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?

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