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Chapter 8 – Page

Chapter 8 - Group Process

1. What group discussion "functions" are.

2. How interactional researchers study group process.

3. Whether group process relates to group output.
4. Whether group discussion consists of a series of sequential states.


In Chapter 1 we examined the concept of "perspectives." As we explained, scientists approach an object they wish to study with a particular viewpoint, or perspective. Each perspective suggests distinct questions for the scientist.

Further, with small-group research, it is best to approach different areas of study from the viewpoints of particular perspectives. For example, we can study conflict from any perspective; but to examine conflict in the most profitable way, we based our discussion in this book on the relational perspective. Similarly, it is perhaps best to approach topics such as conformity and deviance from the structural viewpoint. Equally, much of what we covered in our chapter on cohesiveness came from the two psychological perspectives.
In this chapter, our topic is the process of communication in decision-making groups. How can we best approach this topic? The theories and research studies that we will describe relate to two viewpoints that are variants of perspectives that we defined in Chapter 1.
The first viewpoint, the functional approach, is a variant of the structural perspective. We will use this approach when we discuss theories and studies that relate to the functions that communication plays in group discussion.

The second viewpoint, the interactional approach, is a variant of the relational perspective. We will use this approach when we examine theories and research that concern the way group discussion becomes patterned in repetitive sequences over time.

In the following sections, we will discuss many examples of scientific work on group process, both from the functional and the interactional approaches.


The Concept of "Function"
Before we discuss how communication functions during group discussion, let us look again at the functional approach. In Chapter 1 we discussed the general claims of functional theorists. We review those claims again now.

According to functional theorists, any social system has a set of goals toward which it directs its actions. Its primary goal is to survive and maintain itself. Beyond this, each type of social system also has other goals particular to its type.

Decision-making groups are a type of social system. As with any social system, a group has a primary goal of maintenance. In addition, groups have the particular goal of performing a task. These two goals are of utmost importance to groups. Their importance has led to the central distinction, in this book, between task and maintenance variables.

To reach its goals, a social system must perform a set of necessary actions that theorists have labeled "functions." In essence, the functional perspective concerns the behaviors of people in a social system.

What about a group? How does it perform the functions it needs to reach its goals? A group uses communicative statements. By talking with one another, group members perform the necessary behaviors. In other words, a successful group discussion is what takes a group to its goals.
For example, a group is planning a party. The members need to use communicative statements to perform their task. Statements such as "Should we hire a band?", "We ought to serve pretzels and popcorn," and "So we have decided to string ribbons around the room" all help the members plan their party. Each time a person makes such a statement, he or she does an action that helps the group toward its goal. In this way, members perform the functions the group needs.

Positive and Negative Functions
The above example statements help the group. Not all statements, however, serve positive functions. Members can also make statements that serve negative functions and that do not help. For example, the party-planning group may be plagued by one negative member who keeps complaining about all the work he did for the last party. He makes statements, such as, "Nobody ever thanks me for my effort," "Who was it that made all those trips to the store?" and "No way I'm gonna do all that again." These statements also play a function in the group situation, a negative function. Negative functions do not help the group and may prevent the group from reaching its goals.

Types of Functions

It is not enough simply to conclude that statements serve positive and negative functions during group discussion. Scientists also want to be able to describe these functions. In other words, a statement is not merely positive or negative; it has other qualities. Does it summarize the discussion? Does it show agreement? These kinds of questions help scientists find out what types of functions exist.

More generally, scientists want to be able to identify the kinds of positive and negative functions that statements can have in a group. They want to categorize the behaviors to understand them better. A scientist who has this knowledge can observe a group's discussion and see if the members perform the positive functions they need and avoid the negative functions they do not need. Based on this observation, the scientist can predict whether the group will reach its goals. Such a researcher could also recommend to group members the types of statements they should and should not make to reach their goals.

Hence, scientists are interested in the discussion functions that are possible in groups. Several theorists have proposed lists of group discussion functions. We can consider each of these as a theoretical view. The theory concerns the types of functions groups need to perform to achieve their goals.

In the following sections, we will describe three of these proposals.

Benne and Sheats's Approach to Discussion Functions

"Functional Roles"

Benne and Sheats (1948) formulated their list as a result of what they had observed in groups. They did not present a list of discussion functions per se but proposed a list of what they called "functional roles." Benne and Sheats believed that they had seen members play these "functional roles" in groups they had observed. In essence, each member had taken on a kind of persona within the group that related to the kinds of statements that person would tend to make. Benne and Sheats labeled each functional role they observed. For example, they might label a person who consistently tries to lessen discord in a group as the "harmonizer."
Benne and Sheats divided their list into three categories: (1) group task roles, (2) group maintenance roles, and (3) individual roles. Group task roles focus on the task at hand and include, for example, roles such as the "elaborator," the "coordinator," and the "orienter." Group maintenance roles focus on keeping the group together and include roles such as the "encourager," the "harmonizer," and the "compromiser." Both task and maintenance roles help the group pursue its goals.

Individual roles are negative functional roles and do not help the group move toward its goals. People playing these roles attempt to satisfy their own needs and desires and work against the group as it tries to achieve its goals. Some examples of individual roles include the "aggressor," the "dominator," and the "recognition seeker."

Accompanying Functions

Accompanying each role is an analogous function. The name that Benne and Sheats gave each role describes the kind of function that the person playing that role would perform. For example, the "coordinator" would make statements that provide the "coordination" function for the group.

As we have stated, Benne and Sheats originally listed functional roles. Some scientists and practitioners who have elaborated on their original work have not focused on the roles that group members can play, but on the functions themselves.

There have been several such elaborations. Tables 8.1 and 8.2 show one example. These lists are based on contributions from Professor Erma Jones of Temple University and from the Friends Peace Committee and Life Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As you can note, the lists include only task and maintenance functions. These help the group move toward its goals. The lists do not cover the individual functions that Benne and Sheats believed harmed the group's ability to achieve its goals.

Applications of Benne and Sheats's Approach

Which of the task and maintenance roles on Benne and Sheats's list are most critical for a group that wants to reach its goals? The scientists make no overall claims in answer to this question nor do they make any assertions about how often group members should play these roles.

We can perhaps implicitly assume from their work that it is good for a group when the members frequently take on task and maintenance roles. The more members play roles that fall into these two categories, the more successful the group will be. Benne and Sheats, however, do not discuss this explicitly. They make few recommendations on how a group could successfully utilize functional roles.

Table 8.1

Group Task Functions





Give direction and purpose to group

Proposing tasks and goals, defining problems, suggesting procedures and solutions

Information seeking

Make group aware of need for information

Requesting relevant facts, clarification

Information giving

Provide group with information relevant to its work

Offering relevant facts, avoiding reliance on opinion when facts needed

Opinion seeking

Test for consensus, find out group opinion

Asking for feelings or opinions

Opinion giving

Provide basis for group decision

Stating feelings or beliefs, evaluating a suggestion


Eliminate confusion

Defining terms, interpreting ideas, indicating issues and alternatives


Reduce ambiguity, show consequences of plans and positions

Giving examples, developing meanings, explaining


Adjust issues or harmonize issues that may conflict

Suggesting ways to handle issues

Procedure developing

Establish an order to the meeting

Suggesting agenda, order of business


Show how ideas are related, draw ideas together

Pulling together related issues, showing contradictions, restating suggestions, offering conclusions


Show that a particular issue is not unique

Drawing general statements from specific ones, critically examining assumptions and ideas


Keep group in line with goals, provide sense of progress

Measuring accomplishments against goals, noting progress and blocks

Testing agreement

Find out how close group is to agreement

Stating ideas of agreement, asking if agreement is possible


Keep group working on problem

Prodding the members to action


Keep group in direction set by agenda

Guiding discussion by keeping group on track, moving discussion along


Reconcile disagreements

Conciliating differences, offering promises

Table 8.2

Group Maintenance Functions





Bring out others' opinions and give others recognition

Speaking positively to and of others, accepting others' contributions

Expressing feelings

Call group attention to own and others' ideas and reactions

Expressing own feelings and restating others' feelings and opinions


Reduce tension, allow group to express feelings

Joking, clowning, breaks and task-irrelevant statements


Maintain group cohesion

Offering or accepting compromises, yielding status, admitting error


Maintain open discussion, keep channels open

Drawing out silent members, suggesting procedures for discussions

Standard setting

Make group aware of direction and progress

Expressing group concern, suggesting tasks, stating standards for group to achieve


Explain what someone has said

Paraphrasing initial speaker


Making group aware of its feelings

Evaluating the mood of the group


Provide stimulation and support for speakers

Accepting others' ideas, going along with group

This does not mean that Benne and Sheats make no observations that relate to this topic. They have some relevant thoughts. One is that a group would probably require different roles during different stages of its discussion. For example, a group that is beginning to talk about its task would probably have little need for an "evaluator." On the other hand, a group

that has progressed toward its decision would probably need someone to play that role.
Benne and Sheats point out that group members should not limit the range of roles they can play. In a group with a rigid role structure, each member plays only one or two roles during the whole discussion. Such a group will probably not be as successful as a group that has a more flexible structure. A flexible structure would allow everyone to play many roles. This kind of system helps a group effectively utilize the talents of its members.

Bales's Approach to Discussion Functions

The "Equilibrium Problem"

Unlike Benne and Sheats, Bales (1950, 1953) used a well-developed theory of group process to develop his list of discussion functions. The theory he used is a good example of the functional perspective.

Two Conflicting Goals

As you will remember, functionalists theorize that groups try to achieve two major goals: maintain the group and perform the group's task. To achieve each goal, the group must perform certain actions.

For example, a group has the task of cleaning a room quickly. The demands of the task equire certain actions. For instance, the group must be strictly organized and work hard. On the other hand, the group cannot deny its other goal, maintaining itself as a group. This goal also requires certain actions. For instance, members may need to joke with one another and to spend time forming friendships. As you can see, the cleaning group has task and maintenance demands that are in conflict. In fact, the demands oppose each other.

Bales believed that it is inevitable that task and maintenance demands oppose each other, which leads to a major problem: Task performance usually results in maintenance problems. For example, if the group cleans the room quickly, it probably doesn't give itself enough time for the necessary social interaction. As the group tries to deal with these maintenance difficulties, more task dilemmas arise. If the cleaning group takes time to allow members to form friendships, it probably is not cleaning the room as quickly as it could.

Task Changes and Maintenance Problems

Further, changes in a group's relationship with its task will cause maintenance problems. For example, a group is reassigned from a coordination task to an accuracy task. This change requires adjusting the group's structure. Changes will include altering its division of labor and its power hierarchy. As we have seen, faced with a coordination task, a group relies equally on all members to perform their part of the task competently. Faced with an accuracy task, however, the group should rely on only those members most competent to perform the task. Hence, the group probably will change from one in which members share responsibility and power to one in which the most competent members hold responsibility and power.

The change to a power hierarchy will mean improved task performance. The group's maintenance structure is disturbed, however. We would expect that the members who suddenly find themselves peripheral to the task will lose satisfaction in their jobs. This will lead to losses in cohesiveness, which could threaten the group's survival. When the group realizes that it has lower morale, it will try to rebuild cohesiveness by changing its social structure. Once again it will give more responsibility to the peripheral members, leading to a redefinition of task roles. Ultimately, the group might return to a shared power structure. If it did, it would not be able to perform the accuracy task as well as it could using a power hierarchy.
The danger is that a group will swing back and forth between task and maintenance crises. Bales called this the "equilibrium problem," because a group can manage the problem by developing properties that serve to balance these extremes. It can do so by repeating sequences of actions that alternately dampen task and maintenance disturbances. By carefully tracking both sets of problems, the group can maintain its balance.

Sequential Task Problems

As we have seen, the first goal of a group is to maintain itself. The second goal is to perform its task. Functionalists believe that communication performs a special role in task performance. Van Lear (1996) has described this belief:

1 - Group decisions do not automatically occur. They must be developed.

2 - Communication and its associated functions are necessary for a developed group decision.

3 - Decisions tend to develop through a series of stages or phases. This is because certain communicative functions are needed to move the group from one stage to the next.

The task of the theorist is to determine what the phases of group task performance are, and how communication functions to help the group complete each phase and move on to the next.

In Bales's view, successful task performance rests on the group's ability to solve three problems: orientation, evaluation, and control. Orientation involves the members coming to a common understanding and definition of the task. For example, members in the cleaning group should all understand that their task is to neaten a room.
Evaluation involves members' developing common values regarding what a good solution must accomplish. For example, should the room be so clean that it sparkles when the group is finished, or will a relatively clean room be a good solution? Control involves the members' finding the best solution for the task, using the power and influence relationships among its members. Looking at the cleaning group, who should sweep the room and who is good at polishing?
As you can see, the group must solve the three problems sequentially. Each requires successfully solving the previous problem. For example, if the group decides that the room doesn't need to really sparkle, it is not necessary for the best-qualified people to do the jobs that they do. well. Any group member could probably do a fair job; thus, the problem of control changes.

Bales's Research Methodology

As you can recall, according to functional theory, each group has a necessary set of functions--actions that a group must perform to reach its goals and solve its problems. In turn, communicative statements are the actions that groups can use to perform these necessary functions. It follows from this that Bales would measure group communication to evaluate his claims.

How did Bales measure this communication? To create a methodology he proposed 12 functions. Bales believed that these functions are critical for groups as they work to maintain equilibrium and solve their orientation, evaluation, and control problems. Bales used his list of functions to perform content analyses of the communication that occurred during the group meetings he studied. Observers "coded" the group's communication in terms of the functions ir performed. Hence, we will use the term "coding scheme" to describe a list such as he created.

Table 8.3 illustrates his coding scheme.

Table 8.3

Bales's Interaction Process Analysis coding scheme


Specific Examples

Positive Reactions

1. Shows solidarity

Jokes, gives help, rewards others

2. Shows tension release

Laughs, shows satisfaction

3. Shows agreement

Understands, concurs, complies, passively accepts

Attempted Answers

4. Gives suggestion

Directs, proposes, controls

5. Gives opinion

Evaluates, analyzes, expresses feelings or wishes

6. Gives information

Orients, repeats, clarifies, confirms


7. Asks for information

Requests orientation, repetition, confirmation, clarification

8. Asks for opinion

Requests evaluation, analysis, expression of feeling or wishes

9. Asks for suggestion

Requests directions, proposals

Negative Reactions

10. Shows disagreement

Passively rejects, resorts to formality, withholds help

11. Shows tension

Asks for help, withdraws

12. Shows antagonism

Deflates others, defends or asserts self

As you can see, the last six functions are "mirror images" of the first six. The first three and the last three functions relate directly to one another. All have to do with group maintenance. Functions 1, 2, and 3 are "positive reactions." Bales believed a group needs these functions to maintain its cohesiveness. Functions 10, 11, and 12 mirror them and are their opposites. They are "negative reactions" that endanger group cohesiveness. For instance, "shows solidarity" is a positive reaction; "shows antagonism" is a negative reaction.

The other six functions relate to the group's goal of completing its task. They still mirror one another, however. They are, in a sense, complementary. One set of behaviors asks questions; the other set attempts answers. The "questions" in functions 7, 8, and 9 mirror the "attempted answers" that are functions 4, 5, and 6.
In general, Bales presented a wealth of findings from his studies of groups. As you can recall, in Chapter 2 we discussed his finding that the differences in group members' talk time increases as group size increases. More specifically, Bales used his coding scheme to test his hypotheses about group equilibrium and about the problems of group orientation, evaluation, and control. Later in this chapter we will discuss these findings in some detail.

For the present, it is sufficient to refer to one of Bales's overall claims that group functioning is not so much a result of having many "good" functions as it is a result of using those "good" functions properly. Benne and Sheats may have proposed that a successful group has a high quantity of task and maintenance functions. Bales asserted that this was not quite the case. He claimed instead it is more important that groups properly balance task and maintenance statements. In other words, Bales believed that groups seem to do well when these statements are in a certain proportion and occur in a certain sequence.

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