Chapter 8: Small Group Communication
Characteristics of Groups
- Interdependence. Groups cannot be defined simply as three or more people talking to each other or meeting together. Instead, a primary characteristic of groups is that members of a group are dependent on one another for the group to maintain its existence and achieve its goals. In essence, interdependence is the recognition by those in a group of their need for the others in the group (Lewin, 1951; Cragon, Wright & Kasch, 2008; Sherblom, 2002). Imagine playing in a basketball game as an individual against the five members of another team. Even if you’re considered the best basketball player in the world, it’s highly unlikely you could win a game against five other people. You must rely on four other teammates to make it a successful game.
- Interaction. It probably seems obvious to you that there must be interaction for groups to exist. However, what kind of interaction must exist? Because we all communicate every day, there must be something that distinguishes the interaction in groups from other forms of communication. Cragon, Wright, and Kasch (2008) state that the primary defining characteristic of group interaction is that it is purposeful. They go on to break down purposeful interaction into four types: problem-solving, role playing, team building, and trust building. Without purposeful interaction, a true group does not exist. Roles, norms, and relationships between members are created through interaction. If you’re put into a group for a class assignment, for example, your first interaction probably centers around exchanging contact information, settings times to meet, and starting to focus on the task at hand. It’s purposeful interaction in order to achieve a goal.
Group Communication Then
The first study that was published on group communication in the New School era of communication study was credited to Edwin Black in 1955. He studied the breakdowns in group interactions by looking at communication sequences in groups. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that a large number of studies in group communication began to appear. Between 1970 and 1978 114 articles were published on group communication and 89 more were published by 1990 (Stacks & Salwen, 2014). Studying group communication is still important over a decade later as more and more organizations focus on group work for achieving their goals.
- Synergy. One advantage of working in groups and teams is that they allow us to accomplish things we wouldn’t be able to accomplish on our own. Systems Theory suggests that “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This is the very idea of synergy (Sherblom, 2002). In an orchestra or band, each person is there to perform in order to help the larger unit make music in a way that cannot be accomplished without each member working together.
- Common Goals. Having interaction and synergy would be relatively pointless in groups without a common goal. People who comprise groups are brought together for a reason or a purpose. While most members of a group have individual goals, a group is largely defined by the common goals of the group. Think of the example at the beginning of the chapter: Your common goal in a class group is to learn, complete an assignment, and earn a grade. While there may be differences regarding individual goals in the group (what final grade is acceptable for example), or how to achieve the common goals, the group is largely defined by the common goals it shares.
- Shared Norms. Because people come together for a specific purpose, they develop shared norms to help them achieve their goals. Even with a goal in place, random interaction does not define a group. Group interaction is generally guided by norms a group has established for acceptable behavior. Norms are essentially expectations of the group members, established by the group and can be conscious and formal, or unconscious and informal. A couple of examples of group norms include the expectation that all members show up at group meeting times, the expectation that all group members focus on the group instead of personal matters (for example, turning cell phones and other distractions off), and the expectation that group members finish their part of the work by the established due date. When members of the group violate group norms, other members of the group get frustrated and the group’s overall goal may be affected.
- Cohesiveness. One way that members understand the idea of communicating in groups and teams is when they experience a sense of cohesiveness with other members of the group. When we feel like we are part of something larger, we experience a sense of cohesion or wholeness and may find a purpose that is bigger than our own individual desires and goals. It is the sense of connection and participation that characterizes the interaction in a group as different from the defined interaction among loosely connected individuals. If you’ve ever participated in a group that achieved its goal successfully, you are probably able to reflect back on your feelings of connections with the other members of that group.
You may be asking yourself, what about teams? We have focused primarily on groups, but it’s critical to remember the importance of team communication characteristics as well as group communication characteristics. Check out this article (Richards, 2017) that breaks down team characteristics and skills that ensure team success (we bet you’ll find similarities to the group characteristics that we have just explained).
Types of Groups
Not all groups are the same or brought together for the same reasons. Brilhart and Galanes (1998) categorize groups “on the basis of the reason they were formed and the human needs they serve”. Let’s take a look!
- Primary Groups. Primary groups are ones we form to help us realize our human needs like inclusion and affection. They are not generally formed to accomplish a task, but rather, to help us meet our fundamental needs as relational beings like acceptance, love, and affection. These groups are generally longer term than other groups and include family, roommates, and other relationships that meet as groups on a regular basis (Brilhart & Galanes, 1998). These special people in your life constitute primary groups because they offer love and support for the long run, and given this, primary groups are typically more meaningful than secondary groups.
- Secondary Groups. Unlike primary groups, we form secondary groups to accomplish work, perform a task, solve problems, and make decisions (Brilhart & Galanes, 1998; Sherblom, 2002; Cragan, Wright & Kasch, 2008). Larson and LaFasto (1989) state that secondary groups have “a specific performance objective or recognizable goal to be attained; and coordination of activity among the members of the team is required for attainment of the team goal or objective”.
- Activity Groups. Activity Groups are ones we form for the purpose of participating in activities. I’m sure your campus has many clubs that are organized for the sole purpose of doing activities. On our campus, for example, a popular club is the Sycamore Gaming Club, in which members meet for the purpose of scheduling times to play games, arranging events, and choosing where to play.
- Personal Growth Groups. We form Personal Growth Groups to obtain support and feedback from others, as well as to grow as a person. Personal Growth Groups may be thought of as therapy groups. An example that is probably familiar to you is Alcoholics Anonymous, where alcoholics can share their stories and struggles and get support from others affected by alcohol. There are many personal growth groups available for helping us develop as people through group interaction with others, such as book clubs, weight watchers, and spiritual groups.
- Learning Groups. Learning Groups focus mainly on obtaining new information and gaining knowledge. If you have ever been assigned to a group in a college class, it most likely was a learning group with the purpose of interacting in ways that can help those in the group learn new things about the course content.
- Problem-Solving Groups. These groups are created for the express purpose of solving a specific problem. The very nature of organizing people into this type of group is to get them to collectively figure out effective solutions to the problem they have before them. Committees are an excellent example of people who are brought together to solve problems.
After looking at the various types of groups, it’s probably easy for you to recognize just how much of your daily interaction occurs within the contexts of groups. The reality is, we spend a great deal of time in groups, and understanding the types of groups you’re in, as well as their purpose, goes a long way toward helping you function as a productive member.
Importance of Studying Communication in Groups and Teams
One of the reasons communication scholars study groups and teams is because of the overwhelming amount of time we spend interacting in groups in professional contexts. More and more professional organizations are turning to groups and teams as an essential way of conducting business and getting things done. Even professions that are seemingly independent, such as being a college professor, are heavily laden with group work. The process of writing this book was a group effort as the authors and their students worked in groups to bring the book to you. Each of us had specific roles and tasks to perform.
Another vital area of group communication concerns the study of social change or social movement organizations. Groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the National Organization for Women (NOW) are all groups bound together by a shared social and political commitment — to promote the rights of nonhuman animals, African-Americans, and women respectively. While individuals can be committed to these ideas, the social, political, and legal rights afforded to groups like these would not have been possible through individual action alone. It was when groups of like-minded people came together with shared commitments and goals, pooling their skills and resources, that change occurred. Just about any Interest Group, you can think of has a presence in Washington D.C. and spends money to maintain that presence. This site has a summary of the kinds of Interest Groups that operate in Washington, DC and how they operate (USHistory.org, 2017).
The study of social movements reveals the importance of groups for accomplishing goals. Bowers, Ochs, Jensen, and Schulz (2010), in The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control, explain seven progressive and cumulative strategies through which movements progress as they move toward success. Three of the seven strategies focus explicitly on group communication—-promulgation, solidification, and polarization. Promulgation refers to “a strategy where agitators publicly proclaim their goals and it includes tactics designed to win public support.” Without a sufficient group, the actions of individual protesters are likely to be dismissed. The strategy of solidification “occurs mainly inside the agitating group” and is “primarily used to unite followers.” The point is to unite group members and provide sufficient motivation and support. The communication that occurs through the collective action of singing songs or chanting slogans serves to unite group members. Because the success of social movements depends in part on the ability to attract a large number of followers, most employ the strategy of polarization, which is designed to persuade neutral individuals or “fence sitters” to join a group. The essence of this strategy is captured in the quote from Eldridge Cleaver, “You are either part of the problem or part of the solution.” Taken together, these three strategies stress that the key to group success is the sustained effort of group members working together through communication.
Case In Point: The Historic Number of Women in the 113th Congress
This Congress has 102 female members, including 20 female Senators, the most ever in the history of America. This was also a historic election for women of color. More than half of Asian Americans elected to the 113th Congress are women– including Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who is only the second woman of color and the only Asian American woman ever elected to the Senate. In the House, Grace Meng (D) will become New York’s first Asian American member of Congress, and Iraq War veteran Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) the first American Samoan elected as a voting member of Congress. They will both join Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a Thai-born, double amputee war hero. Among Latinas, Congresswoman-elect Michele Lujan Grisham became the first Hispanic woman elected representative from New Mexico.
The Women’s Caucus
The Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues (CCWI) is a Congressional Member Organization (CMO) registered with the House Administration Committee; its membership includes the women members of the House of Representatives. CCWI is not formally affiliated with Women’s Policy, Inc. (WPI); however, the two organizations share similar goals. This relates to our collectivistic culture in organizational groups.
WPI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization whose sole focus is to help ensure that the most informed decisions on key women’s issues are made by policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels. Audiences include elected officials, regulators, women’s groups, labor groups, academia, the business community, the media, and the general public.
WPI achieves and shares its rare quality of insight into relevant issues by researching and producing the best available information in the form of compelling and unbiased legislative analyses, issue summaries, impact assessments, and educational briefings. This ensures that policy decisions affecting women and their families have the benefit of input from the most objective sources possible.
Not only do Communication scholars focus on work and social movements, we are also interested in the role that one’s cultural identity and membership plays in our communicative choices, and how we interpret the communication of others. This focus sheds interesting insights when we examine membership and communication in groups and teams. One reason for this is that different cultures emphasize the role of individuals while other cultures emphasize the importance of the group. Thus, whether we view group work as favorable or unfavorable may stem from our cultural background. The U.S. is considered an individualistic culture in that we value the work and accomplishments of the individual through ideas such as being able to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” and create success for yourself.