Small Group Roles: Breakdown

Small Group Roles: Breakdown


Assuming you now know the basics of the kinds
of behaviors that occur in small groups which contribute to task, maintenance, and individualistic
roles, we’ll break down each type of role individually, covering some of the more common
types of roles in each of these categories. Keep in mind, however, depending upon the
textbook or professor, the specific names for the roles may vary, but the essence is
the same. Also recall that role-playing is a fluid process,
meaning that, during a single meeting, group members can play multiple roles. If you remember Hobbs & Power’s model, it
will help you understand how you may switch back and forth between your different roles
within the same group meeting, and across the lifetime of the group. And that role-playing tends to be spontaneous—not
scripted—most often an extension of the group member’s personality. Finally, not all groups will have all of the
roles we’ll discuss. With the possible exception of “leader,”
no single informal role is found in all—or even most– groups. Group members play the roles that are necessary
to the specific groups. As we go through the roles, let’s use planning
a dinner for your grandmother’s birthday as an example. For a group to be productive, there are certain
jobs, or roles, that have to be performed, such as someone has to offer information,
someone has to clarify information, someone has to write up the notes, etc. First is the Initiator/Contributor. This person starts things off (or initiates
the discussion), or may help change direction during the discussion, suggesting or proposing
new ideas. In our example, this is the person who says,
“We need to celebrate grandma’s birthday,” or “let’s figure out what we need to do
to make this a party to remember.” Oftentimes, but not always, the Initiator/Contributor
is the Leader, sometimes called the Director. The information Seeker asks for additional
clarification, facts, or other information that helps the group understand the issues
that are being discussed. If you ask questions like, “Would the party
be better if we held it on the weekend?” or “What kinds of music does Grandma like?”
you would be playing the information seeker role. Some scholars group the information Seeker
and the Opinion Seeker role together. If you are the Opinion Seeker, sometimes called
the Consensus Taker, you are asking the other group members to share their opinions or to
see if opinions held by one person are shared by other group members. An Opinion Seeker might ask, “So, it sounds
like everyone wants to try for Saturday, the 17th. Is that what everybody thinks?” The information giver role is the opposite
of the information seeker, doing just what the name implies: providing information like
relevant facts, examples, statistics, or other data that would help the group in its task. If you offer information about how much it
might cost to rent tables and chairs for the party, you are playing the Information Giver
Role. And, just as some scholars linked the information
seeker and opinion seeker roles together, some also link the Information Giver and Opinion
Giver roles together. The Opinion Giver offers his or her opinions
or beliefs about the group discussion, such as, “I don’t think we have to go all out
for this. I think Grandma would be satisfied with just
cake and ice cream, as long as we’re all there.” Much of the time, the discussion requires
Elaboration, or clarification. When you say something like, “If we are
talking about cake and ice cream, we could do something like the Jefferson family did
when they…”, and you explain or clarify what you mean, you are the Elaborator or Clarifier. You can elaborate or clarify both what you
mean and what you think others may mean. The Orienter, sometimes called the summarizer,
reviews and clarifies the group’s position while not adding anything new to the discussion:
“Let me make sure we’re all on the same page. We’re talking about a simple party, just
cake and ice cream, on Saturday, the 17th at my house, with Janice in charge of creating
the invitation,” and so on. Another task role is the Evaluator/Critic,
sometimes called the Questioner, who assesses the evidence and conclusions of the group—essentially
analyzing the group’s discussion and decisions. “Do we really need to spend all that money
on tables and chairs?” A special type of Evaluator/Critic is the
Devil’s Advocate, who intentionally challenges the group’s idea and point of view, not
to be argumentative—not to be argumentative and block the group’s process, but to
critically test and evaluate the strength of the group’s ideas, solutions, or decisions. “Let me see what the downside of this approach
is.” This role may be assigned or it may develop
organically. After some time discussing the issue, the
Expeditor (sometimes called the Energizer) might show up, prods the group to action,
or decision, such as calling for a vote or, some scholars say, stimulating the group to
greater productivity. A Procedural Technician handles tasks such
as distributing reports, recording ideas on a whiteboard for everyone to see, making sure
the meeting follows a particular structure such as Robert’s Rules of Order, and so
on. And, finally, a Recorder makes a written record
of the group’s progress. While task roles are focused on productivity,
maintenance roles are focused on the group’s identity and relationships. They help the group get along and feel cohesive. The Encourager, also called the Supporter,
provides warmth to individuals, verbally or nonverbally. “That’s a great idea, Marcus!” not only
helps make Marcus feel good and encourages him to offer other ideas, it contributes a
supportive climate for the rest of the group. A Harmonizer is concerned with managing conflict
and mediating disputes amongst group members, trying to articulate the common elements in
two or more views. To use a cliché, this person pours oil on
troubled waters to smooth them out. “Hold it! Janice and Maria, you both have some good
points, and we can discuss this logically.” The Compromiser is focused on resolving conflicts
by offering a—what else?—compromise. “Nick, you think the party should start
at 7:00 while Lee is suggesting 8:00. What if we split the difference and start
at 7:30?” When stress builds up and the group needs
to take a break or let off steam, that’s when the Tension Reliever steps up, often
using humor to diffuse the situation. If the group purpose itself is stressful,
the tension reliever might bring snacks to the meeting to create a more relaxed atmosphere. Related to the tension reliever is the Dramatizer/Storyteller
who makes the meeting fun by telling stories that are interesting or amusing—without
taking the group off track. The Emotion or Feeling Expresser puts into
words how the group may be feeling, such as, “I know we are all tired and frustrated
right now.” Some groups have a Group Observer who provides
feedback to the group and how it is functioning—or not functioning. There are two more group roles that most scholars
include in maintenance but, depending upon context, could be classified as task. The first is follower. Obviously, tasks can’t get done if everyone
is the leader–or fighting to be the leader—the cliché, “too many chiefs and not enough
Indians” comes to mind. The work has to get done, so you need followers—making
it a task role. Followers, however, grant power to the leader—without
this granting of power, the relationships in the group could suffer, the group is not
able to work on the task, and a lot of time, energy, and tension is spent establishing
who is in charge and the direction of the group. So let’s say I am used to leading groups,
but someone else is the designated leader or wants to be the leader. By understanding that the group climate would
suffer if I pushed for the leader role, I instead decide to step back and, by accepting
and supporting the ideas of others, I choose to be a follower for the good of the group—then
I’m playing the follower as a maintenance role. Constructive followers create “the glue” that
allows work to get accomplished—contributing to cohesion. Now, the second role is Gatekeeper. According to Systems theory, a gatekeeper
opens and closes the gates to let information—or people–in or out—making it a task role. But a gatekeeper can also monitor the group
to see who is and who is not participating, and then limiting those who are dominating
the discussion while encouraging those who may be reluctant to contribute—so you can
see why scholars classified it as a maintenance role. By making sure that all are heard as well
as maintaining the relationships in the group, the gatekeeper allows the work—the task—to
get accomplished. Perhaps the most interesting observation about
these maintenance roles is that they are almost invisible to the group if the group is working
well. Yet they are imperative for a group to create
and maintain the necessary climate to get the work done. Now, if you are playing an individualistic
role, you are putting your needs ahead of the Group needs, in essence, letting your
individual needs trump the needs of the group. These types of roles hinder, or interfere
with, the group’s process and progress. Oftentimes, an Individualistic role is a task
role or maintenance role taken too far. The first of these, the Dominator, attempts
to take over the group and control all discussions—frequently talking over others and displaying threatening,
intimidating, and bullying behavior within the team in an attempt to take over the team
and control all discussions. While you don’t have to be the leader to
dominate, sometimes the leader’s personality results in this type of behavior. The Aggressor, sometimes called the fighter,
degrades other group members and their ideas and may decide to take credit for other group
members’ work. “Simon, that is the stupidest idea I’ve
ever heard, especially when you consider the fabulous idea I brought up yesterday.” The Blocker is uncooperative, a dominant personality
who immediately shuts down other people’s views for no apparent reason, such as, “I
just don’t like it, and I don’t have to tell you why.” Very similar to the Cynic, who is pessimistic
or questions everything. Perhaps an Evaluator/Critic or Devil’s Advocate
role gone bad? The Recognition Seeker, also called the Stagehog,
wants to be in the spotlight and may brag about his or her accomplishments or tell stories
that put him or her in a positive light, taking the group’s attention away from the task
at hand. The Joker, also called the clown or the playboy
or playgirl, treats group meetings as fun time and a way to get out of real work, distracting
other people by telling jokes or playing pranks—a Tension-Reliever gone awry. While all group members are encouraged to
keep the group interesting by disclosing information about themselves and relating appropriate
stories, the Self-Confessor goes well beyond the Dramatizer/Storyteller maintenance role
and uses the group as an audience to report his or her personal feelings, insights, and
observations—not connected to the group work, but about him or herself
A Special Interest Pleader is someone who has a pet project or personal agenda and is
constantly trying to recruit the group to include it in the group project. Some scholars call this the Zealot role, with
the zealot often trying to take the group back to earlier conversations and decisions
about the issue, hoping to get a reversal of opinion or continue possibly discussing
his or her favorite topic. An Isolate is someone who withdraws from the
group, physically by missing meetings, or psychologically, by declining to get involved
in group discussions. Sometimes called a withdrawer, the isolate
could be a follower who really doesn’t do anything. And some members play the Help Seeker, or
Dependent, making excuses as to why he or she can’t do something, often looking for
sympathy in the process. Quiz Time! What are some of the task roles that you see
occurring most frequently in the groups you are involved with? How does an individualistic role differ from
a task or maintenance role? Which roles do you tend to play most often
in a group? Pay attention to these roles, as you might
be unknowingly playing an individualistic role. Baseball Hall of Famer, Casey Stengel, summed
up the difficulty of managing the various roles that occur in groups—those that help
the group be productive and cohesive and those that distract, or hinder group performance,
when he said, “Gettin’ good players is easy. Gettin’ ’em to play together is the hard part.”

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