Chapter 8: Small Group Communication
8.6 Decision Making and Problem Solving in Groups
When groups need to get a job done they should have a method in place for making decisions. The decision-making process is a norm that may be decided by a group leader or by the group members as a whole. Let’s look at four common ways of making decisions in groups. To make it simple we will again use a continuum as a way to visualize the various options groups have for making decisions. On the left side are those methods that require maximum group involvement (consensus and voting). On the right are those methods that use the least amount of input from all members (compromise and authority rule).
The decision-making process that requires the most group input is called consensus. To reach consensus group members must participate in the crafting of a decision and all agree to adopt it as a unanimous decision. While not all members may support the decision equally, all will agree to carry it out. In individualistic cultures like the U.S., where a great deal of value is placed on independence and freedom of choice, this option can be seen by group members as desirable, because no one is forced to go along with a policy or plan of action to which they are opposed. Even though this style of decision making has many advantages, it has its limitations as well—it requires a great deal of creativity, trust, communication, and time on the part of all group members. When groups have a hard time reaching consensus, they may opt for the next strategy which does not require buy-in from all of the group.
Group Communication and You
Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself that your future career isn’t really going to require work in a group or team. Well, you might want to think again. Forbes magazine released an article titled The Ten Skills Employers Most Want in 2015 Graduates which stated that technical knowledge related to the job is not nearly as important as effective teamwork and communications skills. In fact, the top three skills listed include, 1) ability to work in a team structure, 2) ability to make decisions and solve problems, and 3) ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization. Even non-Communication majors need to develop effective group communication skills to succeed at work. (Adams, 2014)
Voting by the majority may be as simple as having 51% of the vote for a particular decision or may require a larger percentage, such as two-thirds or three-fourths, before reaching a decision. Like consensus, voting is advantageous because everyone is able to have an equal say in the decision process (as long as they vote). Unlike consensus, everyone may not be satisfied with the outcome. In a simple majority, 49% of voters may be displeased and may be resistant to abide by the majority vote. In this case, the decision or policy may be difficult to carry out and implement. For example, our campus recently had a department vote on whether or not they wanted to hire a particular person to be a professor. Three of the faculty voted yes for the person, while two of the faculty voted no. Needless to say, there was a fair amount of contention among the professors who voted. Ultimately, the person being considered for the job learned about the split vote and decided that they did not want to take the job because they felt that the two people who voted no would not treat them well.
Toward the right of our continuum is compromise. This method often carries a positive connotation in the U.S. because it is perceived as fair when each member gives up something, as well as gains something to reach an agreement or solve a problem. Nevertheless, this decision-making process may not be as fair as it seems on the surface. The main reason for this has to do with what is given up and obtained. There is nothing in a compromise that says these concessions must be equal (that may be the ideal, but it is often not the reality). For individuals or groups that feel they have gotten the unfair end of the bargain, they may be resentful and refuse to carry out the compromise. They may also foster ill will toward others in the group, or engage in self-doubt for going along with the compromise in the first place. However, if groups cannot make decisions through consensus or voting, compromise may be the next best alternative.
At the far right of our continuum is a decision by authority rule. This decision-making process requires essentially no input from the group, although the group’s participation may be necessary for implementing the decision. The authority in question may be a member of the group who has more power than other members, such as the leader, or a person of power outside the group. While this method is obviously efficient, members are often resentful when they feel they have to follow another’s orders and feel they were not valued in the group process and their time was not validated.
During the decision-making process, groups must be careful not to fall victim to groupthink. Groupthink happens when a group is so focused on agreement and consensus that they do not examine all of the potential solutions available to them. Obviously, this can lead to incredibly flawed decision making and outcomes. Groupthink occurs when members strive for unanimity, resulting in self-deception, forced consent, and conformity to group values and ethics (Rose, Hopthrow & Crisp, 2012). Many people argue that groupthink is the reason behind some of the history’s worst decisions, such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, The Pearl Harbor attack, The North Korea escalation, the Vietnam escalation, and the Bush administration’s decision to go to war with Iraq (Rose, Hopthrow & Crisp, 2012). Let’s think about groupthink on a smaller, less detrimental level. Imagine you are participating in a voting process during a group meeting where everyone votes yes on a particular subject, but you want to vote no. You might feel pressured to conform to the group and vote yes for the sole purpose of unanimity, even though it goes against your individual desires.
As with leadership styles, appropriate decision-making processes vary from group to group depending on context, culture, and group members. There is not a “one way fits all” approach to making group decisions. When you find yourself in a task or decision-making group, you should consider taking stock of the task at hand before deciding, as a group, the best way to proceed.
Group Work and Time
By now you should recognize that working in groups and teams has many advantages. However, one issue that is of central importance to group work is time. When working in groups, time can be both a source of frustration, as well as a reason to work together. One obvious problem is that it takes much longer to make decisions with two or more people as opposed to just one person. Another problem is that it can be difficult to coordinate meeting times when taking into account people’s busy lives of work, school, family, and other personal commitments. On the other hand, when time is limited and there are multiple tasks to accomplish, it is often more efficient to work in a group where tasks can be delegated according to resources and skills. When each member can take on certain aspects of a project, this limits the amount of work an individual would have to do if he/she were solely responsible for the project.
For example, Alex, Kellsie, and Sierra all had a project to work on. The project was large and would take a full semester to complete. They had to split up the amount of work equally to each person as well as based on skills. The thought of doing all the work alone was daunting in terms of the required time and labor. Being able to delegate assignments and work together to achieve a professional result for their project indicated that the best option for them was to work together. In the end, the group’s work produced different results and views that you wouldn’t have necessarily come to working alone. On the other hand, imagine having to work in a group where you believe you could do just the same on your own experiencing a lack of synergy or connection. When deciding whether or not to work in groups, it is important to consider time. Is the time and effort of working in a group worth the outcome? Or, is it better to accomplish the task as an individual?
Dividing the Work of Groups
When students are asked to give their feelings on group work, there are always those who say they hate working in groups. However, think about all the groups we work in every day: friendship groups, family groups, sports teams, extracurricular groups. Working with groups is part of our lives. So, what are some ways to make it more productive?
As might be expected from this course, the solution to group problems is effective communication. Throughout the process of working with a group, it is important that you and your group members communicate with each other clearly. If you have a problem, let members know. If you can’t make it to a meeting, let members know. There is nothing more frustrating for a group than someone disappearing for days only to show up on the day of the presentation with the expectation that they will be able to participate.
Another thing a group can do is establish rules and expectations for the group. If possible, it should be in writing. You can use something like Google Docs to make a shared document that is online and accessible to everyone. That way if a conflict comes up, the group can refer back to the rules they all agreed to.
Also, sharing schedules with each other is important to do early on. If there is a day of the week or a time of day you can never meet, then tell everyone early on. It is a good idea to also put this in writing. That way if you say you can’t meet on Wednesdays and they schedule a meeting that day, you can point to the document and remind them that you told them you were unavailable. There are online services for coordinating schedules that may be useful for this. Some of them are Doodle, Framadate, and When Is Good. Experiment with these. And if one doesn’t work for your group then try another.
It can also be helpful to share your working styles and the roles you typically take on in group work. This way you can know the strengths and weaknesses of the group early on. Take advantage of your strengths and work on your weaknesses.
Cooperation and Collaboration in Groups
When it comes to how groups work, they can be cooperative, collaborative, or a combination of both. What is the difference between cooperation and collaboration? The two terms are often used interchangeably but the distinction between them can be important. In “The Construction of Shared Knowledge in Collaborative Problem Solving,” Roschelle and Teasley define cooperative group work as “the division of labour among participants, as an activity where each person is responsible for a portion of the problem solving” and collaborative work is “a coordinated, synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem” (1995, p. 70). In many classes, students will cooperate on an assignment and one person will work on the visual aid, another will do the research, and someone else will do the writing.
If a group works collaboratively, everyone shares ideas and contributes to all aspects of the project. The advantage of this is that everyone can have input, have a chance to point out weaknesses, and make the end result better. The disadvantages of this are that it can take more time because the group has to make decisions together which can be chaotic and lead to interpersonal conflicts. This can be minimized by following the guidelines on how to deal with conflict in this textbook. In reality, most groups do a combination of cooperation and collaboration but in most cases, groups should try to be as collaborative as possible.
Lynn Power puts it well when she writes:
The reality is that true collaboration is hard — and it doesn’t mean compromise or consensus-building. It means giving up control to other people. It means being vulnerable. It means needing to know when to fall on your sword and when to back down. Collaboration is inherently messy. Great ideas need some tension; otherwise, they would be easy to make. And ultimately, members need to be respectful of other people’s roles, thoughts and what they bring to the table. And there also needs to be trusted. (2016)
So next time you do some group work, don’t just cooperate, collaborate!
Six Steps for Problem-Solving
Problem-solving is an important skill because we are faced with problems every day. Problem-solving is the process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues. We solve problems on our own but we also seek support and guidance when solving problems. A group or team can be a more productive way to solve problems by allowing for more perspectives. Organization makes possible, better outcomes from the time and energy we dedicate to problem-solving in groups. However, this does not come naturally. The following provides us with a script for more efficiently solving problems in groups.
Step One: Define the Problem
In this step, you explore the nature of the problem, its scope, and who is affected by it. First, group members must come to a shared understanding of key terms embedded in the problem. For example, if your group is asked to propose a solution for improving retention at Indiana State University, does everyone in your group know what is meant by “retention” and appreciate the impact of retention on student learning? Next, group members need to determine potential issues of fact (statistical other data, comparative examples, etc.), value (determining who is impacted by the problem and who should benefit from your solution), and policy (what should be done). Finally, develop a research plan to learn more about the problem and answer question raised during this first step. Some of this research you can do during your first meeting, however, most of this research will be accomplished before your next meeting.
Step Two: Analyze the Problem
For step two, group members share the results of their research efforts. What do you now know about the problem you have been tasked with solving and those impacted by the problem? During this group discussion, it is often the case that new questions that need answers arise. Make a plan to follow-up with these questions. Next, your group needs to decide on your problem-solving direction. What set of criteria (goals) must any given solution to this problem achieve? Or, what are the non-negotiable accomplishments that must occur?
Step Three: Generate Possible Solutions
The goal is step three is to generate ideas that may contribute to the formulation of possible solutions. It is at this point where you engage in a brainstorming activity or the generating of ideas related to your discussion. Your group can set its own rules, or norms, for how your brainstorming activity will work. For example, will you allow interruptions or criticisms during the process? Why, or why not? Will you take turns during the brainstorming activity or let it be a free-for-all? Will someone take notes?
Step Four: Evaluate Possible Solutions
After your group has generated possible solutions, next you systematically evaluate each of these. Determine three or four of the best ideas generated from the brainstorming activity. Next, apply your criteria established in step two to your list of possible solutions. Finally, what are the “plusses” and “minuses” associated with each possible solution? You may also want to revisit your discussion on issues of fact, value, and policy as well as any comparative examples discussed in steps one or two.
Step Five: Select Your Solution
In this step, you decide upon a solution that your group believes best solves the problem. Given the criteria, plusses and minuses, and comparative examples which solution stands out as the best? Often, groups will employ some degree of synthesis, or the combining of certain elements of one solution with another solution. At any point during the step, groups will either use consensus, compromise, voting, or some combination of all of these as a decision-making method. However, it is important to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. One good practice is to go around the group and give each group member a chance to vocalize his or her opinion.
Step Six: Develop Your Implementation Plan
The final step in the problem-solving process is crucial for securing a successful outcome for your group’s work. Indeed, it is not enough to have a good idea or solution. You must employ forward thinking, a specific plan for how your solution will be implemented or put into action. Who will be responsible for carrying out the solution? What outside or inside resources are needed to carry out this solution? What challenges might be faced along the way and how might these issues be resolved? What is a realistic timetable for the solution bringing a positive return? What will that positive return look like? How will you assess the solution’s success and weaknesses?
Group Communication and You
Today, we know that social media has the power to bring people together and drive change. Sports fans flock to Twitter and other social media outlets to follow their favorite teams and athletes. Less than 5 percent of TV is sports, but 50 percent of what is tweeted is about sports. And if there was any thought that this phenomenon was only for Americans that is quickly debunked by the worldwide usage statistics.
“The power to create the global sports village and encourage the next generation of pro-social media sports fans is at our fingertips.” -Adam C. Earnheardt
While communication technologies can be beneficial for bringing people together and facilitating groups, they also have drawbacks. Lack of face-to-face encounters requires members to rely on asynchronous forms of communication. When groups communicate through email, threads, discussion forums, text messaging, etc., they lose the ability to provide immediate feedback to other members. Also, using communication technologies takes a great deal more time for a group to achieve its goals due to the asynchronous nature of these channels.The face-to-face nature of traditional group meetings provides immediate processing and feedback through the interaction synchronous group communication.
Case in Point
This screen shot is from an iMessage group chat between the group that is responsible for this chapter’s content. Texting helped our group stay connected, updated, and motivated without having to meet face-to-face.
Nevertheless, technology is changing the ways we understand groups and participate in them. We have yet to work out all of the new standards for group participation introduced by technology. Used well, technology opens the door for new avenues of working in groups to achieve goals. Used poorly, technology can add to the many frustrations people often experience working in groups and teams.