Copyrighted material. Please cite as:
Lehmann-Willenbrock, N., & Kauffeld, S. (2010). The downside of communication: Complaining cycles in group
discussions. In S. Schuman (Ed.), The handbook for working with difficult groups: How they are difficult,
why they are difficult, what you can do (pp. 33-54). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.
THE DOWNSIDE OF COMMUNICATION:
COMPLAINING CIRCLES IN GROUP DISCUSSIONS
Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock & Simone Kauffeld
“It is my belief we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.”
- Lily Tomlin
Recent research has shown that group mood affects group members' behavior and impacts on
social interaction (for an overview, see Kelly & Spoor, 2006). We analyze group interaction
on the basis of group discussions (verbal behavior) by means of Advanced Interaction
Analysis (Kauffeld, 2006a, b; Kauffeld & Lehmann-Willenbrock, subm.). We have gained
some insights concerning positive verbal behavior (e.g., solution-oriented statements) as well
as negative verbal behavior (e.g., complaining). In addition, we have found evidence that
group mood develops through interaction. More specifically, we identified patterns of
complaining behavior. Results by Kauffeld (2006b) demonstrate that negative interaction such
as complaining has a negative impact on both team-level outcomes (e.g., satisfaction with the
discussion) and organizational-level outcomes (e.g., productivity). Furthermore, our results
hint at intervention opportunities for negative communicative behavior such as complaining.
This chapter focuses on the detrimental effects of complaining circles as an indicator of
negative group mood. A summary of theories and scientific evidence of group mood sets the
course for a discussion of our research results concerning negative group mood, which we
conceptualize as dysfunctional interaction. Implications of our findings and intervention
opportunities, both in the context of group interaction and human resource development are
How the group is difficult:
1. Inefficient group discussions
Organizations have increasingly implemented teams or workgroups as a structuring principle
over the last decades with the intention of taking advantage of the performance potential
inherent in teams (e.g., Jordan, Lawrence, & Troth, 2006; Nielsen, Sundstrom, & Halfhill,
2005). Teams can enable an efficient exchange and an optimal combination of a wide
spectrum of individual resources (Brodbeck, Anderson, & West, 2000). While the general
notion is that teams improve organizational performance (e.g., Wheelan, 1999), not all teams
achieve the performance expected of them (e.g., Sims, Salas, & Burke, 2005). Why do some
teams develop and implement innovative ideas, while others fail to peruse the autonomy that
is given to them by the organization?
There is a consensus among several models of team performance (e.g., Tannenbaum, Beard,
& Salas, 1992; Gersick, 1991; Tuckman, 1965) that interaction between team members is
crucial for high team performance. In practice, regular team meetings and group discussions
have been implemented as a standard procedure in many contemporary organizations, for
instance as part of the Continuous Improvement Process (CIP, e.g. Liker, 2006). Meetings and
group discussion carry the potential of exchanging and building new knowledge in the team,
discussing current problems and developing solutions and innovative ideas. Therefore, intra-
team-communication plays an important role. One of the reasons why some teams do better
than others in this aspect concerns the mood that is built within a team through interaction.
While there is some research on interaction in teams, the effect of team members’ moods on
interaction and subsequent performance has been rather neglected in the past (cf. Jordan,
Lawrence, & Troth, 2006). Only recently have researchers begun to look into group mood as
an influential factor for team performance. For example, Jordan et al. (2006) investigated
student groups and found that negative mood compromised team processes and team
performance. But do these findings hold true for real teams in the workplace?
After a brief introduction to group mood, we will present research findings from real teams in
the workplace, linking employee interaction in group discussions to team and organizational
Moods have been described as low intensity, diffuse feeling states that usually do not have a
precise antecedent (e.g., Forgas, 1992). They are longer in duration, less focused, and less
intense than emotions (Watson & Tellegen, 1985). Group mood may be understood as
synchronized moods of individuals (e.g., Hackman, 1992). Moods can be classified in various
ways. The model we refer to was developed by Larsen and Diener (1992).
Figure 1: Group mood circumplex (cf. Larsen & Diener, 1992, p. 31)
In this model, moods are arranged circularly with their position depending on their similarity
or polarity. This means that two aspects that are close to one another, such as “warmhearted”
and “calm”, are highly correlated. The various group moods are classified on two orthogonal
or independent dimensions: (1) behavior willingness or activation (high – low activation) and
(2) hedonistic value (pleasant – unpleasant).
Based on the fact that mood can be observed in terms of behavior (e.g., Barsade, 2002; Bartel
& Saavedra, 2000), we look at a specific communicative behavior: Complaining. Within the
model, complaining behavior can be described as an expression of an unpleasant mood (cf.
Kauffeld, 2007; Kauffeld & Meyers, in press).
Complaining behavior in group discussions
Complaining is a rather common activity. It is socially accepted and even expected to
complain about the weather, about politicians, government, and taxes. Complaining serves
several functions (cf. Kauffeld & Meyers, in press):
1. Complaining provides a common ground in conversation and may serve as a subject
for small talk.
2. When we complain, this can offer a vent for frustration and experienced
3. Complaining allows us to (apparently) make the best of a less than ideal situation and
to share this with others.
Past research on complaining has focused primarily on interpersonal communication
situations (Alberts & Driscoll, 1992; Hall, 1991; Newell & Stutman, 1988) and consumer
dissatisfaction contexts (e.g., Brashers, 1991; Fornell & Wernerfelt, 1988; Garrett, Meyers, &
West, 1996, 1997; Sellers, 1998). In general, complaints have been defined in both of these
research domains as expressions of dissatisfaction.
As has been shown by Kauffeld and Meyers (in press), dissatisfaction, along with
complaining behavior, also occurs regularly in work teams. Moreover, not only do team
members in the workplace complain, but complaining as an inhibitive function also leads to
more complaining. This can result in self-maintaining complaining circles which we describe
as an expression of group mood. An essential underlying process is emotional contagion.
Emotional contagion has been defined as ‘The tendency to automatically mimic and
synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another
person and, consequently, to converge emotionally’ (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994, p.
5). This definition emphasizes the nonconscious process of emotional contagion. In
conversations, people ‘automatically’ mimic the facial expressions, voices, postures and
behaviours of others (Bavelas, Black, Lemery, & Mullett, 1987; Bernieri, Reznick, &
Rosenthal, 1988), and that people’s conscious experience may be shaped by such facial
feedback (e.g. Laird, 1984).
There is, however, a second way in which people may ‘catch’ another’s emotions. Contagion
may also occur via a conscious cognitive process by ‘tuning in’ to the emotions of others.
This will be the case when individuals try to imagine how they would feel in the position of
another, and, as a consequence, experience the same feelings. Thus, the realization
that another person is happy or sad may trigger memories of the times we have felt that way,
and these reveries may spark similar emotions (Hsee, Hatfield, & Chemtomb, 1992). Figure 2
shows the two ways in which emotional contagion may occur. The top route is the above
described unconscious, spontaneous mutual contagion that automatically occurs in interaction.
The bottom route is conscious and driven by cognitive comparison processes, whereby we
actively adjust to the mood exhibited by our interaction partner(s).
Figure 2: Emotional contagion through interaction
Regardless of why such contagion might occur, researchers from a wide range of disciplines
have described phenomena that suggest that emotional contagion does exist (see Hatfield
et al. 1994; McIntosh, Druckman, & Zajonc, 1994, for overviews).
How does emotional contagion apply to complaining in group discussions? Suppose that
group member A makes a complaining statement such as, “No one cares about our ideas”.
Group member B may have been in a positive or neutral state before. Upon hearing this
statement though, he or she is likely to start thinking about all the events in the past where that
statement may have been true. An adaptation of mood will follow whereby group member B
adopts a similarly negative mood as has been exposed by group member A. This adaptation
will then support group member A and give the impression that this is an acceptable, socially
desired behavior. The unconscious contagion in this example would concern the fact that
group member B does not make a conscious choice as to changing his or her mood. The
conscious cognitive process in this example concerns the reasoning that sets in upon hearing
the statement: Why does group member A feel that way? What happened in the past that led
to this emotion? Why is it reasonable to feel the same way?
This example demonstrates that while complaining may fulfill a “normal” human need, it can
also cause group members to bring each other down. In the following we will report some
empirical evidence for this phenomenon.
Why the group is difficult
2. Observable negative group mood: complaining circles
Kauffeld and Meyers (in press) showed that complaining in work groups occurs in
communicative cycles, that is, complaining leads to more complaining (as opposed to
solution-oriented verbal behavior) and eventually causes a negative group mood. As
mentioned above, complaining would be characterized as an active-unpleasant affective state
within the circumplex model. Complaining statements tend to focus on the perceived negative
and unchangeable actual state as well as the perceived role of victim. Complaining is often
expressed by using killer phrases such as “nothing could be done,” or “nothing works.” Such
statements are not facilitative to the group’s decision-making process, and in fact, will inhibit
progress toward the solution or group goal.
To examine whether complaining really leads to more complaining in groups, we examine
real groups in the workplace. These are autonomous groups who have usually worked
together for years. Group discussions are a regular part of their work routine. When we
videotape their discussions, there is no supervisor present and anonymity is guaranteed to
ensure acquisition of data that are realistic. Occurrences such as backbiting the absent
supervisor, answering cell phone calls etc. indicate that this seems to be the case (cf. Kauffeld,
2006b). To evaluate these discussions, we use a process-analytical instrument named
Advanced Interaction Analysis (act4teams, Kauffeld & Lehmann-Willenbrock, subm.). With
act4teams, we can measure groups’ work-related interaction when completing a real, relevant
optimization task (e.g., how to improve material sourcing in production teams). The
instrument comprises 44 observation categories which represent 12 competence aspects and
one aggregate value. It has been psychometrically validated and shows excellent inter-rater
reliability. Table 1 shows the four competence facets, the comprising aspects, and the criteria.
Table 1: Advanced Interaction Analysis (act4teams)
concerning the structuring
of the discussion
identifying a (partial)
describing a problem
addressing someone in
an encouraging way
e.g. addressing the quiet
agreeing to suggestions, ideas
signalizing interest („mmh“,
contradiction based on facts
e.g. signaling whether
something is new or already
opinions and facts
marking one’s own opinion as
an opinion not as a fact
mentioning feelings like anger
e.g. positive remarks about other
pointing out the topic or to
leading back to it
ensuring contributions are to the
suggestions for further
questions about further
stressing main topics
reference to time
delegating tasks during the
using flip chart and similar tools
interest in change
taking on responsibility
planning of measures
agreeing upon tasks to be
e.g. naming causes and
vision, description of
description of a
no interest in change
e.g. denial of optimization
emphasis on the negative
status quo, pessimism, killer
seeking someone to
pointing out hierarchies and
ending or trying to end the
problem with a
objection to a solution
e.g. naming advantages of
remarks about the
organization and process
concerning the structuring
of the discussion
losing the train of
thought in details and
examples which are not relevant
to the goal, monologues
making disparaging comments
cutting someone off while
starting or getting involved in
pointing out work experience,
duration of employment at this
reference to specialists
questions about opinions,
To evaluate a videotaped group discussion, every verbal statement or sense unit uttered by
any individual group members is ascribed an act4teams category. A sense unit is defined as a
communication which, in context, may be understood by another group member as equivalent
to one single simple sentence of the discussion (Bales, 1950). To facilitate the coding, we use
the Interact software by Mangold (2005) as well as a specially designed keyboard (see Figure
Figure 3: Coding group discussions with act4teams: Interact software and keyboard
In this chapter, we focus on the negative aspect of self competence, i.e., remarks concerning
participation. Self competence concerns a groups’ willingness to actively create conditions
for improving their work. Participation-oriented behavior can be described as proactive
behavior. Positive remarks concerning participation can be coded with the categories “interest
in change”, “personal responsibility”, and “planning of measures”. On the other hand, the
following categories describe the negative aspect of self competence “no interest in change”,
“complaining”, “platitude” (which only wastes time and does not lead to progress in the
discussion), “seeking someone to blame” (instead of tackling the underlying causes of a
problem), “emphasizing authoritarian elements” (by distracting attention away from one’s
own area of responsibility), and “terminating discussion” (not using the time available).
Complaining is part of the negative aspect of self competence. However, as this is only one
category out of the 44, one might suspect that complaining does not have much of an impact
on the discussion outcome or the group-level competence in general. While this is intuitively
plausible, our findings consistently show a very different picture.
In a large study of N=59 groups from 19 companies in Germany, Kauffeld (2006b)
demonstrated that complaining has a statistically significant, strong negative impact not only
on the discussion outcome (group member satisfaction and applicability of the solutions that
were developed in the discussion), but also on organizational outcomes such as corporate
success and corporate innovation. Table 2 shows the correlations between complaining and
these outcomes (cf. Kauffeld, 2006b).
Table 2: Pearson’s correlations between complaining behavior and success measures
Group member ratings Observer ratings Management ratings
solutions in the
-.32** -.37** -.69** -.41* -.46*
As these results show, complaining is not just an everyday habit that we like to cultivate, but
is rather harmful not only for the group, but even for the company as a whole. Why is it that
complaining has such a strong impact? Suppose that complaining is not something that is
uttered by individual team members every once in a while, but rather a collective
phenomenon in terms of the expression of a negative group mood. As we explained above,
emotional contagion describes the process by which complaining may lead to more
complaining. While this makes sense intuitively, we also found empirical support for this
Complaining circles can be defined as sequences of complaining statements (complaining –
complaining – complaining) or sequences of complaining, support, and subsequent further
complaining (complaining – support – complaining). Here are some examples for these
Group member A: “We’ve tried to do that like five times now and nothing ever
Group member B: “Whatever you try in this company, nothing ever happens.”
Group member C: “It’s like, we’ve had all these ideas and they’ve never gone
Group member B: “No one cares about our problems.” (Complaining)
Group member A: “Yeah, exactly.” (Support)
Group member C: “It’s like you don’t count at all.” (Complaining)
The second example points out the potentially deleterious effect of support. In our opinion,
supporting a complaining statement should be seen as complaining itself because it can lead
to a complaining circle and thereby build a negative group mood.
Kauffeld and Meyers (in press) examined 33 group discussions with video recordings and
act4teams coding. To determine whether complaining circles actually exist, they used lag
sequential analysis. This statistical method determines the likelihood of specific statements
following one another. They found that indeed, complaining circles as communication
patterns occur significantly above chance. Moreover, sequence analysis showed that
complaining statements inhibited subsequent solution-oriented statements which are crucial
for discussion and team success. We have replicated these findings with other samples.
Complaining circles seem to be pervasive in all kinds of groups and business branches.
Considering the results of Kauffeld (2006b) as shown in Table 2, it becomes evident that
complaining circles are dysfunctional not only in terms of group mood and team member
satisfaction, but also in terms of team-level and organizational outcomes. So what can be done
to counteract this dysfunctional communication pattern?
What you can do
3. Counteracting complaining circles
Complaining circles may be “tackled” in several ways. First of all, methodological or
structuring statements can be used to consciously break up complaining patterns and get back
to the topic. Second, the employing organization can take measures to design work in a way
that puts more emphasis on employees’ ideas and innovation potential.
Our research has demonstrated that methodological statements inhibit complaining behavior.
Sensitizing a team for these matters may include facilitator training for one or all group
members. Third, an external consultant or group facilitator can be useful for reflecting upon
the team situation and developing towards a more constructive group mood. Teams can be
educated about the negative effects of complaining behavior not only on the discussion, but
also on team and organizational outcomes. We will elaborate these three possibilities a little
a) Methodological statements against complaining
Before turning to team consulting or coaching, there is a simple way for team members to
break up complaining circles.
In sequence analysis, we have not only examined complaining circles, but have also taken a
closer look at other statements preceding or following complaining statements. Research
results by Kauffeld (2006b) and Kauffeld and Meyers (in press) demonstrate that one way to
break up complaining circles is to make a methodological statement. In act4teams, positive
methodological remarks comprise the following criteria (cf. Table 1):
• Goal orientation (e.g., “Let’s get back to our topic, which is…”)
• Clarification/ concretization (e.g., finishing the sentence for someone who is
missing a word)
• Procedural suggestion (e.g., “Let’s hear what everyone thinks about this one”)
• Procedural question (e.g., “Should we move on to the next point on our
• Prioritizing (e.g., “Let’s talk about this first, that’s more important”)
• Time management (e.g., “We only have five minutes left to talk now”)
• Task distribution (e.g., “Please write that down”)
• Visualization (e.g., using a flip chart)
• Weighing up costs and benefits (e.g., “If we take the time to do this properly,
we can save a lot of time in the long run”)
• Summary (e.g., “So far, we’ve talked about …”)
b) Organizational design against complaining
When employees complain, this does not necessarily mean that they have a bad attitude, but it
may actually be due to an unfavorable work environment. Within the conceptualization of
act4teams, complaining statements are characterized by an emphasis on the negative status
quo, by pessimism, and killer phrases. Representative of a negative and unpleasant mood,
complaining is an expression of a pessimistic perspective. While team members differ in their
amount of complaining in a discussion, they often share experiences where they indeed have
not been able to make a change or optimize their work according to their ideas. For example,
a team can have many insights and improvement suggestions concerning their work
processes, but if they have a supervisor who does not support these ideas, they tend not to go
very far. Our facilitation experience has shown over and over again that while the
management may be well aware of the benefits of teamwork, the immediate supervisors of
work teams often are not and will not support their teams appropriately.
One important job design factor that can help increase positive self-competence (i.e., interest
in change, personal responsibility, and measure planning in a discussion) and help diminish
the negative aspect of self-competence (e.g., complaining) is job autonomy. There is a
substantial amount of research demonstrating the beneficial effects of giving more autonomy
to work teams (for an overview, see Sundstrom, McIntyre, Halfhill, & Richards, 2000).
Kauffeld (2006a) found that the work characteristics participation, formal team
communication, continuous improvement process, training and team-oriented tasks were
beneficial in self-directed work teams. It can be deducted that giving employees the
opportunity to actively participate in and autonomously improve their work processes is a
promising approach for triggering the initially described potential inherent in teams.
c) Reflection workshop against complaining: towards more positive participation
When the organizational environment is designed in a way that gives autonomy and
responsibility to the teams, but they do not use this freedom in terms of improving their work
where possible, a team trainer or consultant may help. In an ongoing longitudinal study, we
have conducted a workshop with each of the 54 teams involved that was designed to foster the
positive aspect of self competence. The constituting criteria “interest in change”, “personal
responsibility”, and “planning of measures” have been demonstrated to have a strong positive
impact on team-level and organizational outcomes (cf. Kauffeld, 2006b). The workshops
started out with an exercise that shows the benefits of teamwork over individual work units.
Next was an assessment of the team’s current situation: (1) What is going well in our work?
(2) What isn’t working/where do we have problems? And (3) Where and how do we want to
This assessment was followed by in-depth discussions that were aimed at pointing out ways in
which the teams themselves can make a difference in their work (rather than waiting for
supervisors or other departments to make a change, for example). We also included some
simple team-building exercises to enhance the team climate.
Over time, we found a significant positive impact of these workshops on the self competence
of the teams involved. That is, in group discussions some months after the workshops, teams
who participated in the workshops were voicing more interest in change, were taking more
personal responsibility for the solutions they discussed, and were planning more measures
than those teams who did not receive a workshop1. Likewise, teams who participated in a
workshop were showing significantly less negative remarks concerning participation after the
workshop (cf. Neininger & Kauffeld, in press).
These preliminary findings demonstrate that it is indeed possible to address dysfunctional
communication in teams by team consultation. Future research will show whether the effects
we found can hold in a follow-up design.
d) Team coaching with act4teams as a continuous process
How can team members be sensitized to complaining circles and the chance to break these
with structuring statements? While team members are probably not too excited about looking
into methods such as sequence analysis, we have made good experiences with examples taken
from group discussions such as the two examples described above. Team members usually
benefit from such examples if they are close enough to their own discussion. They are then
presented with a good starting point for reflecting about their own interaction processes. It can
also be useful to present the findings by Kauffeld (2006b) as depicted in Table 2. These
results underline the fact that it does matter a great deal what goes on in a group discussion
and what the team members make of their ideas and solutions afterwards. The sensitization
for the importance of these processes could be implemented as part of the standard group
facilitator training in companies, or it could be included in team-building workshops. In any
case, it should be considered that teams as a whole need to be sensitized towards these
processes. If, for example, only the team leader receives this knowledge, there will probably
very little acceptance in the team for insights about complaining circles as dysfunctional
interaction. Moreover, when educating a team about these negative communication patterns, it
should be made very clear that these occur in all kinds of groups, and at all levels of an
organization rather than leaving them with a feeling of being picked out for bad
communication. Finally, successful team coaching requires a continuous process. In the
context of interaction, this should involve an initial interaction assessment, subsequent
reflection and optimization periods, and process and result evaluations with act4teams.
1 We used a pilot group – waiting group design. Teams who functioned as waiting group during the first phase of
the study received a workshop in the second phase.
All these measures are aimed at helping a team get out of the “complaining loop” and turn to
solution-oriented interaction instead. This does not mean that complaining should be
prohibited per se. Complaining may be useful at the beginning of team interventions or
change processes, for example, to give everyone a chance to “vent”. However, team members
should then commit themselves to the convention that complaining is out of place in
optimization discussions. When team members succeed to make this shift to solution
orientation, they can rise to their full potential of tackling their problems, optimizing their
work processes, and being more productive and innovative than any individual alone.
Advanced Interaction Analysis (act4teams):
An instrument based on process analysis for coding group discussions. Individual remarks or
sense units are classified by one of the comprehensive 44 categories. Discussions can be
analyzed concerning positive and negative interaction. Research has linked assessments of
discussions with act4teams to outcomes such as satisfaction, applicability of generated
solutions, productivity, and corporate innovation.
A pattern of complaining and support statements commonly found in group discussions.
Complaining circles may be understood as a negative group mood. They have a strong
negative impact on the discussion outcome and group member satisfaction. Moreover, they
diminish team-level and organizational success in the long run.
In group research, a process in which one group member’s mood, expressed through
interaction, “wears off” on other group members. These others adopt the initial mood
unconsciously or via conscious comparison processes, and follow with similar remarks.
Emotional contagion can explain the development of complaining circles.
Synchronized moods of individuals. Group mood can emerge through verbal interaction
between group members. The underlying process is emotional contagion.
A statistical procedure to calculate transition probabilities between different events. In group
interaction, sequence analysis can be used to determine whether certain communication
patterns such as complaining circles occur significantly above chance.
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