Core 202 – Group Communication

In this project, you will evaluate your effectiveness and your team members’ effectiveness at communicating in groups in order to prepare yourself for the group environments you will encounter both in other classes and professionally.

Good groups do not just happen. Good groups require the participation of group members who

  • are ethical and open-minded,
  • are aware of group dynamics,
  • understand their strengths and weaknesses as group members,
  • are able to express their own ideas and beliefs while remaining respectful to those who disagree, and
  • are able to acknowledge and address conflict without sparking the resentment of their colleagues.

To help you become such a group member, this assignment will help you to acquire the knowledge and skills required to meet the objectives below:

  • Contribute to team meetings.
  • Facilitate the contribution of team members.
  • Foster a constructive team climate.
  • Respond effectively to conflict.

Contribute to team meetings.

In today’s organizational environment, group work is an expectation. However, employers may not teach people how to work in groups; instead, employers may expect incoming employees to possess this skill. Having experience working in groups in college therefore can provide you with real world experience that will give you a leg up professionally.

The answers to the following questions will help you make positive contributions to the groups you work with in both academic and career settings.

  1. What is a team?
  2. What are the different types of teams?
  3. Why do I need to know how to work in a group?
  4. What makes a team effective?
  5. What are the different roles that may need to be performed by group members?
  6. What are the different behaviors that may be exhibited by group members?
  7. What is deviant behavior?
  8. What are examples of deviant behavior?
  9. How can deviant behaviors be avoided or addressed by the group?
  10. How do I avoid engaging in deviant behaviors?
  11. How do I know what roles to take on?
  12. What is leadership?
  13. What leadership behaviors should everyone in the group exhibit?

1. What is a team?

A team or a group involves at least three members and up to 15 or 20. Any more then 20 is considered public communication and no longer falls into the team or group category. The ideal group/team is about 5 members.

2. What are the different types of teams?

Teams can come together using a variety of mediums such as face-to-face interaction, virtual interactions, or in some cases, a blend of both. No matter how groups come together to hold their meeting, the reason for a group is still the same: groups form because together they can accomplish more than individuals working alone.

3. Why do I need to know how to work in a group?

The truth is that in today’s organizational environment, group work is an expectation. It’s unlikely your employer will teach you how to work in a group; this is a skill they expect incoming employees to have. Therefore, having experience working in groups in college provides you with a leg up and offers real world experience.

We wish we could say that you will never experience conflict in groups in college or professionally and that everyone in a group will pull his or her own weight. The fact is, however, that people in groups sometimes work at cross-purposes and group members may contribute unequally to the group effort. Spending some time learning about how groups work and about how you yourself can best work within a group may have a big payoff in terms of the success of the group—and by extension your success.

4. What makes a team effective?

Google did a huge research study in an effort to pinpoint what would make the “perfect” team.  Surprisingly, the researchers found that who was in the team made virtually no difference.  It didn’t matter how smart the members were, or whether they were friends outside the group, or if they had any common interests. Instead, what mattered most: 1) Shared conversational contributions.  Members spoke in roughly equal amounts during team meetings; no one was silent, and no one dominated the discussion.  2) Ability to read their teammates (also known as “social sensitivity.”)  Members could pick up nonverbal cues, such as body language, and made adjustments as necessary, heading off future conflict.

5. How can I contribute to my team?

Be present.  When you are in a group meeting, give your attention to the other team members. Put your phone away, don’t engage in side conversations, and  focus on the task at hand.

Be prepared. Your team meetings will usually call upon you to use class content, materials, and notes.  Make sure you have completed any course readings, taken careful notes, and bring everything you might need to the meeting.

Be engaged. Take part in conversations, encourage others to speak, and push each other to think outside the box. Practice social sensitivity whenever possible.

Your instructor may also have your team create a group contract with official norms and sanctions; go to the Appendix to read more.

If you are meeting with your team online, read about effective virtual meeting practices in the Appendix.

6. What are the different roles that may need to be performed by group members?

Members of a group must be willing and able to play certain roles in order for the group to successfully reach its goal. In fact, group members may have to take on multiple roles, sometimes simultaneously.

Below are roles that group members typically play:

  • An initiator-contributor proposes ideas and makes suggestions.
  • An information seeker asks for facts and information.
  • An opinion seeker tries to get all members of the group to express their opinions.
  • An information giver is the keeper of information necessary for the functioning of the group, such as due dates and sources.
  • An elaborator offers examples or further descriptions and helps make certain that there is a shared understanding of ideas.
  • A coordinator tries to manage the activities of group members, perhaps by planning meetings or dividing up responsibilities.
  • An orienter summarizes major decisions and asks questions about the direction the group is headed.
  • A critic/evaluator assesses ideas and serves as the group’s critical thinker.
  • An energizer motivates the group and helps members develop a sense of urgency about completing tasks.

7. What are the different behaviors that may be exhibited by group members?

The above group roles may be chosen (either consciously or unconsciously) by group members; or they may be assigned by the group. In addition to playing those distinct roles, members may exhibit certain behaviors, perhaps because of their personalities. Some of the most typical are listed below.

  • Supporting—being empathetic, quickly agreeing with and offering support to group members.
  • Harmonizing— emphasizing cooperation, working to ensure that everyone is getting along and mediating conflict.
  • Compromising— focusing on helping the group to reach consensus or solutions that are agreeable to everyone.
  • Tension releasing— trying to relax the group, often using humor to relieve stress.
  • Gatekeeping—monitoring communication and encouraging quieter members to speak up.
  • Observing— monitoring the nonverbal cues of others and expressing the feelings of the group based on such observations.
  • Following—being an attentive member who is agreeable to following the decisions and the opinions of other group members.

8. What is deviant behavior?

Not all roles and behaviors are helpful to the group. A group member may behave in a way that is self-centered. A person who does so is said to have taken on a deviant role. For example, an individual may dominate conversation and not allow others to add their input. Or someone may repeatedly declare his lack of skill and seek help from other members, rather than learning what he needs to do in order to pull his own weight.

9. What are examples of deviant behavior?

Deviant roles or behaviors are actions that do not assist the group in reaching its goals and should therefore be avoided. Below are typical deviant roles:

  • An aggressor puts down other people or their ideas. Someone displaying this behavior also may be likely to take credit for the work of another.
  • A blocker stands in the way by being uncompromising and delaying the group’s progress.
  • A dominator does not allow others to talk or offer their opinions and also may try to manipulate others.
  • A recognition-seeker always tries to focus attention on himself and what he has done or can bring to the table.
  • A clown uses inappropriate humor at inappropriate times and appears more interested in goofing off than focusing on the task that the group must accomplish.
  • A deserter withdraws from the group and may create the impression that he is too good to spend time with his fellow members.
  • A self-confessor may use the group as a place to vent personal issues, continually seeking emotional support for personal problems and as a result distracting the group from its task.
  • A help-seeker repeatedly feigns confusion about how to do something, perhaps hoping that by asking enough questions, she may get out of having to do something.
  • A special-Interest pleader advocates for the choices that suit her personal interest rather then what is best for the group.

10. How can deviant behaviors be avoided or addressed by the group?

Deviant behavior can be a drag on a group’s success. For that reason, do not ignore deviant behavior. Keep in mind that it is unlikely to improve or disappear on its own. Your group needs to decide how it will address the deviant behavior. It needs to create a mechanism for discussing such behavior and determining how to respond. To some extent, the group can head off deviant behavior by carefully establishing norms, as described above.

If necessary, the group may revisit its list of norms to address behavior that was not anticipated when the list was first drawn up.

The sanctions (as described above) that the group has agreed upon also may play a role in keeping deviant behavior in check. Above all, do not ignore deviant behavior. Remember: it is unlikely to improve or disappear on its own.

11. How do I avoid engaging in deviant behaviors?

Sometimes deviant behavior is the flip side of actions that may be very helpful to a group when performed carefully but that in extreme cases may result in group dysfunction. Monitor your behavior in the group and modify it if you realize that your actions, even if well-intended, are beginning to hold back the group in some way. At the same time, encourage your fellow group members to monitor their behavior as well.

Examples:

  • A ‘devil’s advocate’ can be a valuable voice: a critical thinker who repeatedly challenges his fellows. However, be careful not to push devil’s advocacy to the point at which you may become a blocker, a person who is always discounting what other group members say. Questioning ideas is a way that groups avoid groupthink and is necessary for healthy group decision-making. However, an atmosphere of resentment may be created if one person is constantly discounting everyone else’s ideas. So be sure that the role of devil’s advocate is rotated and does not become your fixed role. If you realize that you’re always the one to critique people’s ideas, remind others that they should be speaking up, too.
  • A person who has an intuitive sense for when a well-timed joke may be helpful can break up tension in a group. By playing this role, she can help the group avoid conflict and make its members willing to consider new perspectives. On the other hand, if someone spends too much time joking, it may start to interfere with the group’s ability to focus when necessary. At that point, the person has become a clown, which is a deviant role. Be aware of the energy in the group and be serious when necessary.
  • Surprisingly, volunteering to take on extra tasks, which may seem like a great way to help your group out, can backfire. The rest of the group may think that you don’t trust them to accomplish tasks or value their input. Or perhaps you are being perceived as a dominator or a recognition-seeker. Avoid resentment by trying to transform some of your eagerness to help into being supportive and encouraging of the efforts of other group members.

12. How do I know what roles to take on?

In a group, people often are responsible for taking on more than one role or engaging in more than one type of behavior. Some roles can be assigned, such as a leadership role. Others may depend upon a person’s personality.

Most of the time you will know what is expected from you by the way the rest of the group treats you. For example, even if you don’t feel as if you would be adequate as the group’s leader, if everyone turns and makes eye contact with you when a final decision needs to be made, you are clearly the task leader in their minds. Behaviors may be learned, so even though a role may make you uncomfortable or may feel confusing at first, you can learn to adapt and be what your group needs you to be.

13. What is leadership?

Leadership is a set of behaviors that influences the group to accomplish its task.  Leadership is not power or control over a group but is based on interpersonal relationships and relies upon persuasion and the ability to shape a group’s interactions.

14. What leadership behaviors should everyone in the group exhibit?

Since leadership is a set of behaviors, exercising leadership is not necessarily restricted to one individual. All members of a group can exert leadership by engaging in the following actions:

  • Be a competent communicator. Be assertive but kind. Speak with confidence, but be flexible and tolerate uncertainty. Welcome others’ opinions, even when you disagree.
  • Set goals for the group. Take part in planning the group’s tasks.
  • Build a supportive communication climate, a group environment where people can be open and honest with one another.
  • Use humor carefully. Never pick on someone in the group for laughs, even if he says he doesn’t mind. You may use self-deprecating humor to lighten the mood, but be careful not to create the impression that you aren’t up to the task.
  • Stay on top of how the group makes decisions. Consider not just what decision was made but how it was reached. What went right?  What went wrong?  Bring up your observations with your group in order to help it become better at decision making.
  • Hold yourself and other members accountable for meeting high expectations. Enforcing norms and encouraging individuals to do their best work is the responsibility of everyone in the group.
  • Encourage creativity. Whether you think of yourself as a creative person or not, you can help your group to approach its task from a new perspective.
  • Celebrate successes. Often times when one task is complete a group will move on to the next task without stopping to acknowledge the great feeling of having accomplished something together. Everyone in the group should have a hand in making certain that the group enjoys its moment of success before diving into the next task.

If you would like to read more about Leadership, go to the Appendix.

Working with your team mates.

Sometimes group members may fail to work together effectively because not everyone makes as significant a contribution as they could. Sometimes the group has not come up with a structure that encourages equitable contributions. Sometimes members do not contribute because they believe it’s easier to let others do the work or because the group’s success simply isn’t important to them. Other times members would like to contribute but don’t feel that their contributions are valued by the rest of the group.

In order for everyone to benefit from working in a group, each group member needs to contribute, and everyone in the group has a responsibility to help other members feel comfortable enough to contribute.

The answers to the following questions will help you become aware of ways that you can help your fellow group members successfully contribute to the group project.

  1. Why should all members be encouraged to contribute to a group?
  2. What are different communication styles?
  3. How does my group deal with different communication styles?
  4. What are the benefits and challenges represented by each communication trait?
  5. What are some ways for my group to keep a dominant communicator from taking over the conversation and to ensure that quieter members contribute?

 1. Why should all members be encouraged to contribute to a group?

The biggest advantage to working in groups instead of working alone is that a group can draw on the expertise and experiences of each member. Obviously, if some members do not contribute, that advantage is lost. A member may have an idea that no one else in the group has thought of, but if the group member does not voice that idea, the group will never have an opportunity to determine whether that idea could have been a useful element in its work.

As your group continues to work together, be as interested in encouraging other group members to state their ideas as you are in stating your own ideas.

2. What are different communication styles?

Any time you work in a group it is likely that different members of the group will have different approaches toward communication. Some members of the group may strike other members as passive within communication contexts. Others may seem assertive. Yet others may come across as aggressive. We might say that these are communication styles that are expressed through a mix of verbal and nonverbal behaviors.

More specifically, each person’s communication style may reflect traits such as being friendly (kind and caring and expecting others to be the same), relaxed (at ease when interacting with others), contentious (ready to argue and debate), attentive (effective at listening and understanding of others), open (straightforward and honest about one’s feelings and thoughts), and dominant (liable to take charge by talking louder, faster, longer, and more frequently than others). Other traits may be whether or not a speaker is impression-leaving (able to state ideas in a memorable way), animated (able to use eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, body movement, and posture to reinforce messages), dramatic (able to stylistic devices, rhythm, stories, and exaggeration to emphasize ideas), or precise (trying to achieve accuracy through specific proofs and well-defined examples and requiring others to do likewise). (Norton, 1978, pp. 99-101).

 3. How does my group deal with different communication styles?

Each communication trait offers different advantages and disadvantages, so it’s usually beneficial for a group to have members representing a variety of communication styles. At the same time, the diversity of communication styles may present challenges, especially if some people don’t recognize that their fellow group members have different communication traits. For example, a friendly communicator and a contentious communicator may feel differently over how much conflict is acceptable in a group. The friendly communicator may be a bit too successful in shutting down conflict, preventing the group from adequately talking through all of the alternatives that should be considered. On the other hand, the contentious communicator may be too aggressive in pursuing conflict and may drive other group members toward deferring to her ideas rather than adequately weighing the pros and cons of each alternative.

Regardless of which specific communication traits show up in your group, it is important to recognize both the challenges and the opportunities they may present and to help group members use their traits to the group’s advantage. For example, encourage the friendly communicator to use his sociable impulses to help the group quickly build social cohesion. At the same time recognize that he may be uncomfortable with conflict.  Respect that fact while at the same time helping him recognize that conflict can be productive.

Similarly, welcome the fact that the contentious communicator can motivate the group to keep thinking about an idea or solution until it’s a good one. At the same time, help him to understand that he may come across as belligerent and that this perception can affect how other group members respond to him. Encourage the contentious communicator to find ways to signal that he is not creating conflict out of disrespect toward his fellow group members but out of a desire to help the group weigh all of the alternatives.

4. What are the benefits and challenges represented by each communication trait?

When you recognize a communication trait in yourself or in a fellow group member, ask yourself how you can help the group both address the challenges and capitalize on the advantages of that style.

Encourage the animated communicator to contribute her vitality when others may be tired, and take advantage of her lively delivery during presentations. On the other hand, when the occasion is appropriate, encourage her to modulate her energy so that she does not come across as pushy.

  • Take advantage of the fact that an attentive communicator listens for what others really mean, not just what they say, and often is good at paraphrasing group members’ contributions. But also remind him to contribute his own ideas and to accept the notion that a certain level of conflict may be productive.
  • Welcome the fact that a contentious communicator can motivate the group to keep thinking about an idea or solution until it’s a good one, but encourage her to adopt a manner that does not come across as belligerent to other group members.
  • Make use of the fact that, when deadlines loom, a dominant communicator can take charge and make certain the task is accomplished. But signal that interrupting others is not acceptable and remind her to let others have their say.
  • Capitalize on the dramatic communicator’s talent during presentations, as well as on the fact that her stories may bolster group cohesion. At the same time, remember that when precision is important, such as during research, the dramatic communicator may be encouraged to express herself in a more straightforward manner.
  • Welcome the fact that the friendly communicator can help the group quickly build social cohesion, but help him see that he can be comfortable with productive conflict.
  • Take advantage of the fact that the impression-leaving communicator is good at delivering ideas and information both during group meetings and during presentations. At the same time, encourage her to communicate without dominating the group’s communication and appearing to ‘always get her way’.
  • Welcome the fact that an open communicator will generally be trusted because he will be viewed as not having a hidden agenda. Simultaneously, alert him if group members may be offended by open communicator is too straightforward or blunt.
  • Capitalize on the fact that a precise communicator will try to motivate group to base its project on sound research and good information, but help her be mindful that a group’s creativity may be diminished if members are not allowed to float preliminary—and therefore incomplete—ideas that could open up productive lines of discussion
  • Make use of the fact that the relaxed communicator can help the group remain calm when stress is building. At the same time, alert him if he is coming across as not caring about the group when others are worried about things like deadlines

5. What are some ways for my group to keep a dominant communicator from taking over the conversation and to ensure that quieter members contribute?

One of the most challenging communication traits to deal with is a group member who tends to dominate conversations. That person can make it difficult for quieter members to contribute. You have several ways to help ensure that a dominant communicator doesn’t keep other group members from contributing:

  • During group meetings, set aside times when every group member has to present an idea. You likely will find that some group members have really good ideas that they haven’t yet shared.
  • Rotate roles at each meeting, making sure that a different person is leading the conversation each time. The dominant communicator will still have plenty of opportunities to speak up, but the designated leader can ensure that other group members have their opportunities as well.
  • Use idea writing techniques to ensure that all group members have the chance to share their ideas.

For more information about running meetings, including creating agendas and minutes, see the Appendix.

Foster a constructive team climate.

A group’s climate will fall somewhere on a continuum between the constructive and the defensive. A defensive climate is one marked by a lack of trust and the fear of saying the wrong thing. The climate of a newly formed group frequently will be defensive by default, and one of a group’s goals should be to overcome that defensive climate and replace it with a constructive one in which group members are willing to trust one another and pool ideas and efforts to accomplish a common goal. To help you and your classmates develop the constructive climate necessary for an effective team, the Handbook provides the answer to the following questions:

  1. What is a supportive group climate?
  2. What is a defensive group climate?
  3. How do you change a defensive climate to a supportive one?
  4. What is cohesion?
  5. How do groups build social cohesion?
  6. How do groups build task cohesion?
  7. How is cohesion related to group climate?
  8. How do I communicate in a way that builds and maintains relationships?
  9. What are discounting messages?
  10. How do I avoid discounting messages without enabling groupthink?
  11. What are disconfirming messages?
  12. How do I avoid disconfirming messages?
  13. What is feedback?
  14. Why is it important to give feedback?
  15. How do I give constructive feedback?
  16. How do I respond constructively to feedback?
  17. What are additive tasks?
  18. What are conjunctive tasks?
  19. How do I know whether a task should be additive or conjunctive?

1. What is a supportive group climate?

In a supportive group climate, members should

  • encourage everyone to be open and honest about their opinions and feelings,
  • listen to each other carefully for both what others say and what they mean,
  • make certain everyone knows what they need to do to accomplish the task,
  • be creative, and
  • deal with conflict in a mature and constructive manner.

When groups have developed a supportive climate, the group treats everyone as equals. All members feel that they can contribute and be valued. The group can be flexible and take feedback from each other and people outside the group and integrate it into their work. Groups with supportive climates are marked by treating people with kindness while maintaining assertive discussions and strong relationships between members.

2. What is a defensive group climate?

In a defensive group climate, members

  • doubt the group’s ability to complete the task or to do it well,
  • resent others in the group,
  • distrust others in the group,
  • feel devalued or unimportant,
  • censor themselves and others to avoid conflict or open discussion,
  • favor simply adding together individual contributions instead of reshaping individual contributions into a genuine group product,
  • discourage frequent meetings and avoid working together as much as possible,
  • avoid communicating with the group, and
  • manage conflict within the group for personal gain.

Defensive climates are marked by weak or nonexistent group loyalty, hidden agendas, the unequal distribution of power, feelings of superiority on the part of some members, and apathy on the part of others. Members of groups in this situation often report wishing they were not part of the group and report low satisfaction with the group’s final product.

Newly formed groups may start with a somewhat defensive climate because members may not know each other well enough to trust one another. As cohesion is built, a group should move towards a less defensive climate. However, groups that find cohesion difficult to build or include members who are not motivated to contribute to the group’s project may find themselves in a defensive climate for the duration of the group’s life.

3. How do you change a defensive climate to a supportive one?

You can do several things to turn a defensive climate into a more supportive one.

  • Build social and task cohesion.
  • Be aware of the role communication plays in building and maintain relationships.
  • Reduce discounting messages.
  • Avoid disconfirming messages.
  • Engage in quality feedback.

4. What is cohesion?

One feature of a constructive climate is cohesion.  A group has achieved cohesion when everyone in the group wants to stay in the group. Members feel comfortable with and supported by their team members.

Ideally, the satisfaction members feel in belonging to a group is created by a combination of two types of cohesion: social cohesion and task cohesion.

Social cohesion is created by the relationships between members. People often focus on this type of cohesion because it reflects their feelings. The greater the social cohesion in a group, the more people will want to participate and work together on the task.

Task cohesion results when group members feel comfortable working together towards a common goal.

It is important to foster both forms of cohesion in a group, but one may come more easily for a group than the other.

5. How do groups build social cohesion?

Groups with diverse demographics or with members who have differing perspectives often find that social cohesion develops slowly. However, even groups with less diversity and greater consensus shouldn’t forget the importance of building and maintaining social cohesion.

The following can help groups build social cohesion.

  • Call members by name. Sometimes in a group people get focused on the task and forget the human element. Learn your teammates’ names and use them.
  • Allow some time for socializing during meetings. It is true that a group constantly off topic may not accomplish what they should and its members may leave a meeting feeling that they have wasted their time. However, it is important to spend some time building relationships over something other than the group’s task. Some groups allot 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of every meeting for socializing. Other groups have some meetings over food, where people are more comfortable being off topic and chatting.
  • Spend time together outside of meetings. Doing things together outside of meetings can help create bonds between group members and cement relationships. Make certain to choose something that everyone wants to do.

6. How do groups build task cohesion?

Even groups that find social cohesion easy may find it difficult to build task cohesion. In addition, task cohesion is often slower to develop in groups that are more diverse.

The following are some ways that groups can build task cohesion.

  • Know when to be serious. It is important for social cohesion for members to feel free to joke and get off topic, but everyone must consider when it is time to buckle down and work on the task. The more you get done on a task, the more cohesion your group will build.
  • Set internal deadlines and avoid leaving tasks until the last minute. Groups build task cohesion when all members believe that the group can and will accomplish the task well.
  • Create norms and hold everyone accountable. Trust and respect are built by agreeing upon standards for how tasks will be accomplished and for what level of work will be required from individual members of the group.

7. How is cohesion related to group climate?

Group cohesion is an important factor in developing a supportive team climate. If members think they can trust each other and if they feel valued by the others in the group, they will be more likely to participate fully. When people in the group want to participate fully and allow everyone else in the group the same privilege, the group has a constructive team climate.

When groups do not have a sense of cohesion, members may feel that they can’t participate fully or that they have to censor themselves. The absence of trust and respect creates and maintains a defensive group climate.

8. How do I communicate in a way that builds and maintains relationships?

To encourage the full participation of your fellow team members, you want to project respect for the contributions of all members of the group. You could probably brainstorm of list of gestures to embrace and actions to avoid. You do want to listen without interrupting. You do want to respond to what a group member says instead of moving on to something new without acknowledging that the group member may have said something of worth. Meanwhile, you do not want to engage in a side conversation while someone else is talking, and you certainly do not want to be texting or checking your email!

In order to communicate respectfully with your fellow team members, familiarize yourself with the concepts of discounting and disconfirming messages and learn how to avoid sending messages that devalue your fellow group members and their ideas.

9. What are discounting messages?

A discounting message is one that dismisses or minimizes an idea. It is important that a group have open and honest discussions in order to be as creative as possible. It is also important to have open and honest discussions so that the group does not go along with bad ideas in order to avoid disagreements. However, if a person thinks that most of his ideas are being ignored or dismissed, he may start to feel that the group does not value his contributions. He may begin to censor himself so that instead of bringing up ideas only to see them shot down, he may not bring them up in the first place.

Even if there are good reasons why an idea may not work for the group, how you deal with that idea will work to create a supportive or defensive climate. It is important for everyone in the group to feel that their ideas are taken seriously and that their contributions help the group in some way.

10. How do I avoid discounting messages without enabling groupthink?

Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when members of a group go along with a bad idea because they mistakenly believe that the other group members think it’s a good idea.

Let’s say your group is trying to pick a topic for its presentation and someone suggests an idea that you don’t think will work. Maybe you think there won’t be enough relevant sources or that the topic is too broad to cover in the time allotted for the presentation. Whatever your specific concerns, it’s likely that at least one other group member shares them, but until one of you speaks up, group members will continue to assume that everyone thinks the idea is a great one and will go along with it.

This unwillingness to speak up is perfectly normal and has been shown to occur fairly frequently in business and government. However, such groupthink may have devastating consequences as members of the group may follow each other over the edge of a communication cliff.

The secret to avoiding groupthink is to be willing to express dissenting opinions. At the same time, though, the dissent must be worded so it does not take the form of a discounting message that makes a group member feel that you don’t value her ideas.

Wording is the key to balancing the need to challenge groupthink with the need to show respect to fellow group members. Be certain to voice dissent in ways that still value the original idea. For example, instead of saying, “I don’t like that idea; let’s do this instead,” it is more effective to say, “That idea could work, but have you thought about what would happen if we tried this instead?”

11. What are disconfirming messages?

A disconfirming message is one that devalues the individual, whether intentionally or not. Disconfirming messages may make individuals feel unheard, unimportant, and unwanted. Disconfirming messages should be avoided because they lead to a defensive climate and hamper the group’s ability to complete its task successfully.

Individuals may send disconfirming messages in several ways.

  • Letting too much time lapse before responding—especially true for between-meeting communications like texts and emails,
  • Not responding to a message at all—not replying to an email or text or not giving feedback on an idea raised during a meeting,
  • Giving contradictory verbal and nonverbal messages—people will believe the nonverbal message over the verbal, so looking at your phone while answering someone at a meeting sends the message that you don’t care about what she has said.
  • Interrupting—an especial problem for dominant communicators, who sometimes interrupt because they are excited by an idea. Regardless of the reason for interrupting, it sends a message to the speaker that they are not important enough to be allowed to finish.

12. How do I avoid disconfirming messages?

It is important to avoid sending disconfirming messages because they may result in a defensive group climate and low cohesion.

You can minimize disconfirming messages in your group in several ways.

  • Respond immediately to communication. Whether an idea arrives via text, email, or face-to-face speech during a meeting, make sure that you respond to your team member’s thoughts and opinions.
  • Give your teammates your full attention.
  • Avoid sarcasm. Make certain that your verbal and nonverbal messages match.
  • Affirm ideas. Show your support for good and useful ideas even if only through a nod of the head or a phrase such as “That’s a great idea!” You may assume that silence is sufficient to indicate that you support an idea. Instead, silence may be interpreted as a disconfirming message.

13. What is feedback?

In the context of group work, feedback refers to evaluations you make of how your fellow group members have performed. Your instructor may ask you to provide formal feedback about your fellow group members at some point, but you also will be providing informal feedback throughout the time that your group is working together. Informal feedback includes positive statements such as “Thanks for getting those sources to me so quickly. You really did a great job with the research!” Other times you may have to provide critical feedback, such as “I’ve noticed that you’ve been late to the last three meetings. The deadline for our project is coming up, so the group really needs everybody to show up on time so that we can use all the time available to us to put the finishing touches on this project.”

Notice from the example that critical feedback doesn’t simply mean pointing out a problem; it also provides an opportunity for directing your classmate toward a solution and explaining why the solution is important. Positive and negative feedback share something in common: both are meant to be constructive in the sense that both are meant to lead to a successful outcome to the group’s project.

14. Why is it important to give feedback?

Without feedback, your teammates wouldn’t know what they are doing well and what they need to improve. Positive feedback lets teammates know what you value about their contributions and helps build group cohesion. Critical feedback may present a challenge to group cohesion but often is essential for making certain that group members are aware of behaviors that are keeping the group from working as effectively as it could.

Additionally, more formal types of feedback help hold group members accountable. The finished product the group puts together should reflect individual members’ contributions. Unfortunately, though, if some members are highly motivated to work hard, other members may decide to slack off because they assume they will reap the benefits of their teammates’ efforts. By providing accurate feedback, you let your instructor know what each member has contributed and alert your instructor to any problems that a teammate might have caused.

15. How do I give constructive feedback?

Providing feedback is not always easy. Many of us have been told from the time we were young that “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” but sometimes the feedback you need to provide, because it must be critical, may not be “nice.” However, even if you cannot be “nice,” you can be constructive.

Below are several rules of thumb to maximize how useful your feedback will be to your teammates:

  • Be accurate and honest—probably the most important rule. It is not helpful to be overly critical, but it also doesn’t help if you are overly nice. If feedback is going to have a legitimate function in holding group member’s accountable, it needs to be clear from the project’s beginning that everyone is going to provide accurate and fair feedback, while still being tactful.
  • Stay focused on feedback that is relevant to the task at hand and offer suggestions for improvement. Critical feedback is most likely to be taken badly when it comes across as a personal attack. Make certain that the person you are evaluating knows that your feedback is rooted in a desire to help the group work effectively rather than any feelings you have about him or her personally.
  • Include positive feedback along with critical feedback. Whenever possible, use the sandwich method, in which you start with positive feedback and move on to critical feedback before closing with a final positive statement (so any negatives are “sandwiched” between positives). This approach makes it clear to the person you’re evaluating that they have made positive contribution that have not gone unnoticed, making it easier for them to accept the negative criticism.

16. How do I respond constructively to feedback?

Just as it is important to give feedback effectively, it is important to accept feedback constructively. It is sometimes difficult not to take critical feedback as an attack, but your teammates probably are simply concerned with making the group work as effectively as possible. Take so-called negative feedback, then, as an opportunity to work with your group to figure out how to adjust your performance to best contribute to the group. Perhaps, for example, your understanding of what was expected differed from your teammates’ understanding. In that case, the feedback from the group provides an opportunity to have a conversation that will clarify what is expected of each individual and of the group as a whole.

Even if you believe that the feedback you received is inaccurate, do not become defensive but instead discuss your feelings with your teammates in a professional manner, modulating your tone and volume so that you do not sound argumentative. If it turns out that the negative feedback is the result of something deeper than a simple misunderstanding, you may wish to explore some of the conflict-resolution strategies that are discussed under Objective IV. Respond effectively to conflict.

17. What are additive tasks?

Additive tasks are ones that group members complete individually. Later, the additive tasks are put together to create the whole project. For example, if the group decides that each member will be responsible for preparing an outline for one key idea in a presentation, preparing an individual section of the outline will be an additive task.

Although each group member will be responsible for one task, members likely will need to communicate with each other to make certain that each section is not redundant and will not contradict other sections. For the most part, however, group members work independently on additive tasks and after completing their individual tasks, the group combines the parts into the finished product.

18. What are conjunctive tasks?

Unlike additive tasks, conjunctive tasks require group members to work together on a project or part of a project. Each group member working separately on a key idea for a speech would be an additive task, but before each member could start working on his or her section, the group as a whole would need to decide what the key ideas of the presentation will be, how they will fit together, and which group member will be responsible for each one. The process of making those decisions as a group is a conjunctive task. Some group projects may require a substantial conjunctive component.

Sometimes a task will be conjunctive for logistical reasons. For example, if your project involves going door-to-door in a neighborhood to survey people’s attitudes on an issue, you will probably want at least two group members to stick together to ensure each other’s safety. Since at least two group members will need to work together on this part of the project, the task is conjunctive rather than additive.

19. How do I know whether a task should be additive or conjunctive?

You and your team members may be tempted to avoid conjunctive tasks as much as possible. This impulse is understandable because group members have busy schedules that may make it difficult to find times when everyone can get together to work as a team. Focusing on additive tasks that each member can work on independently may seem like a reasonable solution to scheduling obstacles.

On the other hand, one of the major advantages of working in groups is the opportunity to benefit from each person’s unique skills and perspective. For that reason, when you need to brainstorm ideas and make decisions, it is better for the group to work together and treat those tasks as conjunctive whenever possible.

Virtual groups are usually more effective at performing additive tasks rather than conjunctive ones. If your group is largely functioning as a virtual group with only occasional face-to-face meetings, try to save conjunctive tasks for those in-person meetings. If you are working with a strictly virtual group, you will to rely heavily on additive tasks and be aware of the limitations the group is likely to encounter when it does need to perform conjunctive tasks. Explore the use of social media technology to hold meetings via discussion boards and programs that allow people to see and hear and team members at a distance.

Respond effectively to conflict.

Whenever people come together, conflict will exist simply because people have different beliefs and values and styles of communicating. However, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. The information in this section will help you reduce unnecessary conflict while at the same time suggesting ways to make conflict work for your group as a means of generating ideas that never would have occurred to people if they had not had to resolve a conflict. Specifically, this section will answer these questions:

  1. What is conflict?
  2. Why is some conflict normal and necessary for a group?
  3. What are the types of conflict?
  4. How do individuals respond to conflict?
  5. What are some ways to manage conflict?
  6. What can you do when a conflict has arisen?
  7. What are the roles of consensus and compromise in resolving conflicts?
  8. Why does it matter what you do about conflict?

1. What is conflict?

People may disagree, but not all disagreements are conflicts. For conflict to exist, all of the following must be true.

  • The parties to a conflict are in an interdependent relationship—that is, the parties rely upon one another to accomplish a goal.
  • The disagreement must be expressed—that is, all parties recognize and are able to state that there is a disagreement.
  • The parties feel the need to resolve the disagreement.

It is important to remember that conflict is natural because humans do not all think alike. In addition, conflict is neutral. Conflict by itself is neither a positive nor a negative. It is how you deal with conflict that determines how things turn out.

Contrary to popular belief, conflict may lead to positive outcomes. When all parties enter into a conflict with the goal of finding a win-win solution, the conflict can enhance trust and encourage people to be open about how they think or feel. Conflict can, in fact, strengthen relationships.

2. Why is some conflict normal and necessary for a group?

Conflict indicates that not everyone thinks and feels the exact same way. For a group, conflict is a positive because it provides the group with a greater diversity of ideas to consider and choose from. Ultimately, conflict is necessary for a group to function well because it allows members to express their differences in a healthy way and then allows the group to take advantage of those differences.

Conflict is different from verbal abuse or denigration. Instead, conflict allows you to learn from other group members and helps you see issues from someone else’s point of view. You do not have to agree with each group member’s opinions, but when you can see things from another’s perspective, you will be in a better position to understand his or her reasoning.

Although conflict should be a positive, groups must allow time for constructive conflict management to address resentments that could a group back. Remember: the only reason for a group is that the group can produce something far greater than an individual ever could, and anything that impedes this process should be discussed.

3. What are the types of conflict?

Not all conflict is the same. It is true that conflict is necessary for a group to fulfill its potential, which includes the ability to create something out of contributions from diverse individuals. At the same time, some types of conflict may make a group dysfunctional.

Below are the four major types of conflict. Keep in mind that a group may experience more than one type of conflict at a time:

  • Substantive conflict: the result of group members critically evaluating each other’s ideas.

Substantive conflict is an important, healthy type of conflict. Without it, a group will suffer from groupthink.

  • Affective conflict: the result of group members not getting along because of personality conflicts or differences in communication styles.

This type of conflict can be harmful to the group because usually the group is focusing on the behavior of members rather than on task at hand. It is most common in groups where a single person makes the final decisions or people feel that they aren’t valuable to the group’s success.

  • Procedural conflict: the result of a group disagreeing about the methods they should adopt to critically evaluate ideas or to confront a member’s behavior.

Substantive or affective conflict often is the underlying cause for procedural conflict.

  • Conflict of inequity: the result of a group member believing that she is doing more work than another group member.

Initially, only the person or people doing extra work see a problem. The person who is doing less work than expected usually is unaware of the feelings of the others, will report that everything in the group is going well, and may be taken aback when the situation reaches the conflict stage.

4. How do individuals respond to conflict?

Group members respond differently to conflict. Some types of conflict are healthier than others; similarly, individual responses to conflict may be more or less helpful.

  • Exit Response: Member mentally “checks out” or may physically remove herself from the conflict and never again brings up the issue. This response is destructive to the group.
  • Neglect Response: Member ignores the conflict. This passivity is destructive to the group.
  • Loyalty Response: Member refuses to engage in the conflict because of his affiliation with a person, company, etc. This form of passivity is destructive to the group.
  • Voice Response: Member is willing to address the conflict and voice ideas and concerns in a non-confrontational way. This response is the most constructive one.

5. What are some ways to manage conflict?

  • Be aware of the group’s communication dynamics. Conflict may arise from the presence of different communication styles within the group.

You may wish to review the following sections under Facilitate the contribution of team members:

  • Budget time for addressing conflicts. Discuss conflict when everyone can be present. Also be certain that people are able to focus on the discussion. If people are pre-occupied, the group may be unable to resolve the issue at that time.
  • Show grace. When it is appropriate, forgive people instead of allowing ill will to fester. Try to set aside your own needs for the needs of the group.
  • Show respect. Treat both yourself and your fellow group members with dignity. Behave like someone whom you would admire; be patient and considerate to your classmates.

6. What can you do when a conflict has arisen?

Above all, do not pretend that conflict is not present. When faced with a conflict, address it head on, but in a constructive way. The following are some tips:

  • Validate what the other person is saying. Summarize the message, a step that indicates to the other party that you have really heard him or her and allows the individual to clear up any misunderstandings.
  • Focus on behaviors. Do not focus on a person or his or her personality. Instead, discuss actions that should or should not be taken.
  • Do not interrupt each other. Interrupting is a sign of poor listening.
  • Watch your nonverbal cues. Be certain to avoid defensive gestures, such as crossing your arms.
  • Aim for win-win solutions. Look for a way to resolve the issue that allows everyone to walk away with something that they want. Keep in mind, though, that for this to work, each party has to actively listen to the other.
  • Always keep in mind that your focus should be on what is best for the group. You are not trying to ‘win’ an argument but to contribute to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

7. What are the roles of consensus and compromise in resolving conflicts?

The goal when dealing with conflict should be to reach a consensus, a solution that satisfies everyone in the group. Keep in mind that reaching a consensus takes a lot of time, so you need to start dealing with conflicts as soon as they arise and be patient with your teammates as you try to reach a solution that will satisfy everyone. Reaching a consensus also requires creative critical thinking. In order to move past the conflict and find a solution that will make everyone happy, you’ll usually need to find one that none of you had considered at the beginning of the process.

Sometimes you won’t be able to reach a consensus, either because there just isn’t a solution that will satisfy everyone or because you have a deadline that prevents you from taking the time you need to finish the process. In those cases, the next best outcome is to reach a compromise. In a compromise, everyone gets some of what they want but no one gets all of what they want. For example, if both you and a teammate want to research and present one aspect of an issue, you might end up deciding to break that aspect into two sub-points so that each of you can present part of it. Neither of you get everything you want, but you also don’t get left out completely.

You always should strive for consensus but settle for compromise if necessary. However, there may be times when even reaching a compromise isn’t possible. In such a situation, you need to find an impartial way to reach a decision. Perhaps, for example, group members could vote secretly. Perhaps each member could rate each alternative and the ratings could be averaged to determine a ‘winner’.

The above solutions will inevitably result in someone not getting what they want, so they should only be used as a last resort. Even so, solutions like these are better than letting one group member make a decision without giving others the chance to even have their ideas considered.

8. Why does it matter what you do about conflict?

There are two main reasons that it is important to resolve conflict in a way that results in either consensus or compromise. The first reason is that working through conflicts can push the group to do better work by incorporating ideas that no member would have come up with individually. On the most practical level, working through conflicts results in better projects, which leads to better grades.

The second reason is that you have an ethical responsibility to work through conflict in a way that values your teammates’ worth as human beings. By taking the time to work through a conflict and reach a consensus or compromise, all of the members of the group demonstrate that they value the other members’ contributions and ideas.  Demonstrating how much you value your teammates’ contributions will help build cohesiveness, which, again, will ultimately lead the group to produce better work.

Reference

Norton, R. W. (1978). Foundation of a communicator style construct. Human Communication Research, 4(2), 99-112.

 

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