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9.4 Group Communication Roles

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain Task Roles.
  2. Explain Maintenance Roles.
  3. Describe Self-centered roles.

Kenneth Benne and Paul Sheats created a scheme for understand the functional roles of group members. It was created by the First National Training Laboratory in Group Development in 1947. They classified three types:

(1) Group task roles. Participant roles here are related to the task which the group is deciding to undertake or has undertaken. Their purpose is to facilitate and coordinate group effort in the selection and definition of a common problem and in the solution of that problem.

(2) Group building and maintenance roles. The roles in this category are oriented toward the functioning of the group as a group. They are designed to alter or maintain the group way of working, to strengthen, regulate and perpetuate the group as a group.

(3) Individual roles. This category does not classify member-roles as such, since the participations denoted here are directed toward the satisfaction of the participants individual needs. Their purpose is some individual goal which is not relevant either to the group task or to the functioning of the group as a group. Such participations are, of course, highly relevant to the problem of group training, insofar as such training is directed toward improving group maturity or group task efficiency. Benne, K., & Sheats, P. (2007). Functional roles of group members. Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications, 8, 30–35. (Reprinted from 1948 Journal of Social Issues, 4(2), 41–49), pg. 31.

Task Roles

The first type of roles that individuals can take-on within a group are all centered around the tasks that the group needs to accomplish. These roles are all pro-social and help the group strive towards achieving the group or team’s goal. Benne and Sheats identified twelve different task rolesRoles that individual group or team members embody that help a group accomplish its basic task(s). that group members could take on. Remember, in smaller groups or teams individuals could take on multiple roles and it’s entirely possible that multiple group members take on the same roles as well.

Initiator-Contributor

The initiator-contributor is all about providing new and keen insight and ideas to the group. This person may help the group brainstorm new and novel ways to go about understanding or looking at a particular problem.

Information Seeker

The information seeker focuses on ensuring that the group has accurate and relevant information as it goes about problem solving. This person asks to see relevant data to ensure the accuracy of the information the group uses while attempting to problem solve.

Opinion Seeker

The opinion seeker is not concerned with the accuracy of information, but is more interested in understanding the group’s values. What are the group’s values and how are the used to solve problems? When a potential solution to a problem is solved, the opinion seeker will ask for clarification of whether the solution is in sync with the group’s purported values.

Information Giver

The information giver is someone within a group that has some kind of authoritative understanding or specific expertise that can help inform a group’s decision making process. This person can often use her or his own knowledge or personal experiences to help inform a group’s decision making process.

Opinion Giver

The opinion giver, like the opinion seeker, is concerned less with the facts surrounding a specific problem, but is more concerned with ensuring the group sticks to its values. This person will offer suggestions and insight on how the group can employ its values while making specific decisions.

Elaborator

The elaborator takes the ideas that other people have had within a group and tries to flesh out the ideas in a meaningful way. The evaluator can also help a group understand specific rationales for the decisions it has made, or think through how the implementation of a specific decision would practically work.

Coordinator

The coordinator tries to find the common links between the various ideas that group members have and combine them in some kind of succinct package. Furthermore, the coordinator tries to coordinate the various activities that the group or team must accomplish along the way.

Orienter

The orienter is akin to a group or team’s mapmaker. This person’s role is to show where the group has been in an effort to understand where the group is right now. Furthermore, this person will point out when the group has gotten completely off topic and try to refocus the group back to the decision at hand.

Evaluator-Critic

The evaluator-critic’s job is to help assess the actual functionality of the group and the decisions that it makes. This individual ensures that the group is meeting predetermined standard levels and not just “getting by” with quick and easy solutions to complex problems. This person really seeks out to hold the group to a clear standard of excellence by evaluating or questioning “practicality,” the “logic,” the “facts” or the “procedure” of a suggestion or of some unit of group discussion.” Benne, K., & Sheats, P. (2007). Functional roles of group members. Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications, 8, 30–35. (Reprinted from 1948 Journal of Social Issues, 4(2), 41–49), pg. 32.

Energizer

Often groups get worn down by the decision making process because some decisions may take months or years to come to fruition. The energizer’s primary role is to help pull groups out of a rut and encourage them to make decisions or take action. Like the evaluator-critic, the energizer also attempts to help groups reach a higher quality of decision making.

Procedural-Technician

All groups have simple tasks that someone needs to take care of. Whether it’s rearranging a room into a circle or photocopying the agenda and minutes from the previous meeting, the procedural-technician ensures that the routine tasks of the group get accomplished.

Recorder

The recorder, often called a group or team’s secretary, is the individual who takes copious amounts of notes in an effort to help a group or team understand its own decision making process. These notes ultimately become the group’s memory of where they have been and where they are going, so the recorder is a very important role in any group or team. At the same time, you want to make sure that the recorder is skilled in taking notes and can quickly transcribe those notes into some kind of formalized minutes.

Group/Team Building or Maintenance Roles

The second type of roles discussed by Benne and Sheats are referred to as group/team building or maintenance roles. Group/team building rolesRoles that individual group or team members embody that help build a group-centered identity for the members. are roles that help build a group-centered identity for the members, while maintenance rolesRoles that individual group or team members embody that help keep that group-centered identity over the lifecycle of the group or team. are roles that help keep that group-centered identity over the lifecycle of the group or team. Benne and Sheats identified seven specific group/team building or maintenance roles.

Encourager

The encourager is functionally the group or team’s cheerleader. This person encourages people to come up with new ideas and then praises group or team members for the ideas they generate. This person also encourages the group to seek out alternative ways of seeing a problem and fosters an environment where alternative ideas and suggestions are welcomed.

Harmonizer

The harmonizer’s job is to ensure that the group effectively handles conflict. All groups will eventually have conflict. In fact, conflict can actually be very important for groups to survive and thrive. However, when conflict becomes person-focused instead of task-focused, the harmonizer will help alleviate the tension of the group and help conflict parties solve their conflicts pro-socially.

Compromiser

The compromiser is someone who realizes that her or his ideas are in conflict with another person or faction of the group or team. Instead of holding her or his ground refusing to budge one inch in her or his ideas, the compromiser tries to seek out a compromise between her or himself and the conflict parties. Compromising does not mean this individual is a doormat, but rather compromising is a strategy to help groups build better, more informed decisions.

Gatekeeper

In a group or team setting, the gatekeeper’s job is to ensure that all participants are freely and openly involved in the group’s decision-making. The gatekeeper will encourage people who are on tangents to bring it back to the decision at hand while encouraging those who are more reticent in their communication to actively participate in the decision-making.

Standard Setter

The standard setter or ego sets out to ensure that the group or team’s decision making processes meet a certain quality level. This role is similar to the opinion giver under the task roles, but this roles is specifically focused on how the group goes about making decisions and then holds the groups to those standards.

Group-Observer and Commentator

The group-observer and commentator watches how the group goes about completing its purpose. This individual will take notes about the group’s functioning and then periodically inform the group about how well it is working as a group or team. This person’s focuses on ensuring the group or teams’ processes for decision making do not leave out minority voices, prevent poor brainstorming, or jump to decisions too quickly.

Follower

The follower is an individual who attempts to not rock the boat for the group. This person is often passive and just observes the group’s decision processes. Instead of being an active participant in the group’s decision-making, he or she will serve as an audience for the decision making process during group discussions.

Self-Centered Roles

The final category of group roles identified by Benne and Sheats are generally very destructive and can harm the group decision-making process. Benne and Sheats called these roles self-centeredRoles that individual group or team members embody that focus on the individual desires of group members and not necessarily on what is best for the group or its decisions. because the roles focus on the individual desires of group members and not necessarily on what is best for the group or its decisions. According to Benne and Sheats, when self-centered roles are noticed by group members, it’s very important to quickly diagnose why these roles are appearing within the group. The researchers offered a number of reasons why these self-centered roles may start to surface:

The diagnosis may reveal one or several of a number of conditions—low level of skill-training among members, including the group leader; the prevalence of ‘authoritarian’ and ‘laissez faire’ points of view toward group functioning in the group; a low level of group maturity, discipline and morale; an inappropriately chosen and inadequately defined group task, etc. (2007). Functional roles of group members. Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications, 8, 30–35. (Reprinted from 1948 Journal of Social Issues, 4(2), 41–49), pg. 32.

The authors recommend that when groups face these self-centered roles, it becomes very important to ascertain why they are occuring and take steps to prevent their reoccurance. However, Benne and Sheats cautions against the outright suppression of self-centered roles because the suppression can prevent groups or teams from going through the self-diagnosis necessary to fix the group or team. Ultimately, the researchers identified eight types of self-centered roles.

Aggressor

The aggressor tends to be an individual who feels the need to improve her or his own standing within the group by taking others down. Aggressors can enact a number of behaviors that ultimately impact group morale and the basic functioning of the gorup itself. Some of the behaviors identified by Benne and Sheats are, “deflating the status of others, expressing disapproval of the values, acts or feelings of others, attacking the group or the problem it is working on, joking aggressively, showing envy toward another's contribution by trying to take credit for it, etc.” (2007). Functional roles of group members. Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications, 8, 30–35. (Reprinted from 1948 Journal of Social Issues, 4(2), 41–49), pg. 32.

Blocker

The blocker is someone who simply either hates everything the group is doing and rejects everything the group recommends or he or she keeps rehashing group or team decisions that have been long since decided. This person may simply say “no” to anything the group likes and is often a giant stumbling block for groups.

Recognition-Seeker

The recognition-seeker seeker is all about showing how he or she is such a vital person in the group by trumpeting her or his achievements (whether relevant or not). Often this person acts in this fashion for fear that the group or team will see her or him as irrelevant. So instead of becoming a relic of the group, he or she feels it is necessary to show how vitale he or she is to the group by wasting the group’s time while seeking recognition.

Self-Confessor

The self-confessor sees the group or team as the setting to air her or his own feelings, ideology, insight, or values. This person sees the group or team as her or his own therapy session and has no problem self-disclosing inappropriate information to group or team members during meetings.

Playboy/Playgirl

The playboy or playgirl clearly could care less about the group or team and its goals. In fact, this person is generally quite vocal in her or his lack of caring. He or she may simply become overly cycnical of the group/team and it’s decision-making or actively disrupt the decision-making process through horseplay or other nonchalant behavior.

Dominator

The dominator is someone who tries to control the group/team and dominate the group’s discussion and decision-making processes. This individual is often highly manipulative and will attempt to coerce those in subordinate status positions to her or his stance within the group. Often these people will see their own position within the group or team as more superior than other group members and will make this very clear while asserting that her or his ideas are more superior because of her or his elevated position within an organization’s hierarchy.

Help-Seeker

The help-seeker tries to get the group to be sympathetic by stressing that he or she is insecure or confused. The goal of the help-seeker is to downplay her or his own ability to contribute to the group by making other group/team members care for her or him.

Special Interest Pleader

The special interest pleader is someone who always has a secondary agenda within a group. According to Benne and Sheats, a special interest pleader pleads on behalf of a specific group (e.g., small businesses, labor, gender, race, etc…), but is “usually cloaking [her or] his own prejudices or biases in the stereotype which best fits [her or] his individual need”.(2007). Functional roles of group members. Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications, 8, 30–35. (Reprinted from 1948 Journal of Social Issues, 4(2), 41–49), pg. 32. By allegedly “speaking on behalf” of a special interest group, the special interest pleader serves to distract the group/team from its basic decision making processes.

Key Takeaways

  • The first form of group roles proposed by Benne and Sheats are tasks roles or roes that individual group or team members embody that help a group accomplish its basic task(s). Benne and Sheats identified twelve different task roles: initiator-contributor, information seeker, opinion seeker, information giver, opinion giver, elaborator, coordinator, orienter, evaluator-critic, energizer, procedural technician, and recorder.
  • The second form of group roles proposed by Benne and Sheats are group building and maintenance roles. Group building roles are roles that help build a group-centered identity for the members; whereas, maintenance roles are roles that help keep that group-centered identity over the lifecycle of the group or team. Benne and Sheats identified seven different group building/maintenance roles: encourager, harmonizer, compromiser, gate-keeper, standard setter, group-observer and commentator, and follower.
  • The second form of group roles proposed by Benne and Sheats are self-centered roles, or roles that individual group members embody that focus on the individual desires of group members and not necessarily on what is best for the group or its decisions. Benne and Sheats identified eight different self-interest roles: aggressor, blocker, recognition-seeker, self-confessor, playboy/playgirl, dominator, help-seeker, and special interest pleader.

Exercises

  1. Think about a group you are in, what roles are present?
  2. Looking at different group roles, what do you think are the best and worst? Why?
  3. Create a list of at least two groups belong to? What group roles are present? Are they effective?