Group Communication, Roles and Responsibilities in

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A group is a collectivity of individuals who are united by a common goal. Groups may vary substantially from one another in any number of ways, including their purpose, the way in which they emerge and evolve, their structure, their longevity, and their size. Groups may be formed for task completion, economic gain, social support, personal development and change, spiritual growth, or any of a number of other reasons. They may emerge and evolve quite naturally, or they may be developed and maintained through planning and conscious effort. Groups may have a very transitory existence, or they may be stable over time. Their structure and operations can be causal, or they can be formal. Whatever the specific nature or structure of a group, communication is critical to its emergence and ongoing dynamics.

There is no single view as to the minimum or maximum number of members needed to constitute a group. However, size is an important factor that affects the communication and other dynamics with any group. As compared to a two-person relationship, the presence of additional members provides extra resources to assist with the activities of the group and to provide input into planning, decision making, and problem resolution. However, a larger group requires a greater leadership effort in order to set and maintain direction, develop consensus on plans and goals, keep all parties informed and engaged, and identify and integrate the range of member expectations and perspectives.

Task and Social Dimensions

Groups are created to serve any number of goals. Often, the stated objective is to undertake and complete a specific task. Examples of group tasks include organizing a social event, painting a house, and carrying out a community-service project. Groups may also be formed and maintained primarily to create positive morale and to help members achieve a sense of personal or social well-being. Social clubs, discussion groups, and support groups are examples. Often, they are formed to help individuals who are lonely or are seeking support for overcoming personal difficulties.

To a greater or lesser extent, most groups serve a combination of task goals and social goals. Even in highly task-oriented groups, such as a construction crew or emergency room team—where successful task performance is the overriding goal—good morale and supportive work relationships are important. This is especially the case if members of a task group will be working together for a period of time. In these cases, good morale and a positive social climate often contribute to task effectiveness. Conversely, poor morale can undermine productivity and effectiveness.

Communication in Groups

In a two-person relationship, there is the possibility of only one reciprocal communication link. That is, person A can talk to person B. In a group of three persons, there are six possible message-processing relationships: person A with person B, person A with person C, person B with person C, persons A and B with person C, persons A and C with person B, and persons B and C with person A. In a group of four members, this increases to twenty-five potential relationships. In other words, increasing the size of the group by just one more person (from three people to four people) creates the possibility of nineteen additional communication relationships (Kephart, 1950). Thus, as the size of a group increases, the number and complexity of the communication relationships that are involved increases exponentially—creating many new opportunities, as well as many new challenges.

Group Development

Typically, groups go through four predictable stages as they develop: forming, storming, norming, and performing (Tuckman, 1965; Fisher, 1974).

Forming consists of getting acquainted, discussing how the group might begin its work, exploring where and when the members will meet, identifying the purposes of the group, and sharing other initial concerns. Storming refers to the dynamics that occur as individuals in the group begin to express differing perspectives, preferences, and opinions that must be entertained and addressed in some manner as the group begins its work. This stage may be either quite brief or fairly extensive—depending on the individuals, the range of views expressed, and the purpose of the group. Norming is the stage in group development at which goals, directions, and methods of operating are clarified and agreed upon. Once the norming stage is completed, the group can move forward more rapidly and effectively to the performing stage, where the goals of the group are accomplished.

While it is typical for newly formed groups to move through this sequence, the process of group development is not usually as logical as this description might suggest. Even in groups that have been performing at a high level for some time, it is not uncommon for the earlier three stages to reoccur periodically as a group pursues its work.

Decision Making

A variety of approaches are available for making decisions in a group. Among these approaches are consensus, compromise, majority vote, decision by leader, and arbitration (Wilson and Hanna, 1986).

Consensus requires all members of a group to arrive at a decision with which everyone genuinely agrees. Compromise involves decisions that result from negotiation and a give-and-take in order to arrive at a decision that is acceptable to all members of a group. Under majority vote, the final decision is the one that is supported by the majority of the group. In the decision by leader approach, the leader imposes his or her decision on the entire group. Formal negotiation and arbitration often involve facilitation by an impartial "third party" who helps to reconcile opposing positions.

Roles and Responsibilities

In most groups, particular roles (i.e., patterns of behavior) emerge. In a classic article on this subject, Kenneth Benne and Paul Sheats (1948) identified three broad categories of roles that typically occur during group interactions: task completion roles, group building and support roles, and individualistic roles.

Task completion roles are those roles that are related to the completion of a given job or activity. Examples of task completion roles include information seeker, opinion seeker, information giver, recorder, coordinator, and evaluator-critic.

Group building and support roles are those roles that are related to encouraging the social development of the group. Examples of these roles include encourager, harmonizer, compromiser, gatekeeper/expediter, observer, and follower.

Individualistic roles are generally the less desireable roles. These roles contribute negatively to the group both in terms of progress toward completion of a task and group development and climate. Examples of individualistic roles include aggressor, blocker, recognition seeker, dominator, and special-interest pleader.


A particularly critical role in any group is that of leader. Essentially, the role consists of guiding the group. A great deal has been written about leadership, and there are many different points of view on the topic. Summarizing this literature in a simple way, Michael Useem (1998) explains that leadership requires a vision of what needs to be done and why, as well as a commitment to action (i.e., to implementation of the vision).

At a more microscopic level, the leadership role involves two sets of responsibilities: group maintenance functions and group achievement functions (Baird and Weinberg, 1981). Group maintenance activities include promoting participation, managing interaction, promoting cooperation, assuring that the needs and concerns of the members are addressed, arbitrating conflict, protecting the rights of individuals, modeling exemplary behavior, promoting group development, and assuming responsibilities for group dynamics. Group achievement functions include informing, planning, orienting, integrating, representing, coordinating, clarifying, evaluating, and motivating.

There are various theories about what constitutes effective leadership and how one acquires the necessary attributes to become a leader. One classical approach—the "great man" theory—holds that "leaders are born not made." Popular in the 1800s and early 1900s, this view held that some individuals inherit natural abilities that are necessary for effective leadership, while others do not.

"Trait" approaches, which were particularly popular in the first half of the twentieth century, contend that certain traits, such as being self-confident or outgoing, are essential if one is to be an effective leader. If one has these traits, they are likely to be successful in leadership roles.

Beginning in the 1950s, theories of leadership began to emphasize the importance of learned behaviors in effective leadership. Early behavioral theories often suggested that there was one best way to lead all groups in all situations, but subsequent theories have suggested the importance of situational leadership—adapting one's approach and behaviors to the particular group and circumstances that are involved in a given situation. More recent approaches see leadership as a set of social and communicative competencies and values that can and should be learned.


An understanding of roles and responsibilities is important for comprehending the dynamics of groups. An appreciation of the concepts is also very helpful for functioning effectively within groups and for contributing to group productivity and cohesiveness.

See also:Group Communication; Group Communication, Conflict and; Group Communication, Decision Making and; Group Communication, Dynamics of; Interpersonal Communication.


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Benne, Kenneth, and Sheats, Paul. (1948). "Functional Roles of Group Members." Journal of Social Issues 4:41-49.

Covey, Stephen. (1992). Principle-Centered Leadership. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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

Goleman, Daniel. (1994). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Kephart, William M. (1950). "A Quantitative Analysis of Intra-Group Relationships." American Journal of Sociology 55:544-549.

Komives, Susan R.; Lucas, Nancee; and McMahon, Timothy R. (1998). Exploring Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ruben, Brent D., and Stewart, Lea. (1998). Communication and Human Behavior, 4th edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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Wheatley, Margaret J. (1992). Leadership and the New Science. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Wilson, Gerald L., and Hanna, Michael S. (1986). Groups in Context. New York: Random House.

Brent D. Ruben