Chapter 8: Small Group Communication
Defining Small Groups and Teams
To understand group and team communication, we must first understand the definition of a group. Many people think that a group is simply a collection of people, but that is only part of it. If you walk out your front door and pull together the first ten people you see, do you have a group? No! According to Wilson and Hanna (1990), a small group is defined as, “a collection of three or more individuals who interact about some common problem or interdependent goal and can exert mutual influence over one another.” They go on to say that the three key components of groups are, “size, goal orientation, and mutual influence.” Interpersonal communication is often thought about in terms of a dyad, or pairs. Organizational communication might be thought of as a group that is larger than 12 people. While there are exceptions, for the most part, group size is often thought of in terms of 3-12 people.
Case In Point
Astronaut Jim Lovell’s words during the Apollo 13 lunar mission, “Houston, we have a problem,” launched a remarkable tale of effective teamwork and creative problem solving by NASA engineers working to try to save the lives of the jeopardized crew when two oxygen tanks exploded en route to the moon. Details of the dramatic and successful resolution to the problem became widely known in the motion picture Apollo 13, but it’s not just during dramatic moments when the importance of good teamwork is needed or recognized. In fact, some form of team-oriented work is encouraged in most, if not all, organizations today (Hughes & Jones, 2011). So if you feel this is unimportant to know, remember that group communication and teamwork skills are critical to your success later in life.
For example, Joseph Bonito, a communication professor at the University of Arizona, allows no more than five people in a group to ensure that everyone’s opinions are reflected equally in a discussion (Baughman and Everett-Haynes, 2013). According to Bonito, if there are too many people in a group it’s possible that some individuals will remain silent without anyone noticing. He suggests using smaller groups when equal participation is desirable. So, if the ten people you gathered outside of your front door were all neighbors working together as part of a “neighborhood watch” to create safety in the community, then you would indeed have a group.
For those of you who have participated on athletic teams, you’ll notice that these definitions also apply to a team. While all teams are groups, not all groups are teams. A Team is a special type of group. We like to define a teamas a specialized group with a strong sense of belonging and commitment to each other that shapes an overall collective identity. Members of a team each have their own part, or role, to fulfill in order to achieve the team’s greater goals. One member’s strengths can be other members’ weaknesses, so working in a team is beneficial when balancing individual input. While all members of an athletic team share some athletic ability and special appreciation for a particular sport, for example, members of a football team have highly specialized skills as indicated in the various positions on the team — quarterback, receiver, and running back. In addition to athletic teams, work and professional teams also share these qualities.
Groups differ from teams in several ways (Boundless Management, 2017:
- Task orientation: Teams require coordination of tasks and activities to achieve a shared aim. Groups do not need to focus on specific outcomes or a common purpose.
- Degree of interdependence: Team members are interdependent since they bring to bear a set of resources to produce a common outcome. Individuals in a group can be entirely disconnected from one another and not rely on fellow members at all.
- Purpose: Teams are formed for a particular reason and can be short- or long-lived. Groups can exist as a matter of fact; for example, a group can be comprised of people of the same race or ethnic background.
- Degree of formal structure: Team members’ individual roles and duties are specified and their ways of working together are defined. Groups are generally much more informal; roles do not need to be assigned and norms of behavior do not need to develop.
- Familiarity among members: Team members are aware of the set of people they collaborate with since they interact to complete tasks and activities. Members of a group may have personal relationships or they may have little knowledge of each other and no interactions whatsoever.
Sometimes it is difficult to draw a distinction between a team and a group. For instance, a set of coworkers might meet on occasion to discuss an issue or provide input on a decision. While such meetings typically have an agenda and thus a purpose and some structure, we would not necessarily think of those in attendance as a team. The activity scope and duration is just too small to involve the amount of coordination of resources and effort that teamwork requires. Now that you know how to define groups and teams, let’s look at characteristics of groups and teams, as well as the different types of groups and teams.