Group Communication, Decision Making and

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A decision is a choice among two or more alternatives. For example, a hiring committee makes a decision when it chooses one of the five candidates under consideration for a new job opening. A jury makes a decision when it chooses whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. Decisions are sometimes hard to identify, as when a soccer team moves down the field to score a goal and their choices are made on the fly in the face of ever-changing conditions. Many of the decisions made by work groups are similar, especially when the work group is managing a crisis when a deadline is pending. The term "decision making" refers to the process that groups go through to identify alternative choices and the logical or appropriate way to select an alternative to implement.

Role of Communication in Group Decision Making

Communication plays a central role in group decision making. Group decisions primarily result from the opinions that group members have about an issue or course of action. Individual opinions can and do change as a result of group communication. Communication affects group decision making in at least two important ways.

First, group members influence each other through the messages they exchange. When one member opposes the idea of another member, for example, then the group must reconcile the difference in some way. If a low-status person in the group raises a good idea, it is likely to be rejected publicly by the group members. It is interesting to note, however, that the opinion of low-status members will slowly influence each member's private beliefs. The consequence, in the long run, is that the low-status group member's willingness to express a contradictory opinion can have a real effect on the decisions of a group. The low-status member, however, is less likely to get credit for the good idea than the more high-status members of the group.

Second, group communication is typically patterned, and these patterns influence the course of decision making. For example, some groups develop communication patterns that are extremely polite and formal. These habits can make it difficult to raise a difference of opinion and the speaker often has to "water down" his or her disagreement to the degree that the opposition seems pointless. Other groups embrace open conflict. In these groups, the simple act of agreeing or supporting another person's comments can easily be taken by that person as a challenge. Thus, group communication has a variety of effects on decision making, in particular in the role communication plays in the formation of decisions and in decision-making outcomes.

Approaches to Understanding Decision-Making Communication

Consideration of the functional and decision-emergence approaches to the study of communication in group decision making helps show how communication influences group decisions.

Functional Approach

Since the 1920s, communication teachers have taught students that particular functions are necessary for good group decision making. For example, students are often taught a "standard agenda" that they can apply to all group decisions. A standard agenda prescribes functions that every group should perform: (1) define the problem, (2) identify criteria for a good solution, (3) generate alternative solutions, (4) assess alternatives, and (4) choose a solution. These functions define what groups should do.

Functional approaches specify the functions groups should perform to make good decisions. Randy Hirokawa (1985) has developed a functional approach that both challenges and advances the idea behind using a standard agenda for group decision making. Hirokawa and his colleagues have found "critical functions" that groups must perform to make good decisions; these functions are similar to the standard agenda. They also found that groups that make "bad decisions" begin their discussions by generating and evaluating alternatives. Groups that make "good decisions" begin by analyzing the problem and generating alternatives, and then they evaluate alternatives.

Thus, the way group members communicate affects the quality of the decisions that are made by a group. Communication also influences what members talk about. How this happens has been addressed in particular by researchers who explain decision emergence.

Decision-Emergence Approach

Early research on group decision making suggests that all group decisions go through a particular set of phases: groups (1) orient themselves to the task, (2) engage in conflict with each other, (3) develop some standards about making a choice, and (4) create solutions. This differs from the functional approach because these phases describe how decisions emerge (rather than prescribing the phases a group should go through). Communication researchers have challenged the phase model proposed in early research on groups.

Thomas Scheidel and Laura Crowell (1964) studied how people exchanged messages during decision making and found that decisions emerge in a spiral fashion. For example, a member will put a proposal forward and it will be accepted. The group will continue the discussion only to find that the proposal is inadequate. Then they will spiral back to modify or reject the proposal that was once accepted. Thus, it is better to characterize this form of group decision making in terms of two steps forward, followed by one step back, and then two steps forward.

B. Aubrey Fisher (1970) discovered that both the phase and spiral models of decision making explain how decisions emerge. He found that some group decisions emerge in a pattern that looks very much like a standard agenda. Other group decisions, however, seem never to move toward concrete solutions and instead remain stuck in the debate over alternatives. Fisher explains that discussion about choices involves more than the task before the group. Indeed, it also involves the relationships among the group members. The spiraling in decision-making discussion is a reflection of how the group members manage their relationships and work through interpersonal conflict.

M. Scott Poole (1983) and his colleagues have developed an even more advanced explanation than Fisher's explanation of decision emergence. Poole argues against a phase model. Instead of phases, research by Poole and his colleagues shows how groups are actually managing multiple tracks of activity that correspond to what other researchers have called phases. These multiple tracks include the task, the member relationships, and the discussion focus. Thus, similar to phase models, Poole argues that groups must manage many developmental demands. Poole's point, however, is that decision-making group members are constantly managing these demands. Thus, decision-making communication may appear chaotic. This is the case because the communication among group members serves multiple purposes. The group is solving the decision, but it is also working out the relationship among the members and maintaining a common focus in the discussion.

Common Difficulties in Group Communication

There are numerous barriers to effective decision making that involve communication. Three of the most common difficulties are groupthink, polarization, and inferential errors.


Groupthink occurs when group members value consensus above all else. The result is that group members feel extraordinary pressure to agree and have little if any means to disagree or oppose the will of the group. Irving Janis (1972) developed this concept. There are five conditions that contribute to groupthink: an authoritarian style leader, isolation from other groups and people, lack of explicit decision procedures, group members sharing similar viewpoints, and group members being under high pressure to make a decision. A project team facing a deadline may not adequately consider new information that runs contrary to a selected position because the members fear that including the new information means missing the deadline.


When groups make decisions, the group decision tends to be either riskier or more cautious than the decision that individual group members would make outside of the group. When groups begin their discussion by leaning toward guaranteed outcomes, they tend to experience a cautious shift; that is, the group makes a decision that is more cautious than an individual would have made on his or own. When a group begins the discussion by leaning toward taking a change, it tends to experience risky shift. A group of friends, for example, may go to a much scarier or risqué movie than any one of them would ever see when alone.

Inferential Errors

Individuals and groups are prone to errors when their judgments are based on data. These are called inferential errors. The way a problem is framed, for example, can influence how group members judge the evidence. Two groups can make very different judgments of the same evidence, depending on past success or failure in decision making. Past failure can induce risky behavior by groups, while past success can make groups more conservative. The previous decision outcomes frame judgment of the evidence in a current choice. When groups make successful choices, it tends to stick to what works and is less willing to see evidence in new ways. When groups make unsuccessful choices, they are willing to try something new. The football team that is losing because of bad plays and miscues will be likely (in order to win) to abandon the original plan and even try plays that have not been well practiced.

Overcoming Problems

Groups can overcome a problem by designating or hiring a person to be a facilitator. The facilitator is a type of group leader who helps improve the group's procedures so the group is more effective in accomplishing its goals. A facilitator helps a group identify problems in the decision-making processes and shows the group how to correct those problems. Facilitators can also diffuse unproductive conflict by helping groups regulate the expression of frustrations while helping the group find a path toward a solution.

Vigilance, according to Dennis Gouran (1990), is sensitivity to careful examination of the information on which a choice rests. Vigilance can be cultivated in a group by developing an attitude toward critical thinking, by an appreciation for listening, and by a willingness to explore alternatives. Vigilance depends on the leadership in a group. Gouran explains that leaders help groups move toward a goal through "counteractive influence." Group leaders must be aware of anything that influences a group to deviate from accomplishing its goals. Group leaders must provide the necessary behavior to counteract those influences. For example, leaders can become skeptics when groupthink emerges or sensitive when hostilities escalate.

Robert's Rules of Parliamentary Procedure (or Robert's Rules of Order, as they are commonly known) were created to provide a common set of procedures for decision-making groups. The rules make clear how a proposal should be handled, thus helping to reduce or eliminate conflict over procedures and to contribute to group productivity. For example, these rules specify how a member can put a motion, or proposal, up for consideration by the group. This encourages members to have a thoughtful proposal and gives the group members a fair way to prevent discussion on every thought of every group member. The rules help balance power and influence among the members of a group.

Nominal group technique is a procedure to help groups discover the best ideas and promote consensus building among members. The essence of the technique involves having the members of the group write their ideas on cards. The cards are then collected and the ideas are posted. The group then discusses and evaluates those ideas. The benefit of this technique is twofold. First, individuals tend to be more productive when working individually in the presence of others. Second, the cards enable members to bring up unpopular ideas while remaining anonymous.

Group decision-support systems (GDSSs) combine computers and specialized software to help groups make better decisions. A GDSS provides group discussion and decision-making tools such as brainstorming and voting. When groups use a GDSS, they work in a room where they can interact with each other by talking or by using the GDSS. The GDSS makes it possible for group members to input all of their ideas at the same time, maintains a record of their contributions, and provides groups with the opportunity to interact anonymously. The features of a GDSS, in many ways, combine the insights of facilitation, vigilance, Robert's Rules of Order, and nominal group technique.

See also:Group Communication; Group Communication, Conflict and; Group Communication, Dynamics of; Group Communication, Roles and Responsibilities in.


Fisher, B. Aubrey. (1970). "Decision Emergence: Phases in Group Decision Making." Speech Monographs 37:53-66.

Fisher, B. Aubrey, and Ellis, Don. (1990). Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 3rd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gouran, Dennis. (1990). Making Decisions in Groups: Choices and Consequences. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Hirokawa, Randy. (1985). "Discussion Procedures and Decision-Making Performance." Human Communication Research 12:203-224.

Janis, Irving. (1972). Victims of Groupthink. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Pavitt, Charles, and Curtis, Ellen. (1994). Small Group Discussion: A Theoretical Approach, 2nd edition. Scottsdale, AZ: Gorsuch Scarisbrick.

Poole, M. Scott. (1983). "Decision Development in Small Groups III: A Multiple Sequence Model of Group Decision Development." Communication Monographs 50:321-341.

Scheidel, Thomas, and Crowell, Laura. (1964). "Idea Development in Small Group Discussion Groups." Quarterly Journal of Speech 50:140-145.

Mark Aakhus