Chapter 8: Small Group Communication
Take a moment to think about the individuals in a particular group you were in and the role each of them played. You may recall that some people were extremely helpful, organized and made getting the job done easily. Others may have been more difficult to work with, or seemed to disrupt the group process. In each case, the participants were performing roles that manifest themselves in most groups. Early studies on group communication provide an overwhelming number of different types of group roles. To simplify, we provide an overview of some of the more common roles. As you study group roles, remember that we usually play more than one role at a time and that we do not always play the same roles from group to group.
We organize group roles into four categories — task, social-emotional, procedural, and individual. Task roles are those that help or hinder a group’s ability to accomplish its goals. Social-emotional roles are those that focus on building and maintaining relationships among individuals in a group (the focus is on how people feel about being in the group). Procedural roles are concerned with how the group accomplishes its task. People occupying these roles are interested in following directions, proper procedure, and going through appropriate channels when making decisions or initiating policy. The final category, individual roles, includes any role “that detracts from group goals and emphasizes personal goals” (Jensen & Chilberg, 1991). When people come to a group to promote their individual agenda above the group’s agenda, they do not communicate in ways that are beneficial to the group. Let’s take a look at each of these categories in more detail.
- Task Roles. While there are many task roles a person can play in a group, we want to emphasize five common ones. The Task Leader is the person who keeps the group focused on the primary goal or task by setting agendas, controlling the participation and communication of the group’s members, and evaluating ideas and contributions of participants. The person you identify as the leader of the group or put in charge of the group probably performs the task leader role. Information Gatherers are those people who seek and/or provide the factual information necessary for evaluating ideas, problem-solving and reaching conclusions. This is the person who serves as the liaison with your professors about what they expect from a group project. Opinion Gatherers are those who seek out and/or provide subjective responses about ideas and suggestions. They most often take into account the values, beliefs, and attitudes of members. If there is a quiet member of your group, the opinion gatherer may ask, “What do you think?” in order to get that person’s feedback. The Devil’s Advocate is the person who argues a contrary or opposing point of view. This may be done positively in an effort to ensure that all perspectives are considered, or negatively as the unwillingness of a single person to participate in the group’s ideas. The Energizer is the person who functions as the group’s cheerleader, providing energy, motivation, and positive encouragement.
- Social-Emotional Roles. Group members play a variety of roles in order to build and maintain relationships in groups. The Social-Emotional Leader is the person who is concerned with maintaining and balancing the social and emotional needs of the group members and tends to play many, if not all, of the roles in this category. The Encourager practices good listening skills in order to create a safe environment for others to share ideas and offer suggestions. Followers are group members who do what they are told, going along with decisions and assignments from the group. The Tension Releaser is the person who uses humor or can skillfully change the subject in an attempt to minimize tension and avoid conflict. The Compromiser is the one who mediates disagreements or conflicts among members by encouraging others to give in on small issues for the sake of meeting the goals of the group.
- Procedural Roles. Groups cannot function properly without having a system of rules or norms in place. Members are responsible for maintaining the norms of a group and play many roles to accomplish this. The Facilitator acts like a traffic director by managing the flow of information to keep the group on task. Gatekeepers are those group members that attempt to maintain proper communicative balance. These people also serve as the points of contact between times of official group meetings. The Recorder is the person responsible for tracking group ideas, decisions, and progress. Often, a written record is necessary, thus, this person has the responsibility for keeping, maintaining, and sharing group notes. If you’re the person who pulls out a pen and paper in order to track what the group talks about, you’re the recorder.
Case in Point
The popular sitcom Workaholics (2011-present) follows three college dropouts who work at a telemarketing company and are notoriously terrible workers. Always working as a group in their shared cubicle, the three young men are all prime examples of group members who play Individual Roles: Anders as the Aggressor, Blake as the Self-Confessor, Adam as the Blocker, and all three of them act as the joker or clown at one point or another. As you might guess, this group is very unproductive and ineffective.
- Individual Roles. Because groups are made of individuals, group members often play various roles in order to achieve individual goals. The Aggressor engages in forceful or dominating communication to put others down or initiate conflict with other members. This communication style can cause some members to remain silent or passive. The Blocker is the person who fusses or complains about small procedural matters, often blocking the group’s progress by not letting them get to the task. They worry about small details that, overall, are not important to achieving the group’s desired outcome. The Self-Confessor uses the group as a setting to discuss personal or emotional matters not relevant to the group or its task. This is the person who views the group as one that is there to perform group therapy. The Withdrawershows little interest in the group or the problem at hand and does not contribute in a meaningful way, or at all. This is the person who does essentially no work. The Joker or Clown uses inappropriate humor or remarks that can steer the group from its mission. (University of Minnesota Libraries, 2016)
While we certainly do not have the space to cover every role you might encounter in a group, we’re sure you can point to your own examples of people who have filled the roles we’ve discussed. Perhaps you can point to examples of when you have filled some of these roles yourself. What role do you find yourself most likely to enact in groups? Or, do you find you switch between these roles depending on the group? Important for group members to understand, are the various roles they play in groups in order to engage in positive actions that help the group along. One dynamic that these roles contribute to in the process of group communication is leadership in groups.
Leadership In Groups
While we’ve examined roles we can play in groups, the role that often gets the most attention is that of the leader. Like defining communication, many people have an idea of what a leader is, but can’t really come up with a good definition of the term as there are many ways to conceptualize the role of leader. One way to do this is to think of leaders in terms of their leadership styles. Let’s look at three broad leadership styles to better understand the communication choices leaders can make, as well as the outcome of such choices, in a group.
First, let’s visualize leadership styles by seeing them as a continuum. The position to the left (Laissez-faire) indicates a leader who exerts little to no control over a group, while the position on the right (Authoritarian) indicates a leader who seeks complete control. The position in the middle (Democratic) is one where a leader maintains a moderate level of control or influence in a group with the group’s permission (Bass & Stogdill, 1990; Berkowitz,1953).
- Laissez-faire is a French term that literally means “Let (people) do (as they choose)”. This leadership style is one in which the leader takes a laid back or hands-off approach. For a variety of reasons, leaders may choose to keep their input at a minimum and refrain from directing a group. What do you think some reasons may be for selecting this leadership style? Perhaps a person feels uncomfortable being a leader. Perhaps a person does not feel that she/he possesses the skills required to successfully lead the group. Or, perhaps the group is highly skilled, motivated, and efficient and does not require much formal direction from a leader. If the latter is the case, then a laissez-faire approach may work well. However, if a group is in need of direction, a laissez-faire style may result in frustration and inefficiency.
- An authoritarian leadership style is one in which a leader attempts to exert maximum control over a group. This may be done by making unilateral decisions rather than consulting all members, assigning members to specific tasks or duties, and generally controlling group processes. This leadership style may be beneficial when a group is in need of direction or there are significant time pressures. Authoritarian leaders may help a group stay efficient and organized in order to accomplish its goals. However, group members may be less committed to the outcomes of the group process than if they had been a part of the decision making process. One term that you may have heard on your campus is “shared-governance”. In general, the faculty does not like working in groups where one person is making the decisions. Instead, most prefer a system where all members of a group share in the leadership process. This can also be called the democratic style of leadership.
- The democratic style of leadership falls somewhere in the middle of laissez-faire and authoritarian styles. In these situations, the decision-making power is shared among group members, not exercised by one individual. In order for this to be effective, group members must spend considerable time sharing and listening to various positions and weighing the effects of each. Groups organized in this fashion may be more committed to the outcomes of the group, creative, and participatory. However, as each person’s ideas are taken into account, this can extend the amount of time it takes for a group to accomplish its goals.
While we’ve certainly oversimplified our coverage of the complex nature of group leaders, you should be able to recognize that there are pros and cons to each leadership style depending on context. There is no one, right way to be a leader for every group. Effective leaders are able to adapt their leadership style to fit the needs of the group. Many scholars recognize that the leadership style is influenced by the relationships that are determined by the group or teams connection and feelings about their leader. In some instances, not taking into account the style of leadership, leaders become transformative. A Transformative leader is highly respected and admired as role-models and mentors. Furthermore, as a group’s needs and members change over time, leadership styles can accommodate natural changes in the group’s life cycle. Take a moment to think of various group situations in which each leadership style may be the most and the least desirable. What are examples of groups where each style of leadership could be practiced effectively?
Every group in which we participate has a set of norms like we discussed in the “norming” stage. Each group’s rules and norms are different, and we must learn them to be effective participants. Some groups formalize their norms and rules, while others are less formal and more fluid. Norms are the recognized rules of behavior for group members. Norms influence the ways we communicate with other members, and ultimately, the outcome of group participation. Norms are important because, as we highlighted in the “norming” stage of group formation, they are the defining characteristics of groups.
Brilhart and Galanes (1998) divide norms into two categories. General norms “direct the behavior of the group as a whole”. Meeting times, how meetings run, and the division of tasks are all examples of general norms that groups form and maintain. These norms establish the generally accepted rules of behavior for all group members. The second category of norms is role-specific norms. Role-specific norms “concern individual members with particular roles, such as the designated leader”.
Not only are there norms that apply to all members of a group, there are norms that influence the behaviors of each role. Consider our brief discussion on leadership. If a group’s members are self-motivated and do not need someone imposing structure, they will set a norm that the group leader should act as a laissez-faire or democratic leader rather than an authoritarian leader. Violation of this norm would most likely result in conflict if leaders try to impose their will. A violation like this will send a group back to the “storming” stage to renegotiate the acceptable norms of the group. When norms are violated, group members most often will work to correct the violation to get the group back on task and functioning properly. Have you ever been in a group in which a particular group member did not do perform the assigned task? What happened? How did the group handle this situation as a whole? What was the response of the person who did not complete the task? In hindsight, would you have handled the matter differently? If so, how would you have handled the matter?
As groups progress through the various stages, and as members engage in the various roles, the group is in a continual process of decision making. Since this is true, it makes sense to ask the question, How is it that groups make decisions?