Flight of the Phoenix is a movie that displays the dynamics of a group in terms of power, decision-making, communication, group roles, group atmosphere and norms, and leadership in the group. The movie’s story line follows a diverse group of oil workers, military men, a doctor, a pilot and a navigator among others that sets out on a rickety plane to cross the Arabian Desert. Not long into the flight the plane is caught between two sand storms and is blow off course. The plane in forced to crash land and a few passenger die. The severity of the situation that the men find themselves in forces them to form a group.
The newly formed group confronts several challenges, tasks and goals immediately after they find themselves stranded in the desert with limited resources. The member’s begin to adopt specific group roles, as well as follow various stages of group development. One theory of group development explains how new groups do not immediately function as highly effective teams until they have gone through various stages of development. These stages are given mnemonic names that are as easy to understand, as they are to remember; the names of the stages are, Forming, Storming, Norming, and Preforming.
The decision making process in the forming stage of a group is usually manifest by caution, confusion, courtesy, and commonality. These characteristics may vary throughout the group depending on their intimacy and the influence of the leader.
These characteristics were truly apparent in Flight of the Phoenix. When the airplane crash-landed in the scorching and searing desert confusion erupted, passengers fled for safety. In a confused and puzzled manner, members of this bewildered group huddled under the wing of the mother plane seeking refuge and direction from their grand captain, the pilot Frank Towns. The decisions initially made at this climax rooted the first seeds of the groups’ orientation and eventually forming. Initially they unofficially made Towns their leader. In this early choice many were cautious but willing, most just showed a common courtesy to his position as pilot and followed, while others like the military captain Harris, in a heroic effort, seized his chance to demonstrate differently. Each individual decision made on behalf of the member influence the final effectiveness of the organization.
While stranded in the desert the group underwent a phase in their group dynamics in which confrontation, disagreement, and criticism arose. This is particularly evident in the way they communicated among each other. Furthermore, the expectations of the group members were also questioned when the shift of leadership went from the pilot Towns to an airplane designer named Dorfman. This challenging phase proved to beneficial because it provided greater cohesiveness and brought them closer to their ultimate goal of survival.
A falling out transpired when the military sergeant named Watson was unable to communicate his aversion for the army to his commanding officer, Captain Harris. As Captain Harris was forming an exploration team Watson faked a leg injury to disqualify him from the group. This nonverbal communication alerted every one of Watson’s feelings about being treated as a subordinate. This eventually led to a verbal argument that dichotomized Watson and Captain Harris. This challenge to Captain Harris’ role as the authoritative military man is a common occurrence during the storming phase.
The major confrontation occurred when two individuals struggled for the leadership position. The pilot Towns originally filled the leadership role, and had the duty of the principal organizer and figurehead of the group. Everyone looked to him for direction. He took on the role because of his superior knowledge of aircraft accidents and the group trusted him to provide a way for their rescue. However, the real reason for Towns’ leadership was because he felt personal responsibility for the crash of the plane. Later we saw a dramatic shift in leadership when airplane designer Dorfman came up with a plan to rebuild a plane and then fly them to safety. This made an abrupt transfer in the decision making process from Towns to Dorfman as the leader. It became necessary for the success of the group that Towns publicly recognized Dorfman as leader. Much to Towns’ chagrin he did so and let Dorfman believe he was in control of the rescue operation. This situation proved to be stimulating because it provided a greater commitment to survival.
The norming stage of group development is characterized by the division of tasks and responsibilities among the various members of the group. This division differentiates each group member according to his or her skills and abilities, allowing each member to have a specific group role. The adoption of group roles was apparent in the Flight of the Phoenix, as each group member fulfilled a unique responsibility. For example, Dorfman’s group role as airplane engineer was fulfilled as he devised a plan to recreate an airplane and instructed the other group members as to how his plan was to be carried out. The role of Towns’ friend, Lew, was to act as go-between for Dorfman and Towns, encouraging each to lay aside individual differences and to embrace the skills the other possessed to effectively pursue their common goal of survival.
Conflict can result in the norming stage as individual group members violate implicit group norms as they differentiate themselves from others. These norms are commonly held beliefs of group members about appropriate conduct in social situations, dress, performance, and reciprocity. Other members of the group may punish the violator by mockery, abandonment, or physical force to bring the violator into conformity with the commonly accepted norms of the group.
Social norms are designed to create a pleasant group atmosphere. One of the most explicit violations of this group norm occurs when Sergeant Watson refused to accompany Captain Harris to meet the Arabic nomads. Sergeant Watson’s blatant refusal of Captain Harris’ requests violated the group’s perception of submission of subordinates to military leaders. This refusal disrupted the quasi-pleasant group atmosphere and replaced it with tension.
Dress codes, or formal dress standards, are also powerful expressions of group norms. Violation of this code is often punished by mockery by the group. An example of dress code violation occurs when Dorfman comes out of the airplane soon after it crashed wearing a makeshift headdress to protect his face. Other members of the group exchange knowing looks and make snide remarks regarding his choice of attire.
Performance norms also exist with in a group, which guide individual efforts as to how fast each member should work and how much each member should produce. Conflict resulted in the movie as Dorfman felt the other members of the group had violated performance norms by not working as long and hard at rebuilding the airplane as he had. By taking more than his allotted ration of water, Dorfman, felt he was justly compensated for his work, thus demonstrating the concept of reward allocation norms, which governs how rewards are allocated among members of a group.
“Who’s in charge,” hollered Dorfman after another conflict about priorities. An exhausted, irritated, and extremely thirsty Towns replied, “You are Dorfmann, you are.” This demonstrated that the leadership and power struggle was finally dissipating. The men were entering the final stage of group development, Performing. They recognized their daily struggle for survival required each distinct member of the group; someone to push, someone to pull, someone to drive, someone to unscrew and tighten the bolts, and someone to calculate the procedure. Each job was weighted equally due to the sequential process. Dorfman’s ability to design was useless without a pilot, which was useless without the manpower to put it together. Each group member depended on the other group members for their survival.
This cohesiveness created a new commitment to the group. They began to have more in common than the goal for survival and escape; they all adopted and truly believed the new plane was their only chance. They felt needed and useful, which motivated them to keep going. They learned to collaborate as a group, and suddenly annoying individual differences often went overlooked. Even the intriguing discovery that airplane designer Dorfman’s past experience was limited to model airplanes didn’t break or crack the group. They had reached the Performing stage, where tasks were effectively accomplished. The group now looked towards a higher goal. This ability to collaborate allowed them to achieve exceptional results and fly, in their makeshift airplane, to the nearest oasis. This proves that even in catastrophic situations groups can achieve extraordinary results if they overcome differences, adopt group goals, communicate, and work as a team.
The surviving passengers of the plane crash came rapidly together as a group, despite its diversity. Because of the central goal of all members to survive the group moved through all development stages rapidly, ultimately to achieve their goal. Throughout all the stages of group development the goal of survival drove the diverse members to cohesiveness and teamwork.
In the end the group became very effective in achieving their goal of building a new airplane to fly them to safety, mostly because of group cohesiveness (through a common goal) and in part due to the fact that the conflicts that risked the entire project were smoothed out by peacemakers and were ignored until the goal of saving themselves was achieved.