Categorising Group Roles

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

I have previously written about principles that can benefit groups when they want to think together. I have also written a series of blogs with practical tips for the chair and for participants in working to ensure that meetings are successful.

But what I haven’t yet done is share thoughts on the roles of group members. Role differentiation and clarity is important to any group. There are many many ways to categorise group roles and I do not profess any particular theoretical expertise on group dynamics. Do take a look at the work of The Centre for the Study of Group Processes at the University of Kent (also Twitter @Group_Lab) that researches social psychological processes affecting group & intergroup relations.

To keep things simple, as a starting point I will reference a single model used by one of my own University professors (Professor A.R. “Elango” Elangovan), which is a distillation of Kenneth Benne and Paul Sheats’ work on group behaviour that originated as far back as the 1940s. Benne and Sheats defined three categories of group roles: task-oriented roles, relations-oriented roles, and self-oriented roles.

Task-oriented roles include initiators, information seekers, information givers,  coordinators and evaluators. These roles are important in actually getting the work done.

Relationship-oriented roles serve a different purpose. These roles help the group function in a positive way. They include encouragers, harmonisers, gatekeepers, standard setters, and group observers.

Finally, Self-oriented individualistic roles generally weaken and disrupt the group. These roles include blockers, recognition seekers, dominators and avoiders.

If you have freedom of choice in forming your group, be careful in choosing your members. A diverse range of people who balance task and relationship-oriented roles will take the group forward in a positive way.

But what do you do about the dysfunctional self-oriented roles? Perhaps you don’t have complete control over group membership. If this is the case, then the goal should be to minimise or eliminate these behaviours through increased awareness and full group acknowledgment that all of these roles exist within groups. This is of course easier said than done but a start can be made by simply naming these roles and agreeing from the outset of the group creation that disruptive behaviour will not be tolerated. Coaching and feedback can also help to greatly reduce or eliminate these behaviours.

You have an idea of the range of roles you want. What is next?

When are many heads better than one?

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

As a follow on to my last blog, why do we bother with groups at all?

Firstly, it is important to note that sometimes groups are formed as a conscious structural choice of an organisation. At the University of Kent, for example, staff members who were previously dispersed throughout colleges were collected into subject-based academic schools in the mid 1990’s. Professional services are similarly identified as functional units and sometimes co-located to provide support to the core business of the University’s Faculties / Schools. For example, Information Services, Human Resources, Finance and Research Services (among many others) each serve a functional purpose. While much could also be written about these groups, what follows is not focused on groups that are created as part of an organisational structure.

Rather, what about those groups or teams that are created for a reason beyond the formal structure? Research groups, project teams, working parties – these are groups that come together – usually over a finite amount of time – to accomplish a specific goal.

Why do we create these groups? What is the potential value that we gain? While in reality we do not always accrue significant benefits for a host of reasons we will consider, group decision making can be superior to individual decision-making in a number of different situations. Many heads can be better than one, for instance, when:6

  • Tasks require judgments about uncertain events and information available is either incomplete or uncertain
  • Concern for quality outcomes are high and potential benefits are substantial
  • Costs of errors is also high and it may be difficult to reverse or salvage a poor decision
  • Many feasible alternative solutions exist
  • Identifying the optimal alternative is difficult
  • Feedback about results will not be immediately available

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list and there are undoubtedly many more reasons that could be added. Perhaps two key factors that are common, however, are uncertainty and complexity.

So, if groups can sometimes be effective but aren’t in all cases; where do we go wrong? What are the characteristics of successful groups? More on this next time.