Small Group Communication: A Review of Theories


Communication is strictly the giving and exchanging of information among individuals. Individuals in our society make up small groups to get work done. Small group communication refers to the theory and practice relating to one or more meetings of a small group of people who achieve group goals (Bormann 1). In small groups there is the process of analyzing theories. A theory consists of a selection of roles and principles tested by experiences in group work that guides practice (Bormann 3).

We seethe effects of groups in all aspects of society. Groups run businesses, industries, and educational enterprises. They exist in committees, organizations, employment, recreation, etc. Our society is run by groups which are what protect our individual rights and by studying how people behave in groups we are able to generalize and even predict some human behavior (Phillips, Pederson, and Wood 1-3). We will now take a look at some work by Robert F. Bales, Ned A, Flanders, Harold Guetzkow, Barry Collins, John W. Thibaut, Harold H. Kelley, Randy Y. Hirokawa, and Dorwin Cartwright.

Bales Personality and Interpersonal Behavior:

Alma (Figure 1)

Robert F Bales' belief was that a person needs to depend on their own personal observation of their self and of others in the group in order to clearly understand and become an effective group member. According to Bales, "when participating with other persons one can not fall too far behind the natural flow of events to think things through, or else his participation in the group will suffer" (3). Bales suggests the idea that information from previous studies is arranged and compressed into a particular description of a specific set of values. He has provided a model which explores the types of group-roles and their value-direction. This model is called the Three Dimensional Space of Interpersonal Personality.

The Three Dimensional Space of Interpersonal Personality model includes a time to each type of group role. The name provides a meaning and value-significance for the group on each member. The type of group role a person has is distinguished by the perception and evaluation of the others in the group. These perceptions and evaluations are dependent on a Personality behavior, or position in the group itself The way to evaluate is by analyzing and rating the answers to interpersonal questions such as:

1. Does he/she seem to receive a lot of interaction from others'

2. Does he/she seem to think of himself as entertaining?

3. Do you feel liking for he/she?

4. Does he/she see himself as a good and kind person?

5. Does he/she receive a lot of laughter?

6. Does he/she seem likely to be rated highly on "leadership?"

7. Does he/she seem to have a general trust in goodness of others? These sort of questions tend to bring about the best approximate type of personality because they help locate discrepancies in a person's behavior (Bales 6-12).

The results we achieve show characteristics which really are non-characteristics of a particular member. This conflict in the personality may represent an unconscious personality. One that is not present in the individual's role in the group. In order to understand the behavior of a particular individual in the group, it is first essential that one distinguish the permanent features of an individual personality and those shown only in the group role. In order to determine the person's personality in the group, we need to observe the way the group behaves and how they evaluate the individual.

The Three Dimensional Space of Interpersonal Personality model is shown in the book SYMLOG A System for the Multiple Level Observation of Groups (Bales and Cohen 177). It begins with six main roles which are:

  • 1. U - Upward meaning dominate

    2, F - Forward meaning instrumentally controlled

    3. P - Positive meaning friendly

    4. D - Downward meaning submissive

    5. B - Backward meaning emotionally expressive

    6. N - Negative meaning unfriendly

  • The model also includes "associated characteristics" (Littlejohn 291) such as:

    1. extrovert
    2. task leader
    3. assertive
    4. authoritative
    5. domineering
    6. provocative
    7. dramatic
    8. entertaining
    9. cooperative
    10. legalistic
    11. cynical
    12. affectionate
    13. appreciative
    14. gentle
    15. obedience
    16. self-punishing
    17. depressed
    18. alienated
    19. afraid to try
    20. happy to be with others
    21. These roles and characteristics are used to identify networks and coalitions between groups.
    22. Each role type has various combinations because of the many characteristics that can be associated with a role type.

    The distinguishing factor of the different types is based on the other characteristics given to the person. For example, in order to identify the "Type U" person, one would notice an active, talkative, and powerful personality which moves toward material success and power. The "Type UP" person would appear to be socially and sexually extroverted, friendly, positive, and moving toward social success. The "Type UPF' person would be friendly, value-oriented, and a task leader moving toward social solidarity and progress. The "Type UF" person would be a strong leader, task oriented, and would move toward group loyalty and cooperation. The "Type UNF" person would be dominating, unfriendly, and morally superior, taking the person toward autocratic authority. The "Type UN" person would be dominating, self-confident, aggressive, and moving toward tough-minded assertiveness. The "Type UNB" person would be dominating, self-confident, rebellious, and leading toward rugged individualism and gratification. The "Type UB" person would be expressive, non-task oriented, unconventional, and moving toward value-relativism and expression. The "Type UPB" person is expressive, warm, affectionate, and moves toward emotional supportiveness and warmth (Bales 189- 257).

    This example hopefully explains how a dominate personality (U) can vary depending on other characteristics attached with it. Every role (U) F, P, D, B, or N) have one main and distinct role, but the role becomes much more complex when different characteristics are attached.

    Flanders' Interaction Analysis:

    Stephanie Wise (Figure 2)

    Ned A. Flanders wrote the book Analyzing Teaching Behavior . In this book Flanders discusses his theories about how teacher and student can have better interaction. Flanders drive to develop more objective techniques for analyzing interaction provides evidence of change, but also becomes a stepping stone to a systematic inquiry into one's own behavior. He suggest that there are a variety of approach's needed. There are samples, fixed, ten-category system that is recommenced but, a more flexible technique is required when more subtle distinctions are necessary. The problems with sampling, research design, and the statistical analysis of interaction data are that they can come out to different conclusions. We need more definite statements about observer reliability, about suspected shortcomings of the kinds generalizations that can be made from different samples procedures. There are also certain trends in education which may prove to be related to improving teacher and student interaction (Flanders 1).

    The purpose of analyzing teaching behavior is for teachers to improve and the students to get better information from the teacher. To study these experiences can help new teachers develop better teacher-student interaction. The experienced teachers will develop patterns of teaching and then control their teaching behavior in a continuing program of self-esteem. By participating in preservice and inservice education teachers can learn the skills of interaction analyze to improve their on teaching behavior as well as to help others with theirs (Flanders 2).

    Now that we know what interaction analysis is, what, are some techniques used? Interaction analysis is a label that refers to any technique for studying the chain of classroom events in such a fashion that each event is taken into consideration. The most common technique to do is to observe, by sitting in a classroom, or some views a video-sound playback events on an observation forum. Then the observer uses his or her system to record and put into different categories (Flanders 5).

    In the area of coding systems procedures, there is a ten-category system. The ten category-system was developed by Flanders in 1955, at the University of Minnesota. These categories are use to keep track of what is being said by whom. Even the silence would be recorded and the time spent in each category. With this ten-category system, an estimate between initiative and response and be inferred from the percent time of teacher talk, student talk, and silence or confusion These percent alone are not predictors of attitudes because the statements are associated with educational outcomes (Flanders 33).

    Adopting interaction analysis to T-groups ran enrich the feedback information which becomes available to teachers who participate in human relations training. The effect of using interaction analysis coding can be used for T-groups simulated social skill training and microteaching (Flanders 241).

    The T-group is a group of twelve or more people, with two experienced members to remain silent for extended periods. The T-group meets for two to three hours in isolated summer laboratories. The substance of the training program arises from the confrontation of members and the situation. The kinds of feedback given from T-groups are a lot of opinion's given from each individual (Flanders 242).

    The simulate social skill training is a training used for teaching. Each group has three to five people and each position is rotated around the group. One person plays the actor while two plays the foils or spontaneous, and the other two observe. This is how the teachers learn the different patterns of teaching behavior (Flanders 249).

    In the microteaching clinics videos are used to show what happened in the group sessions. Student post-teaching reactions, supervisor and peer criticisms are also used during those sessions for teachers After these sessions new teachers have a good idea of what to expect in the classroom (Flanders 376).

    Researching and Teaching effectiveness based on analyzing verbal interaction in the classroom was discussed. What you have to decide first is what is relevant meaning you need to have some prior knowledge of the subject. The difficulty in conducting research on teaching often slows down the process or gives false results.

    Collins & Guetzkow : A Simple working Model of Decision Making Groups:

    Akram (Figure 3)

    Groups are important to individuals and to society. People use communication to share resources in the solution of problems, decision-making and cooperation to achieve goals. Group communication, thereby, becomes an instrument for accomplishing these issues.

    However, decision making in a group is different and sometimes hard from individual problem solving. The interpersonal relation among the group members is due to the task environment of the group as a whole and the interpersonal environment of each individual,

    Two kinds of stimuli are found in each environment:

    1. Obstacle stimuli which define the problem of the group and its members
    2. Reward stimuli which serve to mold and maintain group behavior.

    To explain this process Barry Collins and Harold Guetzkow in their book A Social Psychology of Group Processes of Decision-Making present a simple model of decision making in a group. The task group research the input process and the output approach as well. Their model is distinguished by the task obstacles and the interpersonal obstacles.

    Harold Guetzkow explains that first we must distinguish between events in the task environment externally to the group and events in the behavior of the other group members as indicated in the two boxes on the left-hand side of the diagram (81). Some of the task-environment events constitute some group behavior. Likewise, some of the behavior of group members may constitute problems or obstacles and also instigate group behavior and limit productivity m.

    There relation are depicted in the diagram by the second series of boxes, reading from left to right with arrow I and 3 connecting the obstacles to their corresponding behaviors. At time obstacles in the task environment create problems in the interpersonal environment as is illustrated by arrow 2. When asked about the problem they meet in their own decision-making group, executives by large mention only the task environment obstacles (Kriesbeig 80). Yet leaders and members of groups must alert themselves to the interpersonal obstacles that are the immediate consequences of gathering individuals together in a group.

    The Group Productivity Box is divided as before into individual productivity and group assembly effects where the two kinds of obstacles define the problems that group members face. It is the rewards arising from the task performance and interpersonal relation which determine what behavior will be learned and maintained in response to future obstacles.

    Task environment and interpersonal rewards are represented by the boxes on the right hand side of Figure 4.1 in the diagram. Task environment rewards are produced by the group productivity arrow 4 and interpersonal reward are produced by the behavior of other group members arrow 5. Both of the classes rewards together and independently- serve to class rewards together and independently - serve to mold and maintain group behavior arrow 6.

    Group members will learn and maintain those behaviors which make the group productive. But their task environment rewards will be augmented by interpersonal rewards. The rewards may be complimentary with or contradictory to the effect produced by the task reward.

    In conclusion, this simple working model of decision-making group, present and illustrate a social psychological example of how interpersonal behavior and task performance rewards are molded in decision making group to be a positive or negative one,

    Thibaut & Kelley's Comparison Levels Model: by

    Aimee ( Fig 5)

    Thibaut and Kelley suggest that all interactive partners have a repertoire of behaviors they may use in a given situation. During an interaction between the two, they may enact in any number of behaviors. "A" and "B" are interdependent which means that the sequences of A and B's actions are dependent on their joint behaviors.

    In order for "A" to determine how to act in a given instance, "A" must review his of her choices and try to predict what "B" is most likely to do. From there "A" will compute the results of possible combinations of both of their behaviors.

    The relationship between the two people can be looked at as a matrix, Sarah Trenholm, looks at Thibaut and Kelley's matrix as a Game Theory of the dependence between two prisoners and their mutual dependence.

    To further describe the interaction matrix model, "A" and "B" will represent two prisoners who have committed a crime together- Thibaut and Kelley named this study the Prisoner's Theory.

    Thew two prisoners prior to committing the crime and being convicted they were both offered the same deal by a district attorney after being separately interrogated. The deal is if each of them turn the other one in, confess, and turn state evidence, she will go free and her partner will go to jail.

    Here they are aced with consequences and must second guess their partner. Consequences must be computed for their joint actions. The consequences of any action maybe rewards or the gratification or the "means whereby a drive is reduced or a need fulfilled" or costs which are factors that operate to inhibit or deter the performance of a sequence of behavior Trenholm 69).

    In the Prisoner's Theory, the prisoner's find that their "reward" is that they will go free after committing a crime. The "costs" are the possibility that they will be turned in by their accomplice. Every relationship has potential costs and rewards that depend on the actions of the other partner.

    Thibaut and Kelley believe that rewards and costs can be thought of as both exogenous and endogenous Exogenous determinants refer to the values, need, and skills that the individuals have outside a particular situation. If "A" is shy, and easily embarrassed while "B" is the opposite, bold and self-confident, the behaviors will be more costly for "A" than for "B." Endogenous determinants are specific results using comparisons between "A" and -B.- The interaction between ''A" and "B" will always determine the costs and rewards of each.

    Both "A" and "B" must have some standards of acceptability. Thibaut and Kelly have presented such standards as the comparison level and the comparison level for alternatives. The CL or the comparison level is used to evaluate the attraction of a particular relationship. Thibaut and Kelley state that "Some model or average value of all known outcomes, each outcome weighed by its salience or strength of instigation (Kelley & Thibaut 2 1). The CL is determined as the "lowest level of outcomes a member will accept in light of available alternative opportunities' (21).

    In group communication if the CL falls below the CL art, the member will remove themselves and or leave the relationship. When a person is a member of a group they receive outcome solely by their behaviors and the behaviors of other group members. if the individual becomes slightly unhappy with the group, enjoying it most of the time, but having difficulties with certain aspects of the group's actions.

    It is at this point the group members CL (what the group provides you with) and the CL art determine what could be provided by other group's and begin to determine your staying or leaving. if the comparison level falls below the level of the alternatives the person would leave the present group and join a different group with different advantages.

    It is now determined by Thibaut and Kelley's theory why as humans we enter and walk away from relationships and our groups.

    Hirokawa's General Functional Theory

    Aimee (Figure 4)

    Randy Hirokawa believed in communication. He stood on the firm ground that in order to maximize our understanding of the relationship between group processes and group productivity it is essential that we work together as a "community of minds" ( Hirokawa 140).

    There is a world of difference between making decisions on your own and making a group decision. When working in a group there is a unique chemistry of social interaction, each member can distill what they have to offer, creating a resonance of ideas and a synthesis of viewpoints.

    Communication is a key force for a decision making process. Communication acts as a catalyst for the group chemistry. It is the medium for the control of group activities and coordination. Yet, Hirokawa has pointed out the importance of the communication process while making decisions, but if error or fault take place can decisions he made.

    Many scholars have suggested that the quality of a groups decision can be traced to the influence of one or more members of the group. Groups often come to "good" or "bad" decisions based on the influence from a certain group member. The members of the group influence the occurrence of errors during various stages of the decision making process.

    This paper will explore first Hirokawa's grounds for arriving at a decision in a group. Second the explanation of a descriptive model of the group decision making process which is utilized to identify factors which contribute to faulty decision making. Lastly, Hirokawa's description to why faulty decisions are made.

    In order to understand how a group members can influence the quality of a group's decision, it is important to understand how groups generally arrives at a decision. Previous researchers in the field Poole and Doelger indicate that no two groups necessarily arrive at a decision in the exact same way, but their research nonetheless suggests that most groups decisions are based on the same general considerations (qtd. in Hirokawa/Poole 64). Hirokawa has found that a groups decision is the end result of a series of prior conclusions. They can be found in three general issues.

    The three general issues are as follows:

    1. What is the nature of the problematic situation? Hirokawa and Pace discovered a groups decision appeared to stem from it's assessment of the problem (140). The group's decision is often tied to how the group perceives the
    2. What specific objectives and/or values need to be realized by choice? Group decisions are based quite often on a consideration of the important object or goals that decision makers wish to realize through their choices. Decisions of groups are guided be a general desire to implement social policies that affect all group members in relatively the same way. A groups decision will often lean towards "end-states" or what the group wishes to bring about as a result of it's choice.
    3. What positive and negative consequences are associated with alternative choices available? A third consideration is that final decisions are agreed upon by the group's assessment of the positive and negative consequences associated with particular alternatives. Desirable and undesirable out comes are likely to be produced be the selection of alternative courses of action. Most of the time group's tend to focus on the positive qualities rather than the negative aspects. But, most groups will engage in partial assessment of both positive and negative aspects before making decisions.

    Given these three general considerations, a descriptive model of the group decision making process will be further explored. According to the model, a group decision making process usually begins with the groups assessment of a problematic situation. In this stage the group's goal are to clarify and understand relevant circumstances of the choice making situation. For example the group coming to conclusion and deciding what specific events occurred 9 What were the consequences of these particular events? What harms or hurts did the event cause/ And finally Why did the problematic situation occur?

    To come to a decision on that, the group must rely on information which consists of data that has been presented to the group by an outside source or data from it's own group members. Not all information in the information base will be used some information will be found invalid,

    Once the situation is understood and the group is satisfied with the understanding the group will generally proceed in two directions. First the group will possibly identify alternative courses of action available. Here the group examines the set of choices or proceeds to identify important objectives. The group sorting material and data to attempt to reach a general consensus.

    Based on the decision in the prior step if the group decides to examine to evaluate alternatives the group will generally discuss important objectives. Yet, if the second step involves a discussion of the important objectives the third step will likely involve examination of available alternatives.

    Regardless of the nature of the groups third step decision making process, the fourth step will be to attempt to assess positive and negative consequence associated with various alternatives Which will generally involve two interrelated stages. First to identify positive and negative outcomes and second will be a comparison process of the positive and negative qualities of various alternatives. This process is used to decipher which option offers the best combination of desirable and undesirable consequences.

    Following the fourth step, the model suggests that the group will usually come to a decision. If not the group will retrace their steps an reconsider the consequences and alternatives prior to the decision making phase.

    Hirokawa by conceptualizing the group decision making process as a series of related steps we can pin point the possible reasons that groups arrive at faulty decisions. What can cause a group be unable to come to decision? Hirokawa suggests that there are at least five factors that can potentially lead a group to a low-quality decision. They include

  • 1. The improper assessment of choice making situation If the groups efforts to assess the nature of the choice making situation have any errors the errors are likely to carry over throughout the process and ultimately lead to a faulty group choice.

    2. The establishment of inappropriate goals and objectives The group may neglect important objectives that should take place or be achieved. The group may also work towards unnecessary goals.

    3. Improper assessment of positive and negative qualities This is a phase where the group ignores certain advantages and disadvantages of various proposals. The group may also tend to overestimate the positive and negative outcomes expected.

    4. Establishment of a flawed information base Valid information may be rejected by the group while they let invalid information be accepted. Too little information or data may be collected, or too much information may be gathered and it may cause an information overload and group confusion.

    5. Faulty reasoning from the information base The information gathered by the group may be essentially correct, but the manner in which the group interprets or utilizes the information may be flawed.

  • Hirokawa believes that errors most often arise from the communication or the lack there of communication in a group, In his laboratory Hirokawa formed about 40 three-person groups and had them discuss a problematic situation with in small groups. He explored all that data and the final decisions of the groups. It was clear that the groups that were more effective in meeting the above criteria made better decisions (Littlejohn 285). Hirokawa addresses the general quality of communication from a functional perspective.

    French & Raven's Sources of Power


    In a study written by John French, and Bertram Raven in 1959, they published some ideas pertaining to sources of power in group settings. They stated that power, is the same as influence over someone. They also stated that this could be measured as the psychological change over a person in a system over time. Raven and French described social influence as "influence on person P produced by social agent 0, where 0 can be either another person, a role, a norm, a group, or part of a group". They went on to state that influence can only happen if "0" does not control over "P" (Cartwright 155). This would be control, not influence. The way you can tell if "0" has control over "P" is that "O" induces strong forces on "P" to do something, but -P- has different needs which are more powerful, and does not do what is asked, "0" does not have control over "P". The main points of their study was on sources of power, and the strength of power, which they defined as "the maximum potential ability of "0" to influence "P". They stated that there were five main basis, or sources of power in a group setting, which are:

    1. Reward power: Reward power is power achieved by a person "0", when "P" thinks that "0" can mediate a reward for him or her. The more that "P" thinks that "0" will reward him/her, the more power that "O" has over "P". Power is also increases on a continuous scale when "0" does reward "P", because the probability of future rewards is increased. An example of this type of power would be a child is supposed to eat all of their dinner because the parent promises dessert for finishing the meal. The parent would be exerting reward power over the child.

    2. Coercive power: Coercive power is the power that "0" has over "P" when "P" thinks that be/she will be punished if he/she doesn't conform to "O's" influence. Ibis type of power is the opposite of reward power. As in reward power, the power is increased when the magnitude of the possible punishment is increased. The more punishment or harm that "P" thinks "0" will bring him or her, the more power "0" has over "P". Also similar to reward power, the power is increased on a continue scale when "0" does punish "P", because the probability of future punishments is greater.

    3. Legitimate power: Legitimate power is the power that comes from 'TV internal values that dictate that "0" has a legitimate right to influence "P". In other wards, this is a power that "P" gives "0" based on "P's" internal values, which say that "0" has a right to influence "P". This power stems from three places:

  • a. Cultural values: in a given culture, individuals are raised to accept influence from other members of their culture. An example of this would be the power which parents have over children. This is a value which most of us are raised on.
  • b. Acceptance of a social structure: this is when "0" has power over "P" because of their positions held. Some examples of this would be the power that a teacher has over a student, or the power that a supervisor has over a worker.
  • c. Designation by a legitimizing agent: This is when some agent has given "a" the authority to have power over "P". Some examples of this would be the power given to police officers over citizens or the power of a sergeant in the army over a private.
  • 4. Referent Power: Referent Power is the power caused by the desire of "P" to associate and be similar to "P." This type of power comes when "P" allows "0" to have it. For example, when a teenager starts dressing like other members of his social group to for in the group has referent power of the teen. It is different from reward/coercive power because it happens when "P" is conforming to "0" regardless of whether "0" will reward or punish "P". Another example would be when a member of a fraternity helps wash cars at a car wash because the rest of the fraternity is doing so.

    5. Expert power: This is the power that occurs when "P" is more knowledgeable over "P." An example of this would be accepting a mechanic's advice about your car. It is based on die credibility of "0" and includes two necessary parts: a. "P" thinks that "0" knows more information b. "I" trusts that "0" is telling him/her the truth.

    Within these five sources of power they drew the following hypotheses:

    1. The stronger the sources of power in the relationship, the stronger the power will be.

    2. The range of power is the broadest when in referent power, but in all forms of power, power is reduced when "0" attempts to me the power outside of the accepted range.

    3. In reward/coercive power, the influence produced is very dependent on "0" whereas, in the other types of power, the influence us independent on "0."

    4. In reward power, the attraction of "P" to "0" is increased and also "I" gains acceptance of "0." In coercive power, the attraction of "P" to "0" is decreased, and also "P" is escaping rejection from "0."

    5. In coercive power, the more legitimate the coercion, the less that P's attractiveness for "0" will decrease,, and also the less resistance "P" will give "0."


    In conclusion, small group communication continues to be a strong way to communicate in our society. After looking at the various theories in small group communication, we have learned a small group is an identifiable social system, which involves a task-oriented process which begins with hypothetical information and naturalistic observations leading to generalizations, predictions, and heuristic theories. These theories always have room to improve as we continue to learn more and more about small group interaction. As time changes, new ideas influence the old.


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