Chapter 5 – Leadership in Groups, Teams, and Organizational Settings

In this book, we have focused a lot of our attention on the one-on-one relationships between leaders and their followers. With this chapter, we will explore the unique challenges of leading more than one follower at a time, and examine the special dynamics of groups and teams.

 

To begin, let’s look at the difference between groups and teams.

 

What makes a group or a team?

You have probably taken part in group projects in classes and other kinds of organizations. You may also have worked in an organization where upper management referred to everyone as “team members.” We tend to use the words “group” and “team” interchangeably, but there are some important differences.

A group consists of three or more members – ideally, no more than about eight (Harvard Business Review). Can you guess why? When you think back on your own experiences with group work, you may have been part of a small or a large group, and you probably have opinions about ideal group size. Imagine a group of three people; we’ll call them A, B, and C. Person A has a relationship with person B, person A has a relationship with person C, and persons B and C have a relationship with each other – so there are three possible dyads in a group of three. As these dyads engage in discussion, they may come up with a number of different (often conflicting) ideas.

Let’s add a fourth person to the mix, person D. Now we have these relationships:

  • A with B
  • A with C
  • A with D
  • B with C
  • B with D
  • C with D

So we have six possible dyads. Do you see where this is heading?

Adding a fifth person, person E, creates this scenario:

  • A with B
  • A with C
  • A with D
  • A with E
  • B with C
  • B with D
  • B with E
  • C with D
  • C with E
  • D with E

Now we have ten dyads to manage.

This dynamic – the exponential growth of dyads with each new person added to the group – is what makes smaller groups more manageable than larger ones. If you’ve ever been assigned to a “group” of 20 people, for example, you have seen what happens when there are too many possible dyads. Social loafing, or the tendency to be lazy in the hopes that others will do the work, will increase. Splinter groups will form, as a too-large group will tend to separate into sub-groups of like-minded people.

Aside from the number of people involved, what else makes a group a group?

  • A common purpose or goal. Five strangers waiting in line at McDonald’s are not a group, but five people who stop to help at the site of an accident would have a common purpose. Similarly, three people who are each trying to solve a Sudoku puzzle on their own would not be a group, but if those three people come together to solve the same puzzle, they would be.
  • Interdependence and mutual influence. The members of a group depend upon each other’s contributions toward the common goal, and the goal cannot be achieved (at least, achieved with the best possible outcome) without everyone’s participation. The group members also have an influence upon each other, for good or for bad. Imagine that five people come together to plan a car wash to raise money for charity. Some group members may be in charge of finding a place to hold the car wash, others are tasked with gathering materials (sponges, soap), and some might take over advertising and publicity. The goal event – the car wash – cannot take place successfully without everyone’s contributions, and each person’s work will affect (influence) their other groupmates.
  • Regular and ongoing communication. While some groups may come together for a one-time task, most have some form of regular and ongoing communication, even if they are time-limited. In the car wash example, this group might meet daily while planning the event, or chat on a group text. The output of the group is shaped and changed by this ongoing communication. Yes, the group might disband when its goal is accomplished, but during the pursuit of the goal, its members are in regular contact.

You’ve been assigned to work with a handful of other people on a group task. What happens now? From a communication perspective, we look for a couple of things: how do the group dynamics evolve, and how is a leader identified?

 

Evolution of group communication dynamics

You just sat down with your new group. What can you expect to happen next? According to Tuckman (1965), groups evolve through several predictable stages:

  1. Forming: This is the stage where the group members first come together. You may have been assigned to work with these people, or you may have identified one another as people you want to work with. At this stage, group members are feeling uncertainty and even anxiety about the experience that lies ahead. They may be cautious in their behavior, as they are testing out the collective dynamics, and discovering each other’s personalities.
  2. Storming: At this stage, group members begin to express opinions, and conflicts may begin to emerge. Members are thinking about how their individual needs can be met by the outcome of the group’s work and are focused on making sure their ideas are heard.
  3. Norming: At the norming stage, cooperation begins to emerge. Group members express support for one or more ideas that were discussed at the storming stage and begin to coalesce around a plan. Everyone may not support the same plan, but the group is able to zero in on a course of action that most members can get behind.
  4. Performing: This stage is characterized by productive work. This is the point where group members collectively implement the plan, they decided upon in the norming stage. Effective leadership is crucial during this time, so the group can stay on task and meet their goals within the allotted timeframe.
  5. Disbanding: If the group has come together for a specific task, they might go their separate ways when the task is completed. Ideally, group members will have had a positive experience and have gotten to know one another well enough to determine whether they’d like to work together again in the future.

Social Constructionism Theory

Social Constructionism Theory (Berger & Luckmann, 1966) suggests that each group of people will develop its own dynamic or “personality,” based on the communication dynamics that occur in real time. Reflect on this for a moment. In any given semester, you might have multiple classes. Have you noticed that each of those classes has a different interaction dynamic, a different “atmosphere?” One class might be a lot of fun, with a cheerful professor and easygoing classmates, while another might be very competitive, and make you feel anxious and tense. These differences are the result of the communication that occurs within the group. You may have noticed this in the workplace, too – as membership changes, and people come and go, the collective group “personality” will change as well.

Your authors can attest to this. As college professors, we teach a number of different courses, sometimes multiple sections of the same course. We might have the same “teaching style” with each group we encounter, and yet the dynamics in each classroom will be very different. In one course, the students might seem quiet, even sullen, and unwilling to speak up, whereas others engage in lively discussion and seem deeply invested in the course material.

 

Identification of a Leader

How does a group determine who should be the leader? Should the leader be the person with the most experience, or the most to say, or are there other criteria we should consider? Communication scholars such as Hare (1976) have identified a number of factors that we prioritize when identifying a group leader; let’s revisit three important ones we first learned about in chapter 3: the Traits Perspective, the Functional Perspective, and the Situational Perspective.

 

The Traits Perspective

Recall that the Traits Perspective involved choosing someone to be a leader because of their personal attributes, such as an enthusiastic personality, being highly educated and/or skilled in a topic (we call these people Subject Matter Experts, or SMEs), having a wide social network, and even physical traits such as being tall, good-looking, and well-dressed.

The Traits Perspective might make sense at first glance, but its usefulness is limited, as this viewpoint may overemphasize some personal factors and cause us to ignore other attributes. A person with an education from a state university may be just as intelligent – or even more so – than a person with an Ivy League degree. The Traits Perspective can diminish our motivation to look for the less obvious talents of each individual. Group members may naturally default to using this perspective in deciding who should be the leader (after all, we can be lazy, and this kind of choice might seem obvious), but it will benefit us in the long run if we make a more careful choice.

Reflect: When it’s time to choose a group leader, do you tend to automatically favor the person who seems to have the largest number of conventional leadership “traits?” How has this worked out for you in the past?

 

The Functional Perspective

Rather than considering the traits or attributes a person might possess, the Functional Perspective emphasizes behaviors (see Barnlund & Haiman, 1980), and focuses on the specific communication behaviors that contribute to effective leadership. These behaviors relate to directing the task, and to maintaining good relationships between and among group members.

Directing the task: A group leader needs to be able to coordinate a task and keep members moving toward the goal. To do this successfully, they need to be able to communicate in the following ways:

  • A leader must be able to direct discussion. This means they must know when to initiate a new topic, and when to steer the group in a new direction. For example, at the start of a group meeting, the leader might say, “It’s time to begin. I’d like to start by hearing one idea from each person.” If the discussion goes off topic, it might be time for the leader to say something like, “We seem to have gotten off course. I’d like to return to the subject of X. Joseph, what is your opinion on that?” With communication behaviors like this, the leader can steer the conversation toward achieving the goal.
  • A leader must be able to coordinate efforts of the various group members. This means understanding the talents and challenges of each person and connecting people to work together in ways that will produce the best results. Sometimes the leader will need to explicitly point out how the efforts of each person are contributing toward the group goal.
  • A leader must have the communication skill of expanding on ideas. This means that the leader is able to explain things thoroughly and offer additional suggestions, which requires some forethought about the problem. The leader might also need to provide additional resources such as whiteboards or bring in Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to provide a wider range of information to the group.
  • A leader must be able to summarize discussion. A group meeting, or series of meetings, will often produce a large quantity of ideas that are hard to remember and process. The leader must have the communication skill of bringing these disparate threads of discussion together in an understandable way – by pausing the process occasionally to summarize what has already been discussed and decided, and what is still left to do.

Beware! When choosing a group leader, some of us will automatically defer to the person who is the most talkative or most assertive in the bunch, especially if we ourselves aren’t keen to be chosen as leader. But just because a person talks a lot doesn’t mean they have the social skills we have described here.

Reflect: When it’s time to choose a group leader, do you tend to automatically favor the person who first performs the “functions” of leadership, such as saying “Let’s get started” or “Here’s what I think we should do.” Is this person necessarily the best choice?

 

The Situational Perspective

The situational perspective focuses on followers and on the leader’s responsibility to choose the right technique for guiding a particular group of followers based on their ability (skills) and willingness. In chapter 2, you learned about the Hersey-Blanchard model, which helps a leader decide how much to focus on task guidance, and how much to focus on relationship-building, in guiding a particular task. Your leadership style might vary depending on the followers and context; it’s popular to think that each leader has a particular style, but that’s not always the case – you may employ different styles depending upon the group of followers you have.

For example, authoritarian leadership may be the most appropriate when you have a group of inexperienced followers, or when it’s vital that tasks are completed in a particular way. Authoritarian leadership may feel unnatural to many of us, as it’s dictatorial, but it is the correct style in certain contexts, such as the military, when it’s imperative that followers comply with directives without questioning them. This style can also be useful when dealing with children in a situation where they might be hurt if they are not obedient.

Reflect: When have you used this leadership style? Do you use it all the time, or just in particular contexts? What are those contexts?

Democratic leadership sounds great on the surface – we all like to share our opinions and take part in decisions, and a democratic leader solicits input from their followers before making final decisions – but we must consider how and when this leadership style works best. A democratic leader will use their communication skills to steer the group toward the goal, but will also allow followers to make many of their own decisions. In this way, the leader is more of a coach than a dictator.

Reflect: When have you used this leadership style? While it sounds appealing, how could it go wrong? Do you think a leader could use this style 100% of the time? Under what conditions?

Laissez-faire leadership means that the leader participates in the most minimal way possible. This type of leader stands back and lets the group work on its own as much as possible, only intervening when asked or when it becomes absolutely necessary. Followers are given the resources to complete the task, along with the end goal, but it’s up to them to get there in their own way. This leadership style works best with experienced, enthusiastic followers.

Reflect: Have you ever seen this leadership style in action? Was it effective? What happens to a group without enough guidance?

 

The Standard Agenda

In most cases, groups are formed to complete a task and/or solve a problem. As leader, you will guide the group members through that process with the communication skills we have outlined above, and those skills will give you a great foundation for success. But what are the actual steps a group must complete to go from problem to solution? The Standard Agenda was developed by John Dewey in 1910 (see Hegstrom, 2008) to guide groups through that problem-solving process. It is an important tool that a group leader can use to make sure everyone stays on task and reaches a resolution as efficiently as possible.

The Standard Agenda is comprised of 7 steps:

  1. Analyze the problem
  2. Establish criteria for the solution
  3. Rank the criteria
  4. Generate solutions
  5. Evaluate solutions
  6. Select and implement the best solution
  7. Evaluate the effectiveness of the implemented solution

This list might seem long, but each step is important. Too often, groups skip right to step 4 (generating solutions), and neglect the earlier steps that can help ensure success. And many times step 7 (evaluate the effectiveness of the implemented solution) is skipped because it can be time-consuming, and there are new tasks to be done. However, effective leaders know that each of these steps is vital to the final outcome. Let’s explore each one:

Analyze the problem

Does the group agree on what the “problem” is? It may sound silly to say that you must start by defining the problem, but we often assume that we know what it is, or that we all agree on its definition. So, start by defining the problem as precisely as possible. Once this is done, you can begin to analyze the problem: how severe is it? How many people are affected? What are the financial ramifications? How long will it take, and how many people will be involved?

Establish criteria for the solution

What makes a solution a “good” one for this problem? Is cheaper better? Is quicker better? If you had to name five (or ten) criteria that the best solution had to meet, what would those be? As an example, imagine that your group has to find an appropriate venue for a large corporate event. Your criteria might include the number of people the venue can accommodate, the cost of rental, the available parking, and the food service.

Rank the criteria

Which of the criteria is most important? In the example given above, your group might decide that cost is paramount, and you are willing to compromise on some of the other things as long as you stay within budget. Or perhaps the food service is the number one consideration, followed by available parking. You should also consider whether any of these criteria are “deal-breakers.”

Generate solutions

As we said earlier, many groups jump right to this step, but now that you’ve read about steps 1-3, we hope you can see how important they are. Now you are ready to brainstorm possible solutions, with your criteria in mind. If cost is your number one consideration, you can automatically eliminate some options. If you are more flexible on food, perhaps you could expand your options.

Evaluate solutions

Now you can take a comprehensive look at each possible solution, with a “deep dive” into the pros and cons of each one. At this point, the group will begin to coalesce around a small number of possibilities.

Select and implement the best solution

It’s time to decide! Perhaps you will do this by taking a vote, or by letting the leader choose. If two solutions seem equally good, you might let their supporters lead a debate on their merits, in order to reach consensus. Remember, consensus doesn’t always mean that everyone agrees 100% – rather, it means that everyone involved can “live with” the choice.

Evaluate the effectiveness of the implemented solution

Many groups will end the process with step 6, but you do this at your peril! The process isn’t finished until you follow up. After the solution is implemented and has been in use for an appropriate period of time, you should evaluate how well it worked, and how you can improve the process the next time around. The group can reconvene for this discussion, or the leader can do this evaluation on their own, but it’s an important step that should not be skipped over! You may think you are saving time by moving on to your next task, but in the long run you will save time by making better decisions.

 

Conclusion

In this chapter, we have examined how groups choose leaders and the duties those leaders perform. We explored how groups evolve, some common mistakes in problem-solving, and some best practices for group success. We added some great tools to our leadership toolbox, such as the Standard Agenda for problem-solving.

 

Chapter Resources

 

Critical Incidents in Leadership

  1. Sam Altman was dismissed from OpenAI in late 2023, then quickly reinstated. His communication skills are credited for his speed in reclaiming his old job: https://www.forbes.com/sites/paolacecchi-dimeglio/2023/11/26/how-sam-altmans-communication-skills-catalyzed-his-reinstatement/?sh=572cd8c722b2 Reflect on the critical communication skills listed in this article, and how you would apply each of these if you were in Altman’s situation, trying to be reinstated in a former position. Pay special attention to the skills applying to group leadership.
  2. This article: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/quick-takes/2023/11/27/communication-association-apologizes-blocked-gaza-speech recounts an incident at the 2023 National Communication Association conference, where a public speech was blocked because it concerned the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and was expected to express support for Palestine. A protest ensued, and Association members were left with raw feelings afterward. Consider what you know about group communication, and how it could have been used to avoid the controversy around this speech.

Leadership Communication in the Media

  1. A California Ham Radio club is hoping to revive interest in amateur radio technology and to convince their community that this technology still has huge benefits in the digital age. Read about it here: https://www.turnto23.com/news/in-your-neighborhood/tehachapi-stallion-springs/local-group-hopes-to-help-community-rediscover-one-of-the-first-methods-of-communication and reflect on how you would go about convincing members of your own community to try it. What kind of groups would you target, and how would you gain their interest?

 

  1. Does remote work hinder the development of trust among coworkers? This article: https://www.colorado.edu/cmci/news/2023/09/26/research-communication-kuhn-koschmann-zoom-trust suggests that trust in the workplace is not dependent on meeting in the office, but rather, that trust can come from navigating difficult situations together in a mediated setting. Reflect on how working online – whether doing schoolwork or collaborating with coworkers – has affected your sense of personal trust and closeness with your peers. Is proximity necessary for developing a strong sense of personal connection?

 

 

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Leadership Communication: Principles and Practice Copyright © 2024 by Leah Omilion-Hodges and Annette Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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