Small Group Roles: Basics

Small Group Roles: Basics


If you are like me, your behaviors vary based
upon who you are around. If I’m around my mother, I dutifully play
the daughter role. When I’m working with a client, I use different
behaviors. In essence, I’m a chameleon, adapting my
behavior to the various groups with which I’m involved. This lecture applies that same concept to
roles in small groups, discussing the very basics of the Dimensions in decision-making
groups, the definition of “roles,” types of roles, and some key terms related to roles
in groups. If you understand the dimensions in decision-making
groups, it will make the discussion of roles a lot easier to understand. All decision-making groups operate on two
dimensions: task and social. The Task dimension refers to the work performed
by the group, and the impact of that work on the group. When a group focuses on the task dimension,
productivity results. The Social dimension, sometimes called the
socio-emotional dimension, deals with the relationships between the group members, and
the impact of those relationships on the group. It is focused on group identity and the social
climate. A group that scores high on this dimension—when
members feel connected to the group and each other—is cohesive. If you are familiar with systems theory, you’ll
understand that each dimension impacts the other—they are interrelated. When the group is being productive, group
members tend to enjoy working in the group and with each other, so the success on the
task dimension often produces positive results on the social dimension. And when the group members feel good about
the group and working with each other—cohesiveness—they tend to get things done, meaning that a positive
social environment tends to produce a more effective product. Exclusive emphasis on task creates a group
that is constantly under stress and dealing with lots of conflict. On the other hand, too much emphasis on the
social dimension results in a good time, but not much work getting done. Now let’s get back to roles and define what
a role is. The simplest definition is the part you play
in a group. I can give you a longer and more accurate
definition, but let me distill it down to, hopefully, a shorter but still understandable
definition: A role consists of the patterns of behaviors
you exhibit when you are in a group, that you either customarily perform or that others
in the group expect you to perform. Now while we all have certain personality
traits that come out regardless of the situation, we do adapt our behavior to different groups—and
they may vary depending on the particular group. The roles you play will be a function of your
personality, your expectations as well as the expectations of the other group members,
and any formal titles or instructions you have been given regarding that group. We can start with a broad classification of
the types of roles as formal or informal. Formal roles are those connected to your position
or title, often independent from the person who may be filling that role, such as the
president, chairman, editor, or secretary—the roles may even be written into the organization’s
bylaws. Along with the formal role will come specific
responsibilities. If you are a secretary, you are expected to
write and distribute the minutes; as a chairman, you are expected to prepare the agendas and
run the meetings. Informal roles, on the other hand, are based
upon people’s personality traits, habits, and behaviors in the group. These roles emphasize functions, not positions. Even if people hold the same title or position,
like secretary, for example, they behave in ways that reflect their unique personalities. Over time, and through trial and error, every
member of a group begins to specialize in certain behaviors. Someone who tells a lot of jokes could become
the tension reliever. So that, whenever there is tension, the other
group members look to that person to relieve it. Other examples of informal roles are leader,
opinion giver, and Devil’s Advocate. Note that, with the possible exception of
“leader,” no single informal role is found in all or even most groups. Thus, not every group will have a tension
reliever—they may not need one. Informal role-playing is more spontaneous,
it’s not scripted. While the group does not plan to tell an individual
how to play a particular role, through approval or disapproval, they guide the individual’s
behavior. As informal roles emphasize functions, not
positions, we can further classify the informal roles into three sub-categories: Task, maintenance,
and Individualistic. Task roles are those that help the group get
the job done—these roles help with productivity, while Maintenance roles, sometimes called
socio-emotional roles, are those that help the group maintain positive relationships
and contribute to cohesiveness. They help create the group’s identity and
the connections amongst all the members in the group. Remember the dimensions in small groups? It’s easy to see where the task and social
dimensions are impacted by the first two types of informal roles. However, there is a third set of informal
roles: Individualistic, also called self-centered or disruptive roles. These roles are intended to divert attention
away from the group to, instead, draw attention to an individual group member—rather than
helping the group, these self-oriented roles make it difficult for the group to be productive
or cohesive. So individualistic roles negatively impact
both the group’s task and the social dimension. Just as, in a play where the actors playing
their parts move on and off the stage as the play progresses, so do the roles members play
in a small group. Now let’s get to the model. Consider a meeting progressing from beginning
to end, with the solution likely to be achieved near the end of the meeting. In the early stages, most group members would
focus on the task at hand, playing one or more task roles, spending less of their energy
playing a maintenance role, meaning that they would be HIGH on the task role. As the meeting progresses, the emphasis on
task fades and the members start playing their maintenance roles, so we would plot them higher
on maintenance role performance and lower on task role performance. Then they start emphasizing task behaviors
again (after all, there is work to be done…) and the maintenance roles fade. The rationale is that, when a group is attempting
to complete a task (people are playing their task roles), tension begins to build due to
conflict between competing ideas, values, attitudes. And, as that tension increases, group cohesion
may start to decline. To continue operating successfully as a group,
then, something must be done to decrease tension, so group members assume their maintenance
roles. Thus, maintenance roles help the group better
perform the task. As this model indicates, role-playing is a
fluid process and during a single meeting, an individual can play several roles. We’ll go into these roles in more detail
in the next video lecture. Let’s end this discussion with some key
terms related to roles: First, remember the definition of a role from
the beginning of this lecture. It will come into play in a bit. Let’s turn to the concept of role emergence,
which deals with how the roles are determined in a group. There are two ways roles emerge. The first is that you may actively seek, or
audition, for a particular role. It may be a role that you find exciting and
enjoyable, or a role that you have played successfully in past groups. For example, I tend to be a good note taker,
so if there is a need for someone to take notes, I’ll usually volunteer to do it. Or you may be good at cracking a joke when
the situation gets tense—so you “try out” for the role of tension reliever. This method connects to the “that you customarily
perform” portion of the definition of a role. But look now at the second part of that definition:
“that others expect you to perform.” In this case, the group’s expectations create
the individual’s role. Let’s say when I introduced myself to the
group, I mentioned that I’m a manager at work. My group might think that I have leadership
experience and that I would be good to lead the group. I may not want to do it, but either overtly
or covertly, the group could force this role upon me, or at least let me know that they
want me to perform that role. This relates to the next key term: Group endorsement. You don’t really “get” the role until
the group allows you to play it, or endorses you for the role. The group will reinforce, verbally and nonverbally,
the bid of the group member they perceive to be the best for that particular role—assuming
that role is needed. For example, if two of us “try out” or
make a bid for the leader role and the group thinks you would do a better job, they would
endorse you and … well, I wouldn’t be the leader. I would then look for another role that I
could play. On the other hand, if I make a bid for the
tension reliever role and the group thinks either the situation doesn’t call for a
tension reliever or that my bid is really weak—I don’t do a good job at relieving
the tension—then the group won’t endorse my bid. This endorsement process proceeds by trial
and error. Remember that role playing is a fluid process. You may play multiple roles in a group. That leads us to:
Role specialization (also called Role Profile). While you do play multiple roles, you will
usually “specialize” in just one type. If you tend to seek information, provide information,
and offer opinions based on information more often than you relieve tension or provide
support, you would be an “information specialist.” If you take role specialization too far, however,
it may turn into Role fixation, which is when you play a specific role regardless of the
situation. Say you like to put together agendas and,
regardless of the type of group, you will create an agenda—even if one is not necessary. You are “fixating” on a role. You might also be forced into role fixation. Recall when women were considered to be secretaries
and, through group endorsement, were essentially forced accepting the role of recorder. Then, regardless of the group, if you were
a woman, you would very likely be the recorder. What does all this mean to you as you play
roles in various groups? First, try to demonstrate flexibility by playing
a variety of roles that you think are needed for the group to be successful. There’s no need to fight for prestigious
roles, like leader. There are plenty of other roles that you can
play that will help the group be productive and cohesive. Experiment and learn! Try out for some roles you don’t normally
play and, if the group looks to you to perform a role that is out of your current repertoire,
consider giving it a try. You can then improve your expertise in other
areas. To use a baseball analogy, you can become
the true utility player. Avoid drawing attention away from the group
and the group’s purpose by putting yourself in the spotlight. We’ve all seen people trying to upstage
one another and the group suffers. They are self-centered, rather than group-centered. This doesn’t mean that you should fade into
the background but that the group should be the primary focus and the reason you are there. And, now that you know the importance of the
task and social dimensions, be willing to play multiple roles—wear a variety of hats. Play roles that contribute to both the task
and social dimension so you can help your group be both productive and cohesive. Quiz Time! What is the difference between the task and
social dimensions in small groups? How do the task and social dimensions relate
to the roles we play in groups? How might you enhance the effectiveness of
the groups you are involved in? To paraphrase Henry Ford, the founder of Ford
Motor Company, while coming together is a beginning and keeping together is progress,
it is only through working together that we achieve success.

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

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