cohesiveness as the motivation and attractiveness of remaining a part of the group. What is meant by this is that they have a sense of ‘groupness’ and loyalty, though it can be seen in part one that they are not necessarily without their clashes. This is displayed when Lister decides to deal with the squid and Cat has selfish objections, Lister is forced to offer a semi-serious threat in order to get him to comply with the group.

The interaction among group members is structured by the group’s roles and norms, “All groups have norms, set either formally or informally” (Johnson & Johnson, 1997:25). The norms of a group are the group’s common beliefs regarding appropriate behaviour, attitude, and perceptions for members. Some group norms that can be seen in Red Dwarf include: disrespectful and insulting banter regardless of social and formal rank, a light-hearted attitude as a group despite their predicament which they understand to be dire and a constant mutual re-enforcement of the belief that they can get back to Earth.

Norms can also be seen in the roles that the members of the group occupy, Brown (1998) suggests that roles can refer to predictable patterns of behaviour associated with the positions occupied by individuals in the group, rather than the individuals themselves. Theoretically, group members make different contributions to the group. There are expectations of each member according to their role in the group. In this way, roles can be seen as an analogy of group norms that apply to given individuals or groups of individuals fulfilling the same function (Ronson & Randall, 2008).

Belbin’s role theory (1981) identifies nine roles played by members, individuals may sometimes fulfil more than one role and this can be seen in Red Dwarf. The roles of implementer, co-ordinator, monitor-evaluator, team-worker and completer-finisher are enacted by Kryten. Being a ‘mechanoid’, Kryten is naturally balanced, logical and disciplined. The observed material displays an abundance of collaborating and elaborating on his part. Lister completes the roles of shaper, plant and resources-investigator; these aspects are commonly contributive of leadership roles as will be further discussed. In contrast to Lister and Kryten, Rimmer and Cat only fulfil a few roles. Rimmer is the specialist, along with Cat and Cat only has one other role which he shares with Lister i.e. that of resources investigator. This can be seen in that both characters are extroverted, enthusiastic and keen to develop opportunities and contacts.

The notion of leadership in Red Dwarf is a debatable one. Brown (1988:67) posits that “Social influence is a reciprocal process” and in this sense, a leader can be seen as “someone who influences others in their group more than they are influenced themselves” (Brown, 1988:67). By this token, Lister can be seen as the leader. The only other member of the group who could fit this criterion is Kryten, but he always defers to Lister (and, to a greater or lesser extent, the Cat and Rimmer). However, Lister’s role as ‘leader’ is not based on rank as Rimmer is of a higher rank. This formal classification has, by the time of this episode, long ago become irrelevant as Lister is the last human being alive.

Contingency theory (e.g. Fiedler, 1967; Bales, 1950 and Simonton, 1980 cited Brown, 1988) is currently accepted as the standard for leadership studies. This theory states that the most effective leader in a given context is the person who is best equipped to assist the group to fulfil its objectives in that context.  This can be seen in Red Dwarf when the role of leader changes between Lister and Kryten, for example, Lister contributes innovation to task planning whereas Kryten, being a ‘mechanoid’, can only employ logic, but nonetheless has knowledge that Lister lacks.

Collinson (2008) notes that within the literature on leadership there is a growing recognition that leadership in organizations can occur at various hierarchical levels and is best understood as an inherently social, collaborative, and interdependent process. Socially, Lister is the most charismatic and has, generally, most influence. In terms of collaboration and interdependence, all characters have their own contributions to the achievement of tasks: Cat relieves tension, has ‘rare skills’ (Belbin, 1981) e.g. sense of smell. Kryten is a font of information and (solely) logical. Lister occasionally gives them drive and direction, can be headstrong and a risk-taker. Rimmer is the devil’s advocate and is quite the opposite of a risk-taker.

There was a tendency in the study of leadership to conceptualise leaders as heroic and independent, however, recently “Post-heroic” perspectives have questioned the tendency of mainstream studies to conflate leadership with leaders and to underestimate context and the importance of followers and their relationships with leaders. In prioritising leaders as the active agents, mainstream studies have viewed followers largely as passive recipients who will be susceptible to certain leader messages and behaviours. With the Red Dwarf crew, there is no formal leader and as detailed above, the ‘followers’ are by no means passive followers. Despite his informal status as ‘leader’, Lister is democratic with decision-making and the group make decisions as a whole.

The classical decision making theory states that decisions are a rational process where all options and consequences are considered objectively, reaching the best possible solution (Huczynski & Buchanan, 2007). This could be either an individual judgement or a consensual judgement of all group members (Brilhart & Galanes, 1998). It is believed that “high complexity persons may be able to arrive at consensus much better than less complex persons” (Brilhart & Galanes, 1998:114). In Red Dwarf, Kryten and Lister would be considered of high complexity as they are able to listen and employ others’ views within an argument in order to conclude with a well rounded decision. However, it is often not one or the other and groups have the ability to switch between individual to group decision making. Group decision making, however, may not necessarily be more effective than individual decision making as it can be seen in Red Dwarf; Kryten (38.44%) and Lister (25%) often dominate interaction. Whether a person is assertive or passive in a given situation determines their motivation to lead the decision making process. In all three parts of Back to Earth Lister is highly assertive and sometimes aggressive which makes him an authoritative figure and as such often leads group decision making. This is in contrast with other, more passive characters that are reluctant to lead the group.

Brilhart & Galanes (1998) suggest that the decision making process is optimal when every member possesses different knowledge that must be shared for task completion. The quality of decision making is affected by the “type of task, the abilities of the members, and the type of communication among members” (Brilhart & Galanes, 1998:239). Referring to Table 2b it has been found that information seeking (12%), opinion giving (13%) and clarifying and elaborating (14%) are the most frequent behavioural functions and it can be summarised that this leads to effective decision making.

Decisions are made in order to reach group goals as well as personal rewards for the individual. Group members can be motivated through a constant awareness of the perceived personal gain of the process and completion of a task (Cusack & Thompson, 1999). Additionally, it has been found that conflict within a group can have a positive effect, e.g. increase the motivation of individuals as “people who do not care will not expend any energy disagreeing about an issue” (Cusack & Thompson, 1999:263). However, conflict can be a cause of stress which can have a negative effect on group communication. It can lead to disengagement which can hinder task performance or it could motivate members’ productivity. An example in Red Dwarf of the positive effect of stress is when they are stranded on Earth facing possible extinction which helps them focus their efforts. Conversely, an example of the negative effect of stress would be their usual bickering which impedes task completion.

Overall, the analysed group interaction was productive and positive. It has been found that despite the fact that they are typically a dysfunctional group, the Red Dwarf crew demonstrate key group communicative skills. These include cohesiveness, democratic leadership and decision making, effective communication and task accomplishment while under a great deal of stress. The team put aside interpersonal conflict in order to achieve their goal and each group member was found to bring different qualities, skills and knowledge to bear in the various situations they encounter, making this an optimally functioning group in view of the theories reviewed.

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