Module VII: Small Group Communication

Section 2: Group Process

After completing this section, students should be able to:

  1. describe the challenges of group work.
  2. illustrate the characteristics of effective task groups.
  3. demonstrate how everyone has to adapt to everyone to make task groups function.
  4. identify the three typical life stages of a group.
  5. explain the impact of uncertainty and unpredictability on the development of tension.
  6. demonstrate how to plan and run a task group meeting.

Challenges of Working in Groups

Working in groups is a fact of life for virtually everyone.  Whether those groups are at work, in church, in a civic organization, politics, or for pleasure, we naturally gather to work collaboratively to achieve a common goal.  While most of us like to think that we work best alone, the reality is that humans achieve the most working together. Humans are inherently social creatures.  The drive to connect with others is built in to us; healthy humans want to be around and connected to other humans (Fisk, 2013). 

Although we are driven to connect with others, it is not always a pleasant experience.  The image of the hardworking task group energetically and dynamically working its way through a problem can be very attractive, but rarely do groups function so idealistically.  Many groups will function very well and achieve their goals effectively and efficiently, and many groups will struggle. 

Consider working in classroom groups.   While most students have been in groups which functioned well, they have also experienced some level of dysfunction in other groups.  When asked why a group functioned poorly, virtually everyone will point to others in the group.  Sometimes blaming a non-participating or problematic member is accurate; however, most of the time the problem lies not with a single person but with the internal dynamics of the group.  In other words, the group as a whole is responsible for their success or failure to complete their task and reach their goal.

A core tenet of effective group work is everyone adapts to everyoneThere are several implications of adapting to others in order to have a functional group experience: 

  • No one’s schedule is any more or any less important than anyone else’s.  Everyone is busy with school, work, family, friends, or whatever their life demands.  A common excuse is “I’m so busy.”  Everyone is busy, and group members should negotiate meeting times with some degree of flexibility. 

  • No one’s working style is inherently better or worse for the group. Members have to adapt their working style to each other.  A common conflict is between the “go-getters,” the ones who want to get tasks done early and quickly, and those who are more laid back, who have every intention of getting the work completed by the deadline but who like to take time to thoughtfully work through the process.  The only proper way for a group to function is what works for that group; thus, everyone has to adapt their working style to each other. 

  • Not all of our ideas, no matter how well thought out we believe they are, are necessarily right for the group.  This can be a frustrating exercise in placing the needs of the group over the needs of the individual member, accepting that no matter how great we believe the idea is, unless the group embraces it, we must let it go and move on.   
  • In mixed-gender, mixed-aged, mixed-experience groups, we must accept that multiple perspectives have equal value.  We may assume our age or experience inherently makes our opinions more valid than those younger or with less experience, but that is simply not true.  Our individual experiences provide us a wealth of information to draw from, but so does the life experiences of others.  Embracing the diversity of ideas within the group is an important skill.   

As we work to adapt to each other to make groups effective, common sources of group dysfunction emerge: 

  • We generally like things done our way.   
  • We may value work and tasks differently.  What is important to one is worthless to another. 
  • We assume everyone works and thinks as we do. 
  • We may get frustrated that reaching a group decision takes longer than deciding something individually. 
  • We do not like sharing credit for our work. 
  • We do not like feeling uncomfortable, and working collaboratively can lead to conflict, even healthy conflict, that we may find awkward. 
  • We do not like working on someone else’s timeline. 
  • We do not like feeling taken advantage of, if we feel we’re doing more work than others. 
  • We do not like others getting away with doing less, with being “social loafers.” 
  • It can be frustrating to fit the group schedule into our individual schedule. 

With such a substantial list of challenges and problems, it certainly begs the question, “Why bother?”  If working in groups can be so frustrating, why do it?   

A basic tenet of relationship development is social exchange theory, which says for a relationship to be maintained, the rewards of the relationship must outweigh the costs of the relationship (Fournier, 2013). All relationships have costs, things that are demanded of us to make the relationship work: time, sharing resources, giving up some independence, and so on.  Groups are simply expanded relationships, so there must be rewards that outweigh the the frustrations of working collaboratively.  There are several: 

  • By working collaboratively on tasks, we satisfy our instinctual drive to form social groups to achieve common goals.  
    Decorative: Varied group of 5 peoples standing.
    Image 2
  • Humans have deep needs for acceptance and belongingnessSee Module I, Section 1, and working in task groups helps fulfill those fundamental needs. 
  • A group can generate more ideas and options than a single person working alone.   
  • A group can more effectively analyze and evaluate potential solutions. 
  • Working in a group spreads accountability and responsibility. We can divide the labor to lessen the load and pressure on a single person. 
  • Decisions made by groups are generally better accepted than those made by an individual. 
  • When working in a task group, we tend to feel a high sense of obligation to our group colleagues, which in turn means we have a higher commitment to quality work. 
  • In a business, employees involved in working collaboratively to make decisions impacting the larger organization tend to have a higher level of commitment to the company and a higher level of job satisfaction. 
  • In education, students who engage other students in learning, like study groups, tend to learn better and retain more. 

For most, these rewards outweigh the costs of working in a group.  Of course, each group is different, so for some the rewards will far exceed the costs, while others will struggle to find a good balance.  The goal of learning about group dynamics is to equip the student to make thoughtful, self-reflexive choices to balance the scale in favor of rewards over costs. 

Characteristics of Effective Task Groups

A group, whether social or task, is simply an extended relationship.  And as with any relationship, there are dynamics which can make the relationship more successful. 

  • Effective Task Groups work cooperatively, not competitively. In effective task groups, the focus is on group success, not individual success.  When group members focus on what they can gain from the group individually, their commitment to the group is limited to a particular goal.  In other words, their work has the goal of getting what they want, not what the group wants.

  • Effective Task Groups have members who feel individually responsible for success.  While we work as a group, effective task groups have members who realize the success of the whole is dependent on the work of the individuals.  Group members come prepared, ready to work.  Each member accepts their obligation to voice concerns, address conflict, offer options, and generally to make sure the group functions well.  They do not sit back and wait for others to take the lead.

  • Effective Task Groups use an appropriate decision-making method. As Americans, we are enamored by majority rule (or majority vote in which more than half the members agree).  In large groups, like a city, state, or nation, we must use majority rule as a decision-making method. In a small task group, however, majority rule can be divisive and can lead to competitiveness. Majority rule inherently means there will be winners and there will be losers, setting up a competitive mindset.  Instead, effective task groups usually aim for consensus in which everyone wins. Consensus means a "decision which all members have a part in shaping and all find at least minimally acceptable as a means of accomplishing some mutual goal" (Wood, 1992, p. 159). Quick agreement is not true consensus.  True consensus is achieved after options have been thoroughly explored and discussed, and alternatives have been considered and thoughtfully rejected.  As a result, consensus can take quite a bit of time to reach, but in the end the commitment to the quality of a decision is high.

  • Effective Task Groups have a healthy social dimension. Since a healthy social dimension is the foundation of good group work, an effective task groups respects the need to allow for social interaction.  Time for telling jokes, sharing stories, and generally laughing together is seen as an investment in the health of the group.  Movement back and forth from the social dimension into the task dimension is seen as normal and healthy, not “getting off track.”

  • Effective Task Groups have a high sense of cohesiveness. Cohesiveness is a feeling of connection; a feeling of accountability and obligation to each other. (Bormann & Bormann, 1980). Effective task group members feel responsible to come to meetings, do the work, and work for the benefit of the whole.  Cohesiveness is affected by three variables:

    • Shared task commitment:  the more the group members share the same group goal, the higher the task commitment.  Take a classroom group.  If two members want a grade of A, two members want a grade of C, and one member really does not care, they do not have a shared task goal.  Granted, the task is the same (to get the assignment done), but the specific goal of how well to do the task varies; thus, each person is approaching the task with different expectations.
    • Attractiveness of purpose: the more the group members like the task, and like it to the same degree, the higher the cohesiveness.  If we like the task, we want to go to meetings and spend time with our colleagues; we want to work on the task because it is a pleasurable experience.
    • Fulfillment of interpersonal needs: the more we feel a sense of belongingness and acceptance, the more we enjoy being with the group, and, as a result, we want to meet with them.  Interacting with them makes us feel good about ourselves.  If a quiet task member speaks up but gets ignored, however, they will likely not say much again and perhaps will even top attending. If a group member is not validated, their interpersonal needs were not met. 
  • Effective Task Groups have an ideal size. Dr. Ernest Bormann, at the University of Minnesota, found the ideal size for a small task group is five (1980). While groups of four or six can work, having the odd number of members assures there will be no ties, and the formation of subgroups diminishes.  Very large groups (10 to 12 people) require so much attention to process and to managing discussion the synergistic dynamic we look for in groups rarely can be attained.

  • Effective Task Groups deal effectively with tension levels. Groups are nothing but relationships, and as is normal in relationships, there are developmental stages.  In these developmental stages, tension can increase causing members to be uncomfortable and to feel awkward.  In groups a fairly predictable series of stages occurs, and how well the group handles those stages influences how effective the group will be.

  • Effective Task Groups develop and adhere to group norms. All relationships have rules.  We start under social rules and then we evolve into relationship-specific rules.  For groups, we call these group norms.  Think of these as expectations we learn to have of each other.  They are developed through interaction and are rarely discussed.  A common group norm involves expectations of what it means to be on time.  If a group regularly starts meetings right on time, the members develop an expectation of all future meetings starting on time.  If members start to come late, conflict can arise as they are no longer meeting expectations.  Effective groups are those with developed norms, and with group members who adhere to those norms.

  • Effective Task Groups have roles emerge. All relationships have needs; a need for disclosure, a need for validation, and a need for conflict resolution.  Again, groups are just relationships, and they too have needs waiting to be fulfilled.  In order to fill those needs, members take on roles.  Like norms, these develop through interaction, and usually are not openly assigned.  Members take on a role and just start doing what they feel the group needs. 

Tension and Group Development

Tension is the core issue in group dynamics.  Tension is the degree of uncertainty we feel in the social dimension at a given moment.  Remember, when uncertainty increases, we get uncomfortable, self-conscious, and unsure of what to expect.Since we are driven by patternicity (see Module II, Section 1), tension is high until we discern a pattern for the group.  That feeling is our response to the uncertainty we have in the group.

Graph show tension levels over the life of a group.
Image 3

As Image 3 shows, at times the tension can be quite high, and at other times, it can be quite low. However, it never goes away completely.  The ideal state is for the group to be in tolerable tension.  When the group is in tolerable tension, they can focus quite well on the task.  The members feel reasonably comfortable with one another, trust is high, and everyone is getting along well.  Since the social dimension is stable and not threatened, they can focus effectively on the task dimension without getting distracted by having to reinforce the social dimension.


Typically, however, the tension level will not remain in the tolerable zone.  In fact, there are two very predictable times when it will exceed tolerable and serve as the focusing agent of the group.

Primary Tension
Graph show tension levels over the life of a group highlighting primary tension.
Image 4

When the group first gathers, the members will be in primary tension.  According to Bormann (1996), “When the discussion group first meets, everyone will experience primary tensions. They feel ill at ease. They do not know what to say or how to begin." (p. 134). It is the getting acquainted awkwardness we all experience when meeting new people.  Even if working with people we know, primary tension still occurs because we are creating a new relationship in a new context.  We have to figure out how to work with each other in this new setting.  At this stage, uncertainty is high as we do not know these people and cannot predict their behaviors.

Primary tension has several distinctive symptoms:

  • A high degree of politeness.  Just as we do when meeting any new people, we fall back on our learned social behaviors for guidance as to how to act, and we tend to act very polite and nice.  While being polite is always good, at this level, politeness is far more artificial and used in place of genuine communication.
  • Extended silences.  Since members do not know each other, and since trust has not yet developed, members assess whether to risk sharing ideas or opinions.  If we do not know how we will be taken, it’s safer to hold back.
  • Low risk-taking.  In primary tension, most ideas offered will be safe and non-controversial.  Again, due to the lack of trust, we do not know how imaginative we can get yet, so we retreat to safe positions.
  • Little disagreement.  In primary tension, we rely on social rules to guide our behavior.  Since social rules generally tell us to be polite and agreeable with people we do not know, there is little disagreement or offering of contrary opinions.  Since we do not trust how others may act, we act more passively, going along to avoid risking conflict.
  • High self-monitoring and other-monitoring.  During this phase members are highly tuned in to their own behaviors, engaging in impression management to attempt to present an image to the others they is comfortable with.  Likewise, they are also heavily monitoring each other, seeking clues to gain information and lower uncertainty.
  • Heavy reliance on phatic communionPhatic communion (not communication) is classic small talk.  Talking about the weather, the class, the school, or other superficial topics tends to initially dominate social conversation.  Since trust has yet to be developed, we rely on these safe, superficial topics to let us interact while also protecting ourselves from sharing more personal information.
  • Quick, poor decisions.  Since there is little disagreement or genuine discussion of issues, decisions made in primary tension tend to be poorly thought out and too quickly reached.  On the surface, it may appear the group is progressing well in the task dimension when, in reality, their task work is heavily overshadowed by the tension the members are feeling.  Decisions are made to avoid conflict and to appear cooperative, not because the decision is necessarily the best for the task.  It is quite common that, as the group moves forward, they end up revisiting these early, quick decisions to reconsider them.

How long a group remains in primary tension depends on the nature of the group.  Just like a classic, two-person couple will develop their relationship at their own pace, so too will groups progress according to the unique dynamics of that group.

The Shakedown Cruise

As the members become more comfortable, uncertainty drops, trust builds, and they enter the shakedown cruise.  During this time, they typically enter tolerable tension so they can work on the task fairly well.  Also during this time, the personality of the group is really developing and emerging.  During the shakedown cruise:

Graph showing the relationship of shakedown cruise to tension and time.
Image 5
  • Trust is rising.  As the group interacts, initial impressions of trustworthiness get validated and reaffirmed. 
  • There is more spontaneous communication. Since trust is rising, defensive guards are dropping, self-monitoring is dropping back to more normal levels, and the conversation takes on a more natural, less planned tone.
  • There are more options, ideas, and contrary opinions offered.  Now that trust is rising, members feel more confident that they can offer unconventional ideas, differing opinions, or other risky comments without fear of harming the working relationship.
  • There is easy dimensional shifting occurring.  The group comfortably moves back and forth between the social and task dimension.
  • There is more energy and laughter.  Since members are relaxing more, they can get more involved in the task, becoming more energized by the challenge of the work.  During this time, the group will be louder, have more overlapping and interrupting communication, and will laugh frequently.  In general, a loud, laughing group is a healthy group.

Secondary Tension

Image 6

Unfortunately, it is common that the group will eventually enter secondary tension.  After the honeymoon period of the shakedown cruise, tension will begin to rise again as the group matures, the work becomes more mundane, deadlines loom, and the initial commitment to the task and group falters.  Secondary tension can be caused by many things:

  • Violations of group norms.  In all relationships, we learn to expect others to behave in certain waysAgain, reference the concept of patternicity (see Module II, Section 1). Group norms are the specific patterns we see occuring in the group.  In groups, these expectations are called group norms. These are "expectations for the kinds of behaviors and opinions the group members find acceptable or unacceptable" (Engleberg, 2017, p. 240). During the shakedown cruise, the group developed expectations of each other, but now members may start to act contrary to those norms.  For example, for the first few meetings if everyone was on time, a group norm develops of “we start our meetings on time.”  Later, if a member starts to come late, they is violating that norm.  The group members usually feel a sense of frustration at such violations, the violating member has created uncertainty.  Thus, tension begins to move above the tolerable level.
  • Lack of progress.  Early in the group, while there is still ample time before the deadline, the group may work at a fairly gentle pace.  Eventually, however, some members may feel frustrated that the work is not progressing faster, at a pace they are more comfortable with.  In effect, they feel uncertainty that the work will be accomplished on time.  Tension rises.
  • Increased pressure to get the task done.  As the deadline looms, even if the group feels it has been making progress, the presence of the deadline can increase pressure to get the work done.  For some, if they feel uncertain that the deadline will be met, it is common to look for someone in the group to blame.  This can result in an increase of conflict and tension.
  • Resentments.  As the group norms developed, different people may have ended up taking on more desirable roles, such as leader.  At times, members will become resentful that other members have more power, more influence, or more enjoyable duties. 
  • Unresolved issues.  Commonly there are behaviors others engage in that we find irritating.  For example, a member may be constantly distracted by his/her phone, or is constantly fiddling with an object, like a pen.  In primary tension, we typically do not say anything because it is not polite.  We bury our annoyance, but as time wears on and the pressures on the group mount, those annoyances come back even worse than before.  For an online group, perhaps it’s the constant barking of a member’s dog, or the whining of an unhappy child.  Again, tension mounts.

Once secondary tension builds and the tension level moves above the tolerable level, several symptoms usually appear:

  • Quick decisions.  Since members are getting frustrated with one another, they resort to making quick, poorly thought-out decisions simply for the sake of getting done.
  • Little disagreement.  Since trust has dropped and frustration has mounted, members are reluctant to disagree with each other since it might prolong the process and potentially exacerbate simmering conflict. 
  • Argumentativeness.  Members become argumentative, disagreeing with each other not because of differing opinions but because they are taking out their frustrations on each other.  The quality of the idea is irrelevant; the act of disagreeing is a way to express anger without directly attacking the person.
  • Less participation.  Since trust has dropped, members retreat and hold back.  They do not want to risk negative reactions or conflict by speaking up.
  • Little social interaction.  Since members are frustrated with each other, they will stay in the task dimension to avoid trying to deal with each other on a more personal level.  In a sense, the personal relationship is broken, and a way to manage that is to avoid addressing it, staying focused on the task, albeit in pseudowork.
  • Low energy and little laughter.  Since tension is high, members are uncomfortable.  This discomfort is overwhelming the focus on the task, so the energy of the group has been destroyed.  At this point, since members just want to get done and get away, there is very little laughter as diversions into the social dimensions slow the process down.

Note that during secondary tension the group is engaging in pseudowork.  While they may appear to be working on the task, the quality of the work has plummeted and the goal has shifted from doing good work to simply getting done.

Once a group is in secondary tension, they should choose how to handle it.  One option, the toughest option, is to openly discuss the tension, its causes, and find resolutions.  This takes time and commitment, and often group members are not willing to engage in such an emotionally demanding process.  However, if done well, the process can be highly beneficial to the group.  In addition to resolving the immediate conflict, the group is learning how to handle conflict. As the group continues, they are now better equipped to confront rising tension earlier.  Just like a traditional couple, this “first fight” can be significant in helping them learn to how to address and resolve conflict while maintaining a commitment to the group.

Another option, and unfortunately the more common route taken, is to simply find a quick decision to finish the task.  The group can claim to be done and disband, escaping the tension of the group.   This is the path usually taken when members feel the cost of confronting and processing the conflict is greater than the potential rewards.  Through pseudowork, the group will identify an acceptable decision that allows them to complete the work and terminate the group as quickly as possible.

A third option, but rarely possible, is to simply quit working.  Members quit attending and the task goes uncompleted.  This is rarely possible because there is a consequence to not finishing such as failing an assignment or course, or getting fired.

Common Group Issues

Based on what we’ve covered thus far, there are some common issues that groups face that tend to create the most problems:

  • A weak social dimension.  Groups mistakenly think they need to focus solely on the task, squelching any social conversation.  Allowing a healthy balance of social interaction and task focus is crucial.
  • Lack of common work-value.  Different members have different ideas of how important the work is.  We have undoubtedly encountered this in a classroom group in which some members wanted to focus on the work and do a good job, while other members had no interest in engaging in the process and found the task meaningless.  Accordingly, the tension mounts.
  • Different goals and assumptions.  Different members have different goals for being in the group.  Within a given group, those can range from “just get the work done,” to “be in the same group with that cute guy/girl,” to “engage in an interesting and exciting endeavor.”  Members may have very different assumptions as to the amount of work that will need to be done.  For example, in classroom groups there are students who want As, others who are happy with Cs, and others who just want to get through the situation, ideally with others doing the work.  Note that each of these individuals is entering the group with very different personal goals and assumptions.  This is a primary cause of group dysfunction.
  • Low belongingness and acceptance.  As we know, our drive for belongingness and acceptance is a core human need.  If we are in a group in which we do not feel valued and involved, typically we participate even less, perhaps to the point of leaving the group.  Groups should work actively to give all members opportunities to be involved in both the social and task dimensions.  Each member is responsible for being involved in the group, and the group needs to be responsive to those attempts to engage; it’s a two-way street.

Planning and Running a Meeting

While this section has focused mainly on how people function within a group setting, we will turn our focus to preparing for, and conducting a group meeting.  Initially you may find running a meeting a bit intimidating, especially if you have never done so before.  With a little preparation, however, getting ready for and conducting a meeting is a fairly straightforward process.

First, you need to prepare for the meeting.  Preparation can include such things as:

  • Finding a time and place to meet;
  • Developing and distributing an agenda;
  • Gathering and preparing any supporting materials or documentation;
  • Making plans for technology, if needed (such as PowerPoint, Skype)
  • Making sure minutes (notes) from earlier meetings are available and accurate
  • Announce what time the meeting will start and end.  Do not leave it open-ended.  You can always end early, but going long is rarely an option.

An agenda is simply a plan for the meeting.  In more formal organizations, the concepts of Parliamentary Procedure are employed, quite commonly using Robert’s Rules of Order, but for purposes of this course just consider it a logical plan for the meeting.


The minutes of a meeting are the official record of what happened.  For formal organizations such as businesses, corporations, non-profit organizations, or governmental entities, accurate minutes are extremely important. They are considered a legally binding record of the actions of that meeting, so that’s why there’s an “approve the minutes” step in most formal agendas. For small task groups, such formality is typically not needed.
For example, something simple like the following will work well for many small task groups:

  1. Review of what happened at the last meeting.
  2. Complete action on any items carried over from previous meetings.
  3. Address new items.
  4. Plan the next meeting.

Of course, the specific agenda you use will be up to the task, the group, and what is happening at the time. By distributing agendas ahead of time, you give members a chance to think and prepare themselves for the various items.

Second, when the meeting time arrives, it is typically the leader’s job to get things rolling.  Some things to consider:

  • Be a little early.  Make sure the room is available and things are ready to go.  Lateness should not become an acceptable group norm.
  • Allow for small talk.  Remember we are people first and workers second.  A few minutes of small talk, jokes, and stories can settle everyone down, reaffirm the cohesiveness of the group, and create a comfortable environment.
  • Once you feel the group has had enough time for small talk, gently move them into the task dimension with something like, “Shall we get started?”  It is far easier to gently lead group members than to push them aggressively.
  • Once you have started into the task,  group discussion will cycle back and forth between task and social dimension.  While you do not want the group to stay in the social dimension, some socializing may help reduce tension and give people time to gather their thoughts.
  • Think of yourself as more of an observer and facilitator than participant.  Place the focus more on process and procedure, and let the group members carry the bulk of conversation.
  • Listen and summarize.  When you can tell the conversation has peaked on a given topic,  summarize what has been discussed and gently move the group on to the next step.  You do not want to cut off discussion too early, nor do you want to let it dwindle.
  • Defer to the group.   Make sure you are getting the group to decide on issues and items, and  you are not just guiding them to what you want.  If they feel a sense of ownership of the action of the group, cohesiveness and commitment increases.
  • Plan the next meeting.  As long as you have your members there, set a time for the next meeting.  It is far easier to do it with those in the room than attempting to work it out via text or email.
  • End on time.  We have a sense of how long something is supposed to last, and if you try to run overtime, members will tune out.  Also, if you regularly run overtime, attendance will likely drop as members become frustrated.

Key Concepts

The terms and concepts students should be familiar with from this section include:

Challenges of working in groups

Characteristics of Effective task groups
Cooperative not competitive
Individual responsibility
Consensus decision making
Healthy social dimension
Ideal size
Deal with tension

Tension and Group Development
Primary Tension
The Shakedown Cruise
Secondary Tension

Common Group Issues

Planning and Running a meeting


Beene, K.D., and Sheats, P. (1948, Spring). Functional roles of group members. Journal of Social Issues 4 (p.41-47)
Bormann, E.G., and Bormann, N.C. (1980). Effective small group communication (3rd ed.).  Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing.