12.3 Speaking in Business Settings


  1. Employ audience analysis to adapt communication to supervisors, colleagues, employees, and clients.
  2. Explain the role of intercultural communication competence in intercultural business communication contexts.
  3. Identify strategies for handling question-and-answer periods.
  4. Identify strategies for effectively planning and delivering common businesspresentations, including briefings, reports, training, and meetings.

Most people’s goal for a college degree is to work in a desired career field. Many of you are probably working while taking this class and already have experience with speaking in business settings. As you advance in your career, and potentially change career paths as many Americans do now, the nature of your communication and the contexts in which you speak will change. Today’s workers must be able to adapt content, level of formality, and format to various audiences including the public, clients, and colleagues.Deanna P. Dannels, “Time to Speak Up: A Theoretical Framework of Situated Pedagogy and Practice for Communication across the Curriculum,” Communication Education 50, no. 2 (2001): 144.What counts as a good communicator for one audience and in one field may not in another. There is wide variety of research and resources related to business communication that cannot be included in this section. The International Association of Business Communicators is a good resource for people interested in a career in this area: http://www.iabc.com.

Adapt to Your Audience

Speaking in business settings requires adaptability as a communicator. Hopefully the skills that you are building to improve your communication competence by taking this class will enable you to be adaptable and successful. The following suggestions for adapting to your audience are based on general characteristics; therefore expect variations and exceptions. A competent communicator can use

categories and strategies like these as a starting point but must always monitor the communication taking place and adapt as needed. In many cases, you may have a diverse audience with supervisors, colleagues, and employees, in which case you would need to employ multiple strategies for effective business communication.

Even though much of the day-to-day communication within organizations is written in the form of memos, e-mails, and reports, oral communication has an important place. The increase in documentation is related to an epidemic of poor listening. Many people can’t or don’t try to retain information they receive aurally, while written communication provides a record and proof that all the required and detailed information was conveyed. An increase in written communication adds time and costs that oral communication doesn’t. Writing and reading are slower forms of communication than speaking, and face-to-face speaking uses more human senses, allows for feedback and clarification, and helps establish relationships.Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens, “Listening to People,” inHarvard Business Review on Effective Communication (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 14–15.

It’s important to remember that many people do not practice good listening skills and that being understood contributes to effectiveness and success. You obviously can’t make someone listen better or require him or her to listen actively, but you can strive to make your communication more listenable and digestible for various audiences.

Speaking to Executives/Supervisors

Upward communication includes speeches, proposals, or briefings that are directed at audience members who hold higher positions in the organizational hierarchy than the sender. Upward communication is usually the most lacking

within an organization, so it is important to take advantage of the opportunity and use it to your advantage.Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens, “Listening to People,” in Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 15. These messages usually function to inform supervisors about the status or results of projects and provide suggestions for improvement, which can help people feel included in the organizational process and lead to an increased understanding and acceptance of management decisions.Robert B. Adler and Jeanne Marquardt
Elmhorst, Communicating at Work: Principles and Practices for Businesses and the Professions, 8th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 15. So how do we adapt messages for upward communication?

The “executive summary” emerged from the fact that executives have tightly scheduled days and prefer concise, relevant information. Executive summaries are usually produced in written form but must also be conveyed orally. You should build some repetition and redundancy into an oral presentation of an executive summary, but you do not need such repetition in the written version. This allows you to emphasize a main idea while leaving some of the supporting facts out of an oral presentation. If an executive or supervisor leaves a presentation with a clear understanding of the main idea, the supporting material and facts will be meaningful when they are reviewed later. However, leaving a presentation with facts but not the main idea may result in the need for another presentation or briefing, which costs an organization time and money. Even when such a misunderstanding is due to the executives’ poor listening skills, it will likely be you who is blamed.

Employees want to be seen as competent, and demonstrating oral communication skills is a good way to be noticed and show off your technical and professional abilities.Fernando Bartolome, “Nobody Trusts the Boss Completely—Now What?” in Harvard Business Review on Effective

Communication (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999),
92. Presentations are “high-visibility tasks” that establish a person’s credibility when performed well.Rick Weinholdt, “Taking the Trauma Out of the Talk,” The Information Management Journal 40, no. 6 (2006): 62. Don’t take advantage of this visibility to the point that you perform only for the boss or focus on him or her at the expense of other people in the audience. Do, however, tailor your message to the “language of executives.” Executives and supervisors often have a more macro perspective of an organization and may be concerned with how day- to-day tasks match with the mission and vision of the organization. So making this connection explicit in your presentation can help make your presentation stand out.

Be aware of the organizational hierarchy and territory when speaking to executives and supervisors. Steering into terrain that is under someone else’s purview can get you in trouble if that person guards his or her territory.Michael B. McCaskey, “The Hidden Messages Managers Send,” in Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 128. For example, making a suggestion about marketing during a presentation about human resources can ruffle the marketing manager’s feathers and lead to negative consequences for you. Also be aware that it can be challenging to deliver bad news to a boss. When delivering bad news, frame it in a way that highlights your concern for the health of the organization. An employee’s reluctance to discuss problems with a boss leads to more risk for an organization.Fernando Bartolome, “Nobody Trusts the Boss Completely—Now What?” in Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 81. The sooner a problem is known, the better for the organization.

Speaking to Colleagues

Much of our day-to-day communication in business settings is horizontal communication with our colleagues or people who are on the same approximate level in the organizational hierarchy. This communication may occur between colleagues working in the same area or between colleagues with different areas of expertise. Such horizontal communication usually functions to help people coordinate tasks, solve problems, and share information. When effective, this can lead to more cooperation among employees and a greater understanding of the “big picture” or larger function of an organization. When it is not effective, this can lead to territoriality, rivalry, and miscommunication when speaking across knowledge and task areas that require specialization.Robert B. Adler and Jeanne Marquardt Elmhorst,Communicating at Work: Principles and Practices for Businesses and the Professions, 8th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 15.

Many colleagues work collaboratively to share ideas and accomplish tasks together. In a sharing environment, it can be easy to forget where an idea started. This becomes an issue when it comes time for credit or recognition to be given. Make sure to give credit to people who worked with you on a project or an idea. If you can’t remember where an idea came from, it may be better to note that it was a “group effort” than to assume it was yours and risk alienating a colleague.

Speaking to Supervisees/Employees

Downward communication includes messages directed at audience members who hold a lower place on the organizational hierarchy than the sender. As a supervisor, you will also have to speak to people whom you manage or employ. Downward communication usually involves job instructions, explanations of organizational policies, providing feedback, and welcoming newcomers to an organization.

This type of communication can have positive results in terms of preventing or correcting employee errors and increasing job satisfaction and morale. If the communication is not effective, it can lead to unclear messages that lead to misunderstandings and mistakes.Robert B. Adler and Jeanne Marquardt Elmhorst, Communicating at Work: Principles and Practices for Businesses and the Professions, 8th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 15.

During this type of “top-down” communication, employees may not ask valuable questions. So it is important to create an open atmosphere that encourages questions. Even though including an open discussion after a presentation takes more time, it helps prevent avoidable mistakes and wasted time and money. Let your audience know before a presentation that you will take questions, and then officially open the floor to questions when you are ready. Question-and-answer sessions are a good way to keep information flowing in an organization, and there is more information about handling these sessions in the “Getting Competent” box in this chapter.

A good supervisor should keep his or her employees informed, provide constructive feedback, explain the decisions and policies of the organization, be honest about challenges and problems, and facilitate the flow of information.Fernando Bartolome, “Nobody Trusts the Boss Completely—Now What?” inHarvard Business Review on Effective Communication (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 86. Information should flow to and away from supervisors. Supervisors help set the tone for the communication climate of an organization and can serve as models of expectations of oral communication. Being prepared, consistent, open, and engaging helps sustain communication, which helps sustain morale. Supervisors also send messages, intentional or unintentional, based on where they deliver their presentations. For example, making people come to the executive conference room may be convenient for the boss but intimidating for other workers.T. J. Larkin and Sandar Larkin,

“Reaching and Changing Frontline Employees,” in Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 152.

Speaking to Clients / Customers / Funding Sources

Communication to outside stakeholders includes messages sent from service providers to people who are not employed by the organization but conduct business with or support it. These stakeholders include clients, customers, and funding sources. Communication to stakeholders may be informative or persuasive. When first starting a relationship with one of these stakeholders, the communication is likely to be persuasive in nature, trying to convince either a client to take services, a customer to buy a product, or a funding source to provide financing. Once a relationship is established, communication may take the form of more informative progress reports and again turn persuasive when it comes time to renegotiate or renew a contract or agreement.

As with other types of workplace communication, information flow is important. Many people see a lack of information flow as a sign of trouble, so make sure to be consistent in your level of communication through progress reports or status briefings even if there isn’t a major development to report. Strategic ambiguity may be useful in some situations, but too much ambiguity also leads to suspicions that can damage a provider-client relationship. Make sure your nonverbal communication doesn’t contradict your verbal communication.

When preparing for a presentation to clients, customers, or funding sources, start to establish a relationship before actually presenting. This will help you understand what they want and need and will allow you to tailor your presentation to their needs. These interactions also help establish rapport, which can increase your credibility. Many people making a proposal mistakenly focus

on themselves or their product or service. Focus instead on the needs of the client. Listen closely to what they say and then explain their needs as you see them and how your product or service will satisfy those needs.Robert B. Adler and Jeanne Marquardt Elmhorst, Communicating at Work: Principles and Practices for Businesses and the Professions, 8th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 446. Focus on the positive consequences or benefits that will result from initiating a business relationship with you. If you’ll recall from Chapter 11 “Informative and Persuasive Speaking”, this is similar to Monroe’s Motivated Sequence organization pattern, which gets the audience’s attention, establishes the existence of a need or problem, presents a solution to fill the need, asks the audience to visualize positive results of adopting the solution, and then calls the audience to action.

Use sophisticated and professional visual aids to help sell your idea, service, or product. You can use strategies from our earlier discussion of visual aids, but add a sales twist. Develop a “money slide” that gets the audience’s attention with compelling and hopefully selling content that makes audience members want to reach for their pen to sign a check or a contract.Scott Morgan and Barrett Whitener,Speaking about Science: A Manual for Creating Clear
Presentations (New York, NY: Cambridge, 2006), 18.

Proposals and pitches may be cut short, so imagine what you would do if you arrived to present and were told that you had to cut it down to one minute. If you were prepared, you could pull out your money slide. The money slide could be the most important finding, a startling or compelling statistic, an instructive figure or chart, or some other combination of text and graphic that connects to the listener. Avoid the temptation to make a complicated money slide. The point isn’t to fit as much as you can onto one slide but to best communicate the most important idea or piece of information you have. A verbal version of the money slide is the elevator speech. This is your sales pitch that captures the highlights of

what you have to offer that can be delivered in a short time frame. I recommend developing a thirty-second, one-minute, and two-minute version of your elevator speech and having it on standby at all times.

Speaking in Intercultural Contexts

It’s no surprise that business communication is occurring in more intercultural contexts. Many companies and consulting firms offer cross-cultural training for businesspeople, and college programs in cross-cultural training and international business also help prepare people to conduct business in intercultural contexts. For specific information about conducting business in more than thirty-two countries, you can visit the following link: http://www.cyborlink.com.

While these trainings and resources are beneficial, many people expect intercultural business communication training to be reduced to a series of checklists or rules for various intercultural interactions that may be conveyed in a two-hour, predeparture “everything you need to know about Japanese business culture” training. This type of culture-specific approach to cross-cultural training does not really stand up to the complex situations in which international business communicators find themselves.David Victor, “Cross-Cultural Communication” in Bridging Both Worlds: The Communication Consultant in Corporate America, ed. Rebecca L. Ray (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1993), 113. Scholars trained more recently in culture and communication prefer a culture-general approach that focuses on “tools” rather than “rules.” Remember that intercultural competence is relative to the native and host cultures of the people involved in an intercultural encounter, and therefore notions of what is interculturally competent change quickly.Jan Ulijn, Dan O’Hair, Matthieu Weggeman, Gerald Ledlow, and H. Thomas Hall, “Innovation, Corporate Strategy, and Cultural Context: What Is the Mission for International Business Communication?” Journal of Business Communication 37 (2000): 301. To

review some of our earlier discussion, elements of intercultural competence involve the ability to identify potential misunderstandings before they occur, be a high self-monitor, and be aware of how self and others make judgments of value.Jan Ulijn, Dan O’Hair, Matthieu Weggeman, Gerald Ledlow, and H. Thomas Hall, “Innovation, Corporate Strategy, and Cultural Context: What Is the Mission for International Business Communication?” Journal of Business Communication 37 (2000): 302.

I will overview some intercultural business communication tips that are more like rules, but remember there are always exceptions, so other competent communication skills should be on standby to help you adapt when the rules approach stops working.Emily A. Thrush, “Bridging the Gaps: Technical Communication in an International and Multicultural Society,” Technical Communication Quarterly 2, no. 3 (1993): 275–79.

In terms of verbal communication, make sure to use good pronunciation and articulation. Even if you speak a different language than your audience, clearer communication on your part will help the message get through better. Avoid idiomatic expressions and acronyms, since the meaning of those types of verbal communication are usually only known to cultural insiders. Try to use geographically and culturally relevant examples—for example, referencing the World Cup instead of the World Series. Be aware of differences in communication between high- and low-context cultures. Note that people from low-context cultures may feel frustrated by the ambiguity of speakers from high-context cultures, while speakers from high-context cultures may feel overwhelmed or even insulted by the level of detail used by low-context communicators. The long history of family businesses doing business with family businesses in France means that communication at meetings and in business letters operates at a high context. Dates and prices may not be mentioned at all, which could be very frustrating for an American businessperson used to highly detailed negotiations.

The high level of detail used by US Americans may be seen as simplistic or childish to audience members from high-context cultures. Include some materials in the native language or include a glossary of terms if you’re using specific or new vocabulary. Don’t assume that the audience needs it, but have it just in case.

Also be aware that different cultures interpret graphics differently. Two well- known cases of differing interpretations of graphics involve computer icons. First, the “trash” icon first used on Mac desktops doesn’t match what wastebaskets look like in many other countries. Second, the US-style “mailbox” used as an icon for many e-mail programs doesn’t match with the mail experiences of people in most other countries and has since been replaced by the much more universally recognizable envelope icon. Nonelectronic symbols also have different cultural meanings. People in the United States often note that they are pursuing the “blue ribbon” prize or standard in their business, which is the color ribbon used to designate second place in the United Kingdom.

“Getting Competent”

Handling Question-and-Answer Periods

Question-and-answer (Q&A) periods allow for important interaction between a speaker and his or her audience. Speakers should always be accountable for the content of their speech, whether informative or persuasive, and making yourself available for questions is a good way to demonstrate such accountability. Question-and-answer sessions can take many forms in many contexts. You may entertain questions after a classroom or conference presentation. Colleagues often have questions after a briefing or training. Your supervisor or customers may have questions after a demonstration. Some question-and-answer periods, like ones after sales pitches or after presentations to a supervisor, may be

evaluative, meaning you are being judged in terms of your content and presentation. Others may be more information based, meaning that people ask follow-up questions or seek clarification or more detail. In any case, there are some guidelines that may help you more effectively handle question-and-answer periods.Toastmasters International, “Proposals and Pitches” accessed March 17, 2012,http://www.toastmasters.org/MainMenuCategories/FreeResources/NeedH elpGivingaSpeech/BusinessPresentations/ProposalsandPitches.aspx; Scott Morgan and Barrett Whitener, Speaking about Science: A Manual for Creating Clear Presentations (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 76–80.

Setting the stage for Q&A. If you know you will have a Q&A period after your presentation, alert your audience ahead of time. This will prompt them to take note of questions as they arise, so they don’t forget them by the end of the talk. Try to anticipate questions that the audience may have and try to proactively answer them in the presentation if possible; otherwise, be prepared to answer them at the end. At the end of your presentation, verbally and nonverbally indicate that the Q&A session is open. You can verbally invite questions and nonverbally shift your posture or position to indicate the change in format.

Reacting to questions. In evaluative or informative Q&A periods, speakers may feel defensive of their idea, position, or presentation style. Don’t let this show to the audience. Remember, accountability is a good thing as a speaker, and audience members usually ask pertinent and valid questions, even if you think they aren’t initially. Repeating a question after it is asked serves several functions. It ensures that people not around the person asking the question get to hear it. It allows speakers to start to formulate a response as they repeat the question. It also allows speakers to ensure they understood the question correctly by saying something like “What I hear you asking is…” Once you’ve repeated the question, respond to the person who posed the question, but also address the whole audience. It is awkward when a speaker just talks to one person. Be

cautious not to overuse the statement “That’s a good question.” Saying that more than once or twice lessens its sincerity.

Keeping the Q&A on track. To help keep the Q&A period on track, tie a question to one of the main ideas from your presentation and make that connection explicit in your response. Having a clearly stated and repeated main idea for your presentation will help set useful parameters for which questions fall within the scope of the presentation and which do not. If someone poses a question that is irrelevant or off track, you can politely ask them to relate it to a main idea from the talk. If they can’t, you can offer to talk to them individually about their question after the session. Don’t engage with an irrelevant question, even if you know the answer. Answering one “off-track” question invites more, which veers the Q&A session further from the main idea.

Responding to multipart questions. People often ask more than one question at a time. As a speaker and audience member this can be frustrating. Countless times, I have seen a speaker only address the second question and then never get back to the first. By that point, the person who asked the question and the audience have also usually forgotten about the first part of the question. As a speaker, it is perfectly OK to take notes during a Q&A session. I personally take notes to help me address multipart questions. You can also verbally reiterate the question to make sure you know which parts need to be addressed, and then address the parts in order.

Managing “Uh-oh!” moments. If a person corrects something you said in error during your presentation, thank them for the correction. After the presentation, verify whether or not it was indeed a mistake, and if it was, make sure to correct your information so you don’t repeat the mistake in future talks. Admit when you don’t know the answer to a question. It’s better to admit that you do not know the answer than to try to fake your way through it. An audience

member may also “correct” you with what you know is incorrect information. In such cases, do not get into a back-and-forth argument with the person; instead, note that the information you have is different and say you will look into it.

Concluding the Q&A session. Finally, take control of your presentation again toward the end of the Q&A session. Stop taking questions in time to provide a brief wrap-up of the questions, reiterate the main idea, thank the audience for their questions, and conclude the presentation. This helps provide a sense of closure and completeness for the presentation.

  1. Which of these tips could you have applied to previous question-and- answer sessions that you have participated in to make them more effective?
  2. Imagine you are giving a presentation on diversity in organizations and someone asks a question about affirmative action, which was not a part of your presentation. What could you say to the person?
  3. In what situations in academic, professional, or personal contexts of your life might you be engaged in an evaluative Q&A session? An information- based Q&A session?

Common Business Presentations

Now you know how to consider your audience in terms of upward, downward, or horizontal communication. You also know some of the communication preferences of common career fields. Now we will turn our attention to some of the most frequent types of business presentations: briefings, reports, training, and meetings.


Briefings are short presentations that either update listeners about recent events or provide instructions for how to do something job related.Robert B. Adler and Jeanne Marquardt Elmhorst,Communicating at Work: Principles and Practices for Businesses and the Professions, 8th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 427. Briefings may occur as upward, downward, or horizontal communication. An industrial designer briefing project managers on the preliminary results of testing on a new product design is an example of upward briefing. A nurse who is the shift manager briefing an incoming shift of nurses on the events of the previous shift is an example of downward briefing. A representative from human resources briefing colleagues on how to use the new workplace identification badges is an example of horizontal briefing. Briefings that provide instructions like how to use a new identification badge are called technical briefings, and they are the most common type of workplace presentation.Toastmasters International, “Technical Briefings” accessed March 17, 2012,http://www.toastmasters.org/MainMenuCategories/FreeResources/NeedH elpGivingaSpeech/BusinessPresentations/TechnicalBriefings.aspx. For technical briefings, consider whether your audience is composed of insiders, outsiders, or a mixture of people different levels of familiarity with the function, operation, and/or specifications of the focus of the briefing. As we have already discussed, technical speaking requires an ability to translate unfamiliar or complex information into content that is understandable and manageable for others.

As the name suggests, briefings are brief—usually two or three minutes. Since they are content focused, they do not require formal speech organization, complete with introduction and conclusion. Briefings are often delivered as a series of bullet points, organized topically or chronologically. The content of a briefing is usually a summary of information or a series of distilled facts, so there are rarely elements of persuasion in a briefing or much supporting information. A speaker may use simple visual aids, like an object or even a one-page handout,

but more complex visual aids are usually not appropriate. In terms of delivery, briefings should be organized. Since they are usually delivered under time constraints and contain important information, brief notes and extemporaneous delivery are effective.Robert B. Adler and Jeanne Marquardt

Elmhorst, Communicating at Work: Principles and Practices for Businesses and the Professions, 8th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 428.


There are numerous types of reports. The line between a briefing and short oral report is fuzzy, but in general a report is a more substantial presentation on the progress or status of a task. Reports can focus on the past, present, or future. Reports on past events may result from some type of investigation. For example, a company may be interested in finding the cause of a 15 percent decline in revenue for a branch office. Investigative reports are also focused on past events and may include a follow-up on a customer or employee complaint.

Reports on the present are often status or progress reports. Various departments or teams that make up an organization, or committees that make up a governing board, are likely to give status reports.Status reports may focus on a specific project or task or simply report on the regular functioning of a group.

Components of a Status ReportRobert B. Adler and Jeanne Marquardt Elmhorst, Communicating at Work: Principles and Practices for Businesses and the Professions, 8th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 430.

  1. State the group or committee’s task or purpose.
  2. Describe the current status, including work done by the group and/orindividuals and the methods used.
  3. Report on obstacles encountered and efforts to overcome them

4. Describe the next goal or milestone of the group and offer concrete action steps and a timeline for achieving the goal.

Final reports are presented at the conclusion of a task and are similar to a progress report but include a discussion and analysis of the results of an effort. While some progress reports may only be delivered verbally, with no written component, a final report almost always has an associated written document. The written final report usually contains much more detail than is included in the oral final report, and this detail is referenced for audience members to consult if they desire more information.Robert B. Adler and Jeanne Marquardt
Elmhorst, Communicating at Work: Principles and Practices for Businesses and the Professions, 8th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 430–31.

A common future-focused report is the feasibility report, which explores potential actions or steps and then makes recommendations for future action based on methodical evaluation. The purpose of these reports is basically to determine if an action or step is a good idea for an organization. Facebook made a much- discussed move to go public in 2012, a decision that was no doubt made after analyzing many feasibility reports.

Components of a Feasibility ReportRobert B. Adler and Jeanne Marquardt Elmhorst,Communicating at Work: Principles and Practices for Businesses and the Professions, 8th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 433–34.

  1. Introduction to a problem or situation and its potential consequences
  2. Overview of the standards used for evaluating potential courses of action
  3. Overview of process used to identify and evaluate courses of action
  4. Details of potential courses of action
  5. Evaluation of the potential courses of action
  6. Recommendation of best course of action


People in supervisory or leadership positions often provide training, which includes presentations that prepare new employees for their jobs or provide instruction or development opportunities for existing employees. While some training is conducted by inside and outside consultants, the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics notes that about 75 percent of training is delivered informally while on the job.Robert B. Adler and Jeanne Marquardt Elmhorst, Communicating at Work: Principles and Practices for Businesses and the Professions, 8th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 434. As the training and development field expands, this informal training is likely to be replaced by more formalized training delivered by training professionals, many of whom will be employees of the company who have been certified to train specific areas. Organizations are investing more time and money in training because they recognize the value in having well-trained employees and then regularly adding to that training with continued development opportunities. Common focuses of training include the following:

  • Compliance with company policies. Includes training and orienting new hires and ongoing training for existing employees related to new or changing company policies.
  • Changing workplace environments. Diversity training and cross- cultural training for international business.
  • Compliance with legal policies. Sexual harassment, equal employment, Americans with Disabilities Act, and ethics training.
  • Technical training. Instructions for software, hardware, and machinery.Companies are also investing money in training for recent college graduates who have degrees but lack the technical training needed to do a specific job. This

upfront investment pays off in many situations, as this type of standardized training in field-specific communication skills and technology can lead to increased productivity.

Trainers require specific skills and an ability to adapt to adult learners.Rebecca L. Ray, “Introduction: The Academic as Corporate Consultant,” in Bridging Both Worlds: The Communication Consultant in Corporate America, ed. Rebecca L. Ray (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1993), 6–8. Important training skills include technical skills specific to a discipline, interpersonal skills, organizational skills, and critical thinking skills. Trainers must also be able to adapt to adult learners, who may have more experience than the trainer. Training formats usually include a mixture of information presentation formats such as minilecture and discussion as well as experiential opportunities for trainees to demonstrate competence such as role-play, simulation, and case-study analysis and application. Trainers should remember that adult learners learn best by doing, have previous experience that trainers can and should draw on, have different motivations for learning than typical students, and have more competing thoughts and distractions. Adult learners often want information distilled down to the “bottom line”; demonstrating how content is relevant to a specific part of their work duties or personal success is important.

Steps in Developing a Training CurriculumSteven A. Beebe, Timothy A. Mottet, and K. David Roach, Training and Development: Enhancing Communication and Leadership Skills (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2004).

  1. Do background research based on literature on and observations of the training context you will be in.
  2. Conduct a needs assessment to see what sort of training is desired/needed.
  1. Develop training objectives based on research, observations, and needs assessment. Objectives should be observable, measurable, attainable, and specific.
  2. Develop content that connects to the needs assessment.
  3. Determine the time frame for training; make the training as efficient aspossible.
  4. Determine methods for delivering content that connect with objectivesdeveloped earlier.
  5. Select and/or create training materials.
  6. Create a participant’s guide that contains each activity and module of thetraining.
  7. Include the following for each training activity: objectives, trainingcontent, time frame, method, and materials needed.
  8. Test the training plan on a focus group or with experts in the field toevaluate and revise if necessary.


Over eleven million meetings are held each day in the United States, so it is likely that you will attend and lead meetings during your career. Why do we have meetings? The fundamental reason is to get a group of people with different experiences and viewpoints together to share their knowledge and/or solve a problem. Despite their frequency and our familiarity with them, meetings are often criticized for being worthless, a waste of time, and unnecessary. Before you call a meeting, ask yourself if it is necessary, since some issues are better resolved through a phone call, an e-mail, or a series of one-on-one meetings. Ask the following questions to help make sure the meeting is necessary: What is the goal of the meeting? What would be the consequences of not having it? How will I judge whether the meeting was successful or not?Antony Jay, “How to Run a

Meeting,” in Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 34.

Meetings are important at the early stages of completing a task, as they help define a work team since the members share a space and interact with each other. Subsequent meetings should be called when people need to pool knowledge, refine ideas, consider new information, or deliberate over a decision. Most meetings are committee size, which ranges from three to ten people. The frequency of the meeting will help determine how the meeting should be run. Groups that meet daily will develop a higher level of cohesion and be able to work through an agenda quickly with little review. Most groups meet less frequently, so there typically needs to be a structured meeting agenda that includes informational items, old business, and new business.

In determining the meeting agenda, define the objectives for various items. Some items will be informative, meaning they transmit information and don’t require a decision or an action. Other items will be constructive, in that they require something new to be devised or decided, such as determining a new policy or procedure. Once a new policy or procedure has been determined, a group must decide on the executive components of their decision, such as how it will be implemented and who will have responsibilities in the process. As the items progress from informational, to constructive, to executive, the amount of time required for each item increases, which will have an effect on the planning of the agenda.Antony Jay, “How to Run a Meeting,” in Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication(Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 34–37.

After completing the agenda, continue to plan for the meeting by providing attendees with the agenda and any important supporting or supplementary materials such as meeting minutes or reports ahead of time. Consult with people

who will attend a meeting beforehand to see if they have any questions about the meeting and to remind them to review the materials. You can also give people a “heads up” about any items for discussion that may be lengthy or controversial. Make sure the meeting room can accommodate the number of attendees and arrange the seating to a suitable structure, typically one where everyone can see each other. A meeting leader may also want to divide items up as “for information,” “for discussion,” or “for decision.” Start the meeting by sharing the objective(s) that you determined in your planning. This will help hold you and the other attendees accountable and give you something to assess to determine the value of the meeting.

People’s attention spans wane after the first twenty minutes of a meeting, so it may be useful to put items that warrant the most attention early on the agenda. It is also a good idea to put items that the group can agree on and will unify around before more controversial items on which the group may be divided. Anything presented at the meeting that wasn’t circulated ahead of time should be brief, so people aren’t spending the meeting reading through documents. To help expedite the agenda, put the length of time you think will be needed for each item or category of items on the agenda. It is important to know when to move from one item to the next. Sometimes people continue to talk even after agreement has been reached, which is usually a waste of time. You want to manage the communication within the meeting but still encourage people to speak up and share ideas. Some people take a more hands-on approach to managing the conversation than others. As the president of the graduate student body, I attended a few board of trustees meetings at my university. The chairperson of the committee had a small bell that she would ring when people got off track, engaged in personal conversations, or were being disruptive to the order of the group.

At the end of the meeting make sure to recap what was accomplished. Return to the objective you shared at the beginning and assess whether or not you accomplished it. If people feel like they get somewhere during a meeting, they will think more positively about the next one. Compile the meeting minutes in a timely fashion, within a few days and no more than a week after the meeting.Antony Jay, “How to Run a Meeting,” in Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 25–57.

Tips for Running Effective Meetings

  1. Distribute an agenda to attendees two to three days in advance of the meeting.
  2. Divide items up on the agenda into “for information,” “for discussion,” and “for decision.”
  3. Put items that warrant close attention early on the agenda.
  4. Since senior attendees’ comments may influence or limit junior people’scomments, ask for comments from junior attendees first.
  5. People sometimes continue talking even after agreement has beenreached, so it’s important to know when to move on to the next item in the


  6. At the end of a meeting, recap what was accomplished and set goals for the

next meeting.
7. Compile meeting minutes within forty-eight hours and distribute them to

the attendees.


• What counts as being a good communicator in one business context doesn’t in another, so being able to adapt to various business settings and audiences will help you be more successful in your career.

  • Upward business communication involves communicating messages up the organizational hierarchy. This type of communication is usually the most lacking in organizations. However, since oral presentations are a “high-visibility” activity, taking advantage of these opportunities can help you get noticed by bosses and, if done well, can move you up the organizational ladder. Present information succinctly in an executive summary format, building in repetition of main ideas in the oral delivery that aren’t necessary for the written version. Don’t just focus on the boss if there are other people present, but do connect to the vision and mission of the organization, since most managers and executives have a “big picture” view of the organization.
  • Horizontal communication is communication among colleagues on the same level within an organizational hierarchy. This type of communication helps coordinate tasks and lets people from various parts of an organization get a better idea of how the whole organization functions. Many workplaces are becoming more collaborative and team oriented, but make sure you share credit for ideas and work accomplished collaboratively so as not to offend a colleague.
  • Downward communication includes messages traveling down the organizational hierarchy. These messages usually focus on giving instructions, explaining company policies, or providing feedback. As a supervisor, make sure to encourage employees to ask questions following a presentation. Good information flow helps prevent employee errors and misunderstandings, which saves money.
  • Initial communication with clients, customers, or funding sources is usually persuasive in nature, as you will be trying to secure their business. Later communication may be more informative status reports. Connect your message to their needs rather than focusing on what you offer. Use persuasive strategies like positive motivation, and always have a “money slide” prepared that gets across the essence of what you offer in one attractive message.

• When adapting business communication to intercultural contexts, take a “tools not rules” approach that focuses on broad and adaptable intercultural communication competence.

• There are various types of business presentations for which a speaker should be prepared:

o Briefings are short, two- to three-minute “how-to” or “update” presentations that are similar to factual bullet points.

o Reports can be past, present, or future focused and include status, final, and feasibility reports.

o Trainings are informal or formal presentations that help get new employees ready for their jobs and keep existing employees informed about changing policies, workplace climates, and legal issues.

• To have an effective meeting, first make sure it is necessary to have, then set a solid foundation by distributing an agenda in advance, manage the flow of communication during the meeting, and take note of accomplishments to promote a positive view of future meetings.


  1. Identify a recent instance when you engaged in upward, horizontal, downward, or intercultural communication in a business setting. Analyze that communication encounter based on the information in the corresponding section of this chapter. What was done well and what could have been improved?
  2. Prepare a briefing presentation on how to prepare a briefing. Make sure to follow the suggestions in the chapter.
  3. Think of a time when you received training in a business or academic setting. Was the communication of the trainer effective? Why or why not?

12.4 Speaking via Electronic Media


Although radio and television messages may be broadcast to thousands or millions of people, it is important for speakers to realize they are speaking to individuals, not a crowd. Radio and television both seek to make personal connections with listeners or viewers, but it can be difficult to concentrate on making that connection if you aren’t prepared for the microphones, lights, and monitors that may surround you. This section will help you be prepared to speak on the radio, speak on the television, conduct a media interview, and speak on behalf of someone else in a regular or crisis situation.

Speaking on Radio and Television

My current university has rather well-established radio and television broadcasting programs for our students. We have a television station and a radio station that undergraduate students interested in careers in broadcasting get to actually work in to gain experience and hone their skills. At the start of each semester there are some definite rough spots—for example, as I watch a broadcast meteorology major make his or her first appearance in front of the green screen weather map or listen to a radio broadcasting student deliver the hourly news update on the radio. But it is wonderful to be able to watch these young broadcasters improve over the course of the semester, some of them growing to rival the seasoned reporters on our regional network stations.


  1. Identify strategies for speaking on radio and television.
  2. Describe the communication skills necessary to be a spokesperson.
  3. Explain the role of crisis communication professionals.

Although many people think of radio as an old-fashioned form of media, it is still important in many aspects of life and continues to adapt to changing markets, expanding to include Internet and satellite formats. People may think radio is as easy as sitting in a chair and talking into a microphone, but it takes practice and verbal and nonverbal skills to effectively communicate on the radio.Stuart W. Hyde,Television and Radio Announcing, 4th ed. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 19–21. Aside from reading over words without stumbling and ad-libbing content as needed, speaking on the radio requires communicators to interpret and emphasize using their voice. Even though radio is sound only, nonverbal communication is still important. The audience can’t see your gestures and facial expressions, but using them makes the verbal delivery more engaging and effective.

Some people, including me, have “mic fright,” which is increased nervousness due to the presence of a microphone.Stuart W. Hyde,Television and Radio Announcing, 4th ed. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 52–57. I actually didn’t realize that I had mic fright until the first time I was interviewed on the radio. Even after many years of public speaking experience and skill and confidence development, sitting in a radio booth with headphones on and a big microphone in front of me brought on communication anxiety like I hadn’t experienced in years. Luckily my segment was recorded to tape, so by the time it aired it had been edited and I didn’t sound as nervous and incoherent as I felt in that moment. To help avoid nervousness, practice with a microphone just so you’re used to seeing it. Some people’s nervousness stems from a dislike of hearing their own voice. Many people don’t like the way they sound when recorded, but that’s the way we actually sound and the way others hear us, so it’s important to get used to hearing our own voice. When we normally hear our voice, we hear what comes out of our mouth and is conducted through the air but also the internal resonance and vibration that happens as our voice is conducted

through the bones and structures of our head and neck. Other people only hear the way our voice sounds as conducted through air without the added effect of the bone resonance. So, when we hear ourselves recorded, we hear our voice as others hear it, because the recording only captures the air and not the bone vibrations. We may not like it, but everyone else is already used to hearing it that way, because they’ve never heard our voice the way we hear it.

Here are some final tips for radio communication. Be aware of microphones, and follow instructions for how close or distant your mouth should be from a microphone and what kind of volume you need to use. Avoid rattling papers, popping consonant sounds like p, or breathing directly into a microphone. Watch your verbal fillers, even more noticeable on the radio than they are in person or on the television. Many professional radio and television announcers practice a version of American English that doesn’t give away any regional affiliation. Unless you are doing this for a career, you do not need to try to change an accent or dialect, as that will probably make you sound strange. Just speak in a natural voice, but make sure to articulate and enunciate your words so you can be understood.


You don’t have to be famous to be on television. People are often surprised to find themselves in a situation where they will be on camera. Although many people in the digital generation are used to being recorded via webcam or even on a smartphone, being in front of a television camera creates a completely different atmosphere.

Since television is a visual medium, appearance is important. In terms of clothing, avoid too much contrast between colors, like black on white. Also avoid clothing that is too striped or patterned, as it may bleed onscreen.Bruce

Lewis, The Technique of Television Announcing (New York, NY: Hastings House, 1966), 53. Keep in mind that jewelry, watches, or anything reflective may catch the studio lights and create a distracting glare on camera. Also avoid wearing colors that are close to your skin tone.Stuart W. Hyde, Television and Radio Announcing, 4th ed. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 66–68. You may be offered makeup; if you are, take it.

Once you are on set, you’ll need to orient yourself to the surroundings. Hopefully there will be a producer or other staff person there to explain things to you. You will want to be aware of video and audio monitors. Video monitors are televisions that allow the on-air person to monitor their movements and see what viewers are seeing. One usually shows the video feed exactly as it will appear on viewer’s screens and one may be a fixed monitor that basically functions as a mirror so you can see that you are framed properly and look all right. Avoid the common temptation to stare at or constantly check the monitors.

In terms of audio, there may be a lavaliere microphone that will be attached to you beforehand. In some situations you may also get an audio monitor that allows you to hear yourself, studio producers, or another person communicating with you off site. If off-camera producers need to communicate with you, the monitor may be an earpiece, which is standard for news anchors. If you are doing a remote live segment, the sound monitor will likely be a simple speaker. You may be asked to do microphone, sound, and video checks. Just follow the instructions, but make sure to speak up if something doesn’t seem to be working right. You want to make sure you can hear and see what you need to.

It’s OK to practice what you’re going to say aloud a few times before you actually present. People in television studios are used to on-air announcers and reporters walking around talking to themselves. As with radio, think about the audience you’re reaching as individuals rather than a mass of people. Develop a mental

picture of a definite person watching, which will help you create the illusion of a personal connection to the viewer.Bruce Lewis, The Technique of Television Announcing (New York, NY: Hastings House, 1966), 74–89. I’m sure we’ve all been drawn into that illusion many times, even though we know better. As a fan of Brian Williams and the NBC Nightly News, I catch myself saying goodnight to Brian after he says goodnight to me (and a few million other people) at the end of his broadcast.

Once the recording begins, become your own director by monitoring your communication.Bruce Lewis, The Technique of Television Announcing(New York, NY: Hastings House, 1966), 81–90. Do not monitor yourself so much that you get stuck in your head, worrying about the camera, the monitor, and where to look to the point that you forget to use even normal facial expressions and vocal variety. Remember that your face conveys your thoughts and emotions, sometimes without you knowing it. Don’t try to impersonate other people’s facial expressions and tone of voice, because it will probably come off as an imitation, rather than as genuine. Hand motions should be a little slower on television than in real life, but don’t overthink them either. Remember to keep your head up as much as possible, so only divert your eyes down to review notes; don’t let your whole head turn down. Avoid extra movements and stay on your mark if you are given one. A mark may be made using tape on the floor and indicates where you should stand. If a camera is zoomed in, even a small movement can take you out of the frame or out of focus. Movements can also take you out of set lighting or a sound area.

When speaking to someone else on camera, you will need to “cheat out” a little, which may seem awkward in person but will look fine on camera. When we talk to someone, we usually face him or her directly, but on television that would leave us with only a profile shot. Each person should be at about a 25-degree angle from each other so they can see and talk to each other but also be open to the

camera. When addressing the camera, look at the lens and focus about a foot behind it, because that creates the illusion that you are looking at the viewer.Stuart W. Hyde, Television and Radio Announcing, 4th ed. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 56–62. If you are going to be presenting to more than one camera, be prepared to shift your focus. You will usually get a cue from a producer and can then follow the “tally light,” which is the red light above the camera. Producers usually give these signals very close to the camera, but you will need to rely on your peripheral vision and not let your focus be shifted to the signaler. You do not need to send a message back, nonverbally or verbally, that the signal has been received.Stuart W. Hyde, Television and Radio Announcing, 4th ed. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 66.

At the end of a television segment, especially a live one, you may have to hold a position as a segment is tossed to another presenter or there is a transition to a commercial break. Don’t assume you are off the air until someone tells you. You don’t want to end up with a blooper where you say something embarrassing or start to get up before you are off camera. It may feel like an eternity, but be prepared to hold your position for a few moments while looking into the camera, at the monitor, or at another person.

Media Interview

People often appear on the radio or television as a result of participating in
a media interview with a reporter or radio or television representative. Handling a media interview is also something that many people aren’t prepared for. Unless you are responding to a crisis situation, which we will discuss later, you will likely have time to prepare for a media interview. Make sure to use this time. If you are contacted by a reporter or station representative to schedule an interview, the first thing you should do is ask some preliminary questions to help with your interview preparation.

Questions to Ask before a Media InterviewKC Associations, “10 Tips for Effective Media Interviews,” accessed March 17, 2012, http://www.kc- associates.com/vantagepoint/article_2.html.

  • Who will be interviewing me?
  • How can I access some of this person’s previous interviews?
  • What is the segment or show I will be featured on?
  • What information will you need from me?
  • Will the interview be live?
  • How long will the interview last?
  • If the interview is being recorded and edited, how long will the airedsegment be?
  • Is there a deadline for the story?If the interview is part of a series, you may also ask whom they’ve already talked to and what information they have already gotten.Tom Wadsworth, “Secrets of the Media Savvy: Best Tips for Media Interviews,” asaecenter.org, April 2005, accessed March 17, 2012,http://www.asaecenter.org/Resources/whitepaperdetail.cfm?ItemNumber =12239. Don’t feel like you have to begin the interview right away or agree to the interview on the spot. You can ask the person to give you a little time to prepare and then get back in touch with them.

    Once you have gotten some preliminary information, do some research on the interviewer and the organization he or she represents. If the interview is about a personal context, then you have more freedom with your content. If you are representing a company or organization, you will want to contact your supervisor before accepting an interview. Many companies have policies about who can speak to the media, and some even have communications departments or designated speakers that they assign to such roles. If you are given approval to do

the interview, you will probably want to run your content by your supervisor for approval as well.

Then come up with two to three key messages or main points that you want to convey in the interview. Interviews that aren’t live are usually edited, and only some of what you say will make it into the final cut. Due to time constraints, media interviewers are often looking for the “sound bite”: a verbal bullet point that is about ten seconds or twenty-six words long. While this can be frustrating, especially when you’re discussing a complicated and contextual topic, it is a media reality. Think of a sound bite as a verbal bullet point for your speech.

A Good Sound BiteTom Wadsworth, “Secrets of the Media Savvy: Best Tips for Media Interviews,”asaecenter.org, April 2005, accessed March 17, 2012,http://www.asaecenter.org/Resources/whitepaperdetail.cfm?ItemNumber =12239.

  • Is about ten seconds or twenty-six words for radio or television
  • Connects to something current, culturally relevant, or of interest to thepublic
  • Mentions you and/or your company’s name (media interviews are oftengood publicity)
  • Offers a claim and some brief support for the claim
  • Paints a picture
  • Is memorable and leaves a lasting impressionSo narrowing your content down to these few main points and then identifying some key sound bites within the points will ensure that at least some of the important material will make it into the story instead of something you get sidetracked onto.

Many people doing television or radio interviews are afraid of creating dead air and say more than they need to, which can get the interview off track. When interviews get off track, you may only be able to address one of your three main points—remember television and radio segments are usually short. The interviewers are more afraid of dead air than the interviewee is, and it’s their job to worry about it, so you can stop answering the question once you’ve addressed it and let them make the next move. Be concise in your answers to the interviewer’s questions. If they need more information, they will ask follow-up questions. If an interviewer tries to get you “off message,” be prepared to briefly engage the question and pivot back to your prepared content; in some cases, it is even OK to deflect the question by saying something like “That’s not really what I thought we were going to talk about today. I’m here to discuss…” Although politicians often dodge legitimate questions, you can watch them interact with the press for pointers on how to pivot and stay on message.

If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so, but offer to follow up if the question is relevant to your expertise and experience or refer the interviewer to someone else who may have the answer. Don’t answer a question with “No comment,” as that arouses suspicion. It is OK to tell an interviewer that their question falls outside of your area of expertise, falls outside of the scope of the interview as you understood it, or gets into issues of privacy that you cannot discuss due to ethics or policy.

Interviewers, especially if they are reporters, are good at making you feel like you are only talking to them. While this is true in the case of the interview, don’t forget that you are actually talking to a larger audience of viewers and/or listeners, so keep them in mind. After the interview, ask the interviewee what they are likely to use in the final segment. You may also want to follow up with a written record of any specific facts, especially if it’s technical or needs to be precise.

Speaking on Behalf of Others

Some careers specifically involve speaking on behalf of others. For example, spokespeople, crisis communicators, and other public relations professionals speak for other individuals or organizations. Many organizations do not have designated spokespeople, so you may just find yourself speaking on behalf of others because you were asked or told to. This section explores specific communication skills and knowledge that are useful when speaking for others.

Speaking as a Spokesperson or Representative

Organizations that do not have public relations or communications departments may tap someone as needed to interact with the media or release a
statement. Spokespeople speak to external audiences, primarily the media, on behalf of an individual or group. Some key attributes for an effective spokesperson are the abilities to establish rapport, tell an engaging story, handle difficult and unexpected questions, respond to nonverbal cues, and adjust communication to match audience preferences.SpokesComm, “Key Spokesperson Skills,” accessed March 17,

2012,http://www.spokescomm.com/id65.html. Ideally, spokespeople facilitate a question-and-answer session after they present their statement. We have all seen people read prepared statements and then retreat without addressing questions, which usually creates a negative impression. Spokespeople must maintain their credibility, and being open is a way to do this.

To prepare for questions and answers, corporate spokespeople are usually given briefing materials to review. They are sometimes given question-and-answer (Q&A) documents that have been drafted ahead of time that contain examples of friendly and hostile questions that may be asked.Barbara Gibson, “Spokesperson Coaching Tips,” SpokesBlog, accessed March 17,

2012, http://spokesblog.wordpress.com/category/spokescomm. The spokesperson should be involved in drafting the answers rather than being expected to read them as a script. Audiences can usually tell when someone isn’t speaking his or her own words, which raises suspicion. The message can still be carefully crafted, but it will appear more natural if the spokesperson is a coauthor of the message. Spokespeople may rely on particular phrases to enhance the audience’s perception of their honesty. This becomes problematic when the phrases are overused and therefore lose their meaning. Some examples of phrases to avoid overusing are “to be perfectly honest,” “frankly,” and “truthfully.”

Being an effective spokesperson requires training and preparation.Barbara Gibson, “Spokesperson Coaching Tips,” SpokesBlog, accessed March 17, 2012,http://spokesblog.wordpress.com/category/spokescomm. Spokespeople should be evaluated and assessed in simulations to help prepare for delivering actual messages. Once a spokesperson is in the job, a debriefing should follow every interview to evaluate strengths and weaknesses. As with many other types of presentations, watching a video recording for evaluation purposes can be instructive. Some spokespeople are communications professionals who have general training in communication skills. There are also subject matter experts who serve as spokespeople. These speakers are useful when dealing with complex information, but they should also be trained in communication skills—content knowledge is not enough to be a good spokesperson. Speakers who are subject matter experts should avoid acronyms and other forms of insider language and be able to convey their message in concrete terms. It may be useful to pair a subject matter expert up with a communication expert and have the communication expert set up the interview and then turn it over to the subject matter expert.

Crisis Communication

Crisis communication is a fast-growing field of study within communication studies as many businesses and organizations realize the value in finding someone to prepare for potential crises, interact with stakeholders during a crisis, and assess crisis responses after they have occurred. Crisis communication occurs as a result of a major event outside of normal expectations that has potential negative results, runs the risk of escalating in intensity, may result in close media or government scrutiny, and creates pressure for a timely and effective response.Alan Jay Zaremba, Crisis Communication: Theory and

Practice (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 2010), 20–22. Some examples of crises include natural disasters, management/employee misconduct, product tampering or failure, and workplace violence.

The need for crisis communication professionals is increasing, as various developments have made organizations more susceptible to crises.W. Timothy Coombs, Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2012), 14. Since the 1990s, organizations have increasingly viewed their reputations as assets that must be protected. Whereas reputations used to be built on word-of-mouth communication and one-on-one relationships, technology, mass media, and now social media have made it easier for stakeholders to praise or question an organization’s reputation. A Facebook post or a Tweet can now turn into widespread consumer activism that organizations must be able to respond to quickly and effectively. In addition, organizations are being held liable for “negligent failure to plan,” which means that an organization didn’t take “reasonable action to reduce or eliminate known or reasonably foreseeable risks that could result in harm.”W. Timothy Coombs, Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2012), 16–17. Look around your classroom and the academic building you are in. You will likely see emergency plans posted that may include instructions on what to

do in situations ranging from a tornado, to a power outage, to an active shooter. As a response to the mass shooting that took place at Virginia Tech in 2006, most colleges and universities now have emergency notification systems and actively train campus police and faculty and staff on what to do in the case of an active shooter on campus. Post–Virginia Tech, a campus’s failure to institute such procedures could be deemed as negligent failure to plan if a similar incident were to occur on that campus.

Crisis communicators don’t just interact with the media; they communicate with a variety of stakeholders. Stakeholders are the various audiences that have been identified as needing information during a crisis. These people and groups have a “stake” in the organization or the public interest or as a user of a product or service. Internal stakeholders are people within an organization or focal area, such as employees and management. External stakeholders are people outside the organization or focal area such as customers, clients, media, regulators, and the general public.Alan Jay Zaremba, Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 2010), 30–31.

Four main areas of crisis communication research are relationships, reputation, responsibility, and response.Alan Jay Zaremba, Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 2010), 32–33 Relationships and reputation are built and maintained before a crisis occurs. Organizations create relationships with their stakeholders, and their track record of quality, customer service, dependability, and communication determines their

reputation. Responsibility refers to the degree to which stakeholders hold an organization responsible for the crisis at hand. Judgments about responsibility will vary depending on the circumstances of a crisis. An unpreventable natural disaster will be interpreted differently than a product failure resulting from cutting corners on maintenance work to save money. Response refers to how an organization reacts to a crisis in terms of its communication and behaviors.

“Getting Real”

Crisis Communication Professionals

Crisis communication professionals create crisis communication plans that identify internal and external audiences that need information during crisis events. Effective crisis communication plans can lessen the impact of or even prevent crises. Aside from preparing for crises and identifying stakeholders/audiences, crisis communicators also construct the messages to be communicated to the stakeholders and select the channels through which those messages will be sent. The crisis communicator or another representative could deliver a speech or press conference, send messages through social media, send e-mail or text message blasts out, or buy ad space in newspapers or on television.Alan Jay Zaremba, Crisis Communication: Theory and

Practice (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 2010), 23.

Crisis communicators must have good public speaking skills. Communicating during a crisis naturally increases anxiety, so it’s important that speakers have advanced skills at managing anxiety and apprehension. In terms of delivery, while there will be times when impromptu responses are necessary—for example, during a question-and-answer period—manuscript or extemporaneous delivery are the best options. It is also important that a crisis communicator be skilled at developing ethos, or credibility as a speaker. This is an important part of the preparatory stages of crisis communication when relationships are formed and reputations are established. The importance of ethos is related to the emphasis on honesty and disclosure over stonewalling and denial.

A myth regarding crisis communicators is that their goal is to “spin” a message to adjust reality or create an illusion that makes their organization look better. While some crisis communicators undoubtedly do this, it is not the best practice

in terms of effectiveness, competence, or ethics. Crisis communication research and case studies show that honesty is the best policy. A quick and complete disclosure may create more scrutiny or damage in the short term, but it can minimize reputational damage in the long term.Alan Jay Zaremba, Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 2010),

111. Denying a problem, blaming others instead of taking responsibility, or ignoring a problem in hope that it will go away may actually prolong media coverage, invite more investigation, and permanently damage an organization’s image.

  1. Why do you think extemporaneous and manuscript delivery are the preferred delivery methods for crisis communicators? What do these delivery styles offer that memorized and impromptu do not? In what situations would it be better to have a manuscript? To deliver extemporaneously?
  2. Consider the following scenario, which we all hope we will never encounter: Several reports come into the campus police station that gunshots were heard outside the administrative building on campus. Eyewitnesses say that an unidentified armed person was seen walking into the building. Answer the following questions based on what you have learned about crisis communication: Who are the internal and external stakeholders in this situation? As a student (and stakeholder), what steps would you want your organization to take in response to this situation? What message should be sent? To whom should the message be sent? What media channels should be used?


• Although radio and television are mass-communication media, presenters should imagine that they are speaking to select individuals rather than a mass crowd.

Radio and television try to create the illusion of a personal connection between

the speaker and audience.

  • Radio requires verbal and nonverbal communication skills even though it is anaural form of media. People not used to speaking on the radio should prepare for

    the possibility of experiencing “mic fright.”

  • Since television is a visual media, appearance is important. Certain types ofclothes, makeup, and accessories are preferred for people presenting on air. Be prepared to work with audio and video monitors to help make sure you can see and hear what you need to while you are presenting. Avoid extra movements once you are put on your mark, as camera angles, lighting, and sound may be set to cover only a limited area.
  • Ask questions before a media interview to ensure that you can be adequately prepared. Come up with two to three key messages and some relevant “sound bites,” and then stay on those messages during the interview.
  • Spokespeople need to be good at establishing rapport, storytelling, and managing their nonverbal communication. Even though spokespeople deliver other people’s messages, they should be involved in drafting the wording of the messages so their communication sounds natural and not forced.
  • As organizations realize the increasing value of their reputations and the power of social media to rapidly enhance or destroy a reputation, they are more frequently employing crisis communication professionals who prepare for before, coordinate the response during, and assess an organization’s response after a crisis.


1. Have you ever spoken on the radio or television? If so, how did your experiences match up with the content of this section? If not, what would you be worried and/or excited about?

  1. Come up with three good “sound bites” related to the current speech you’re working on. Make sure to follow the guidelines for a good sound bite outlined in this section.
  2. Do some Internet research to find an example of an organization that responded poorly to a crisis situation. What could they have done better based on the information you learned in this chapter? (Doing a Google search for “crisis communication case study,” or some other related terms, will help you find an example.)

Chapter 13

Small Group Communication

When you think of small groups, you probably think of the much dreaded “group assignment” that you’ve endured in high school and college. You are less likely to think of the numerous other groups to which you belong that bring more positive experiences, such as your family and friendship groups or shared-interest groups. Group communication scholars are so aware of this common negative sentiment toward group communication that they coined the term grouphate to describe it.Susan M. Sorensen, “Group-Hate: A Negative Reaction to Group Work” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Minneapolis, MN, May, 1981). Small groups, however, aren’t just entities meant to torture students; they have served a central purpose in human history and evolution. Groups make it easier for us to complete a wide variety of tasks; help us establish meaningful social bonds; and help us create, maintain, and change our sense of self.Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, 2011), 433.Negative group experiences are often exacerbated by a lack of knowledge about group communication processes. We are just expected to know how to work in groups without much instruction or practice. This lack of knowledge about group communication can lead to negative group interactions, which creates a negative cycle that perpetuates further negative experiences. Fortunately, as with other areas of communication, instruction in group communication can improve people’s skills and increase people’s satisfaction with their group experiences.

13.1 Understanding Small Groups


  1. Define small group communication.
  2. Discuss the characteristics of small groups.
  3. Explain the functions of small groups.
  4. Compare and contrast different types of small groups.
  5. Discuss advantages and disadvantages of small groups.

Most of the communication skills discussed in this book are directed toward dyadic communication, meaning that they are applied in two-person interactions. While many of these skills can be transferred to and used in small group contexts, the more complex nature of group interaction necessitates some adaptation and some additional skills. Small group communication refers to interactions among three or more people who are connected through a common purpose, mutual influence, and a shared identity. In this section, we will learn about the characteristics, functions, and types of small groups.

Characteristics of Small Groups

Different groups have different characteristics, serve different purposes, and can lead to positive, neutral, or negative experiences. While our interpersonal relationships primarily focus on relationship building, small groups usually focus on some sort of task completion or goal accomplishment. A college learning community focused on math and science, a campaign team for a state senator, and a group of local organic farmers are examples of small groups that would all have a different size, structure, identity, and interaction pattern.

Size of Small Groups

There is no set number of members for the ideal small group. A small group requires a minimum of three people (because two people would be a pair or dyad), but the upper range of group size is contingent on the purpose of the group. When groups grow beyond fifteen to twenty members, it becomes difficult

to consider them a small group based on the previous definition. An analysis of the number of unique connections between members of small groups shows that they are deceptively complex. For example, within a six-person group, there are fifteen separate potential dyadic connections, and a twelve-person group would have sixty-six potential dyadic connections.Owen Hargie,Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, 2011), 452–53. As you can see, when we double the number of group members, we more than double the number of connections, which shows that network connection points in small groups grow exponentially as membership increases. So, while there is no set upper limit on the number of group members, it makes sense that the number of group members should be limited to those necessary to accomplish the goal or serve the purpose of the group. Small groups that add too many members increase the potential for group members to feel overwhelmed or disconnected.

Structure of Small Groups

Internal and external influences affect a group’s structure. In terms of internal influences, member characteristics play a role in initial group formation. For instance, a person who is well informed about the group’s task and/or highly motivated as a group member may emerge as a leader and set into motion internal decision-making processes, such as recruiting new members or assigning group roles, that affect the structure of a group.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 57. Different members will also gravitate toward different roles within the group and will advocate for certain procedures and courses of action over others. External factors such as group size, task, and resources also affect group structure. Some groups will have more control over these external factors through decision making than others. For example, a commission that is put together by a legislative body to look into ethical

violations in athletic organizations will likely have less control over its external factors than a self-created weekly book club.

Group structure is also formed through formal and informal network connections. In terms of formal networks, groups may have clearly defined roles and responsibilities or a hierarchy that shows how members are connected. The group itself may also be a part of an organizational hierarchy that networks the group into a larger organizational structure. This type of formal network is especially important in groups that have to report to external stakeholders. These external stakeholders may influence the group’s formal network, leaving the group little or no control over its structure. Conversely, groups have more control over their informal networks, which are connections among individuals within the group and among group members and people outside of the group that aren’t official. For example, a group member’s friend or relative may be able to secure a space to hold a fundraiser at a discounted rate, which helps the group achieve its task. Both types of networks are important because they may help facilitate information exchange within a group and extend a group’s reach in order to access other resources.

Size and structure also affect communication within a group.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 66–74. In terms of size, the more people in a group, the more issues with scheduling and coordination of communication. Remember that time is an important resource in most group interactions and a resource that is usually strained. Structure can increase or decrease the flow of communication. Reachability refers to the way in which one member is or isn’t connected to other group members. For example, the “Circle” group structure in Figure 13.1 “Small Group Structures” shows that each group member is connected to two other members. This can make coordination easy when only one or two people need to be brought in for a decision. In this case,

Erik and Callie are very reachable by Winston, who could easily coordinate with them. However, if Winston needed to coordinate with Bill or Stephanie, he would have to wait on Erik or Callie to reach that person, which could create delays. The circle can be a good structure for groups who are passing along a task and in which each member is expected to progressively build on the others’ work. A group of scholars coauthoring a research paper may work in such a manner, with each person adding to the paper and then passing it on to the next person in the circle. In this case, they can ask the previous person questions and write with the next person’s area of expertise in mind. The “Wheel” group structure in Figure 13.1 “Small Group Structures”shows an alternative organization pattern. In this structure, Tara is very reachable by all members of the group. This can be a useful structure when Tara is the person with the most expertise in the task or the leader who needs to review and approve work at each step before it is passed along to other group members. But Phillip and Shadow, for example, wouldn’t likely work together without Tara being involved.

Figure 13.1 Small Group Structures

Looking at the group structures, we can make some assumptions about the communication that takes place in them. The wheel is an example of a centralized structure, while the circle is decentralized. Research has shown that centralized

groups are better than decentralized groups in terms of speed and efficiency.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 68. But decentralized groups are more effective at solving complex problems. In centralized groups like the wheel, the person with the most connections, person C, is also more likely to be the leader of the group or at least have more status among group members, largely because that person has a broad perspective of what’s going on in the group. The most central person can also act as a gatekeeper. Since this person has access to the most information, which is usually a sign of leadership or status, he or she could consciously decide to limit the flow of information. But in complex tasks, that person could become overwhelmed by the burden of processing and sharing information with all the other group members. The circle structure is more likely to emerge in groups where collaboration is the goal and a specific task and course of action isn’t required under time constraints. While the person who initiated the group or has the most expertise in regards to the task may emerge as a leader in a decentralized group, the equal access to information lessens the hierarchy and potential for gatekeeping that is present in the more centralized groups.


Small groups exhibit interdependence, meaning they share a common purpose and a common fate. If the actions of one or two group members lead to a group deviating from or not achieving their purpose, then all members of the group are affected. Conversely, if the actions of only a few of the group members lead to success, then all members of the group benefit. This is a major contributor to many college students’ dislike of group assignments, because they feel a loss of control and independence that they have when they complete an assignment alone. This concern is valid in that their grades might suffer because of the negative actions of someone else or their hard work may go to benefit the group

member who just skated by. Group meeting attendance is a clear example of the interdependent nature of group interaction. Many of us have arrived at a group meeting only to find half of the members present. In some cases, the group members who show up have to leave and reschedule because they can’t accomplish their task without the other members present. Group members who attend meetings but withdraw or don’t participate can also derail group progress. Although it can be frustrating to have your job, grade, or reputation partially dependent on the actions of others, the interdependent nature of groups can also lead to higher-quality performance and output, especially when group members are accountable for their actions.

Shared Identity

The shared identity of a group manifests in several ways. Groups may have official charters or mission and vision statements that lay out the identity of a group. For example, the Girl Scout mission states that “Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.”Girl Scouts, “Facts,” accessed July 15,
2012, http://www.girlscouts.org/who_we_are/facts. The mission for this large organization influences the identities of the thousands of small groups called troops. Group identity is often formed around a shared goal and/or previous accomplishments, which adds dynamism to the group as it looks toward the future and back on the past to inform its present. Shared identity can also be exhibited through group names, slogans, songs, handshakes, clothing, or other symbols. At a family reunion, for example, matching t-shirts specially made for the occasion, dishes made from recipes passed down from generation to generation, and shared stories of family members that have passed away help establish a shared identity and social reality.

A key element of the formation of a shared identity within a group is the establishment of the in-group as opposed to the out-group. The degree to which members share in the in-group identity varies from person to person and group to group. Even within a family, some members may not attend a reunion or get as excited about the matching t-shirts as others. Shared identity also emerges as groups become cohesive, meaning they identify with and like the group’s task and other group members. The presence of cohesion and a shared identity leads to a building of trust, which can also positively influence productivity and members’ satisfaction.

Functions of Small Groups

Why do we join groups? Even with the challenges of group membership that we have all faced, we still seek out and desire to be a part of numerous groups. In some cases, we join a group because we need a service or access to information. We may also be drawn to a group because we admire the group or its members. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our identities and self-concepts are built on the groups with which we identify. So, to answer the earlier question, we join groups because they function to help us meet instrumental, interpersonal, and identity needs.

Groups Meet Instrumental Needs

Groups have long served the instrumental needs of humans, helping with the most basic elements of survival since ancient humans first evolved. Groups helped humans survive by providing security and protection through increased numbers and access to resources. Today, groups are rarely such a matter of life and death, but they still serve important instrumental functions. Labor unions, for example, pool efforts and resources to attain material security in the form of pay increases and health benefits for their members, which protects them by

providing a stable and dependable livelihood. Individual group members must also work to secure the instrumental needs of the group, creating a reciprocal relationship. Members of labor unions pay dues that help support the group’s efforts. Some groups also meet our informational needs. Although they may not provide material resources, they enrich our knowledge or provide information that we can use to then meet our own instrumental needs. Many groups provide referrals to resources or offer advice. For example, several consumer protection and advocacy groups have been formed to offer referrals for people who have been the victim of fraudulent business practices. Whether a group forms to provide services to members that they couldn’t get otherwise, advocate for changes that will affect members’ lives, or provide information, many groups meet some type of instrumental need.

Groups Meet Interpersonal Needs

Group membership meets interpersonal needs by giving us access to inclusion, control, and support. In terms of inclusion, people have a fundamental drive to be a part of a group and to create and maintain social bonds. As we’ve learned, humans have always lived and worked in small groups. Family and friendship groups, shared-interest groups, and activity groups all provide us with a sense of belonging and being included in an in-group. People also join groups because they want to have some control over a decision-making process or to influence the outcome of a group. Being a part of a group allows people to share opinions and influence others. Conversely, some people join a group to be controlled, because they don’t want to be the sole decision maker or leader and instead want to be given a role to follow.

Just as we enter into interpersonal relationships because we like someone, we are drawn toward a group when we are attracted to it and/or its members. Groups also provide support for others in ways that supplement the support that we get

from significant others in interpersonal relationships. Some groups, like therapy groups for survivors of sexual assault or support groups for people with cancer, exist primarily to provide emotional support. While these groups may also meet instrumental needs through connections and referrals to resources, they fulfill the interpersonal need for belonging that is a central human need.

Groups Meet Identity Needs

Our affiliations are building blocks for our identities, because group membership allows us to use reference groups for social comparison—in short, identifying us with some groups and characteristics and separating us from others. Some people join groups to be affiliated with people who share similar or desirable characteristics in terms of beliefs, attitudes, values, or cultural identities. For example, people may join the National Organization for Women because they want to affiliate with others who support women’s rights or a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) because they want to affiliate with African Americans, people concerned with civil rights, or a combination of the two. Group memberships vary in terms of how much they affect our identity, as some are more prominent than others at various times in our lives. While religious groups as a whole are too large to be considered small groups, the work that people do as a part of a religious community—as a lay leader, deacon, member of a prayer group, or committee—may have deep ties to a person’s identity.

The prestige of a group can initially attract us because we want that group’s identity to “rub off” on our own identity. Likewise, the achievements we make as a group member can enhance our self-esteem, add to our reputation, and allow us to create or project certain identity characteristics to engage in impression management. For example, a person may take numerous tests to become a part of Mensa, which is an organization for people with high IQs, for no material gain

but for the recognition or sense of achievement that the affiliation may bring. Likewise, people may join sports teams, professional organizations, and honor societies for the sense of achievement and affiliation. Such groups allow us opportunities to better ourselves by encouraging further development of skills or knowledge. For example, a person who used to play the oboe in high school may join the community band to continue to improve on his or her ability.

Types of Small Groups

There are many types of small groups, but the most common distinction made between types of small groups is that of task-oriented and relational-oriented groups.Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, 2011), 434. Task-oriented groups are formed to solve a problem, promote a cause, or generate ideas or information.Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning, Messages: Communication Skills Book, 2nd ed. (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1995), 254. In such groups, like a committee or study group, interactions and decisions are primarily evaluated based on the quality of the final product or output. The three main types of tasks are production, discussion, and problem- solving tasks.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw- Hill, 1994), 44. Groups faced with production tasks are asked to produce something tangible from their group interactions such as a report, design for a playground, musical performance, or fundraiser event. Groups faced with discussion tasks are asked to talk through something without trying to come up with a right or wrong answer. Examples of this type of group include a support group for people with HIV/AIDS, a book club, or a group for new fathers. Groups faced with problem-solving tasks have to devise a course of action to meet a specific need. These groups also usually include a production and discussion component, but the end goal isn’t necessarily a tangible product or a shared

social reality through discussion. Instead, the end goal is a well-thought-out idea. Task-oriented groups require honed problem-solving skills to accomplish goals, and the structure of these groups is more rigid than that of relational-oriented groups.

Relational-oriented groups are formed to promote interpersonal connections and are more focused on quality interactions that contribute to the well-being of group members. Decision making is directed at strengthening or repairing relationships rather than completing discrete tasks or debating specific ideas or courses of action. All groups include task and relational elements, so it’s best to think of these orientations as two ends of a continuum rather than as mutually exclusive. For example, although a family unit works together daily to accomplish tasks like getting the kids ready for school and friendship groups may plan a surprise party for one of the members, their primary and most meaningful interactions are still relational. Since other chapters in this book focus specifically on interpersonal relationships, this chapter focuses more on task-oriented groups and the dynamics that operate within these groups.

To more specifically look at the types of small groups that exist, we can examine why groups form. Some groups are formed based on interpersonal relationships. Our family and friends are consideredprimary groups, or long-lasting groups that are formed based on relationships and include significant others. These are the small groups in which we interact most frequently. They form the basis of our society and our individual social realities. Kinship networks provide important support early in life and meet physiological and safety needs, which are essential for survival. They also meet higher-order needs such as social and self-esteem needs. When people do not interact with their biological family, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, they can establish fictive kinship networks, which are composed of people who are not biologically related but fulfill family roles and help provide the same support.

We also interact in many secondary groups, which are characterized by less frequent face-to-face interactions, less emotional and relational communication, and more task-related communication than primary groups.David B. Barker, “The Behavioral Analysis of Interpersonal Intimacy in Group
Development,” Small Group Research 22, no. 1 (1991): 79. While we are more likely to participate in secondary groups based on self-interest, our primary- group interactions are often more reciprocal or other oriented. For example, we may join groups because of a shared interest or need.

Groups formed based on shared interest include social groups and leisure groups such as a group of independent film buffs, science fiction fans, or bird watchers. Some groups form to meet the needs of individuals or of a particular group of people. Examples of groups that meet the needs of individuals include study groups or support groups like a weight loss group. These groups are focused on individual needs, even though they meet as a group, and they are also often discussion oriented. Service groups, on the other hand, work to meet the needs of individuals but are task oriented. Service groups include Habitat for Humanity and Rotary Club chapters, among others. Still other groups form around a shared need, and their primary task is advocacy. For example, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis is a group that was formed by a small group of eight people in the early 1980s to advocate for resources and support for the still relatively unknown disease that would later be known as AIDS. Similar groups form to advocate for everything from a stop sign at a neighborhood intersection to the end of human trafficking.

As we already learned, other groups are formed primarily to accomplish a
task. Teams are task-oriented groups in which members are especially loyal and dedicated to the task and other group members.Carl E. Larson and Frank M. J. LaFasto, TeamWork: What Must Go Right/What Must Go Wrong (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989), 73. In professional and civic contexts, the word team has

become popularized as a means of drawing on the positive connotations of the term—connotations such as “high-spirited,” “cooperative,” and “hardworking.” Scholars who have spent years studying highly effective teams have identified several common factors related to their success. Successful teams haveRobert B. Adler and Jeanne Marquardt Elmhorst, Communicating at Work: Principles and Practices for Businesses and the Professions, 8th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 248–50.

  • clear and inspiring shared goals,
  • a results-driven structure,
  • competent team members,
  • a collaborative climate,
  • high standards for performance,
  • external support and recognition, and
  • ethical and accountable leadership.Increasingly, small groups and teams are engaging in more virtual
    interaction. Virtual groups take advantage of new technologies and meet exclusively or primarily online to achieve their purpose or goal. Some virtual groups may complete their task without ever being physically face-to-face. Virtual groups bring with them distinct advantages and disadvantages that you can read more about in the “Getting Plugged In” feature next.

“Getting Plugged In”

Virtual Groups

Virtual groups are now common in academic, professional, and personal contexts, as classes meet entirely online, work teams interface using webinar or video-conferencing programs, and people connect around shared interests in a variety of online settings. Virtual groups are popular in professional contexts

because they can bring together people who are geographically dispersed.Manju K. Ahuja and John E. Galvin, “Socialization in Virtual Groups,” Journal of Management 29, no. 2 (2003): 163. Virtual groups also increase the possibility for the inclusion of diverse members. The ability to transcend distance means that people with diverse backgrounds and diverse perspectives are more easily accessed than in many offline groups.

One disadvantage of virtual groups stems from the difficulties that technological mediation presents for the relational and social dimensions of group interactions.Joseph B. Walther and Ulla Bunz, “The Rules of Virtual Groups: Trust, Liking, and Performance in Computer-Mediated

Communication,” Journal of Communication 55, no. 4 (2005): 830. As we will learn later in this chapter, an important part of coming together as a group is the socialization of group members into the desired norms of the group. Since norms are implicit, much of this information is learned through observation or conveyed informally from one group member to another. In fact, in traditional groups, group members passively acquire 50 percent or more of their knowledge about group norms and procedures, meaning they observe rather than directly ask.Debra R. Comer, “Organizational Newcomers’ Acquisition of Information from Peers,” Management Communication Quarterly 5, no. 1 (1991): 64–

89. Virtual groups experience more difficulty with this part of socialization than copresent traditional groups do, since any form of electronic mediation takes away some of the richness present in face-to-face interaction.

To help overcome these challenges, members of virtual groups should be prepared to put more time and effort into building the relational dimensions of their group. Members of virtual groups need to make the social cues that guide new members’ socialization more explicit than they would in an offline group.Manju K. Ahuja and John E. Galvin, “Socialization in Virtual
Groups,” Journal of Management 29, no. 2 (2003): 164–65. Group members

should also contribute often, even if just supporting someone else’s contribution, because increased participation has been shown to increase liking among members of virtual groups.Joseph B. Walther and Ulla Bunz, “The Rules of Virtual Groups: Trust, Liking, and Performance in Computer-Mediated Communication,” Journal of Communication 55, no. 4 (2005): 831–32. Virtual group members should also make an effort to put relational content that might otherwise be conveyed through nonverbal or contextual means into the verbal part of a message, as members who include little social content in their messages or only communicate about the group’s task are more negatively evaluated. Virtual groups who do not overcome these challenges will likely struggle to meet deadlines, interact less frequently, and experience more absenteeism. What follows are some guidelines to help optimize virtual groups:Joseph B. Walther and Ulla Bunz, “The Rules of Virtual Groups: Trust, Liking, and Performance in Computer-Mediated Communication,” Journal of Communication 55, no. 4 (2005): 834–35.

  • Get started interacting as a group as early as possible, since it takes longer to build social cohesion.
  • Interact frequently to stay on task and avoid having work build up.
  • Start working toward completing the task while initial communicationabout setup, organization, and procedures are taking place.
  • Respond overtly to other people’s messages and contributions.
  • Be explicit about your reactions and thoughts since typical nonverbalexpressions may not be received as easily in virtual groups as they would

    be in colocated groups.

  • Set deadlines and stick to them.

1. Make a list of some virtual groups to which you currently belong or have belonged to in the past. What are some differences between your experiences in virtual groups versus traditional colocated groups?

2. What are some group tasks or purposes that you think lend themselves to being accomplished in a virtual setting? What are some group tasks or purposes that you think would be best handled in a traditional colocated setting? Explain your answers for each.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Small Groups

As with anything, small groups have their advantages and disadvantages. Advantages of small groups include shared decision making, shared resources, synergy, and exposure to diversity. It is within small groups that most of the decisions that guide our country, introduce local laws, and influence our family interactions are made. In a democratic society, participation in decision making is a key part of citizenship. Groups also help in making decisions involving judgment calls that have ethical implications or the potential to negatively affect people. Individuals making such high-stakes decisions in a vacuum could have negative consequences given the lack of feedback, input, questioning, and proposals for alternatives that would come from group interaction. Group members also help expand our social networks, which provide access to more resources. A local community-theater group may be able to put on a production with a limited budget by drawing on these connections to get set-building supplies, props, costumes, actors, and publicity in ways that an individual could not. The increased knowledge, diverse perspectives, and access to resources that groups possess relates to another advantage of small groups—synergy.

Synergy refers to the potential for gains in performance or heightened quality of interactions when complementary members or member characteristics are added to existing ones.James R. Larson Jr., In Search of Synergy in Small Group Performance (New York: Psychology Press, 2010). Because of synergy, the final group product can be better than what any individual could have produced alone. When I worked in housing and residence life, I helped coordinate a “World Cup

Soccer Tournament” for the international students that lived in my residence hall. As a group, we created teams representing different countries around the world, made brackets for people to track progress and predict winners, got sponsors, gathered prizes, and ended up with a very successful event that would not have been possible without the synergy created by our collective group membership. The members of this group were also exposed to international diversity that enriched our experiences, which is also an advantage of group communication.

Participating in groups can also increase our exposure to diversity and broaden our perspectives. Although groups vary in the diversity of their members, we can strategically choose groups that expand our diversity, or we can unintentionally end up in a diverse group. When we participate in small groups, we expand our social networks, which increase the possibility to interact with people who have different cultural identities than ourselves. Since group members work together toward a common goal, shared identification with the task or group can give people with diverse backgrounds a sense of commonality that they might not have otherwise. Even when group members share cultural identities, the diversity of experience and opinion within a group can lead to broadened perspectives as alternative ideas are presented and opinions are challenged and defended. One of my favorite parts of facilitating class discussion is when students with different identities and/or perspectives teach one another things in ways that I could not on my own. This example brings together the potential of synergy and diversity. People who are more introverted or just avoid group communication and voluntarily distance themselves from groups—or are rejected from groups—risk losing opportunities to learn more about others and themselves.

There are also disadvantages to small group interaction. In some cases, one person can be just as or more effective than a group of people. Think about a situation in which a highly specialized skill or knowledge is needed to get

something done. In this situation, one very knowledgeable person is probably a better fit for the task than a group of less knowledgeable people. Group interaction also has a tendency to slow down the decision-making process. Individuals connected through a hierarchy or chain of command often work better in situations where decisions must be made under time constraints. When group interaction does occur under time constraints, having one “point person” or leader who coordinates action and gives final approval or disapproval on ideas or suggestions for actions is best.

Group communication also presents interpersonal challenges. A common problem is coordinating and planning group meetings due to busy and conflicting schedules. Some people also have difficulty with the other-centeredness and self- sacrifice that some groups require. The interdependence of group members that we discussed earlier can also create some disadvantages. Group members may take advantage of the anonymity of a group and engage in social loafing, meaning they contribute less to the group than other members or than they would if working alone.Steven J. Karau and Kipling D. Williams, “Social Loafing: A Meta- Analytic Review and Theoretical Integration,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65, no. 4 (1993): 681. Social loafers expect that no one will notice their behaviors or that others will pick up their slack. It is this potential for social loafing that makes many students and professionals dread group work, especially those who have a tendency to cover for other group members to prevent the social loafer from diminishing the group’s productivity or output.

“Getting Competent”

Improving Your Group Experiences

Like many of you, I also had some negative group experiences in college that made me think similarly to a student who posted the following on a teaching

blog: “Group work is code for ‘work as a group for a grade less than what you can get if you work alone.’”Maryellen Weimer, “Why Students Hate Groups,” The Teaching Professor, July 1, 2008, accessed July 15, 2012,http://www.teachingprofessor.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/why- students-hate-groups. But then I took a course called “Small Group and Team Communication” with an amazing teacher who later became one of my most influential mentors. She emphasized the fact that we all needed to increase our knowledge about group communication and group dynamics in order to better our group communication experiences—and she was right. So the first piece of advice to help you start improving your group experiences is to closely study the group communication chapters in this textbook and to apply what you learn to your group interactions. Neither students nor faculty are born knowing how to function as a group, yet students and faculty often think we’re supposed to learn as we go, which increases the likelihood of a negative experience.

A second piece of advice is to meet often with your group.Scott A. Myers and Alan K. Goodboy, “A Study of Grouphate in a Course on Small Group Communication,” Psychological Reports 97, no. 2 (2005): 385. Of course, to do this you have to overcome some scheduling and coordination difficulties, but putting other things aside to work as a group helps set up a norm that group work is important and worthwhile. Regular meetings also allow members to interact with each other, which can increase social bonds, build a sense of interdependence that can help diminish social loafing, and establish other important rules and norms that will guide future group interaction. Instead of committing to frequent meetings, many student groups use their first meeting to equally divide up the group’s tasks so they can then go off and work alone (not as a group). While some group work can definitely be done independently, dividing up the work and assigning someone to put it all together doesn’t allow group

members to take advantage of one of the most powerful advantages of group work—synergy.

Last, establish group expectations and follow through with them. I recommend that my students come up with a group name and create a contract of group guidelines during their first meeting (both of which I learned from my group communication teacher whom I referenced earlier). The group name helps begin to establish a shared identity, which then contributes to interdependence and improves performance. The contract of group guidelines helps make explicit the group norms that might have otherwise been left implicit. Each group member contributes to the contract and then they all sign it. Groups often make guidelines about how meetings will be run, what to do about lateness and attendance, the type of climate they’d like for discussion, and other relevant expectations. If group members end up falling short of these expectations, the other group members can remind the straying member of the contact and the fact that he or she signed it. If the group encounters further issues, they can use the contract as a basis for evaluating the other group member or for communicating with the instructor.

  1. Do you agree with the student’s quote about group work that was included at the beginning? Why or why not?
  2. The second recommendation is to meet more with your group. Acknowledging that schedules are difficult to coordinate and that that is not really going to change, what are some strategies that you could use to overcome that challenge in order to get time together as a group?
  3. What are some guidelines that you think you’d like to include in your contract with a future group?


• Getting integrated: Small group communication refers to interactions among three or more people who are connected through a common purpose, mutual influence, and a shared identity. Small groups are important communication units in academic, professional, civic, and personal contexts.

• Several characteristics influence small groups, including size, structure, interdependence, and shared identity.

o In terms of size, small groups must consist of at least three people, but there is no set upper limit on the number of group members. The ideal number of group members is the smallest number needed to competently complete the group’s task or achieve the group’s purpose.

o Internal influences such as member characteristics and external factors such as the group’s size, task, and access to resources affect a group’s structure. A group’s structure also affects how group members communicate, as some structures are more centralized and hierarchical and other structures are more decentralized and equal.

o Groups are interdependent in that they have a shared purpose and a shared fate, meaning that each group member’s actions affect every other group member.

o Groups develop a shared identity based on their task or purpose, previous accomplishments, future goals, and an identity that sets their members apart from other groups.

• Small groups serve several functions as they meet instrumental, interpersonal, and identity needs.

o Groups meet instrumental needs, as they allow us to pool resources and provide access to information to better help us survive and succeed.
o Groups meet interpersonal needs, as they provide a sense of belonging

(inclusion), an opportunity to participate in decision making and influence others (control), and emotional support.

o Groups meet identity needs, as they offer us a chance to affiliate ourselves with others whom we perceive to be like us or whom we admire and would like to be associated with.

• There are various types of groups, including task-oriented, relational- oriented, primary, and secondary groups, as well as teams.

o Task-oriented groups are formed to solve a problem, promote a cause, or generate ideas or information, while relational-oriented groups are formed to promote interpersonal connections. While there are elements of both in every group, the overall purpose of a group can usually be categorized as primarily task or relational oriented.

o Primary groups are long-lasting groups that are formed based on interpersonal relationships and include family and friendship groups, and secondary groups are characterized by less frequent interaction and less emotional and relational communication than in primary groups. Our communication in primary groups is more frequently other oriented than our communication in secondary groups, which is often self-oriented.

o Teams are similar to task-oriented groups, but they are characterized by a high degree of loyalty and dedication to the group’s task and to other group members.

• Advantages of group communication include shared decision making, shared resources, synergy, and exposure to diversity. Disadvantages of group communication include unnecessary group formation (when the task would be better performed by one person), difficulty coordinating schedules, and difficulty with accountability and social loafing.


1. Getting integrated: For each of the follow examples of a small group context, indicate what you think would be the ideal size of the group and why. Also indicate who the ideal group members would be (in terms of

their occupation/major, role, level of expertise, or other characteristics)

and what structure would work best.
o A study group for this class
o A committee to decide on library renovation plans
o An upper-level college class in your major
o A group to advocate for more awareness of and support for abandoned


  1. List some groups to which you have belonged that focused primarily on tasks and then list some that focused primarily on relationships. Compare and contrast your experiences in these groups.
  2. Synergy is one of the main advantages of small group communication. Explain a time when a group you were in benefited from or failed to achieve synergy. What contributed to your success/failure?

13.2 Small Group Development


Small groups have to start somewhere. Even established groups go through changes as members come and go, as tasks are started and completed, and as relationships change. In this section, we will learn about the stages of group development, which are forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.Bruce W. Tuckman and Mary Ann C. Jensen, “Stages of Small-Group Development Revisited,” Group and Organizational Studies 2, no. 4 (1977): 419– 27. As with most models of communication phenomena, although we order the stages and discuss them separately, they are not always experienced in a linear fashion. Additionally, some groups don’t experience all five stages, may

  1. Explain the process of group development.
  2. Discuss the characteristics of each stage of group development.

experience stages multiple times, or may experience more than one stage at a time.


During the forming stage, group members begin to reduce uncertainty associated with new relationships and/or new tasks through initial interactions that lay the foundation for later group dynamics. Groups return to the forming stage as group members come and go over the life span of a group. Although there may not be as much uncertainty when one or two new people join a group as there is when a group first forms, groups spend some time in the forming stage every time group membership changes.

Given that interpersonal bonds are likely not yet formed and people are unfamiliar with the purpose of the group or task at hand, there are high levels of uncertainty. Early stages of role negotiation begin and members begin to determine goals for the group and establish rules and norms. Group cohesion also begins to form during this stage. Group cohesion refers to the commitment of members to the purpose of the group and the degree of attraction among individuals within the group.Owen Hargie,Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, 2011), 445. The cohesion that begins in this stage sets the group on a trajectory influenced by group members’ feelings about one another and their purpose or task. Groups with voluntary membership may exhibit high levels of optimism about what the group can accomplish. Although the optimism can be motivating, unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment, making it important for group members to balance optimism with realism. Groups with assigned or mandatory membership may include members that carry some degree of resentment toward the group itself or the goals of the group. These members can start the group off on a negative trajectory that will lessen or make difficult group cohesiveness.

Groups can still be successful if these members are balanced out by others who are more committed to and positive in regards to the purpose of the group.

Many factors influence how the forming stage of group development plays out. The personalities of the individuals in the group, the skills that members bring, the resources available to the group, the group’s size, and the group’s charge all contribute to the creation of the early tone of and climate within a group.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 14. For example, more dominant personalities may take early leadership roles in the group that can affect subsequent decisions. Group members’ diverse skill sets and access to resources can also influence the early stages of role differentiation. In terms of size, the bonding that begins in the forming stage becomes difficult when the number of people within the group prevents every person from having a one-on- one connection with every other member of the group. Also, in larger groups, more dominant members tend to assert themselves as leaders and build smaller coalitions within the group, which can start the group on a trajectory toward more conflict during the upcoming storming stage.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 15.

When a group receives an external charge, meaning that the goal or purpose of the group is decided by people outside the group, there may be less uncertainty related to the task dimensions of the group. Additionally, decisions about what roles people will play including group leaders and other decisions about the workings of the group may come from the outside, which reduces some of the uncertainty inherent in the forming stage. Relational uncertainty can also be diminished when group members have preexisting relationships or familiarity with each other. Although the decreased uncertainty may be beneficial at this stage, too much imposed structure from the outside can create resentment or a

feeling of powerlessness among group members. So a manageable amount of uncertainty is actually a good thing for group cohesion and productivity.


During the storming stage of group development, conflict emerges as people begin to perform their various roles, have their ideas heard, and negotiate where they fit in the group’s structure. The uncertainty present in the forming stage begins to give way as people begin to occupy specific roles and the purpose, rules, and norms of a group become clearer. Conflict develops when some group members aren’t satisfied with the role that they or others are playing or the decisions regarding the purpose or procedures of the group. For example, if a leader begins to emerge or is assigned during the forming stage, some members may feel that the leader is imposing his or her will on other members of the group. As we will learn in our section on group leadership, leaders should expect some degree of resentment from others who wanted to be the leader, have interpersonal conflicts with the leader, or just have general issues with being led.

Although the word storming and the concept of conflict have negative connotations, conflict can be positive and productive. Just like storms can replenish water supplies and make crops grow, storming can lead to group growth. While conflict is inevitable and should be experienced by every group, a group that gets stuck at the storming stage will likely not have much success in completing its task or achieving its purpose. Influences from outside the group can also affect the conflict in the storming stage. Interpersonal conflicts that predate the formation of the group may distract the group from the more productive idea- or task-oriented conflict that can be healthy for the group and increase the quality of ideas, decision making, and output.


During the norming stage of group development, the practices and expectations of the group are solidified, which leads to more stability, productivity, and cohesion within the group. Group norms are behaviors that become routine but are not explicitly taught or stated. In short, group norms help set the tone for what group members ought to do and how they ought to behave.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 129. Many implicit norms are derived from social norms that people follow in their everyday life. Norms within the group about politeness, lateness, and communication patterns are typically similar to those in other contexts. Sometimes a norm needs to be challenged because it is not working for the group, which could lead a group back to the storming stage. Other times, group members challenge norms for no good reason, which can lead to punishment for the group member or create conflict within the group.

At this stage, there is a growing consensus among group members as to the roles that each person will play, the way group interactions will typically play out, and the direction of the group. Leaders that began to emerge have typically gained the support of other group members, and group identity begins to solidify. The group may now be recognizable by those on the outside, as slogans, branding, or patterns of interaction become associated with the group. This stage of group development is key for the smooth operation of the group. Norms bring a sense of predictability and stability that can allow a group to move on to the performing stage of group development. Norms can also bring with them conformity pressures that can be positive or negative. In general, people go along with a certain amount of pressure to conform out of a drive to avoid being abnormal that is a natural part of our social interaction.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 128. Too much pressure, however, can

lead people to feel isolated and can create a negative group climate. We will learn more about pressure as a group dynamic later in this chapter.

Explicit rules may also guide group interaction. Rules are explicitly stated guidelines for members and may refer to things like expected performance levels or output, attitudes, or dress codes. Rules may be communicated through verbal instructions, employee handbooks, membership policies, or codes of conduct.Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, 2011), 440. Groups can even use procedures like Robert’s Rules of Order to manage the flow of conversations and decision-making procedures. Group members can contest or subvert group rules just as they can norms. Violations of group rules, however, typically result in more explicit punishments than do violations of norms.


During the performing stage of group development, group members work relatively smoothly toward the completion of a task or achievement of a purpose. Although interactions in the performing stage are task focused, the relational aspects of group interaction provide an underlying support for the group members. Socialization outside of official group time can serve as a needed relief from the group’s task. During task-related interactions, group members ideally begin to develop a synergy that results from the pooling of skills, ideas, experiences, and resources. Synergy is positive in that it can lead group members to exceed their expectations and perform better than they could individually. Glitches in the group’s performance can lead the group back to previous stages of group development. Changes in membership, member roles, or norms can necessitate a revisiting of aspects of the forming, storming, or norming stages. One way to continue to build group cohesion during the performing stage is to set

short-term attainable group goals. Accomplishing something, even if it’s small, can boost group morale, which in turn boosts cohesion and productivity.


The adjourning stage of group development occurs when a group dissolves because it has completed its purpose or goal, membership is declining and support for the group no longer exists, or it is dissolved because of some other internal or external cause. Some groups may live on indefinitely and not experience the adjourning stage. Other groups may experience so much conflict in the storming stage that they skip norming and performing and dissolve before they can complete their task. For groups with high social cohesion, adjourning may be a difficult emotional experience. However, group members may continue interpersonal relationships that formed even after the group dissolves. In reality, many bonds, even those that were very close, end up fading after the group disbands. This doesn’t mean the relationship wasn’t genuine; interpersonal relationships often form because of proximity and shared task interaction. Once that force is gone, it becomes difficult to maintain friendships, and many fade away. For groups that had negative experiences, the adjourning stage may be welcomed.

To make the most out of the adjourning stage, it is important that there be some guided and purposeful reflection. Many groups celebrate their accomplishments with a party or ceremony. Even groups that had negative experiences or failed to achieve their purpose can still learn something through reflection in the adjourning stage that may be beneficial for future group interactions. Often, group members leave a group experience with new or more developed skills that can be usefully applied in future group or individual contexts. Even groups that are relational rather than task focused can increase members’ interpersonal,

listening, or empathetic skills or increase cultural knowledge and introduce new perspectives.


• Small groups have to start somewhere, but their course of development varies after forming based on many factors. Some groups go through each stage of development in a progressive and linear fashion, while other groups may get stuck in a stage, skip a stage, or experience a stage multiple times.

• The five stages of group development include forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.

  1. During the forming stage, group members engage in socially polite exchanges to help reduce uncertainty and gain familiarity with new members. Even though their early interactions may seem unproductive, they lay the groundwork for cohesion and other group dynamics that will play out more prominently in later stages.
  2. During the storming stage, conflict emerges as group members begin to perform their various roles, have their ideas heard, and negotiate where they fit in the group’s structure. Conflict is inevitable and important as a part of group development and can be productive if it is managed properly.
  3. During the norming stage, the practices and expectations (norms and rules) of the group are solidified, which leads to more stability, productivity, and cohesion within the group.
  4. During the performing stage, group members work relatively smoothly toward the completion of a task or the achievement of their purpose, ideally capitalizing on the synergy that comes from the diverse experiences group members bring to the decision-making process.
  5. During the adjourning stage, a group dissolves because its purpose has been met, because membership has declined or the group has lost

support, or due to some other internal or external cause. It is important that groups reflect on the life of the group to learn any relevant lessons and celebrate accomplishments.


  1. Recall a previous or current small group to which you belonged/belong. Trace the group’s development using the five stages discussed in this section. Did you experience all the stages? In what order? Did you stay in some stages more than others?
  2. During the norming stage of group development, interaction patterns and group expectations solidify. Recall a current or former group. What were some of the norms for the group? What were some rules? How did you become aware of each?
  3. Many people don’t think about the importance of the adjourning stage. What do you think is the best way to complete the adjourning stage for a group that was successful and cohesive? What about for a group that was unsuccessful and not cohesive?

13.3 Small Group Dynamics


  1. Explain the relationship between group cohesion and group climate.
  2. Describe the process of group member socialization.
  3. Explain the relationship between conformity and groupthink.
  4. Define various types of group conflict and identify strategies for managing eachtype.

Any time a group of people come together, new dynamics are put into place that differ from the dynamics present in our typical dyadic interactions. The

impressions we form about other people’s likeability and the way we think about a group’s purpose are affected by the climate within a group that is created by all members. Groups also develop norms, and new group members are socialized into a group’s climate and norms just as we are socialized into larger social and cultural norms in our everyday life. The pressure to conform to norms becomes more powerful in group situations, and some groups take advantage of these forces with positive and negative results. Last, the potential for productive and destructive conflict increases as multiple individuals come together to accomplish a task or achieve a purpose. This section explores the dynamics mentioned previously in order to better prepare you for future group interactions.

Group Cohesion and Climate

When something is cohesive, it sticks together, and the cohesion within a group helps establish an overall group climate. Group climate refers to the relatively enduring tone and quality of group interaction that is experienced similarly by group members. To better understand cohesion and climate, we can examine two types of cohesion: task and social.

Task cohesion refers to the commitment of group members to the purpose and activities of the group. Social cohesion refers to the attraction and liking among group members. Ideally, groups would have an appropriate balance between these two types of cohesion relative to the group’s purpose, with task-oriented groups having higher task cohesion and relational-oriented groups having higher social cohesion. Even the most task-focused groups need some degree of social cohesion, and vice versa, but the balance will be determined by the purpose of the group and the individual members. For example, a team of workers from the local car dealership may join a local summer softball league because they’re good friends and love the game. They may end up beating the team of faculty members from the community college who joined the league just to get to know each other

better and have an excuse to get together and drink beer in the afternoon. In this example, the players from the car dealership exhibit high social and task cohesion, while the faculty exhibit high social but low task cohesion.

Cohesion benefits a group in many ways and can be assessed through specific group behaviors and characteristics. Groups with an appropriate level of cohesivenessOwen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, 2011), 445.

  • set goals easily;
  • exhibit a high commitment to achieving the purpose of the group;
  • are more productive;
  • experience fewer attendance issues;
  • have group members who are willing to stick with the group during timesof difficulty;
  • have satisfied group members who identify with, promote, and defend thegroup;
  • have members who are willing to listen to each other and offer supportand constructive criticism; and
  • experience less anger and tension.Appropriate levels of group cohesion usually create a positive group climate, since group climate is affected by members’ satisfaction with the group. Climate has also been described as group morale. Following are some qualities that contribute to a positive group climate and morale:Peter J. Marston and Michael L. Hecht, “Group Satisfaction,” in Small Group Communication, 5th ed., eds. Robert Cathcart and Larry Samovar (Dubuque, IA: Brown, 1988), 236–46.

• Participation. Group members feel better when they feel included in discussion and a part of the functioning of the group.

  • Messages. Confirming messages help build relational dimensions within a group, and clear, organized, and relevant messages help build task dimensions within a group.
  • Feedback. Positive, constructive, and relevant feedback contribute to group climate.
  • Equity. Aside from individual participation, group members also like to feel as if participation is managed equally within the group and that appropriate turn taking is used.
  • Clear and accepted roles. Group members like to know how status and hierarchy operate within a group. Knowing the roles isn’t enough to lead to satisfaction, though—members must also be comfortable with and accept those roles.
  • Motivation. Member motivation is activated by perceived connection to and relevance of the group’s goals or purpose.Group cohesion and climate is also demonstrated through symbolic convergence.Ernest G. Bormann, “Symbolic Convergence Theory: A Communication Formulation,” Journal of Communication, 35, no. 4 (1985): 128–38. Symbolic convergence refers to the sense of community or group consciousness that develops in a group through non-task-related communication such as stories and jokes. The originator of symbolic convergence theory, Ernest Bormann, claims that the sharing of group fantasies creates symbolic convergence. Fantasy, in this sense, doesn’t refer to fairy tales, sexual desire, or untrue things. In group communication,group fantasies are verbalized references to events outside the “here and now” of the group, including references to the group’s past, predictions for the future, or other communication about people or events outside the group.Em Griffin, A First Look at Communication Theory, 7th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 28. For example, as a graduate student, I spent a lot of time talking with others in our small group about research, writing,

and other things related to our classes and academia in general. Most of this communication wouldn’t lead to symbolic convergence or help establish the strong social bonds that we developed as a group. Instead, it was our grad student “war stories” about excessive reading loads and unreasonable paper requirements we had experienced in earlier years of grad school, horror stories about absent or vindictive thesis advisors, and “you won’t believe this” stories from the classes that we were teaching that brought us together.

In any group, you can tell when symbolic convergence is occurring by observing how people share such fantasies and how group members react to them. If group members react positively and agree with or appreciate the teller’s effort or other group members are triggered to tell their own related stories, then convergence is happening and cohesion and climate are being established. Over time, these fantasies build a shared vision of the group and what it means to be a member that creates a shared group consciousness. By reviewing and applying the concepts in this section, you can hopefully identify potential difficulties with group cohesion and work to enhance cohesion when needed in order to create more positive group climates and enhance your future group interactions.

“Getting Real”

Working in Teams

Although most college students hate working in groups, in the “real world” working in teams has become a regular part of professional expectations. Following Japan’s lead, corporations in the United States began adopting a more team-based approach for project management decades ago.Anshu K. Jain, Jon M. Thompson, Joseph Chaudry, Shaun McKenzie, and Richard W. Schwartz, “High- Performance Teams for Current and Future Physician Leaders: An

Introduction,” Journal of Surgical Education 65 (2008): 145. This model has

become increasingly popular in various organizational settings since then as means to increase productivity and reduce bureaucracy. Teams in the workplace have horizontally expanded the traditional vertical hierarchy of organizations, as the aim of creating these teams was to produce smaller units within an organization that are small enough to be efficient and self-manageable but large enough to create the synergy that we discussed in the earlier part of the chapter.

Aside from efficiency, teams are also valued for the potential for innovation. The strategic pooling of people with diverse knowledge, experience, and skills can lead to synergistic collaborative thinking that produces new knowledge.Elisa du Chatenier, Jos A. A. M. Verstegen, Harm J. A. Biemans, Martin Mulder, and Onno S. W. F. Omta, “Identification of Competencies in Open Innovation Teams,” Research and Development Management 40, no. 3 (2010): 271. This potential for innovation makes teams ideal in high-stakes situations where money, contracts, or lives are at stake. Large corporations are now putting together what has been termed interorganizational high-performance research and development teams consisting of highly trained technical and scientific experts from diverse backgrounds to work collectively and simultaneously on complex projects under very challenging conditions.Lisa J. Daniel and Charles R. Davis, “What Makes High-Performance Teams Excel?” Research Technology Management 52, no. 4 (2009): 40–41. In markets where companies race to find the next generation of technological improvement, such research and development teams are critical for an organization’s success. Research on such teams in real-world contexts has found that in order to be successful, high- performance teams should have a clear base such as a project mission, a leader who strategically assigns various tasks to members based on their specialized expertise, and shared leadership in which individual experts are trusted to make decisions relevant to their purview within the group. Although these high- performance teams are very task oriented, research has also found that the social

element cannot be ignored, even under extreme internal and external pressures. In fact, cohesion and interdependence help create a shared reality that in turn improves productivity, because team members feel a sense of shared ownership over their charge.Stephanie T. Solansky, “Team Identification: A Determining Factor of Performance,” Journal of Managerial Psychology 26, no. 3 (2011): 250.

Some challenges associated with working in teams include the potential for uncertainty or conflict due to the absence of traditional hierarchy, pressures that become overwhelming, lack of shared history since such teams are usually future oriented, and high expectations without resources necessary to complete the task.Elisa du Chatenier, Jos A. A. M. Verstegen, Harm J. A. Biemans, Martin Mulder, and Onno S. W. F. Omta, “Identification of Competencies in Open Innovation Teams,” Research and Development Management 40, no. 3 (2010): 275–77. To overcome these challenges, team members can think positively but realistically about the team’s end goal, exhibit trust in the expertise of other team members, be reliable and approachable to help build a good team spirit, take initiative with actions and ideas, ask critical questions, and provide critical but constructive feedback.

  1. Given your career goals, what sorts of teamwork do you think you might engage in?
  2. Would you welcome the opportunity to work on a high-performance team? Why or why not?
  3. Members of teams are often under intense pressures to produce or perform at high levels. What is the line at which the pressure becomes too much? Ethically, how far should companies push teams and how far should team members go to complete a task?

Socializing Group Members

Group socialization refers to the process of teaching and learning the norms, rules, and expectations associated with group interaction and group member behaviors. Group norms, rules, and cohesion can only be created and maintained through socialization.Manju K. Ahuja and John E. Galvin, “Socialization in Virtual Groups,” Journal of Management 29, no. 2 (2003): 163. It is also through socialization that a shared identity and social reality develops among group members, but this development is dependent on several factors. For example, groups with higher levels of cohesion are more likely to have members that “buy into” rules and norms, which aids in socialization. The need for socialization also changes throughout a group’s life span. If membership in a group is stable, long- term members should not need much socialization. However, when new members join a group, existing members must take time to engage in socialization. When a totally new group is formed, socialization will be an ongoing process as group members negotiate rules and procedures, develop norms, and create a shared history over time.

The information exchanged during socialization can be broken down into two general categories: technical and social knowledge.Manju K. Ahuja and John E. Galvin, “Socialization in Virtual Groups,”Journal of Management 29, no. 2 (2003): 164. Technical knowledge focuses on skills and information needed to complete a task, and social knowledge focuses on behavioral norms that guide interaction. Each type of information is usually conveyed through a combination of formal and informal means. Technical knowledge can be fairly easily passed along through orientations, trainings, manuals, and documents, because this content is often fairly straightforward. Social knowledge is more ambiguous and is usually conveyed through informal means or passively learned by new members through observation. To return to our earlier terminology, technical knowledge relates more to group rules and social knowledge relates more to group norms.

Companies and social organizations socialize new members in different ways. A new training cohort at an established company may be given technical rule-based information in the form of a manual and a history of the organization and an overview of the organizational culture to help convey social knowledge about group norms. Members of some small groups like fraternities or professional organizations have to take pledges or oaths that may convey a mixture of technical and social knowledge. Social knowledge may be conveyed in interactions that are separate from official group time. For example, literally socializing as a group is a good way to socialize group members. Many large and successful businesses encourage small groups within the company to socialize outside of work time in order to build cohesion and group solidarity.

Socialization continues after initial membership through the enforcement of rules and norms. When someone deviates from the rules and norms and is corrected, it serves as a reminder for all other members and performs a follow-up socializing function. Since rules are explicitly stated and documented, deviation from the rules can have consequences ranging from verbal warnings, to temporary or permanent separation from the group, to fines or other sanctions. And although norms are implicit, deviating from them can still have consequences. Even though someone may not actually verbally correct the deviation, the self- consciousness, embarrassment, or awkwardness that can result from such deviations is often enough to initiate corrective actions. Group norms can be so implicit that they are taken for granted and operate under group members’ awareness.

Group rules and norms provide members with a sense of predictability that helps reduce uncertainty and increase a sense of security for one’s place within the group. They also guide group members’ involvement with the group, help create a shared social reality, and allow the group to function in particular ways without having actual people constantly educating, monitoring, and then correcting

member behaviors.Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, 2011), 441. Of course, the degree to which this is successful depends on the buy-in from group members.

Group Pressures

There must be some kind of motivating force present within groups in order for the rules and norms to help govern and guide a group. Without such pressure, group members would have no incentive to conform to group norms or buy into the group’s identity and values. In this section, we will discuss how rules and norms gain their power through internal and external pressures and how these pressures can have positive and negative effects.


In general, some people are more likely to accept norms and rules than others, which can influence the interaction and potential for conflict within a group. While some people may feel a need for social acceptance that leads them to accept a norm or rule with minimal conformity pressure, others may actively resist because they have a valid disagreement or because they have an aggressive or argumentative personality.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 133. Such personality traits are examples of internal pressures that operate within the individual group member and act as a self- governing mechanism. When group members discipline themselves and monitor their own behavior, groups need not invest in as many external mechanisms to promote conformity. Deviating from the group’s rules and norms that a member internalized during socialization can lead to self-imposed feelings of guilt or shame that can then initiate corrective behaviors and discourage the member from going against the group.

External pressures in the form of group policies, rewards or punishments, or other forces outside of individual group members also exert conformity pressure. In terms of group policies, groups that have an official admission process may have a probation period during which new members’ membership is contingent on them conforming to group expectations. Deviation from expectations during this “trial period” could lead to expulsion from the group. Supervisors, mentors, and other types of group leaders are also agents that can impose external pressures toward conformity. These group members often have the ability to provide positive or negative reinforcement in the form of praise or punishment, which are clear attempts to influence behavior.

Conformity pressure can also stem from external forces when the whole group stands to receive a reward or punishment based on its performance, which ties back to the small group characteristic of interdependence. Although these pressures may seem negative, they also have positive results. Groups that exert an appropriate and ethical amount of conformity pressure typically have higher levels of group cohesion, which as we learned leads to increased satisfaction with group membership, better relationships, and better task performance. Groups with a strong but healthy level of conformity also project a strong group image to those outside the group, which can raise the group’s profile or reputation.Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, 2011), 444. Pressures toward conformity, of course, can go too far, as is evidenced in tragic stories of people driven to suicide because they felt they couldn’t live up to the conformity pressure of their group and people injured or killed enduring hazing rituals that take expectations for group conformity to unethical and criminal extremes.

“Getting Critical”

Hazing: Taking Conformity Pressures to the Extreme

Hazing can be defined as actions expected to be performed by aspiring or new members of a group that are irrelevant to the group’s activities or mission and are humiliating, degrading, abusive, or dangerous.Brian K. Richardson, Zuoming Wang, and Camille A. Hall, “Blowing the Whistle against Greek Hazing: The Theory of Reasoned Action as a Framework for Reporting Intentions,”Communication Studies 63, no. 2 (2012): 173. People who have participated in hazing or have been hazed often note that hazing activities are meant to build group identification and unity. Scholars note that hazing is rationalized because of high conformity pressures and that people who were hazed internalize the group’s practices and are more likely to perpetuate hazing, creating a cycle of abuse.Shelly Campo, Gretchen Poulos, and John W. Sipple, “Prevalence and Profiling: Hazing among College Students and Points of Intervention,” American Journal of Health Behavior 29, no. 2 (2005):

138. Hazing is not new; it has been around in academic and athletic settings since ancient Greece, but it has gotten much attention lately on college campuses as the number of student deaths attributed to hazing behaviors has increased steadily over the past years. In general, it is believed that hazing incidents are underreported, because these activities are done in secret within tightly knit organizations such as fraternities, sororities, and athletic teams that have strong norms of conformity.Brian K. Richardson, Zuoming Wang, and Camille A. Hall, “Blowing the Whistle against Greek Hazing: The Theory of Reasoned Action as a Framework for Reporting Intentions,”Communication Studies 63, no. 2 (2012): 185–220.

The urge to belong is powerful, but where is the line when it comes to the actions people take or what people are willing to endure in order to be accepted? Hazing is meant to have aspiring group members prove their worth or commitment to the group. Examples of hazing include, but aren’t limited to, being “kidnapped, transported, and abandoned”; drinking excessively in games or contests; sleep

deprivation; engaging in or simulating sexual acts; being physically abused; being required to remain silent; wearing unusual clothes or costumes; or acting in a subservient manner to more senior group members.Shelly Campo, Gretchen Poulos, and John W. Sipple, “Prevalence and Profiling: Hazing among College Students and Points of Intervention,” American Journal of Health Behavior 29, no. 2 (2005): 137; Aldo Cimino, “The Evolution of Hazing: Motivational Mechanisms and the Abuse of Newcomers,” Journal of Cognition and Culture 11, no. 3–4 (2011): 235. Research has found that people in leadership roles, who are more likely to have strong group identification, are also more likely to engage in hazing activities.Shelly Campo, Gretchen Poulos, and John W. Sipple, “Prevalence and Profiling: Hazing among College Students and Points of Intervention,” American Journal of Health Behavior 29, no. 2 (2005): 144. The same research also found that group members who have supportive friends outside of the organization are more likely to remove themselves from a hazing situation, which points to the fact that people who endure hazing may be doing so out of a strong drive to find the acceptance and belonging they do not have elsewhere.

  1. What is your definition of hazing? When does something cross the line from a rite of passage or tradition to hazing?
  2. What are some internal and external pressures that might lead to hazing activities?
  3. Do some research on hazing incidents on college campuses. What concepts from this chapter do you think could be used in antihazing education campaigns to prevent incidents like the ones you researched?


Groupthink is a negative group phenomenon characterized by a lack of critical evaluation of proposed ideas or courses of action that results from high levels of

cohesion and/or high conformity pressures.Irving L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and
Fiascos (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1972). We can better understand groupthink by examining its causes and effects. When group members fall victim to groupthink, the effect is uncritical acceptance of decisions or suggestions for plans of action to accomplish a task or goal. Group meetings that appear to go smoothly with only positive interaction among happy, friendly people may seem ideal, but these actions may be symptomatic of groupthink.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 134. When people rush to agreement or fear argument, groupthink has a tendency to emerge. Decisions made as a result of groupthink may range from a poorly-thought-out presentation method that bores the audience to a mechanical failure resulting in death.

Two primary causes of groupthink are high levels of cohesion and excessive conformity pressures. When groups exhibit high levels of social cohesion, members may be reluctant to criticize or question another group member’s ideas or suggestions for fear that it would damage the relationship. When group members have a high level of task cohesion, they may feel invincible and not critically evaluate ideas. High levels of cohesion may actually lessen conformity pressures since group members who identify strongly with the group’s members and mission may not feel a need to question the decisions or suggestions made by others. For those who aren’t blinded by the high levels of cohesion, internal conformity pressures may still lead them to withhold criticism of an idea because the norm is to defer to decisions made by organization leaders or a majority of group members. External conformity pressures because of impending reward or punishment, time pressures, or an aggressive leader are also factors that can lead to groupthink.

To Avoid Groupthink, Groups ShouldOwen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, 2011), 447.

  • Divvy up responsibilities between group members so decision-making power isn’t in the hands of a few
  • Track contributions of group members in such a way that each person’s input and output is recorded so that it can be discussed
  • Encourage and reward the expression of minority or dissenting opinions
  • Allow members to submit ideas prior to a discussion so that opinionsaren’t swayed by members who propose ideas early in a discussion
  • Question each major decision regarding its weaknesses and potentialnegative consequences relative to competing decisions (encourage

    members to play “devil’s advocate”)

  • Have decisions reviewed by an outside party that wasn’t involved in thedecision-making process
  • Have a “reflection period” after a decision is made and before it isimplemented during which group members can express reservations or second thoughts about the decision

    Group Conflict

    Conflict can appear in indirect or direct forms within group interaction, just as it can in interpersonal interactions. Group members may openly question each other’s ideas or express anger toward or dislike for another person. Group members may also indirectly engage in conflict communication through innuendo, joking, or passive-aggressive behavior. Although we often view conflict negatively, conflict can be beneficial for many reasons. When groups get into a rut, lose creativity, or become complacent, conflict can help get a group out of a bad or mediocre routine. Conversely, conflict can lead to lower group

productivity due to strain on the task and social dimensions of a group. There are three main types of conflict within groups: procedural, substantive, and interpersonal.Randy Fujishin, Creating Effective Groups: The Art of Small Group Communication (San Francisco, CA: Acada Books, 2001): 160–61. Each of these types of conflict can vary in intensity, which can affect how much the conflict impacts the group and its members.

Procedural Conflict

Procedural conflict emerges from disagreements or trouble with the mechanics of group operations. In this type of conflict, group members differ in their beliefs about how something should be done. Procedural conflict can be handled by a group leader, especially if the leader put group procedures into place or has the individual power to change them. If there is no designated leader or the leader doesn’t have sole power to change procedures (or just wants input from group members), proposals can be taken from the group on ways to address a procedural conflict to initiate a procedural change. A vote to reach a consensus or majority can also help resolve procedural conflict.

Substantive Conflict

Substantive conflict focuses on group members’ differing beliefs, attitudes, values, or ideas related to the purpose or task of the group. Rather than focusing on questions of how, substantive conflicts focus on questions of what. Substantive conflicts may emerge as a group tries to determine its purpose or mission. As members figure out how to complete a task or debate which project to start on next, there will undoubtedly be differences of opinion on what something means, what is acceptable in terms of supporting evidence for a proposal, or what is acceptable for a goal or performance standard. Leaders and other group members shouldn’t rush to close this type of conflict down. As we

learned in our earlier discussion of groupthink, open discussion and debate regarding ideas and suggestions for group action can lead to higher-quality output and may prevent groupthink. Leaders who make final decisions about substantive conflict for the sake of moving on run the risk of creating a win/lose competitive climate in which people feel like their ideas may be shot down, which could lead to less participation. To resolve this type of conflict, group members may want to do research to see what other groups have done in similar situations, as additional information often provides needed context for conflict regarding information and ideas. Once the information is gathered, weigh all proposals and try to discover common ground among perspectives. Civil and open discussions that debate the merits of an idea are more desirable than a climate in which people feel personally judged for their ideas.

Interpersonal Conflict

Interpersonal conflict emerges from conflict between individual members of the group. Whereas procedural conflict deals with how and substantive conflict deals with what, interpersonal conflict deals with who. Such conflict can be completely irrelevant to the functioning or purpose of the group, perhaps focusing instead on personality differences. Interpersonal conflict can be the result of avoided or improperly handled procedural or substantive conflict that festers and becomes personal rather than task focused. This type of conflict can also result from differences in beliefs, attitudes, and values (when such differences are taken personally rather than substantively); different personalities; or different communication styles. While procedural and substantive conflict may be more easily expressed because they do not directly address a person, interpersonal conflict may slowly build as people avoid openly criticizing or confronting others. Passive-aggressive behavior is a sign that interpersonal conflict may be building under the surface, and other group members may want to intervene to avoid escalation and retaliation. Leaders can also meet with people involved in

interpersonal conflict privately to help them engage in perception checking and act as mediators, if needed. While people who initiate procedural or substantive conflict may be perceived by other group members as concerned about the group’s welfare and seen as competent in their ability to notice areas on which the group could improve, people who initiate interpersonal conflict are often held in ill-regard by other group members.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 217–18.

Primary and Secondary Tensions

Relevant to these types of conflict are primary and secondary tensions that emerge in every group.Ernest G. Bormann and Nancy C. Borman, Effective Small Group Communication, 4th ed. (Santa Rosa, CA: Burgess Publishing, 1988),
72. When the group first comes together, members experienceprimary tension, which is tension based on uncertainty that is a natural part of initial interactions. It is only after group members begin to “break the ice” and get to know each other that the tension can be addressed and group members can proceed with the forming stage of group development. Small talk and politeness help group members manage primary tensions, and there is a relatively high threshold for these conflicts because we have all had experiences with such uncertainty when meeting people for the first time and many of us are optimistic that a little time and effort will allow us to get through the tensions. Since some people are more comfortable initiating conversation than others, it’s important for more extroverted group members to include less talkative members. Intentionally or unintentionally excluding people during the negotiation of primary tensions can lead to unexpected secondary tensions later on. During this stage people are also less direct in their communication, using more hedges and vague language than they will later in the group process. The indirect communication and small talk that characterize this part of group development aren’t a waste of time, as they

help manage primary tensions and lay the foundation for future interactions that may involve more substantive conflict.

Secondary tension emerges after groups have passed the forming stage of group development and begin to have conflict over member roles, differing ideas, and personality conflicts. These tensions are typically evidenced by less reserved and less polite behavior than primary tensions. People also have a lower tolerance threshold for secondary tensions, because rather than being an expected part of initial interaction, these conflicts can be more negative and interfere with the group’s task performance. Secondary tensions are inevitable and shouldn’t be feared or eliminated. It’s not the presence or absence of secondary tension that makes a group successful or not; it’s how it handles the tensions when they emerge. A certain level of secondary tension is tolerable, not distracting, and can actually enhance group performance and avoid groupthink. When secondary tensions rise above the tolerance threshold and become distracting, they should be released through direct means such as diplomatic confrontation or indirect means such as appropriate humor or taking a break. While primary tensions eventually disappear (at least until a new member arrives), secondary tensions will come and go and may persist for longer periods of time. For that reason, we will now turn to a discussion of how to manage conflict in group interaction.

Managing Conflict in Small Groups

Some common ways to manage conflict include clear decision-making procedures, third-party mediation, and leader facilitation.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 236–44. Decision making is discussed in more detail in Chapter 14 “Leadership, Roles, and Problem Solving in Groups”, but commonly used methods such as majority vote can help or hurt conflict management efforts. While an up-and-down vote can allow a group to

finalize a decision and move on, members whose vote fell on the minority side may feel resentment toward other group members. This can create a win/lose climate that leads to further conflict. Having a leader who makes ultimate decisions can also help move a group toward completion of a task, but conflict may only be pushed to the side and left not fully addressed. Third-party mediation can help move a group past a conflict and may create less feelings of animosity, since the person mediating and perhaps making a decision isn’t a member of the group. In some cases, the leader can act as an internal third-party mediator to help other group members work productively through their conflict.

Tips for Managing Group ConflictDonald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey
Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 240–43.

  1. Clarify the issue at hand by getting to the historical roots of the problem. Keep in mind that perception leads us to punctuate interactions differently, so it may be useful to know each person’s perspective of when, how, and why the conflict began.
  2. Create a positive discussion climate by encouraging and rewarding active listening.
  3. Discuss needs rather than solutions. Determine each person’s needs to be met and goals for the outcome of the conflict before offering or acting on potential solutions.
  4. Set boundaries for discussion and engage in gatekeeping to prevent unproductive interactions like tangents and personal attacks.
  5. Use “we” language to maintain existing group cohesion and identity, and use “I” language to help reduce defensiveness.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Conflict

Remember that a complete lack of conflict in a group is a bad sign, as it indicates either a lack of activity or a lack of commitment on the part of the members.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 223.Conflict, when properly handled, can lead a group to have a better understanding of the issues they face. For example, substantive conflict brings voice to alternative perspectives that may not have been heard otherwise. Additionally, when people view conflict as healthy, necessary, and productive, they can enter into a conflict episode with an open mind and an aim to learn something. This is especially true when those who initiate substantive conflict are able to share and defend their views in a competent and civil manner. Group cohesion can also increase as a result of well-managed conflict. Occasional experiences of tension and unrest followed by resolutions makes groups feel like they have accomplished something, which can lead them to not dread conflict and give them the confidence to more productively deal with it the next time.

Conflict that goes on for too long or is poorly handled can lead to decreased cohesiveness. Group members who try to avoid a conflict can still feel anger or frustration when the conflict drags on. Members who consistently take task- oriented conflict personally and escalate procedural or substantive conflict to interpersonal conflict are especially unpopular with other group members. Mishandled or chronic conflict can eventually lead to the destruction of a group or to a loss in members as people weigh the costs and rewards of membership.Donald G. Ellis and B. Aubrey Fisher, Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw- Hill, 1994), 220.Hopefully a skilled leader or other group members can take on conflict resolution roles, which we will discuss more in Chapter 14 “Leadership, Roles, and Problem Solving in Groups” in order to prevent these disadvantages of conflict.


  • Task cohesion refers to the degree of commitment of group members to the purpose and activities of the group, and social cohesion refers to the degree of attraction and liking among group members.Group climate refers to the relatively enduring tone and quality of group interaction that is experienced similarly by group members. The degree of each type of cohesion affects the group’s climate. Groups can be very close socially but not perform well if they do not have an appropriate level of task cohesion. Groups that are too focused on the task can experience interpersonal conflict or a lack of motivation if the social cohesion, which helps enhance the feeling of interdependence, is lacking.
  • Group socialization refers to the process of teaching and learning the norms, rules, and expectations associated with group interaction and group member behaviors. Group members are socialized by receiving technical and social information. Cohesion plays a role in socialization, as groups that have high levels of task and social cohesion are more likely to buy into the norms of the group. Socialization continues after a member has joined, as members are officially or unofficially rewarded or punished for adhering to or deviating from the group’s norms.
  • Conformity pressures are an important force behind group socialization. Internal pressures such as an internal drive to be seen as part of the group or to avoid feeling ashamed or guilty for deviating from the group influence behavior and communication. Likewise, external pressures such as group policies and the potential for reward or punishment also play into group dynamics. The pressures toward conformity can manifest in groupthink, which is characterized by a lack of critical evaluation of proposed ideas, a high level of agreement, and a fear of argument.

• Groups experience different kinds of conflict, including procedural, substantive, and interpersonal conflict.

o Procedural conflict emerges from disagreements or trouble with the mechanics of group operations and deal with questions about “how” a group should do something. A leader may be able to resolve this conflict by changing or explaining a procedure or taking, from group members, proposals for or votes on procedural revisions.

o Substantive conflict focuses on group members’ differing beliefs, attitudes, values, or ideas related to the purpose or task of the group. Leaders and other group members should avoid closing off this type of conflict before people have had a chance to be heard, as a lack of substantive conflict can lead to groupthink. Instead, listen to all viewpoints, try to find common ground, and then weigh and evaluate the information as a group.

o Interpersonal conflict emerges from personal conflict between individual members of a group. Manage interpersonal conflict by getting to the root cause of the conflict. In some cases, interpersonal conflict may be disguised as procedural or substantive conflict, or it may develop as a result of poorly managed procedural or substantive conflict. Leaders, group members not directly involved in the conflict, or even outside third parties may also be able to effectively mediate interpersonal conflict.


1. Group cohesion and climate are important dynamics within a small group. Identify and then compare and contrast a current or former small group that was cohesive and one that was not cohesive, including a discussion of how the presence or lack of cohesion affected the group’s climate.

2. Groupthink is a negative group dynamic that relates to cohesion and conformity pressures. Several historic events with far-reaching and devastating implications have been analyzed through the lens of groupthink. Choose one of the following examples, and do some Internet

research on your own. Then explain how groupthink played a role in the

o The Watergate scandal and cover-up (1972–74)
o The space shuttle Challenger explosion (1986)
o The rationale for the invasion of Iraq—specifically the supposed existence

of weapons of mass destruction (2001–2)

3. Getting integrated: How might you handle group conflict differently in an academic context versus a professional context? Why? Include a reference to a specific type of conflict discussed in this section and discuss which conflict management strategies discussed in the chapter might be best in each context.

Chapter 14

Leadership, Roles, and Problem Solving in Groups

What makes a good leader? What are some positive and negative roles that people play in groups? How do groups solve problems and make decisions in order to accomplish their task? This chapter will begin to answer those questions, because leadership and group member roles influence the performance of small groups. Whether you consider yourself a leader or not, all members of a group can perform leadership functions, and being familiar with these behaviors can improve your group’s performance. Likewise, knowing the various roles that typically emerge in a group can help you better understand a group’s dynamics and hopefully improve your overall group experience.

14.1 Leadership and Small Group Communication


Leadership is one of the most studied aspects of group communication. Scholars in business, communication, psychology, and many other fields have written extensively about the qualities of leaders, theories of leadership, and how to build leadership skills. It’s important to point out that although a group may have only one official leader, other group members play important leadership roles. Making this distinction also helps us differentiate between leaders and leadership.Owen Hargie,Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and

  1. Discuss the various perspectives on how and why people become leaders.
  2. Compare and contrast various leadership styles.
  3. Discuss the types of power that a leader may tap into.

Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 456. Theleader is a group role that is associated with a high-status position and may be formally or informally recognized by group members. Leadership is a complex of beliefs, communication patterns, and behaviors that influence the functioning of a group and move a group toward the completion of its task. A person in the role of leader may provide no or poor leadership. Likewise, a person who is not recognized as a “leader” in title can provide excellent leadership. In the remainder of this section, we will discuss some approaches to the study of leadership, leadership styles, and leadership and group dynamics.

Why and How People Become Leaders

Throughout human history, some people have grown into, taken, or been given positions as leaders. Many early leaders were believed to be divine in some way. In some indigenous cultures, shamans are considered leaders because they are believed to be bridges that can connect the spiritual and physical realms. Many early kings, queens, and military leaders were said to be approved by a god to lead the people. Today, many leaders are elected or appointed to positions of power, but most of them have already accumulated much experience in leadership roles. Some leaders are well respected, some are feared, some are hated, and many elicit some combination of these reactions. This brief overview illustrates the centrality of leadership throughout human history, but it wasn’t until the last hundred years that leadership became an object of systematic study.

Before we move onto specific approaches to studying leadership, let’s distinguish between designated and emergent leaders. In general, some people gravitate more toward leadership roles than others, and some leaders are designated while other are emergent.Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 456. Designated leaders are officially recognized in their leadership role and may be appointed or elected by

people inside or outside the group. Designated leaders can be especially successful when they are sought out by others to fulfill and are then accepted in leadership roles. On the other hand, some people seek out leadership positions not because they possess leadership skills and have been successful leaders in the past but because they have a drive to hold and wield power. Many groups are initially leaderless and must either designate a leader or wait for one to emerge organically. Emergent leaders gain status and respect through engagement with the group and its task and are turned to by others as a resource when leadership is needed. Emergent leaders may play an important role when a designated leader unexpectedly leaves. We will now turn our attention to three common perspectives on why some people are more likely to be designated leaders than others and how leaders emerge in the absence of or in addition to a designated leader.

Leaders Emerge Because of Their Traits

The trait approach to studying leadership distinguishes leaders from followers based on traits, or personal characteristics.Charles Pavitt, “Theorizing about the Group Communication-Leadership Relationship,” inThe Handbook of Group Communication Theory and Research, ed. Lawrence R. Frey (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999), 313. Some traits that leaders, in general, share are related to physical appearance, communication ability, intelligence, and personality.John F. Cragan and David W. Wright,Communication in Small Group Discussions: An Integrated Approach, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1991), 120. In terms of physical appearance, designated leaders tend to be taller and more attractive than other group members. This could be because we consciously and/or subconsciously associate a larger size (in terms of height and build, but not body fat) with strength and strength with good leadership. As far as communication abilities, leaders speak more fluently, have a more confident tone, and communicate more often than other group members. Leaders are also

moderately more intelligent than other group members, which is attractive because leaders need good problem-solving skills. Interestingly, group members are not as likely to designate or recognize an emergent leader that they perceive to be exceedingly more intelligent than them. Last, leaders are usually more extroverted, assertive, and persistent than other group members. These personality traits help get these group members noticed by others, and expressivity is often seen as attractive and as a sign of communication competence.

The trait approach to studying leaders has provided some useful information regarding how people view ideal leaders, but it has not provided much insight into why some people become and are more successful leaders than others. The list of ideal traits is not final, because excellent leaders can have few, if any, of these traits and poor leaders can possess many. Additionally, these traits are difficult to change or control without much time and effort. Because these traits are enduring, there isn’t much room for people to learn and develop leadership skills, which makes this approach less desirable for communication scholars who view leadership as a communication competence. Rather than viewing these traits as a guide for what to look for when choosing your next leader, view them as traits that are made meaningful through context and communication behaviors.

Leaders Emerge Because of the Situation

The emergent approach to studying leadership considers how leaders emerge in groups that are initially leaderless and how situational contexts affect this process.Charles Pavitt, “Theorizing about the Group Communication-Leadership Relationship,” in The Handbook of Group Communication Theory and Research, ed. Lawrence R. Frey (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999), 314. The situational context that surrounds a group influences what type of leader is best.

Situations may be highly structured, highly unstructured, or anywhere in between.John F. Cragan and David W. Wright, Communication in Small Group Discussions: An Integrated Approach, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1991), 126.Research has found that leaders with a high task orientation are likely to emerge in both highly structured contexts like a group that works to maintain a completely automated factory unit and highly unstructured contexts like a group that is responding to a crisis. Relational-oriented leaders are more likely to emerge in semistructured contexts that are less formal and in groups composed of people who have specific knowledge and are therefore be trusted to do much of their work independently.Fred E. Fiedler, A Theory of Leadership

Effectiveness (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967). For example, a group of local business owners who form a group for professional networking would likely prefer a leader with a relational-oriented style, since these group members are likely already leaders in their own right and therefore might resent a person who takes a rigid task-oriented style over a more collegial style.

Leaders emerge differently in different groups, but there are two stages common to each scenario.Ernest G. Bormann and Nancy C. Bormann, Effective Small Group Communication, 4th ed. (Santa Rosa, CA: Burgess CA, 1988), 130–33. The first stage only covers a brief period, perhaps no longer than a portion of one meeting. During this first stage, about half of the group’s members are eliminated from the possibility of being the group’s leader. Remember that this is an informal and implicit process—not like people being picked for a kickball team or intentionally vetted. But there are some communicative behaviors that influence who makes the cut to the next stage of informal leader consideration. People will likely be eliminated as leader candidates if they do not actively contribute to initial group interactions, if they contribute but communicate poorly, if they contribute but appear too rigid or inflexible in their beliefs, or if they seem uninformed about the task of the group.

The second stage of leader emergence is where a more or less pronounced struggle for leadership begins. In one scenario, a leader candidate picks up an ally in the group who acts as a supporter or lieutenant, reinforcing the ideas and contributions of the candidate. If there are no other leader candidates or the others fail to pick up a supporter, the candidate with the supporter will likely become the leader. In a second scenario, there are two leader candidates who both pick up supporters and who are both qualified leaders. This leads to a more intense and potentially prolonged struggle that can actually be uncomfortable for other group members. Although the two leader candidates don’t overtly fight with each other or say, “I should be leader, not you!” they both take strong stances in regards to the group’s purpose and try to influence the structure, procedures, and trajectory for the group. Group members not involved in this struggle may not know who to listen to, which can lead to low task and social cohesion and may cause a group to fail. In some cases, one candidate-supporter team will retreat, leaving a clear leader to step up. But the candidate who retreated will still enjoy a relatively high status in the group and be respected for vying for leadership. The second-place candidate may become a nuisance for the new emergent leader, questioning his or her decisions. Rather than excluding or punishing the second- place candidate, the new leader should give him or her responsibilities within the group to make use of the group member’s respected status.

Leaders Emerge Based on Communication Skill and Competence

This final approach to the study of leadership is considered a functional approach, because it focuses on how particular communication behaviors function to create the conditions of leadership. This last approach is the most useful for communication scholars and for people who want to improve their leadership skills, because leadership behaviors (which are learnable and adaptable) rather than traits or situations (which are often beyond our control) are the primary focus of study. As we’ve already learned, any group member can

exhibit leadership behaviors, not just a designated or emergent leader. Therefore leadership behaviors are important for all of us to understand even if we don’t anticipate serving in leadership positions.John F. Cragan and David W.
Wright, Communication in Small Group Discussions: An Integrated Approach, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1991), 126.

The communication behaviors that facilitate effective leadership encompass three main areas of group communication including task, procedural, and relational functions. Although any group member can perform leadership behaviors, groups usually have patterns of and expectations for behaviors once they get to the norming and performing stages of group development. Many groups only meet one or two times, and in these cases it is likely that a designated leader will perform many of the functions to get the group started and then step in to facilitate as needed.

Leadership behaviors that contribute to a group’s task-related functions include providing, seeking, and evaluating information. Leaders may want to be cautious about contributing ideas before soliciting ideas from group members, since the leader’s contribution may sway or influence others in the group, therefore diminishing the importance of varying perspectives. Likewise a leader may want to solicit evaluation of ideas from members before providing his or her own judgment. In group situations where creativity is needed to generate ideas or solutions to a problem, the task leader may be wise to facilitate brainstorming and discussion.

This can allow the leader to keep his or her eye on the “big picture” and challenge group members to make their ideas more concrete or discuss their implications beyond the group without adding his or her own opinion. To review, some of the key leadership behaviors that contribute to the task-related functions of a group include the following:John F. Cragan and David W. Wright, Communication in

Small Group Discussions: An Integrated Approach, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1991), 131–32.

  • Contributing ideas
  • Seeking ideas
  • Evaluating ideas
  • Seeking idea evaluation
  • Visualizing abstract ideas
  • Generalizing from specific ideasLeadership behaviors that contribute to a group’s procedural-related functions help guide the group as it proceeds from idea generation to implementation. Some leaders are better at facilitating and managing ideas than they are at managing the administrative functions of a group. So while a group leader may help establish the goals of the group and set the agenda, another group member with more experience in group operations may step in to periodically revisit and assess progress toward completion of goals and compare the group’s performance against its agenda. It’s also important to check in between idea-generating sessions to clarify, summarize, and gauge the agreement level of group members. A very skilled and experienced leader may take primary responsibility for all these behaviors, but it’s often beneficial to share them with group members to avoid becoming overburdened. To review, some of the key leadership behaviors that contribute to the procedural functions of a group include the following:John F. Cragan and David W. Wright, Communication in Small Group Discussions: An Integrated Approach, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1991), 132–34.
  • Goal setting
  • Agenda making
  • Clarifying
  • Summarizing
  • Verbalizing consensus
  • Generalizing from specific ideasLeadership behaviors that contribute to a group’s relational functions include creating a participative and inclusive climate, establishing norms of reflection and self-analysis, and managing conflict. By encouraging participation among group members, a leader can help quell people who try to monopolize discussion and create an overall climate of openness and equality. Leaders want to make sure that people don’t feel personally judged for their ideas and that criticism remains idea centered, not person centered. A safe and positive climate typically leads to higher-quality idea generation and decision making. Leaders also encourage group members to metacommunicate, or talk about the group’s communication. This can help the group identify and begin to address any interpersonal or communication issues before they escalate and divert the group away from accomplishing its goal. A group with a well-established participative and inclusive climate will be better prepared to handle conflict when it emerges. Remember that conflict when handled competently can enhance group performance. Leaders may even instigate productive conflict by playing devil’s advocate or facilitating civil debate of ideas. To review, some of the key leadership behaviors that contribute to the relational functions of a group include the following:John F. Cragan and David W. Wright, Communication in Small Group Discussions: An Integrated Approach, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1991), 134–36.
  • Regulating participation
  • Climate making
  • Instigating group self-analysis
  • Resolving conflict
  • Instigating productive conflict

Leadership Styles

Given the large amount of research done on leadership, it is not surprising that there are several different ways to define or categorize leadership styles. In general, effective leaders do not fit solely into one style in any of the following classifications. Instead, they are able to adapt their leadership style to fit the relational and situational context.Julia T. Wood, “Leading in Purposive Discussions: A Study of Adaptive Behavior,” Communication Monographs 44, no. 2 (1977): 152–65. One common way to study leadership style is to make a distinction among autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire leaders.Kurt Lewin, Ronald Lippitt, and Ralph K. White, “Patterns of Aggressive Behavior in Experimentally Created ‘Social Climates,’” Journal of Social Psychology 10, no. 2 (1939): 269–99. These leadership styles can be described as follows:

  • Autocratic leaders set policies and make decisions primarily on their own, taking advantage of the power present in their title or status to set the agenda for the group.
  • Democratic leaders facilitate group discussion and like to take input from all members before making a decision.
  • Laissez-faire leaders take a “hands-off” approach, preferring to give group members freedom to reach and implement their own decisions.While this is a frequently cited model of leadership styles, we will focus in more detail on a model that was developed a few years after this one. I choose to focus on this later model because it offers some more specifics in terms of the communicative elements of each leadership style. The four leadership styles used in this model are directive, participative, supportive, and achievement oriented.Robert J. House and Terrence R. Mitchell, “Path-Goal Theory of Leadership,” Journal of Contemporary Business3 (1974): 81–97.

Directive Leaders

Directive leaders help provide psychological structure for their group members by clearly communicating expectations, keeping a schedule and agenda, providing specific guidance as group members work toward the completion of their task, and taking the lead on setting and communicating group rules and procedures. Although this is most similar to the autocratic leadership style mentioned before, it is more nuanced and flexible. The originators of this model note that a leader can be directive without being seen as authoritarian. To do this, directive leaders must be good motivators who encourage productivity through positive reinforcement or reward rather than through the threat of punishment.

A directive leadership style is effective in groups that do not have a history and may require direction to get started on their task. It can also be the most appropriate method during crisis situations in which decisions must be made under time constraints or other extraordinary pressures. When groups have an established history and are composed of people with unique skills and expertise, a directive approach may be seen as “micromanaging.” In these groups, a more participative style may be the best option.

Participative Leaders

Participative leaders work to include group members in the decision-making process by soliciting and considering their opinions and suggestions. When group members feel included, their personal goals are more likely to align with the group and organization’s goals, which can help productivity. This style of leadership can also aid in group member socialization, as the members feel like they get to help establish group norms and rules, which affects cohesion and climate. When group members participate more, they buy into the group’s norms and goals more, which can increase conformity pressures for incoming group

members. As we learned earlier, this is good to a point, but it can become negative when the pressures lead to unethical group member behavior. In addition to consulting group members for help with decision making, participative leaders also grant group members more freedom to work independently. This can lead group members to feel trusted and respected for their skills, which can increase their effort and output.

The participative method of leadership is similar to the democratic style discussed earlier, and it is a style of leadership practiced in many organizations that have established work groups that meet consistently over long periods of time. US companies began to adopt a more participative and less directive style of management in the 1980s after organizational scholars researched teamwork and efficiency in Japanese corporations. Japanese managers included employees in decision making, which blurred the line between the leader and other group members and enhanced productivity. These small groups were called quality circles, because they focused on group interaction intended to improve quality and productivity.John F. Cragan and David W. Wright, Communication in Small Group Discussions: An Integrated Approach, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1991), 122–23.

Supportive Leaders

Supportive leaders show concern for their followers’ needs and emotions. They want to support group members’ welfare through a positive and friendly group climate. These leaders are good at reducing the stress and frustration of the group, which helps create a positive climate and can help increase group members’ positive feelings about the task and other group members. As we will learn later, some group roles function to maintain the relational climate of the group, and several group members often perform these role behaviors. With a supportive leader as a model, such behaviors would likely be performed as part of

established group norms, which can do much to enhance social cohesion. Supportive leaders do not provide unconditionally positive praise. They also competently provide constructive criticism in order to challenge and enhance group members’ contributions.

A supportive leadership style is more likely in groups that are primarily relational rather than task focused. For example, support groups and therapy groups benefit from a supportive leader. While maintaining positive relationships is an important part of any group’s functioning, most task-oriented groups need to spend more time on task than social functions in order to efficiently work toward the completion of their task. Skilled directive or participative leaders of task- oriented groups would be wise to employ supportive leadership behaviors when group members experience emotional stress to prevent relational stress from negatively impacting the group’s climate and cohesion.

Achievement-Oriented Leaders

Achievement-oriented leaders strive for excellence and set challenging goals, constantly seeking improvement and exhibiting confidence that group members can meet their high expectations. These leaders often engage in systematic social comparison, keeping tabs on other similar high-performing groups to assess their expectations and the group’s progress. This type of leadership is similar to what other scholars call transformational or visionary leadership and is often associated with leaders like former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, talk show host and television network CEO Oprah Winfrey, former president Bill Clinton, and business magnate turned philanthropist Warren Buffett. Achievement-oriented leaders are likely less common than the other styles, as this style requires a high level of skill and commitment on the part of the leader and the group. Although rare, these leaders can be found at all levels of groups ranging from local school boards to Fortune 500 companies. Certain group dynamics must be in place in

order to accommodate this leadership style. Groups for which an achievement- oriented leadership style would be effective are typically intentionally created and are made up of members who are skilled and competent in regards to the group’s task. In many cases, the leader is specifically chosen because of his or her reputation and expertise, and even though the group members may not have a history of working with the leader, the members and leader must have a high degree of mutual respect.

“Getting Plugged In”

Steve Jobs as an Achievement-Oriented Leader

“Where can you find a leader with Jobs’ willingness to fail, his sheer tenacity, persistence, and resiliency, his grandiose ego, his overwhelming belief in himself?”Alan Deutschman, “Exit the King,” The Daily Beast, September 21, 2011, accessed August 23, 2012,http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/08/28/steve-jobs- american-genius.html. This closing line of an article following the death of Steve Jobs clearly illustrates the larger-than-life personality and extraordinary drive of achievement-oriented leaders. Jobs, who founded Apple Computers, was widely recognized as a visionary with a brilliant mind during his early years at the helm of Apple (from 1976 to 1985), but he hadn’t yet gained respect as a business leader. Jobs left the company and later returned in 1997. After his return, Apple reached its height under his leadership, which was now enhanced by business knowledge and skills he gained during his time away from the company. The fact that Jobs was able to largely teach himself the ins and outs of business practices is a quality of achievement-oriented leaders, who are constantly self-reflective and evaluate their skills and performance, making adaptations as necessary.

Achievement-oriented leaders also often possess good instincts, allowing them to make decisions quickly while acknowledging the potential for failure but also showing a resiliency that allows them to bounce back from mistakes and come back stronger. Rather than bringing in panels of experts, presenting ideas to focus groups for feedback, or putting a new product through market research and testing, Jobs relied on his instincts, which led to some embarrassing failures and some remarkable successes that overshadowed the failures. Although Jobs made unilateral decisions, he relied heavily on the creative and technical expertise of others who worked for him and were able to make his creative, innovative, and some say genius ideas reality. As do other achievement-oriented leaders, Jobs held his group members to exceptionally high standards and fostered a culture that mirrored his own perfectionism. Constant comparisons to other technological innovators like Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, pushed Jobs and those who worked for him to work tirelessly to produce the “next big thing.” Achievement-oriented leaders like Jobs have been described as maniacal, intense, workaholics, perfectionists, risk takers, narcissists, innovative, and visionary. These descriptors carry positive and negative connotations but often yield amazing results when possessed by a leader, the likes of which only seldom come around.

  1. Do you think Jobs could have been as successful had he employed one of the other leadership styles? Why or why not? How might the achievement- oriented leadership style be well suited for a technology company like Apple or the technology field in general?
  2. In what circumstances would you like to work for an achievement-oriented leader, and why? In what circumstances would you prefer not to work with an achievement-oriented leader, and why?
  3. Do some research on another achievement-oriented leader. Discuss how that leader’s traits are similar to and/or different from those of Steve Jobs.

Leadership and Power

Leaders help move group members toward the completion of their goal using various motivational strategies. The types of power leaders draw on to motivate have long been a topic of small group study. A leader may possess or draw on any of the following five types of power to varying degrees: legitimate, expert, referent, information, and reward/coercive.John R. P. French Jr. and Bertram Raven, “The Bases of Social Power,” in Studies in Social Power, ed. Dorwin Cartwright (Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research, 1959), 150–

67. Effective leaders do not need to possess all five types of power. Instead, competent leaders know how to draw on other group members who may be better able to exercise a type of power in a given situation.

Legitimate Power

The very title of leader brings with it legitimate power, which is power that flows from the officially recognized position, status, or title of a group member. For example, the leader of the “Social Media Relations Department” of a retail chain receives legitimate power through the title “director of social media relations.” It is important to note though that being designated as someone with status or a position of power doesn’t mean that the group members respect or recognize that power. Even with a title, leaders must still earn the ability to provide leadership. Of the five types of power, however, the leader alone is most likely to possess legitimate power.

Expert Power

Expert power comes from knowledge, skill, or expertise that a group member possesses and other group members do not. For example, even though all the workers in the Social Media Relations Department have experience with computers, the information technology (IT) officer has expert power when it

comes to computer networking and programming. Because of this, even though the director may have a higher status, she or he must defer to the IT officer when the office network crashes. A leader who has legitimate and expert power may be able to take a central role in setting the group’s direction, contributing to problem solving, and helping the group achieve its goal. In groups with a designated leader who relies primarily on legitimate power, a member with a significant amount of expert power may emerge as an unofficial secondary leader.

Referent Power

Referent power comes from the attractiveness, likeability, and charisma of the group member. As we learned earlier, more physically attractive people and more outgoing people are often chosen as leaders. This could be due to their referent power. Referent power also derives from a person’s reputation. A group member may have referent power if he or she is well respected outside of the group for previous accomplishments or even because he or she is known as a dependable and capable group member. Like legitimate power, the fact that a person possesses referent power doesn’t mean he or she has the talent, skill, or other characteristic needed to actually lead the group. A person could just be likable but have no relevant knowledge about the group’s task or leadership experience. Some groups actually desire this type of leader, especially if the person is meant to attract external attention and serve as more of a “figurehead” than a regularly functioning group member. For example, a group formed to raise funds for a science and nature museum may choose a former mayor, local celebrity, or NASA astronaut as their leader because of his or her referent power. In this situation it would probably be best for the group to have a secondary leader who attends to task and problem-solving functions within the group.

Information Power

Information power comes from a person’s ability to access information that comes through informal channels and well-established social and professional networks. We have already learned that information networks are an important part of a group’s structure and can affect a group’s access to various resources. When a group member is said to have “know how,” they possess information power. The knowledge may not always be official, but it helps the group solve problems and get things done. Individuals develop information power through years of interacting with others, making connections, and building and maintaining interpersonal and instrumental relationships. For example, the group formed to raise funds for the science and nature museum may need to draw on informal information networks to get leads on potential donors, to get information about what local science teachers would recommend for exhibits, or to book a band willing to perform for free at a fundraising concert.

Reward and Coercive Power

The final two types of power, reward and coercive, are related. Reward
power comes from the ability of a group member to provide a positive incentive as a compliance-gaining strategy, and coercive power comes from the ability of a group member to provide a negative incentive. These two types of power can be difficult for leaders and other group members to manage, because their use can lead to interpersonal conflict. Reward power can be used by nearly any group member if he or she gives another group member positive feedback on an idea, an appreciation card for hard work, or a pat on the back. Because of limited resources, many leaders are frustrated by their inability to give worthwhile tangible rewards to group members such as prizes, bonuses, or raises. Additionally, the use of reward power may seem corny or paternalistic to some or may arouse accusations of favoritism or jealousy among group members who don’t receive the award.

Coercive power, since it entails punishment or negative incentive, can lead to interpersonal conflict and a negative group climate if it is overused or used improperly. While any leader or group member could make threats to others, leaders with legitimate power are typically in the best position to use coercive power. In such cases, coercive power may manifest in loss of pay and/or privileges, being excluded from the group, or being fired (if the group work is job related). In many volunteer groups or groups that lack formal rules and procedures, leaders have a more difficult time using coercive power, since they can’t issue official punishments. Instead, coercive power will likely take the form of interpersonal punishments such as ignoring group members or excluding them from group activities.

“Getting Real”

Leadership as the Foundation of a Career

As we’ve already learned, leaders share traits, some more innate and naturally tapped into than others. Successful leaders also develop and refine leadership skills and behaviors that they are not “born with.” Since much of leadership is skill and behavior based, it is never too early to start developing yourself as a leader. Whether you are planning to start your first career path fresh out of college, you’ve returned to college in order to switch career paths, or you’re in college to help you advance more quickly in your current career path, you should have already been working on your leadership skills for years; it’s not something you want to start your first day on the new job. Since leaders must be able to draw from a wealth of personal experience in order to solve problems, relate to others, and motivate others to achieve a task, you should start to seek out leadership positions in school and/or community groups. Since you may not yet be sure of your exact career path, try to get a variety of positions over a few years that are generally transferrable to professional contexts. In these roles, work on building a

reputation as an ethical leader and as a leader who takes responsibility rather than playing the “blame game.” Leaders still have to be good team players and often have to take on roles and responsibilities that other group members do not want. Instead of complaining or expecting recognition for your “extra work,” accept these responsibilities enthusiastically and be prepared for your hard work to go unnoticed. Much of what a good leader does occurs in the background and isn’t publicly praised or acknowledged. Even when the group succeeds because of your hard work as the leader, you still have to be willing to share that praise with others who helped, because even though you may have worked the hardest, you didn’t do it alone.

As you build up your experience and reputation as a leader, be prepared for your workload to grow and your interpersonal communication competence to become more important. Once you’re in your career path, you can draw on this previous leadership experience and volunteer or step up when the need arises, which can help you get noticed. Of course, you have to be able to follow through on your commitment, which takes discipline and dedication. While you may be excited to prove your leadership chops in your new career path, I caution you about taking on too much too fast. It’s easy for a young and/or new member of a work team to become overcommitted, as more experienced group members are excited to have a person to share some of their work responsibilities with. Hopefully, your previous leadership experience will give you confidence that your group members will notice. People are attracted to confidence and want to follow people who exhibit it. Aside from confidence, good leaders also develop dynamism, which is a set of communication behaviors that conveys enthusiasm and creates an energetic and positive climate. Once confidence and dynamism have attracted a good team of people, good leaders facilitate quality interaction among group members, build cohesion, and capitalize on the synergy of group communication in order to come up with forward-thinking solutions to problems. Good leaders

also continue to build skills in order to become better leaders. Leaders are excellent observers of human behavior and are able to assess situations using contextual clues and nonverbal communication. They can then use this knowledge to adapt their communication to the situation. Leaders also have a high degree of emotional intelligence, which allows them to better sense, understand, and respond to others’ emotions and to have more control over their own displays of emotions. Last, good leaders further their careers by being reflexive and regularly evaluating their strengths and weaknesses as a leader. Since our perceptions are often skewed, it’s also good to have colleagues and mentors/supervisors give you formal evaluations of your job performance, making explicit comments about leadership behaviors. As you can see, the work of a leader only grows more complex as one moves further along a career path. But with the skills gained through many years of increasingly challenging leadership roles, a leader can adapt to and manage this increasing complexity.

  1. What leadership positions have you had so far? In what ways might they prepare you for more complex and career-specific leadership positions you may have later?
  2. What communication competencies do you think are most important for a leader to have and why? How do you rate in terms of the competencies you ranked as most important?
  3. Who do you know who would be able to give you constructive feedback on your leadership skills? What do you think this person would say? (You may want to consider actually asking the person for feedback).


• Leaders fulfill a group role that is associated with status and power within the group that may be formally or informally recognized by people inside and/or outside of the group. While there are usually only one or two official leaders

within a group, all group members can perform leadership functions, which are a complex of beliefs, communication patterns, and behaviors that influence the functioning of a group and move a group toward the completion of its tasks.

• There are many perspectives on how and why people become leaders: o Designated leaders are officially recognized in their leadership role and

may be appointed or elected.
o Emergent leaders gain status and respect through engagement with the

group and its task and are turned to by others as a resource when

leadership is needed.
o The trait approach to studying leadership distinguishes leaders from

followers based on traits or personal characteristics, such as physical appearance, communication ability, intelligence, and personality. While this approach is useful for understanding how people conceptualize ideal leaders, it doesn’t offer communication scholars much insight into how leadership can be studied and developed as a skill.

o Situational context also affects how leaders emerge. Different leadership styles and skills are needed based on the level of structure surrounding a group and on how group interactions play out in initial meetings and whether or not a leadership struggle occurs.

o Leaders also emerge based on communication skill and competence, as certain communication behaviors function to create the conditions of leadership. This approach is most useful to communication scholars, because in it leadership is seen as a set of communication behaviors that are learnable and adaptable rather than traits or situational factors, which are often beyond our control.

• Leaders can adopt a directive, participative, supportive, or achievement- oriented style.

o Directive leaders help provide psychological structure for their group members by clearly communicating expectations, keeping a schedule and agenda, providing specific guidance as group members work toward the completion of their task, and taking the lead on setting and communicating group rules and procedures.

o Participative leaders work to include group members in the decision- making process by soliciting and considering their opinions and suggestions.

o Supportive leaders show concern for their followers’ needs and emotions. o Achievement-oriented leaders strive for excellence and set challenging

goals, constantly seeking improvement and exhibiting confidence that group members can meet their high expectations.

• Leaders and other group members move their groups toward success and/or the completion of their task by tapping into various types of power.

o Legitimate power flows from the officially recognized power, status, or title of a group member.

o Expert power comes from knowledge, skill, or expertise that a group member possesses and other group members do not.

o Referent power comes from the attractiveness, likeability, and charisma of the group member.

o Information power comes from a person’s ability to access information that comes through informal channels and well-established social and professional networks.

o Reward power comes from the ability of a group member to provide a positive incentive as a compliance-gaining strategy, and coercive power comes from the ability of a group member to provide a negative incentive (punishment).


  1. In what situations would a designated leader be better than an emergent leader, and vice versa? Why?
  2. Think of a leader that you currently work with or have worked with who made a strong (positive or negative) impression on you. Which leadership style did he or she use most frequently? Cite specific communication behaviors to back up your analysis.
  3. Getting integrated: Teachers are often viewed as leaders in academic contexts along with bosses/managers in professional, politicians/elected officials in civic, and parents in personal contexts. For each of these leaders and contexts, identify some important leadership qualities that each should possess, and discuss some of the influences in each context that may affect the leader and his or her leadership style.

14.2 Group Member Roles


Just as leaders have been long studied as a part of group communication research, so too have group member roles. Group roles are more dynamic than leadership roles in that a role can be formal or informal and played by more than one group member. Additionally, one group member may exhibit various role behaviors within a single group meeting or play a few consistent roles over the course of his or her involvement with a group. Some people’s role behaviors result from their personality traits, while other people act out a certain role because of a short-term mood, as a reaction to another group member, or out of

  1. Identify and discuss task-related group roles and behaviors.
  2. Identify and discuss maintenance group roles and behaviors.
  3. Identify and discuss negative group roles and behaviors.

necessity. Group communication scholars have cautioned us to not always think of these roles as neatly bounded all-inclusive categories. After all, we all play multiple roles within a group and must draw on multiple communication behaviors in order to successfully play them. When someone continually exhibits a particular behavior, it may be labeled as a role, but even isolated behaviors can impact group functioning. In this section, we will discuss the three categories of common group roles that were identified by early group communication scholars. These role categories include task-related roles, maintenance roles, and individual roles that are self-centered or unproductive for the group.Kenneth D. Benne and Paul Sheats, “Functional Roles of Group Members,” Journal of Social Issues 4, no. 2 (1948): 41–49.

Task-Related Roles and Behaviors

Task roles and their related behaviors contribute directly to the group’s completion of a task or achievement of its goal or purpose. Task-related roles typically serve leadership, informational, or procedural functions. In this section we will discuss the following roles and behaviors: task leader, expediter, information provider, information seeker, gatekeeper, and recorder.

Task Leader

Within any group, there may be a task leader who has a high group status because of his or her maturity, problem-solving abilities, knowledge, and/or leadership experience and skills and functions primarily to help the group complete its task.John F. Cragan and David W. Wright, Communication in Small Group Discussions: An Integrated Approach, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1991), 147. This person may be a designated or emergent leader, but in either case, task leaders tend to talk more during group interactions than other group members and also tend to do more work in the group. Depending on the

number of tasks a group has, there may be more than one task leader, especially if the tasks require different sets of skills or knowledge. Because of the added responsibilities of being a task leader, people in these roles may experience higher levels of stress. A task leader’s stresses, however, may be lessened through some of the maintenance role behaviors that we will discuss later.

Task-leader behaviors can be further divided into two types: substantive and procedural.Charles Pavitt, “Theorizing about the Group Communication- Leadership Relationship,” in The Handbook of Group Communication Theory and Research, ed. Lawrence R. Frey (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999), 317. The substantive leader is the “idea person” who communicates “big picture” thoughts and suggestions that feed group discussion. The procedural leader is the person who gives the most guidance, perhaps following up on the ideas generated by the substantive leader. A skilled and experienced task leader may be able to perform both of these roles, but when the roles are filled by two different people, the person considered the procedural leader is more likely than the substantive leader to be viewed by members as the overall group leader. This indicates that task-focused groups assign more status to the person who actually guides the group toward the completion of the task (a “doer”) than the person who comes up with ideas (the “thinker”).


The expediter is a task-related role that functions to keep the group on track toward completing its task by managing the agenda and setting and assessing goals in order to monitor the group’s progress. An expediter doesn’t push group members mindlessly along toward the completion of their task; an expediter must have a good sense of when a topic has been sufficiently discussed or when a group’s extended focus on one area has led to diminishing returns. In such cases, the expediter may say, “Now that we’ve had a thorough discussion of the pros and

cons of switching the office from PCs to Macs, which side do you think has more support?” or “We’ve spent half of this meeting looking for examples of what other libraries have done and haven’t found anything useful. Maybe we should switch gears so we can get something concrete done tonight.”

If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you’re probably familiar with an expediter’s role in the kitchen. The person working “expo” helps make sure that the timing on all the dishes for a meal works out and that each plate is correct before it goes out to the table. This is by no means an easy job, since some entrées cook quicker than others and not everyone orders their burger the same way. So the expediter helps make order out of chaos by calling the food out to the kitchen in a particular order that logically works so that all the food will come up at the same time. Once the food is up, he or she also checks what’s on the plate against what’s on the ticket to make sure it matches. Expediting in a restaurant and in a small group is like a dance that requires some flexible and creative thinking and an ability to stick to a time frame and assess progress. To avoid the perception that group members are being rushed, a skilled expediter can demonstrate good active-listening skills by paraphrasing what has been discussed and summarizing what has been accomplished in such a way that makes it easier for group members to see the need to move on.

Information Provider

The role of information provider includes behaviors that are more evenly shared than in other roles, as ideally, all group members present new ideas, initiate discussions of new topics, and contribute their own relevant knowledge and experiences. When group members are brought together because they each have different types of information, early group meetings may consist of group members taking turns briefing each other on their area of expertise. In other situations, only one person in the group may be chosen because of his or her

specialized knowledge and this person may be expected to be the primary information provider for all other group members. For example, I was asked to serve on a university committee that is reviewing our undergraduate learning goals. Since my official role is to serve as the “faculty expert” on the subcommittee related to speaking, I played a more central information-provider function for our group during most of our initial meetings. Since other people on the subcommittee weren’t as familiar with speaking and its place within higher education curriculum, it made sense that information-providing behaviors were not as evenly distributed in this case.

Information Seeker

The information seeker asks for more information, elaboration, or clarification on items relevant to the group’s task. The information sought may include factual information or group member opinions. In general, information seekers ask questions for clarification, but they can also ask questions that help provide an important evaluative function. Most groups could benefit from more critically oriented information-seeking behaviors. As our discussion of groupthink notes, critical questioning helps increase the quality of ideas and group outcomes and helps avoid groupthink. By asking for more information, people have to defend (in a nonadversarial way) and/or support their claims, which can help ensure that the information being discussed is credible, relevant, and thoroughly considered. When information seeking or questioning occurs as a result of poor listening skills, it risks negatively impacting the group. Skilled information providers and seekers are also good active listeners. They increase all group members’ knowledge when they paraphrase and ask clarifying questions about the information presented.


The gatekeeper manages the flow of conversation in a group in order to achieve an appropriate balance so that all group members get to participate in a meaningful way. The gatekeeper may prompt others to provide information by saying something like “Let’s each share one idea we have for a movie to show during Black History Month.” He or she may also help correct an imbalance between members who have provided much information already and members who have been quiet by saying something like “Aretha, we’ve heard a lot from you today. Let’s hear from someone else. Beau, what are your thoughts on Aretha’s suggestion?” Gatekeepers should be cautious about “calling people out” or at least making them feel that way. Instead of scolding someone for not participating, they should be invitational and ask a member to contribute to something specific instead of just asking if they have anything to add. Since gatekeepers make group members feel included, they also service the relational aspects of the group.


The recorder takes notes on the discussion and activities that occur during a group meeting. The recorder is the only role that is essentially limited to one person at a time since in most cases it wouldn’t be necessary or beneficial to have more than one person recording. At less formal meetings there may be no recorder, while at formal meetings there is almost always a person who records meeting minutes, which are an overview of what occurred at the meeting. Each committee will have different rules or norms regarding the level of detail within and availability of the minutes. While some group’s minutes are required by law to be public, others may be strictly confidential. Even though a record of a group meeting may be valuable, the role of recorder is often regarded as a low-status position, since the person in the role may feel or be viewed as subservient to the other members who are able to more actively contribute to the group’s functioning. Because of this, it may be desirable to have the role of recorder rotate among members.John F. Cragan and David W. Wright, Communication in

Small Group Discussions: An Integrated Approach, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1991), 150.

Maintenance Roles and Behaviors

Maintenance roles and their corresponding behaviors function to create and maintain social cohesion and fulfill the interpersonal needs of group members. All these role behaviors require strong and sensitive interpersonal skills. The maintenance roles we will discuss in this section include social-emotional leader, supporter, tension releaser, harmonizer, and interpreter.

Social-Emotional Leader

The social-emotional leader within a group may perform a variety of maintenance roles and is generally someone who is well liked by the other group members and whose role behaviors complement but don’t compete with the task leader. The social-emotional leader may also reassure and support the task leader when he or she becomes stressed. In general, the social-emotional leader is a reflective thinker who has good perception skills that he or she uses to analyze the group dynamics and climate and then initiate the appropriate role behaviors to maintain a positive climate. Unlike the role of task leader, this isn’t a role that typically shifts from one person to another. While all members of the group perform some maintenance role behaviors at various times, the socioemotional leader reliably functions to support group members and maintain a positive relational climate. Social-emotional leadership functions can actually become detrimental to the group and lead to less satisfaction among members when the maintenance behaviors being performed are seen as redundant or as too distracting from the task.Charles Pavitt, “Theorizing about the Group Communication-Leadership Relationship,” in The Handbook of Group

Communication Theory and Research, ed. Lawrence R. Frey (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999), 318.


The role of supporter is characterized by communication behaviors that encourage other group members and provide emotional support as needed. The supporter’s work primarily occurs in one-on-one exchanges that are more intimate and in-depth than the exchanges that take place during full group meetings. While many group members may make supporting comments publicly at group meetings, these comments are typically superficial and/or brief. A supporter uses active empathetic listening skills to connect with group members who may seem down or frustrated by saying something like “Tayesha, you seemed kind of down today. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” Supporters also follow up on previous conversations with group members to maintain the connections they’ve already established by saying things like “Alan, I remember you said your mom is having surgery this weekend. I hope it goes well. Let me know if you need anything.” The supporter’s communication behaviors are probably the least noticeable of any of the other maintenance roles, which may make this group member’s efforts seem overlooked. Leaders and other group members can help support the supporter by acknowledging his or her contributions.

Tension Releaser

The tension releaser is someone who is naturally funny and sensitive to the personalities of the group and the dynamics of any given situation and who uses these qualities to manage the frustration level of the group. Being funny is not enough to fulfill this role, as jokes or comments could indeed be humorous to other group members but be delivered at an inopportune time, which ultimately

creates rather than releases tension. The healthy use of humor by the tension releaser performs the same maintenance function as the empathy employed by the harmonizer or the social-emotional leader, but it is less intimate and is typically directed toward the whole group instead of just one person. The tension releaser may start serving his or her function during the forming stage of group development when primary tensions are present due to the typical uncertainties present during initial interactions. The tension releaser may help “break the ice” or make others feel at ease during the group’s more socially awkward first meetings. When people make a failed attempt to release tension, they may be viewed as a joker, which is a self-centered role we will learn more about later.


The harmonizer role is played by group members who help manage the various types of group conflict that emerge during group communication. They keep their eyes and ears open for signs of conflict among group members and ideally intervene before it escalates. For example, the harmonizer may sense that one group member’s critique of another member’s idea wasn’t received positively, and he or she may be able to rephrase the critique in a more constructive way, which can help diminish the other group member’s defensiveness. Harmonizers also deescalate conflict once it has already started—for example, by suggesting that the group take a break and then mediating between group members in a side conversation. These actions can help prevent conflict from spilling over into other group interactions. In cases where the whole group experiences conflict, the harmonizer may help lead the group in perception-checking discussions that help members see an issue from multiple perspectives. For a harmonizer to be effective, it’s important that he or she be viewed as impartial and committed to the group as a whole rather than to one side of an issue or one person or faction within the larger group. A special kind of harmonizer that helps manage cultural differences within the group is the interpreter.


An interpreter helps manage the diversity within a group by mediating intercultural conflict, articulating common ground between different people, and generally creating a climate where difference is seen as an opportunity rather than as something to be feared. Just as an interpreter at the United Nations acts as a bridge between two different languages, the interpreter can bridge identity differences between group members. Interpreters can help perform the other maintenance roles discussed with a special awareness of and sensitivity toward cultural differences. While a literal interpreter would serve a task-related function within a group, this type of interpreter may help support a person who feels left out of the group because he or she has a different cultural identity than the majority of the group. Interpreters often act as allies to people who are different even though the interpreter doesn’t share the specific cultural identity. The interpreter may help manage conflict that arises as a result of diversity, in this case, acting like an ambassador or mediator. Interpreters, because of their cultural sensitivity, may also take a proactive role to help address conflict before it emerges—for example, by taking a group member aside and explaining why his or her behavior or comments may be perceived as offensive.

Negative Roles and Behaviors

Group communication scholars began exploring the negative side of group member roles more than sixty years ago.Kenneth D. Benne and Paul Sheats, “Functional Roles of Group Members,” Journal of Social Issues 4, no. 2 (1948): 41–49. Studying these negative roles can help us analyze group interactions and potentially better understand why some groups are more successful than others. It’s important to acknowledge that we all perform some negative behaviors within groups but that those behaviors do not necessarily constitute a role. A person may temporarily monopolize a discussion to bring attention to his or her idea. If

that behavior gets the attention of the group members and makes them realize they were misinformed or headed in a negative direction, then that behavior may have been warranted. Negative behaviors can be enacted with varying degrees of intensity and regularity, and their effects may range from mild annoyance to group failure. In general, the effects grow increasingly negative as they increase in intensity and frequency. While a single enactment of a negative role behavior may still harm the group, regular enactment of such behaviors would constitute a role, and playing that role is guaranteed to negatively impact the group. We will divide our discussion of negative roles into self-centered and unproductive roles.

Self-Centered Roles

The behaviors associated with all the self-centered roles divert attention from the task to the group member exhibiting the behavior. Although all these roles share in their quest to divert attention, they do it in different ways and for different reasons. The self-centered roles we will discuss are the central negative, monopolizer, self-confessor, insecure compliment seeker, and joker.John F. Cragan and David W. Wright, Communication in Small Group Discussions: An Integrated Approach, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1991), 152–53.

Central Negative

The central negative argues against most of the ideas and proposals discussed in the group and often emerges as a result of a leadership challenge during group formation. The failed attempt to lead the group can lead to feelings of resentment toward the leader and/or the purpose of the group, which then manifest in negative behaviors that delay, divert, or block the group’s progress toward achieving its goal. This scenario is unfortunate because the central negative is typically a motivated and intelligent group member who can benefit the group if properly handled by the group leader or other members. Group communication

scholars suggest that the group leader or leaders actively incorporate central negatives into group tasks and responsibilities to make them feel valued and to help diminish any residual anger, disappointment, or hurt feelings from the leadership conflict.Ernest G. Bormann and Nancy C. Bormann, Effective Small Group Communication, 4th ed. (Santa Rosa, CA: Burgess CA, 1988).Otherwise the central negative will continue to argue against the proposals and decisions of the group, even when they may be in agreement. In some cases, the central negative may unintentionally serve a beneficial function if his or her criticisms prevent groupthink.


The monopolizer is a group member who makes excessive verbal contributions, preventing equal participation by other group members. In short, monopolizers like to hear the sound of their own voice and do not follow typical norms for conversational turn taking. There are some people who are well informed, charismatic, and competent communicators who can get away with impromptu lectures and long stories, but monopolizers do not possess the magnetic qualities of such people. A group member’s excessive verbal contributions are more likely to be labeled as monopolizing when they are not related to the task or when they provide unnecessary or redundant elaboration. Some monopolizers do not intentionally speak for longer than they should. Instead, they think they are making a genuine contribution to the group. These folks likely lack sensitivity to nonverbal cues, or they would see that other group members are tired of listening or annoyed. Other monopolizers just like to talk and don’t care what others think. Some may be trying to make up for a lack of knowledge or experience. This type of monopolizer is best described as a dilettante, or an amateur who tries to pass himself or herself off as an expert.

There are some subgroups of behaviors that fall under the monopolizer’s role. The “stage hog” monopolizes discussion with excessive verbal contributions and engages in one-upping and narcissistic listening. One-upping is a spotlight- stealing strategy in which people try to verbally “out-do” others by saying something like “You think that’s bad? Listen to what happened to me!” They also listen to others in order to find something they can connect back to themselves, not to understand the message. The stage hog is like the diva that refuses to leave the stage to let the next performer begin. Unlike a monopolizer, who may engage in his or her behaviors unknowingly, stage hogs are usually aware of what they’re doing.

The “egghead” monopolizes the discussion with excessive contributions that are based in actual knowledge but that exceed the level of understanding of other group members or the needs of the group.John F. Cragan and David W.
Wright, Communication in Small Groups: Theory, Practice, Skills, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999), 142. The egghead is different from the dilettante monopolizer discussed earlier because this person has genuine knowledge and expertise on a subject, which may be useful to the group. But like the monopolizer and stage hog, the egghead’s excessive contributions draw attention away from the task, slow the group down, and may contribute to a negative group climate. The egghead may be like an absentminded professor who is smart but lacks the social sensitivity to tell when he or she has said enough and is now starting to annoy other group members. This type of egghead naively believes that other group members care as much about the subject as he or she does. The second type of egghead is more pompous and monopolizes the discussion to flaunt his or her intellectual superiority. While the first type of egghead may be tolerated to a point by the group and seen as eccentric but valuable, the second type of egghead is perceived more negatively and more quickly hurts the group. In general, the egghead’s advanced knowledge of a

subject and excessive contributions can hurt the group’s potential for synergy, since other group members may defer to the egghead expert, which can diminish the creativity that comes from outside and nonexpert perspectives.


The self-confessor is a group member who tries to use group meetings as therapy sessions for issues not related to the group’s task. Self-confessors tend to make personal self-disclosures that are unnecessarily intimate. While it is reasonable to expect that someone experiencing a personal problem may want to consult with the group, especially if that person has formed close relationships with other group members, a self-confessor consistently comes to meetings with drama or a personal problem. A supporter or gatekeeper may be able to manage some degree of self-confessor behavior, but a chronic self-confessor is likely to build frustration among other group members that can lead to interpersonal conflict and a lack of cohesion and productivity. Most groups develop a norm regarding how much personal information is discussed during group meetings, and some limit such disclosures to time before or after the meeting, which may help deter the self-confessor.

Insecure Compliment Seeker

The insecure compliment seeker wants to know that he or she is valued by the group and seeks recognition that is often not task related. For example, they don’t want to be told they did a good job compiling a report; they want to know that they’re a good person or attractive or smart—even though they might not be any of those things. In short, they try to get validation from their relationships with group members—validation that they may be lacking in relationships outside the group. Or they may be someone who continually seeks the approval of others or tries to overcompensate for insecurity through excessive behaviors aimed at

eliciting compliments. For example, if a group member wears a tight-fitting t- shirt in hopes of drawing attention to his physique but doesn’t receive any compliments from the group, he may say, “My girlfriend said she could tell I’ve been working out. What do you think?”


The joker is a person who consistently uses sarcasm, plays pranks, or tells jokes, which distracts from the overall functioning of the group. In short, the joker is an incompetent tension releaser. Rather than being seen as the witty group member with good timing, the joker is seen as the “class clown.” Like the insecure compliment seeker, the joker usually seeks attention and approval because of an underlying insecurity. A group’s leader may have to intervene and privately meet with a person engaging in joker behavior to help prevent a toxic or unsafe climate from forming. This may be ineffective, though, if a joker’s behaviors are targeted toward the group leader, which could indicate that the joker has a general problem with authority. In the worst-case scenario, a joker may have to be expelled from the group if his or her behavior becomes violent, offensive, illegal, or otherwise unethical.

Unproductive Roles

There are some negative roles in group communication that do not primarily function to divert attention away from the group’s task to a specific group member. Instead, these unproductive rolesjust prevent or make it more difficult for the group to make progress. These roles include the blocker, withdrawer, aggressor, and doormat.


The blocker intentionally or unintentionally keeps things from getting done in the group. Intentionally, a person may suggest that the group look into a matter further or explore another option before making a final decision even though the group has already thoroughly considered the matter. They may cite a procedural rule or suggest that input be sought from additional people in order to delay progress. Behaviors that lead to more information gathering can be good for the group, but when they are unnecessary they are blocking behaviors. Unintentionally, a group member may set blocking behaviors into motion by missing a meeting or not getting his or her work done on time. People can also block progress by playing the airhead role, which is the opposite of the egghead role discussed earlier. Anairhead skirts his or her responsibilities by claiming ignorance when he or she actually understands or intentionally performs poorly on a task so the other group members question his or her intellectual abilities to handle other tasks.John F. Cragan and David W. Wright, Communication in Small Groups: Theory, Practice, Skills, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999), 142. Since exhibiting airhead behaviors gets a person out of performing tasks, they can also be a tactic of a withdrawer, which we will discuss next.


A withdrawer mentally and/or physically removes herself or himself from group activities and only participates when forced to. When groups exceed five members, the likelihood of having a member exhibit withdrawer behaviors increases. For example, a member may attend meetings and seemingly pay attention but not contribute to discussions or not volunteer to take on tasks, instead waiting on other members to volunteer first. Withdrawers are often responsible for the social loafing that makes other group members dread group work. A member may also avoid eye contact with other group members, sit apart from the group, or orient his or her body away from the group to avoid participation. Withdrawers generally do not exhibit active listening behaviors. At

the extreme, a group member may stop attending group meetings completely. Adopting a problem-solving model that requires equal participation, starting to build social cohesion early, and choosing a meeting space and seating arrangement that encourages interactivity can help minimize withdrawing behaviors. Gatekeepers, supporters, and group leaders can also intervene after early signs of withdrawing to try to reengage the group member.


An aggressor exhibits negative behaviors such as putting others’ ideas down, attacking others personally when they feel confronted or insecure, competing unnecessarily to “win” at the expense of others within the group, and being outspoken to the point of distraction. An aggressor’s behaviors can quickly cross the fine line between being abrasive or dominant and being unethical. For example, a person vigorously defending a position that is relevant and valid is different from a person who claims others’ ideas are stupid but has nothing to contribute. As with most behaviors, the aggressor’s fall into a continuum based on their intensity. On the more benign end of the continuum is assertive behavior, toward the middle is aggressive behavior, and on the unethical side is bullying behavior. At their worst, an aggressor’s behaviors can lead to shouting matches or even physical violence within a group. Establishing group rules and norms that set up a safe climate for discussion and include mechanisms for temporarily or permanently removing a group member who violates that safe space may proactively prevent such behaviors.


While we all need to take one for the team sometimes or compromise for the sake of the group, the doormat is a person who is chronically submissive to the point that it hurts the group’s progress.John F. Cragan and David W.

Wright, Communication in Small Groups: Theory, Practice, Skills, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999), 142. Doormat behaviors include quickly giving in when challenged, self-criticism, and claims of inadequacy. Some people who exhibit doormat behaviors may have difficulty being self-assured and assertive, may be conflict avoidant, or may even feel that their behaviors will make other group members like them. Other people play the martyr and make sure to publicly note their “sacrifices” for the group, hoping to elicit praise or attention. If their sacrifices aren’t recognized, they may engage in further negative behaviors such as whining and/or insecure compliment seeking.


  • Task-related group roles and behaviors contribute directly to the group’s completion of a task or the achievement of its goal. These roles typically serve leadership, informational, or procedural functions and include the following: task leader, expediter, information provider, information seeker, gatekeeper, and recorder.
  • Maintenance group roles and behaviors function to create and maintain social cohesion and fulfill the interpersonal needs of the group members. To perform these role behaviors, a person needs strong and sensitive interpersonal skills. These roles include social-emotional leader, supporter, tension releaser, harmonizer, and interpreter.
  • Negative role behaviors delay or distract the group. Self-centered role behaviors are those that seek to divert the group’s attention to the group member exhibiting the behavior. These roles include central negative, monopolizer, stage hog, egghead, self-confessor, and insecure compliment seeker. Unproductive role behaviors prevent or make it difficult for the group to make progress. These roles include blocker, withdrawer, aggressor, and doormat.


  1. Which of the task-related roles do you think has the greatest potential of going wrong and causing conflict within the group and why?
  2. Which maintenance role do you think you’ve performed the best in previous group experiences? How did your communication and behaviors help you perform the role’s functions? Which maintenance role have you had the most difficulty or least interest in performing? Why?
  3. Describe a situation in which you have witnessed a person playing one of the self- centered roles in a group. How did the person communicate? What were the effects? Now describe a situation in which you have witnessed a person playing one of the unproductive roles in a group. How did the person communicate? What were the effects?

14.3 Problem Solving and Decision Making in Groups


  1. Discuss the common components and characteristics of problems.
  2. Explain the five steps of the group problem-solving process.
  3. Describe the brainstorming and discussion that should take place before thegroup makes a decision.
  4. Compare and contrast the different decision-making techniques.
  5. Discuss the various influences on decision making.

Although the steps of problem solving and decision making that we will discuss next may seem obvious, we often don’t think to or choose not to use them. Instead, we start working on a problem and later realize we are lost and have to backtrack. I’m sure we’ve all reached a point in a project or task and had the “OK, now what?” moment. I’ve recently taken up some carpentry projects as a functional hobby, and I have developed a great respect for the importance of

advanced planning. It’s frustrating to get to a crucial point in building or fixing something only to realize that you have to unscrew a support board that you already screwed in, have to drive back to the hardware store to get something that you didn’t think to get earlier, or have to completely start over. In this section, we will discuss the group problem-solving process, methods of decision making, and influences on these processes.

Group Problem Solving

The problem-solving process involves thoughts, discussions, actions, and decisions that occur from the first consideration of a problematic situation to the goal. The problems that groups face are varied, but some common problems include budgeting funds, raising funds, planning events, addressing customer or citizen complaints, creating or adapting products or services to fit needs, supporting members, and raising awareness about issues or causes.

Problems of all sorts have three common components:Katherine Adams and Gloria G. Galanes, Communicating in Groups: Applications and Skills, 7th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 220–21.

  1. An undesirable situation. When conditions are desirable, there isn’t a problem.
  2. A desired situation. Even though it may only be a vague idea, there is a drive to better the undesirable situation. The vague idea may develop into a more precise goal that can be achieved, although solutions are not yet generated.
  3. Obstacles between undesirable and desirable situation. These are things that stand in the way between the current situation and the group’s goal of addressing it. This component of a problem requires the most work, and it is the part where decision making occurs. Some examples of

obstacles include limited funding, resources, personnel, time, or information. Obstacles can also take the form of people who are working against the group, including people resistant to change or people who disagree.

Discussion of these three elements of a problem helps the group tailor its problem-solving process, as each problem will vary. While these three general elements are present in each problem, the group should also address specific characteristics of the problem. Five common and important characteristics to consider are task difficulty, number of possible solutions, group member interest in problem, group member familiarity with problem, and the need for solution acceptance.Katherine Adams and Gloria G. Galanes, Communicating in Groups: Applications and Skills, 7th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 222–23.

  1. Task difficulty. Difficult tasks are also typically more complex. Groups should be prepared to spend time researching and discussing a difficult and complex task in order to develop a shared foundational knowledge. This typically requires individual work outside of the group and frequent group meetings to share information.
  2. Number of possible solutions. There are usually multiple ways to solve a problem or complete a task, but some problems have more potential solutions than others. Figuring out how to prepare a beach house for an approaching hurricane is fairly complex and difficult, but there are still a limited number of things to do—for example, taping and boarding up windows; turning off water, electricity, and gas; trimming trees; and securing loose outside objects. Other problems may be more creatively based. For example, designing a new restaurant may entail using some standard solutions but could also entail many different types of innovation with layout and design.
  1. Group member interest in problem. When group members are interested in the problem, they will be more engaged with the problem- solving process and invested in finding a quality solution. Groups with high interest in and knowledge about the problem may want more freedom to develop and implement solutions, while groups with low interest may prefer a leader who provides structure and direction.
  2. Group familiarity with problem. Some groups encounter a problem regularly, while other problems are more unique or unexpected. A family who has lived in hurricane alley for decades probably has a better idea of how to prepare its house for a hurricane than does a family that just recently moved from the Midwest. Many groups that rely on funding have to revisit a budget every year, and in recent years, groups have had to get more creative with budgets as funding has been cut in nearly every sector. When group members aren’t familiar with a problem, they will need to do background research on what similar groups have done and may also need to bring in outside experts.
  3. Need for solution acceptance. In this step, groups must consider how many people the decision will affect and how much “buy-in” from others the group needs in order for their solution to be successfully implemented. Some small groups have many stakeholders on whom the success of a solution depends. Other groups are answerable only to themselves. When a small group is planning on building a new park in a crowded neighborhood or implementing a new policy in a large business, it can be very difficult to develop solutions that will be accepted by all. In such cases, groups will want to poll those who will be affected by the solution and may want to do a pilot implementation to see how people react. Imposing an excellent solution that doesn’t have buy-in from stakeholders can still lead to failure.

Group Problem-Solving Process

There are several variations of similar problem-solving models based on US American scholar John Dewey’s reflective thinking process.Ernest G. Bormann and Nancy C. Bormann, Effective Small Group Communication, 4th ed. (Santa Rosa, CA: Burgess CA, 1988), 112–13. As you read through the steps in the process, think about how you can apply what we learned regarding the general and specific elements of problems. Some of the following steps are straightforward, and they are things we would logically do when faced with a problem. However, taking a deliberate and systematic approach to problem solving has been shown to benefit group functioning and performance. A deliberate approach is especially beneficial for groups that do not have an established history of working together and will only be able to meet occasionally. Although a group should attend to each step of the process, group leaders or other group members who facilitate problem solving should be cautious not to dogmatically follow each element of the process or force a group along. Such a lack of flexibility could limit group member input and negatively affect the group’s cohesion and climate.

Step 1: Define the Problem

Define the problem by considering the three elements shared by every problem: the current undesirable situation, the goal or more desirable situation, and obstacles in the way.Katherine Adams and Gloria G. Galanes, Communicating in Groups: Applications and Skills, 7th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2009),
229. At this stage, group members share what they know about the current situation, without proposing solutions or evaluating the information. Here are some good questions to ask during this stage: What is the current difficulty? How did we come to know that the difficulty exists? Who/what is involved? Why is it meaningful/urgent/important? What have the effects been so far? What, if any,

elements of the difficulty require clarification? At the end of this stage, the group should be able to compose a single sentence that summarizes the problem called a problem statement. Avoid wording in the problem statement or question that hints at potential solutions. A small group formed to investigate ethical violations of city officials could use the following problem statement: “Our state does not currently have a mechanism for citizens to report suspected ethical violations by city officials.”

Step 2: Analyze the Problem

During this step a group should analyze the problem and the group’s relationship to the problem. Whereas the first step involved exploring the “what” related to the problem, this step focuses on the “why.” At this stage, group members can discuss the potential causes of the difficulty. Group members may also want to begin setting out an agenda or timeline for the group’s problem-solving process, looking forward to the other steps. To fully analyze the problem, the group can discuss the five common problem variables discussed before. Here are two examples of questions that the group formed to address ethics violations might ask: Why doesn’t our city have an ethics reporting mechanism? Do cities of similar size have such a mechanism? Once the problem has been analyzed, the group can pose aproblem question that will guide the group as it generates possible solutions. “How can citizens report suspected ethical violations of city officials and how will such reports be processed and addressed?” As you can see, the problem question is more complex than the problem statement, since the group has moved on to more in-depth discussion of the problem during step 2.

Step 3: Generate Possible Solutions

During this step, group members generate possible solutions to the problem. Again, solutions should not be evaluated at this point, only proposed and

clarified. The question should be what could we do to address this problem, not what should we do to address it. It is perfectly OK for a group member to question another person’s idea by asking something like “What do you mean?” or “Could you explain your reasoning more?” Discussions at this stage may reveal a need to return to previous steps to better define or more fully analyze a problem. Since many problems are multifaceted, it is necessary for group members to generate solutions for each part of the problem separately, making sure to have multiple solutions for each part. Stopping the solution-generating process prematurely can lead to groupthink. For the problem question previously posed, the group would need to generate solutions for all three parts of the problem included in the question. Possible solutions for the first part of the problem (How can citizens report ethical violations?) may include “online reporting system, e- mail, in-person, anonymously, on-the-record,” and so on. Possible solutions for the second part of the problem (How will reports be processed?) may include “daily by a newly appointed ethics officer, weekly by a nonpartisan nongovernment employee,” and so on. Possible solutions for the third part of the problem (How will reports be addressed?) may include “by a newly appointed ethics commission, by the accused’s supervisor, by the city manager,” and so on.

Step 4: Evaluate Solutions

During this step, solutions can be critically evaluated based on their credibility, completeness, and worth. Once the potential solutions have been narrowed based on more obvious differences in relevance and/or merit, the group should analyze each solution based on its potential effects—especially negative effects. Groups that are required to report the rationale for their decision or whose decisions may be subject to public scrutiny would be wise to make a set list of criteria for evaluating each solution. Additionally, solutions can be evaluated based on how well they fit with the group’s charge and the abilities of the group. To do this, group members may ask, “Does this solution live up to the original purpose or

mission of the group?” and “Can the solution actually be implemented with our current resources and connections?” and “How will this solution be supported, funded, enforced, and assessed?” Secondary tensions and substantive conflict, two concepts discussed earlier, emerge during this step of problem solving, and group members will need to employ effective critical thinking and listening skills.

Decision making is part of the larger process of problem solving and it plays a prominent role in this step. While there are several fairly similar models for problem solving, there are many varied decision-making techniques that groups can use. For example, to narrow the list of proposed solutions, group members may decide by majority vote, by weighing the pros and cons, or by discussing them until a consensus is reached. There are also more complex decision-making models like the “six hats method,” which we will discuss later. Once the final decision is reached, the group leader or facilitator should confirm that the group is in agreement. It may be beneficial to let the group break for a while or even to delay the final decision until a later meeting to allow people time to evaluate it outside of the group context.

Step 5: Implement and Assess the Solution

Implementing the solution requires some advanced planning, and it should not be rushed unless the group is operating under strict time restraints or delay may lead to some kind of harm. Although some solutions can be implemented immediately, others may take days, months, or years. As was noted earlier, it may be beneficial for groups to poll those who will be affected by the solution as to their opinion of it or even to do a pilot test to observe the effectiveness of the solution and how people react to it. Before implementation, groups should also determine how and when they would assess the effectiveness of the solution by asking, “How will we know if the solution is working or not?” Since solution assessment will vary based on whether or not the group is disbanded, groups

should also consider the following questions: If the group disbands after implementation, who will be responsible for assessing the solution? If the solution fails, will the same group reconvene or will a new group be formed?

Certain elements of the solution may need to be delegated out to various people inside and outside the group. Group members may also be assigned to implement a particular part of the solution based on their role in the decision making or because it connects to their area of expertise. Likewise, group members may be tasked with publicizing the solution or “selling” it to a particular group of stakeholders. Last, the group should consider its future. In some cases, the group will get to decide if it will stay together and continue working on other tasks or if it will disband. In other cases, outside forces determine the group’s fate.

“Getting Competent”

Problem Solving and Group Presentations

Giving a group presentation requires that individual group members and the group as a whole solve many problems and make many decisions. Although having more people involved in a presentation increases logistical difficulties and has the potential to create more conflict, a well-prepared and well-delivered group presentation can be more engaging and effective than a typical presentation. The main problems facing a group giving a presentation are (1) dividing responsibilities, (2) coordinating schedules and time management, and (3) working out the logistics of the presentation delivery.

In terms of dividing responsibilities, assigning individual work at the first meeting and then trying to fit it all together before the presentation (which is what many college students do when faced with a group project) is not the recommended method. Integrating content and visual aids created by several different people into a seamless final product takes time and effort, and the

person “stuck” with this job at the end usually ends up developing some resentment toward his or her group members. While it’s OK for group members to do work independently outside of group meetings, spend time working together to help set up some standards for content and formatting expectations that will help make later integration of work easier. Taking the time to complete one part of the presentation together can help set those standards for later individual work. Discuss the roles that various group members will play openly so there isn’t role confusion. There could be one point person for keeping track of the group’s progress and schedule, one point person for communication, one point person for content integration, one point person for visual aids, and so on. Each person shouldn’t do all that work on his or her own but help focus the group’s attention on his or her specific area during group meetings.Chaunce Stanton, “How to Deliver Group Presentations: The Unified Team Approach,” Six Minutes Speaking and Presentation Skills, November 3, 2009, accessed August 28, 2012, http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/group-presentations-unified-team- approach.

Scheduling group meetings is one of the most challenging problems groups face, given people’s busy lives. From the beginning, it should be clearly communicated that the group needs to spend considerable time in face-to-face meetings, and group members should know that they may have to make an occasional sacrifice to attend. Especially important is the commitment to scheduling time to rehearse the presentation. Consider creating a contract of group guidelines that includes expectations for meeting attendance to increase group members’ commitment.

Group presentations require members to navigate many logistics of their presentation. While it may be easier for a group to assign each member to create a five-minute segment and then transition from one person to the next, this is definitely not the most engaging method. Creating a master presentation and then assigning individual speakers creates a more fluid and dynamic presentation

and allows everyone to become familiar with the content, which can help if a person doesn’t show up to present and during the question-and-answer section. Once the content of the presentation is complete, figure out introductions, transitions, visual aids, and the use of time and space.Chaunce Stanton, “How to Deliver Group Presentations: The Unified Team Approach,” Six Minutes Speaking and Presentation Skills, November 3, 2009, accessed August 28, 2012,http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/group-presentations-unified-team- approach. In terms of introductions, figure out if one person will introduce all the speakers at the beginning, if speakers will introduce themselves at the beginning, or if introductions will occur as the presentation progresses. In terms of transitions, make sure each person has included in his or her speaking notes when presentation duties switch from one person to the next. Visual aids have the potential to cause hiccups in a group presentation if they aren’t fluidly integrated. Practicing with visual aids and having one person control them may help prevent this. Know how long your presentation is and know how you’re going to use the space. Presenters should know how long the whole presentation should be and how long each of their segments should be so that everyone can share the responsibility of keeping time. Also consider the size and layout of the presentation space. You don’t want presenters huddled in a corner until it’s their turn to speak or trapped behind furniture when their turn comes around.

  1. Of the three main problems facing group presenters, which do you think is the most challenging and why?
  2. Why do you think people tasked with a group presentation (especially students) prefer to divide the parts up and have members work on them independently before coming back together and integrating each part? What problems emerge from this method? In what ways might developing a master presentation and then assigning parts to different speakers be

better than the more divided method? What are the drawbacks to the master presentation method?

Decision Making in Groups

We all engage in personal decision making daily, and we all know that some decisions are more difficult than others. When we make decisions in groups, we face some challenges that we do not face in our personal decision making, but we also stand to benefit from some advantages of group decision making.Rodney W. Napier and Matti K. Gershenfeld, Groups: Theory and Experience, 7th ed. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 292. Group decision making can appear fair and democratic but really only be a gesture that covers up the fact that certain group members or the group leader have already decided. Group decision making also takes more time than individual decisions and can be burdensome if some group members do not do their assigned work, divert the group with self- centered or unproductive role behaviors, or miss meetings. Conversely, though, group decisions are often more informed, since all group members develop a shared understanding of a problem through discussion and debate. The shared understanding may also be more complex and deep than what an individual would develop, because the group members are exposed to a variety of viewpoints that can broaden their own perspectives. Group decisions also benefit from synergy, one of the key advantages of group communication that we discussed earlier. Most groups do not use a specific method of decision making, perhaps thinking that they’ll work things out as they go. This can lead to unequal participation, social loafing, premature decisions, prolonged discussion, and a host of other negative consequences. So in this section we will learn some practices that will prepare us for good decision making and some specific techniques we can use to help us reach a final decision.

Brainstorming before Decision Making

Before groups can make a decision, they need to generate possible solutions to their problem. The most commonly used method is brainstorming, although most people don’t follow the recommended steps of brainstorming. As you’ll recall, brainstorming refers to the quick generation of ideas free of evaluation. The originator of the term brainstorming said the following four rules must be followed for the technique to be effective:Alex F. Osborn, Applied

Imagination (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959).

  1. Evaluation of ideas is forbidden.
  2. Wild and crazy ideas are encouraged.
  3. Quantity of ideas, not quality, is the goal.
  4. New combinations of ideas presented are encouraged.

To make brainstorming more of a decision-making method rather than an idea- generating method, group communication scholars have suggested additional steps that precede and follow brainstorming.John F. Cragan and David W. Wright, Communication in Small Group Discussions: An Integrated Approach, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1991), 77–78.

1. Do a warm-up brainstorming session. Some people are more apprehensive about publicly communicating their ideas than others are, and a warm-up session can help ease apprehension and prime group members for task-related idea generation. The warm-up can be initiated by anyone in the group and should only go on for a few minutes. To get things started, a person could ask, “If our group formed a band, what would we be called?” or “What other purposes could a mailbox serve?” In the previous examples, the first warm up gets the group’s more abstract creative juices flowing, while the second focuses more on practical and concrete ideas.

  1. Do the actual brainstorming session. This session shouldn’t last more than thirty minutes and should follow the four rules of brainstorming mentioned previously. To ensure that the fourth rule is realized, the facilitator could encourage people to piggyback off each other’s ideas.
  2. Eliminate duplicate ideas. After the brainstorming session is over, group members can eliminate (without evaluating) ideas that are the same or very similar.
  3. Clarify, organize, and evaluate ideas. Before evaluation, see if any ideas need clarification. Then try to theme or group ideas together in some orderly fashion. Since “wild and crazy” ideas are encouraged, some suggestions may need clarification. If it becomes clear that there isn’t really a foundation to an idea and that it is too vague or abstract and can’t be clarified, it may be eliminated. As a caution though, it may be wise to not throw out off-the-wall ideas that are hard to categorize and to instead put them in a miscellaneous or “wild and crazy” category.

Discussion before Decision Making

The nominal group technique guides decision making through a four-step process that includes idea generation and evaluation and seeks to elicit equal contributions from all group members.Andre L. Delbecq and Andrew H. Ven de Ven, “A Group Process Model for Problem Identification and Program Planning,” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 7, no. 4 (1971): 466–
92. This method is useful because the procedure involves all group members systematically, which fixes the problem of uneven participation during discussions. Since everyone contributes to the discussion, this method can also help reduce instances of social loafing. To use the nominal group technique, do the following:

  1. Silently and individually list ideas.
  2. Create a master list of ideas.
  3. Clarify ideas as needed.
  4. Take a secret vote to rank group members’ acceptance of ideas.

During the first step, have group members work quietly, in the same space, to write down every idea they have to address the task or problem they face. This shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes. Whoever is facilitating the discussion should remind group members to use brainstorming techniques, which means they shouldn’t evaluate ideas as they are generated. Ask group members to remain silent once they’ve finished their list so they do not distract others.

During the second step, the facilitator goes around the group in a consistent order asking each person to share one idea at a time. As the idea is shared, the facilitator records it on a master list that everyone can see. Keep track of how many times each idea comes up, as that could be an idea that warrants more discussion. Continue this process until all the ideas have been shared. As a note to facilitators, some group members may begin to edit their list or self-censor when asked to provide one of their ideas. To limit a person’s apprehension with sharing his or her ideas and to ensure that each idea is shared, I have asked group members to exchange lists with someone else so they can share ideas from the list they receive without fear of being personally judged.

During step three, the facilitator should note that group members can now ask for clarification on ideas on the master list. Do not let this discussion stray into evaluation of ideas. To help avoid an unnecessarily long discussion, it may be useful to go from one person to the next to ask which ideas need clarifying and then go to the originator(s) of the idea in question for clarification.

During the fourth step, members use a voting ballot to rank the acceptability of the ideas on the master list. If the list is long, you may ask group members to rank only their top five or so choices. The facilitator then takes up the secret ballots and reviews them in a random order, noting the rankings of each idea. Ideally, the highest ranked idea can then be discussed and decided on. The nominal group technique does not carry a group all the way through to the point of decision; rather, it sets the group up for a roundtable discussion or use of some other method to evaluate the merits of the top ideas.

Specific Decision-Making Techniques

Some decision-making techniques involve determining a course of action based on the level of agreement among the group members. These methods include majority, expert, authority, and consensus rule. Table 14.1 “Pros and Cons of Agreement-Based Decision-Making Techniques” reviews the pros and cons of each of these methods.

Majority rule is a commonly used decision-making technique in which a majority (one-half plus one) must agree before a decision is made. A show-of-hands vote, a paper ballot, or an electronic voting system can determine the majority choice. Many decision-making bodies, including the US House of Representatives, Senate, and Supreme Court, use majority rule to make decisions, which shows that it is often associated with democratic decision making, since each person gets one vote and each vote counts equally. Of course, other individuals and mediated messages can influence a person’s vote, but since the voting power is spread out over all group members, it is not easy for one person or party to take control of the decision-making process. In some cases—for example, to override a presidential veto or to amend the constitution—a super majority of two-thirds may be required to make a decision.

Minority rule is a decision-making technique in which a designated authority or expert has final say over a decision and may or may not consider the input of other group members. When a designated expert makes a decision by minority rule, there may be buy-in from others in the group, especially if the members of the group didn’t have relevant knowledge or expertise. When a designated authority makes decisions, buy-in will vary based on group members’ level of respect for the authority. For example, decisions made by an elected authority may be more accepted by those who elected him or her than by those who didn’t. As with majority rule, this technique can be time saving. Unlike majority rule, one person or party can have control over the decision-making process. This type of decision making is more similar to that used by monarchs and dictators. An obvious negative consequence of this method is that the needs or wants of one person can override the needs and wants of the majority. A minority deciding for the majority has led to negative consequences throughout history. The white Afrikaner minority that ruled South Africa for decades instituted apartheid, which was a system of racial segregation that disenfranchised and oppressed the majority population. The quality of the decision and its fairness really depends on the designated expert or authority.

Consensus rule is a decision-making technique in which all members of the group must agree on the same decision. On rare occasions, a decision may be ideal for all group members, which can lead to unanimous agreement without further debate and discussion. Although this can be positive, be cautious that this isn’t a sign of groupthink. More typically, consensus is reached only after lengthy discussion. On the plus side, consensus often leads to high-quality decisions due to the time and effort it takes to get everyone in agreement. Group members are also more likely to be committed to the decision because of their investment in reaching it. On the negative side, the ultimate decision is often one that all group members can live with but not one that’s ideal for all members. Additionally, the

process of arriving at consensus also includes conflict, as people debate ideas and negotiate the interpersonal tensions that may result.

Table 14.1 Pros and Cons of Agreement-Based Decision-Making Techniques

Decision- Making Technique



Majority rule

  • Quick
  • Efficient in large groups
  • Each vote counts equally
  • Close decisions (5–4) may reduce internal and external “buy-in”
  • Doesn’t take advantage of group synergy to develop alternatives that more members can support
  • Minority may feel alienated

Minority rule by expert

  • Quick
  • Decision quality is better than whatless knowledgeable people could


  • Experts are typically objective andless easy to influence
  • Expertise must be verified
  • Experts can be difficult to find / pay for
  • Group members may feel useless

Minority rule by authority

  • Quick
  • Buy-in could be high if authority isrespected
  • Authority may not be seen as legitimate, leading to less buy-in
  • Group members may try to sway the authority or compete for his or her attention
  • Unethical authorities could make decisions that benefit them and harm group members

Decision- Making Technique



Consensus rule

  • High-quality decisions due to time invested
  • Higher level of commitment because of participation in decision
  • Satisfaction with decision because of shared agreement
  • Time consuming
  • Difficult to manage idea and personalconflict that can emerge as ideas are


  • Decision may be OK but not ideal

“Getting Critical”

Six Hats Method of Decision Making

Edward de Bono developed the Six Hats method of thinking in the late 1980s, and it has since become a regular feature in decision-making training in business and professional contexts.Edward de Bono, Six Thinking Hats (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1985). The method’s popularity lies in its ability to help people get out of habitual ways of thinking and to allow group members to play different roles and see a problem or decision from multiple points of view. The basic idea is that each of the six hats represents a different way of thinking, and when we figuratively switch hats, we switch the way we think. The hats and their style of thinking are as follows:

  • White hat. Objective—focuses on seeking information such as data and facts and then processes that information in a neutral way.
  • Red hat. Emotional—uses intuition, gut reactions, and feelings to judge information and suggestions.
  • Black hat. Negative—focuses on potential risks, points out possibilities for failure, and evaluates information cautiously and defensively.
  • Yellow hat. Positive—is optimistic about suggestions and future outcomes, gives constructive and positive feedback, points out benefits and advantages.
  • Green hat. Creative—tries to generate new ideas and solutions, thinks “outside the box.”
  • Blue hat. Philosophical—uses metacommunication to organize and reflect on the thinking and communication taking place in the group, facilitates who wears what hat and when group members change hats.

Specific sequences or combinations of hats can be used to encourage strategic thinking. For example, the group leader may start off wearing the Blue Hat and suggest that the group start their decision-making process with some “White Hat thinking” in order to process through facts and other available information. During this stage, the group could also process through what other groups have done when faced with a similar problem. Then the leader could begin an evaluation sequence starting with two minutes of “Yellow Hat thinking” to identify potential positive outcomes, then “Black Hat thinking” to allow group members to express reservations about ideas and point out potential problems, then “Red Hat thinking” to get people’s gut reactions to the previous discussion, then “Green Hat thinking” to identify other possible solutions that are more tailored to the group’s situation or completely new approaches. At the end of a sequence, the Blue Hat would want to summarize what was said and begin a new sequence. To successfully use this method, the person wearing the Blue Hat should be familiar with different sequences and plan some of the thinking patterns ahead of time based on the problem and the group members. Each round of thinking should be limited to a certain time frame (two to five minutes) to keep the discussion moving.

1. This decision-making method has been praised because it allows group members to “switch gears” in their thinking and allows for role playing,

which lets people express ideas more freely. How can this help enhance critical thinking? Which combination of hats do you think would be best for a critical thinking sequence?

  1. What combinations of hats might be useful if the leader wanted to break the larger group up into pairs and why? For example, what kind of thinking would result from putting Yellow and Red together, Black and White together, or Red and White together, and so on?
  2. Based on your preferred ways of thinking and your personality, which hat would be the best fit for you? Which would be the most challenging? Why?

Influences on Decision Making

Many factors influence the decision-making process. For example, how might a group’s independence or access to resources affect the decisions they make? What potential advantages and disadvantages come with decisions made by groups that are more or less similar in terms of personality and cultural identities? In this section, we will explore how situational, personality, and cultural influences affect decision making in groups.

Situational Influences on Decision Making

A group’s situational context affects decision making. One key situational element is the degree of freedom that the group has to make its own decisions, secure its own resources, and initiate its own actions. Some groups have to go through multiple approval processes before they can do anything, while others are self-directed, self-governing, and self-sustaining. Another situational influence is uncertainty. In general, groups deal with more uncertainty in decision making than do individuals because of the increased number of variables that comes with adding more people to a situation. Individual group members can’t know what other group members are thinking, whether or not they are

doing their work, and how committed they are to the group. So the size of a group is a powerful situational influence, as it adds to uncertainty and complicates communication.

Access to information also influences a group. First, the nature of the group’s task or problem affects its ability to get information. Group members can more easily make decisions about a problem when other groups have similarly experienced it. Even if the problem is complex and serious, the group can learn from other situations and apply what it learns. Second, the group must have access to flows of information. Access to archives, electronic databases, and individuals with relevant experience is necessary to obtain any relevant information about similar problems or to do research on a new or unique problem. In this regard, group members’ formal and information network connections also become important situational influences.

The origin and urgency of a problem are also situational factors that influence decision making. In terms of origin, problems usually occur in one of four ways:

1. Something goes wrong. Group members must decide how to fix or stop something. Example—a firehouse crew finds out that half of the building is contaminated with mold and must be closed down.

  1. Expectations change or increase. Group members must innovate more efficient or effective ways of doing something. Example—a firehouse crew finds out that the district they are responsible for is being expanded.
  2. Something goes wrong and expectations change or increase.Group members must fix/stop and become more efficient/effective. Example—the firehouse crew has to close half the building and must start responding to more calls due to the expanding district.

4. The problem existed from the beginning. Group members must go back to the origins of the situation and walk through and analyze the steps again to decide what can be done differently. Example—a firehouse crew has consistently had to work with minimal resources in terms of building space and firefighting tools.

In each of the cases, the need for a decision may be more or less urgent depending on how badly something is going wrong, how high the expectations have been raised, or the degree to which people are fed up with a broken system. Decisions must be made in situations ranging from crisis level to mundane.

Personality Influences on Decision Making

A long-studied typology of value orientations that affect decision making consists of the following types of decision maker: the economic, the aesthetic, the theoretical, the social, the political, and the religious.Eduard Spranger, Types of Men (New York: Steckert, 1928).

  • The economic decision maker makes decisions based on what is practical and useful.
  • The aesthetic decision maker makes decisions based on form and harmony, desiring a solution that is elegant and in sync with the surroundings.
  • The theoretical decision maker wants to discover the truth through rationality.
  • The social decision maker emphasizes the personal impact of a decision and sympathizes with those who may be affected by it.
  • The political decision maker is interested in power and influence and views people and/or property as divided into groups that have different value.

• The religious decision maker seeks to identify with a larger purpose, works to unify others under that goal, and commits to a viewpoint, often denying one side and being dedicated to the other.

In the United States, economic, political, and theoretical decision making tend to be more prevalent decision-making orientations, which likely corresponds to the individualistic cultural orientation with its emphasis on competition and efficiency. But situational context, as we discussed before, can also influence our decision making.

The personalities of group members, especially leaders and other active members, affect the climate of the group. Group member personalities can be categorized based on where they fall on a continuum anchored by the following descriptors: dominant/submissive, friendly/unfriendly, and instrumental/emotional.John F. Cragan and David W. Wright,Communication in Small Groups: Theory, Practice, Skills, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999), 139. The more group members there are in any extreme of these categories, the more likely that the group climate will also shift to resemble those characteristics.

  • Dominant versus submissive. Group members that are more dominant act more independently and directly, initiate conversations, take up more space, make more direct eye contact, seek leadership positions, and take control over decision-making processes. More submissive members are reserved, contribute to the group only when asked to, avoid eye contact, and leave their personal needs and thoughts unvoiced or give into the suggestions of others.
  • Friendly versus unfriendly. Group members on the friendly side of the continuum find a balance between talking and listening, don’t try to win at the expense of other group members, are flexible but not weak, and value democratic decision making. Unfriendly group members are disagreeable, 

indifferent, withdrawn, and selfish, which leads them to either not invest in decision making or direct it in their own interest rather than in the interest of the group.

• Instrumental versus emotional. Instrumental group members are emotionally neutral, objective, analytical, task-oriented, and committed followers, which leads them to work hard and contribute to the group’s decision making as long as it is orderly and follows agreed-on rules. Emotional group members are creative, playful, independent, unpredictable, and expressive, which leads them to make rash decisions, resist group norms or decision-making structures, and switch often from relational to task focus.

Cultural Context and Decision Making

Just like neighborhoods, schools, and countries, small groups vary in terms of their degree of similarity and difference. Demographic changes in the United States and increases in technology that can bring different people together make it more likely that we will be interacting in more and more heterogeneous groups.Brenda J. Allen, Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity, 2nd ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2011), 5. Some small groups are more homogenous, meaning the members are more similar, and some are more heterogeneous, meaning the members are more different. Diversity and difference within groups has advantages and disadvantages. In terms of advantages, research finds that, in general, groups that are culturally heterogeneous have better overall performance than more homogenous groups.Beth Bonniwell Haslett and Jenn Ruebush, “What Differences Do Individual Differences in Groups Make?: The Effects of Individuals, Culture, and Group Composition,” in The Handbook of Group Communication Theory and Research, ed. Lawrence R. Frey (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999),

133. Additionally, when group members have time to get to know each other and

competently communicate across their differences, the advantages of diversity include better decision making due to different perspectives.David C. Thomas, “Cultural Diversity and Work Group Effectiveness: An Experimental
Study,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 30, no. 2 (1999): 242–

63. Unfortunately, groups often operate under time constraints and other pressures that make the possibility for intercultural dialogue and understanding difficult. The main disadvantage of heterogeneous groups is the possibility for conflict, but given that all groups experience conflict, this isn’t solely due to the presence of diversity. We will now look more specifically at how some of the cultural value orientations we’ve learned about already in this book can play out in groups with international diversity and how domestic diversity in terms of demographics can also influence group decision making.

International Diversity in Group Interactions

Cultural value orientations such as individualism/collectivism, power distance, and high-/low-context communication styles all manifest on a continuum of communication behaviors and can influence group decision making. Group members from individualistic cultures are more likely to value task-oriented, efficient, and direct communication. This could manifest in behaviors such as dividing up tasks into individual projects before collaboration begins and then openly debating ideas during discussion and decision making. Additionally, people from cultures that value individualism are more likely to openly express dissent from a decision, essentially expressing their disagreement with the group. Group members from collectivistic cultures are more likely to value relationships over the task at hand. Because of this, they also tend to value conformity and face-saving (often indirect) communication. This could manifest in behaviors such as establishing norms that include periods of socializing to build relationships before task-oriented communication like negotiations begin or norms that limit public disagreement in favor of more indirect communication

that doesn’t challenge the face of other group members or the group’s leader. In a group composed of people from a collectivistic culture, each member would likely play harmonizing roles, looking for signs of conflict and resolving them before they become public.

Power distance can also affect group interactions. Some cultures rank higher on power-distance scales, meaning they value hierarchy, make decisions based on status, and believe that people have a set place in society that is fairly unchangeable. Group members from high-power-distance cultures would likely appreciate a strong designated leader who exhibits a more directive leadership style and prefer groups in which members have clear and assigned roles. In a group that is homogenous in terms of having a high-power-distance orientation, members with higher status would be able to openly provide information, and those with lower status may not provide information unless a higher status member explicitly seeks it from them. Low-power-distance cultures do not place as much value and meaning on status and believe that all group members can participate in decision making. Group members from low-power-distance cultures would likely freely speak their mind during a group meeting and prefer a participative leadership style.

How much meaning is conveyed through the context surrounding verbal communication can also affect group communication. Some cultures have a high- context communication style in which much of the meaning in an interaction is conveyed through context such as nonverbal cues and silence. Group members from high-context cultures may avoid saying something directly, assuming that other group members will understand the intended meaning even if the message is indirect. So if someone disagrees with a proposed course of action, he or she may say, “Let’s discuss this tomorrow,” and mean, “I don’t think we should do this.” Such indirect communication is also a face-saving strategy that is common in collectivistic cultures. Other cultures have a low-context communication style

that places more importance on the meaning conveyed through words than through context or nonverbal cues. Group members from low-context cultures often say what they mean and mean what they say. For example, if someone doesn’t like an idea, they might say, “I think we should consider more options. This one doesn’t seem like the best we can do.”

In any of these cases, an individual from one culture operating in a group with people of a different cultural orientation could adapt to the expectations of the host culture, especially if that person possesses a high degree of intercultural communication competence (ICC). Additionally, people with high ICC can also adapt to a group member with a different cultural orientation than the host culture. Even though these cultural orientations connect to values that affect our communication in fairly consistent ways, individuals may exhibit different communication behaviors depending on their own individual communication style and the situation.

Domestic Diversity and Group Communication

While it is becoming more likely that we will interact in small groups with international diversity, we are guaranteed to interact in groups that are diverse in terms of the cultural identities found within a single country or the subcultures found within a larger cultural group.

Gender stereotypes sometimes influence the roles that people play within a group. For example, the stereotype that women are more nurturing than men may lead group members (both male and female) to expect that women will play the role of supporters or harmonizers within the group. Since women have primarily performed secretarial work since the 1900s, it may also be expected that women will play the role of recorder. In both of these cases, stereotypical notions of gender place women in roles that are typically not as valued in group

communication. The opposite is true for men. In terms of leadership, despite notable exceptions, research shows that men fill an overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of leadership positions. We are socialized to see certain behaviors by men as indicative of leadership abilities, even though they may not be. For example, men are often perceived to contribute more to a group because they tend to speak first when asked a question or to fill a silence and are perceived to talk more about task-related matters than relationally oriented matters. Both of these tendencies create a perception that men are more engaged with the task. Men are also socialized to be more competitive and self- congratulatory, meaning that their communication may be seen as dedicated and their behaviors seen as powerful, and that when their work isn’t noticed they will be more likely to make it known to the group rather than take silent credit. Even though we know that the relational elements of a group are crucial for success, even in high-performance teams, that work is not as valued in our society as the task-related work.

Despite the fact that some communication patterns and behaviors related to our typical (and stereotypical) gender socialization affect how we interact in and form perceptions of others in groups, the differences in group communication that used to be attributed to gender in early group communication research seem to be diminishing. This is likely due to the changing organizational cultures from which much group work emerges, which have now had more than sixty years to adjust to women in the workplace. It is also due to a more nuanced understanding of gender-based research, which doesn’t take a stereotypical view from the beginning as many of the early male researchers did. Now, instead of biological sex being assumed as a factor that creates inherent communication differences, group communication scholars see that men and women both exhibit a range of behaviors that are more or less feminine or masculine. It is these gendered behaviors, and not a person’s gender, that seem to have more of an

influence on perceptions of group communication. Interestingly, group interactions are still masculinist in that male and female group members prefer a more masculine communication style for task leaders and that both males and females in this role are more likely to adapt to a more masculine communication style. Conversely, men who take on social-emotional leadership behaviors adopt a more feminine communication style. In short, it seems that although masculine communication traits are more often associated with high status positions in groups, both men and women adapt to this expectation and are evaluated similarly.Beth Bonniwell Haslett and Jenn Ruebush, “What Differences Do Individual Differences in Groups Make?: The Effects of Individuals, Culture, and Group Composition,” in The Handbook of Group Communication Theory and Research, ed. Lawrence R. Frey (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999), 122.

Other demographic categories are also influential in group communication and decision making. In general, group members have an easier time communicating when they are more similar than different in terms of race and age. This ease of communication can make group work more efficient, but the homogeneity may sacrifice some creativity. As we learned earlier, groups that are diverse (e.g., they have members of different races and generations) benefit from the diversity of perspectives in terms of the quality of decision making and creativity of output.

In terms of age, for the first time since industrialization began, it is common to have three generations of people (and sometimes four) working side by side in an organizational setting. Although four generations often worked together in early factories, they were segregated based on their age group, and a hierarchy existed with older workers at the top and younger workers at the bottom. Today, however, generations interact regularly, and it is not uncommon for an older person to have a leader or supervisor who is younger than him or her.Brenda J. Allen, Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity, 2nd ed. (Long Grove,

IL: Waveland, 2011), 176. The current generations in the US workplace and consequently in work-based groups include the following:

  • The Silent Generation. Born between 1925 and 1942, currently in their midsixties to mideighties, this is the smallest generation in the workforce right now, as many have retired or left for other reasons. This generation includes people who were born during the Great Depression or the early part of World War II, many of whom later fought in the Korean War.Gerald Clarke, “The Silent Generation Revisited,” Time, June 29, 1970, 46.
  • The Baby Boomers. Born between 1946 and 1964, currently in their late forties to midsixties, this is the largest generation in the workforce right now. Baby boomers are the most populous generation born in US history, and they are working longer than previous generations, which means they will remain the predominant force in organizations for ten to twenty more years.
  • Generation X. Born between 1965 and 1981, currently in their early thirties to midforties, this generation was the first to see technology like cell phones and the Internet make its way into classrooms and our daily lives. Compared to previous generations, “Gen-Xers” are more diverse in terms of race, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation and also have a greater appreciation for and understanding of diversity.
  • Generation Y. Born between 1982 and 2000, “Millennials” as they are also called are currently in their late teens up to about thirty years old. This generation is not as likely to remember a time without technology such as computers and cell phones. They are just starting to enter into the workforce and have been greatly affected by the economic crisis of the late 2000s, experiencing significantly high unemployment rates. 

The benefits and challenges that come with diversity of group members are important to consider. Since we will all work in diverse groups, we should be prepared to address potential challenges in order to reap the benefits. Diverse groups may be wise to coordinate social interactions outside of group time in order to find common ground that can help facilitate interaction and increase group cohesion. We should be sensitive but not let sensitivity create fear of “doing something wrong” that then prevents us from having meaningful interactions. Reviewing Chapter 8 “Culture and Communication” will give you useful knowledge to help you navigate both international and domestic diversity and increase your communication competence in small groups and elsewhere.


• Every problem has common components: an undesirable situation, a desired situation, and obstacles between the undesirable and desirable situations. Every problem also has a set of characteristics that vary among problems, including task difficulty, number of possible solutions, group member interest in the problem, group familiarity with the problem, and the need for solution acceptance.

• The group problem-solving process has five steps:

  1. Define the problem by creating a problem statement that summarizes it.
  2. Analyze the problem and create a problem question that can guidesolution generation.
  3. Generate possible solutions. Possible solutions should be offered andlisted without stopping to evaluate each one.
  4. Evaluate the solutions based on their credibility, completeness, and worth.Groups should also assess the potential effects of the narrowed list of solutions.

5. Implement and assess the solution. Aside from enacting the solution, groups should determine how they will know the solution is working or not.

  • Before a group makes a decision, it should brainstorm possible solutions. Group communication scholars suggest that groups (1) do a warm-up brainstorming session; (2) do an actual brainstorming session in which ideas are not evaluated, wild ideas are encouraged, quantity not quality of ideas is the goal, and new combinations of ideas are encouraged; (3) eliminate duplicate ideas; and (4) clarify, organize, and evaluate ideas. In order to guide the idea-generation process and invite equal participation from group members, the group may also elect to use the nominal group technique.
  • Common decision-making techniques include majority rule, minority rule, and consensus rule. With majority rule, only a majority, usually one-half plus one, must agree before a decision is made. With minority rule, a designated authority or expert has final say over a decision, and the input of group members may or may not be invited or considered. With consensus rule, all members of the group must agree on the same decision.

• Several factors influence the decision-making process:
o Situational factors include the degree of freedom a group has to make its

own decisions, the level of uncertainty facing the group and its task, the size of the group, the group’s access to information, and the origin and urgency of the problem.

o Personality influences on decision making include a person’s value orientation (economic, aesthetic, theoretical, political, or religious), and personality traits (dominant/submissive, friendly/unfriendly, and instrumental/emotional).

o Cultural influences on decision making include the heterogeneity or homogeneity of the group makeup; cultural values and characteristics

such as individualism/collectivism, power distance, and high-/low-context communication styles; and gender and age differences.


1. In terms of situational influences on group problem solving, task difficulty, number of possible solutions, group interest in problem, group familiarity with problem, and need for solution acceptance are five key variables discussed in this chapter. For each of the two following scenarios, discuss how the situational context created by these variables might affect the group’s communication climate and the way it goes about addressing its problem.

o Scenario 1. Task difficulty is high, number of possible solutions is high, group interest in problem is high, group familiarity with problem is low, and need for solution acceptance is high.

o Scenario 2. Task difficulty is low, number of possible solutions is low, group interest in problem is low, group familiarity with problem is high, and need for solution acceptance is low.

2. Getting integrated: Certain decision-making techniques may work better than others in academic, professional, personal, or civic contexts. For each of the following scenarios, identify the decision-making technique that you think would be best and explain why.

o Scenario 1: Academic. A professor asks his or her class to decide whether the final exam should be an in-class or take-home exam.

o Scenario 2: Professional. A group of coworkers must decide which person from their department to nominate for a company-wide award.

o Scenario 3: Personal. A family needs to decide how to divide the belongings and estate of a deceased family member who did not leave a will.

o Scenario 4: Civic. A local branch of a political party needs to decide what five key issues it wants to include in the national party’s platform.

3. Group communication researchers have found that heterogeneous groups (composed of diverse members) have advantages over homogenous (more similar) groups. Discuss a group situation you have been in where diversity enhanced your and/or the group’s experience.

Chapter 15

Media, Technology, and Communication

We live in a media-saturated world and rely on a variety of old and new media for information, entertainment, and connection. The beginnings of mass media and mass communication go back 560 years to the “print revolution” that occurred in Europe in the fifteenth century. As we progressed through the centuries, mass communication evolved from a mechanical process to electronic transmission, which paved the way for the digitized world of today. While technological advances are an important part of the narrative regarding media, the effects of media are also important to consider. In this chapter, we will discuss some functions and theories of mass communication and some of the key ethical issues related to media and communication.

15.1 Technological Advances: From the Printing Press to the iPhone


It is only through technology that mass media can exist. While our interpersonal interactions are direct, our interactions with mass media messages are indirect, as they require technology or a “third party” to facilitate the connection. As you’ll recall from Chapter 1 “Introduction to Communication Studies”, mass communication involves transmitting messages to many people through print or

  1. Summarize the technological advances of the print, audiovisual, and Internet and digital media ages.
  2. Identify key effects of various mass media on society.
  3. Discuss how mass media adapt as new forms of media are invented and adopted.

electronic media. While talking to someone about a movie you just watched is interpersonal communication, watching the Academy Awards on a network or in clips on the Internet is mass communication. In this section, we will trace the development of various forms of technology that led to new channels (media) of communication and overview the characteristics of some of the most common mass media.

As we trace the development of different forms of mass media, take note of how new technologies and competition among various media formats have made media messages more interpersonal and personalized. In short, the mass media that served large segments of the population with limited messages evolved into micromedia that serve narrow interest groups.Charles C. Self, Edward L. Gaylord, and Thelma Gaylord, “The Evolution of Mass Communication Theory in the 20th Century,”The Romanian Review of Journalism and Communication 6, no. 3 (2009): 29. The brief discussion here of these recent changes in how media operate in our lives will be expanded more in the following chapter on new media and communication. It is also interesting to note the speed with which technologies advanced. As we move closer to our current digital age of media, we can see that new media formats are invented and then made available to people more quickly than media that came before. For example, while it took 175,000 years for writing to become established, and about 1,000 years for printing to gain a firm foundation as a medium, audiovisual media (radio, television, and movies) penetrated society within a few decades, and digital media gained prominence in even less time.Marshall T. Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet(New York: Cambridge, 2011), 164.

Print Mass Media

The printing press and subsequent technological advances related to paper manufacturing and distribution led to the establishment of print as the first mass medium. While the ability to handwrite manuscripts and even reproduce them existed before the print revolution, such processes took considerable time and skill, making books and manuscripts too expensive for nearly anyone in society except the most privileged and/or powerful to possess. And despite the advent of many other forms of mass media, print is still important as a channel for information and as an industry. For example, in the United States, about 3.1 billion books, 1,400 daily newspapers, and 19,000 magazines are published a year.Marshall T. Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (New York: Cambridge, 2011), 133. Let’s now look back at how we progressed from writing to print and trace the birth of the first mass medium.

The “manuscript age” is the period in human history that immediately predated the advent of mass media and began around 3500 BCE with the introduction of written texts and lasted until the printing revolution of 1450 CE.Marshall T.
Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (New York: Cambridge, 2011), 73. Of course, before writing emerged as a form of expression, humans drew cave paintings and made sculptures, pottery, jewelry, and other forms of visual expression. The spread of writing, however, as a means of documenting philosophy, daily life, government, laws, and business transactions was a necessary precursor to the print revolution. Physical and technical limitations of the time prevented the written word from becoming a mass medium, as texts were painstakingly reproduced by hand or reproduced slowly using rudimentary printing technology such as wood cutouts. The high price of these texts and the fact that most people could not read or write further limited the spread of print.

The German blacksmith and printer Johannes Gutenberg, often cited as the inventor of the printing press, didn’t actually invent much, as most of the technology needed to print, such as movable type, already existed and had been in use for many years. In fact, the mass reproduction and distribution of texts began in East Asia around 700 CE, more than 700 years before Gutenberg, as the Chinese used a wood-block printing method to mass produce short Buddhist texts.Marshall T. Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (New York: Cambridge, 2011), 103–

5. However, Gutenberg’s use of a press to mash the paper against the typeset, as opposed to the Chinese method of manually rubbing the paper against the typeset, made the process faster and more effective. Additionally, the rise of printing in East Asia didn’t become a “print revolution,” because the audience for the texts was so limited, given low literacy rates.

Increasing literacy rates in Europe in the two centuries before Gutenberg undoubtedly contributed to the success of his printing efforts, since literacy creates a market for printed texts. The impact of the printing press, as introduced to Europe by Gutenberg starting with his first printing shop in 1439, should not be underestimated. His press helped usher in the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution that swept Europe during the 1600s. This spread was aided by aristocratic and religious leaders who turned to the printing press as a way to both spread Christian thought and seek to improve society by educating individuals. In 1454, Guttenberg’s famous forty-two-line Bible was the first book that was mass produced by modern methods and not transcribed by hand, which had been the practice for thousands of years. With this, the “print age” began, which extended from 1450 to 1850 and marked the birth and rise of the first mass medium.Marshall T. Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (New York: Cambridge, 2011), 116.


The explosion of printing following 1450 definitely proves that print was the first mass medium. Booksof the time were often shorter than today, but they were still the earliest form of communication to be distributed to the masses, which led to significant cultural and social transformation. Between 1454 and 1500, 30,000 books and pamphlets were published in Europe. In the 1500s, between 150,000 and 200,000 separate titles were printed. Remember, these numbers represent each separate book and not the total copies of each of those titles that were printed. The total number of copies is much more staggering. Between 1450 and 1500, 20 million individual books were printed. During the 1600s, between 150 and 200 million books were printed in Europe. Given that Europe’s population at the time was only 78 million, that’s about three books for each person.Marshall T. Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (New York: Cambridge, 2011), 110–11. Of course, books weren’t evenly distributed, since most people couldn’t read or write and had no use for them. At the same time, though, cheaper, shorter materials were printed that included content that catered more to the “common” person. These early publications were similar to tabloids in that they were sold as news items but featured stories about miracles, monsters, and other sensational or fantastical events. Although not regarded for their content or positive effect on society, these publications quickly grew into what we would recognize today as newspapers and magazines, which we will discuss later.

The printing and distribution of books led to cultural transformation, just as radio, television, and the Internet did. The rise of literacy and the availability of literature, religious texts, dictionaries, and other reference books allowed people to learn things for themselves, distinguish themselves from others by what they read and what they knew, and figuratively travel beyond their highly localized lives to other lands and time periods. Before this, people relied on storytellers, clergy, teachers, or other leaders for information. In this way, people may only be

exposed to a few sources of information throughout their lives and the information conveyed by these sources could be limited and distorted. Remember, only a select group of people, usually elites, had access to manuscripts and the ability to read them. Publishers still acted as gatekeepers, just as mass media outlets do today, which limited the content and voices that circulated on the new medium. But despite that, the world was opened up for many in a way it had never before been.

Demand for books quickly expanded in the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Technological advances in the manufacturing of paper and cheaper materials for binding books—for example, using cloth covers instead of leather— helped reduce the cost of books. Dime novels were very popular in the United States in the mid to late 1800s. These books, also called pulp fiction, had content that was appealing to mass audiences who enjoyed dramatic, short fiction stories. During this time, publishing became more competitive and profit driven— characteristics that still apply to the industry today. While radio and magazines flourished in the first half of the twentieth century, the book industry didn’t fare as well. Many people turned to these new media over books, since radio and magazines were generally cheaper and provided more timely information about major world events like the World Wars and the Great Depression.

The book industry today caters to a variety of audiences and markets. The following are the major divisions of book publishing and their revenue from 2009, which is the most recent Census data available:“Table 1137, Book Publishers’ Net Shipments: 2007 to 2010,” United States Census, accessed September 20,

2012, http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s1137.pdf.

  • Textbooks (K–12 and college)—$9,891,000,000
  • Children’s books—$2,522,000,000 
  • Reference books—$625,000,000
  • Professional, technical, and scholarly books—$3,838,000,000
  • Adult fiction, nonfiction—$5,862,000,000These numbers show that the book industry is still generating much revenue, but books, like other forms of media, have had to adapt to changing market forces and technologies. Whereas local bookstores used to be the primary means by which people acquired new and used books, the expansion of chain bookstores and the advent of online book purchasing have led to a dramatic decline in local and independent booksellers. Well-known independent bookstores in larger cities—for example, Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado; Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon; Strand Book Store in New York City; and Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri—compete against national chains to attract customers. The closure of nearly four hundred Borders bookstores in 2011 after the company filed for bankruptcy also shows that even chain bookstores are struggling. In terms of technological changes, many book publishers have embraced e-books in the past few years as a way to adapt to new digital media and devices such as e- readers, but they have also had to develop new ways to prevent unauthorized reproduction and “pirating” of digital versions of books. In 2011, for the first time, e-books became the number one format for adult fiction and young adult titles, surpassing print.Andi Sporkin, “Bookstats 2012 Highlights,” Association of American Publishers, July 18, 2012, accessed September 20, 2012,http://www.publishers.org/press/74. Despite this fact, brick-and-mortar stores are still the primary channel through which books are sold—but for how much longer?


    Newspapers, more than books, serve as the chronicle of daily life in our society, providing regular coverage of events, both historic and mundane, and allowing us

to learn about current events outside of our community and country. While radio, television, and online news serve that function for most people now, newspapers were the first mass medium to collect and disseminate such information. The first regularly (weekly) published newspaper emerged in Paris in 1631, and others popped up in Florence, Rome, and Madrid over the next few decades. The first daily newspaper was published in Leipzig, Germany, in 1660. In just a little over a hundred years, in the late 1700s, large European cities like London and Paris had around two hundred newspapers, some published daily, some weekly, and some at other intervals. Not surprisingly, literacy rates also increased during this time.Marshall T. Poe,A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (New York: Cambridge, 2011), 112. Also around 1700, newspapers were published in the colonies that would later become the United States. The following timeline marks some of the historical developments in newspaper publishing from colonial times to the Internet age.

Timeline of Events in Newspaper PublishingJames Breig, “Early American Newspapering,”Colonial Williamsburg Journal (Spring 2003), accessed September 20, 2012,http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/spring03/journalism.cfm; Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos, Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2007), 274–230.

• 1690. First newspaper in North America is published in Boston. Due to its anti-British tone, it is banned after the first issue is printed.

• 1704. The Boston News-Letter is the first newspaper in the colonies to be published regularly. Its content is not timely, since its focus on European events means the information is weeks to months old by the time it is published.

  • 1721. James Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother, publishes the New England Courant in Boston, which caters to business and political leaders.
  • 1729. Benjamin Franklin runs the Pennsylvania Gazette, which is well respected for the quality of its contents and also generates revenue through advertisements.
  • 1784. The first daily newspaper is published in the United States—The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser.“Today in History: September 21,” The Library of Congress: American Memory, accessed September 20, 2012, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/sep21.html.
  • 1833. Benjamin Day, founder of the New York Sun, changes the pricing, distribution, and content of newspapers by cutting the cost of the paper to one penny per issue and selling them individually on the streets and through vendors rather than through subscriptions, which are cost prohibitive for many people. The Sun focuses more on “human-interest stories,” which attracts readers and begins a surge of other competing “penny papers” using a similar model.
  • 1848. The Associated Press is formed when six New York City papers agree to share incoming information from dispatched reporters and other news sources far away. The news is transmitted through telegraph and other cable/wire services—the label “wire service” or “news wire” is still used today.
  • Late 1800s. Many newspapers practice “yellow journalism” to be competitive, meaning they publish sensational news items like scandals and tragedies and use attention-getting (in terms of size and wording) headlines to attract customers. The New York Times begins to distance itself from yellow journalism and helps to usher in a period of more factual and rigorous reporting and a split between objective and tabloid publications that begins in the early 1900s and continues today. 
  • 1955. The Village Voice is published in Greenwich Village, New York, which marks the beginning of the rise of underground and alternative newspapers.
  • 1980. The Columbus Dispatch is the first newspaper to publish content online.
  • 1982.USA Today is launched, which challenges long-standing newspaper publishing norms and adopts a more visual style. The size, layout, use of color and images, and content is designed to attract a new newspaper audience, one used to watching television news.
  • 1998. The Drudge Report, an online gossip and news aggregation site, gains national attention when it breaks a story about Newsweek magazine delaying the publication of a story about then-president Clinton’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.Tony Rogers, “Website Profile: The Drudge Report,” About.com, accessed September 20, 2012,http://journalism.about.com/od/webjournalism/a/drudge.htm. Alth ough online news sites have been around for years, this marks the beginning of the rise of Internet-based news gathering and reporting by people with little to no training in or experience with journalism. Traditional journalists criticize this practice, but such news outlets attract millions of readers and begin to change the way we think about how news is gathered and reported and how we get our news.Newspapers have faced many challenges in recent decades—namely, the increase of Internet-based news, leading to a major decline in revenue and readers. In recent years major papers like the Rocky Mountain News have gone out of business completely, and others like the Seattle Post Intelligencerhave switched to online-only formats. Additionally, major newspapers like the Chicago Sun Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune have declared bankruptcy due to heavy debt burdens.Paul Grabowicz, “The Transition to Digital Journalism,” UC

Berkeley: Knight Digital Media Center, September 8, 2012, accessed September 20, 2012, http://multimedia.journalism.berkeley.edu/tutorials/digital- transform/print-editions-decline. To deal with these financial issues, papers have laid off employees, cut resources for reporters, closed international bureaus, eliminated rural or distant delivery, reduced frequency of publication, and contracted out or partnered on content. This last strategy received national attention recently when it was found out that hundreds of newspapers were using the services of a company called Journatic to create hyperlocal content for them to publish.Hazel Sheffield, “Journatic Busted for Using Fake Bylines,” Columbia Journalism Review: Behind the News, July 6, 2012, accessed September 20, 2012, http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/media_start- up_journatic_buste.php. Hyperlocal content includes information like real-estate transactions, obituaries, school lunch menus, high school sports team statistics, and police activities, which are a considerable drain on already strained newsrooms. However, readers and media critics were surprised to learn that Journatic was paying people in the Philippines to write this content and then publish it under fake names. After news of this spread, many papers announced that they would go back to generating this content using their own resources.David Folkenflik, “Fake Bylines Reveal Hidden Costs of Local

News,” National Public Radio, July 6, 2012, accessed September 20, 2012,http://www.npr.org/2012/07/06/156311078/fake-bylines-reveal-true- costs-of-local-news.


Although newspapers were the first record of daily life in the United
States, magazines were the first national mass medium, reaching people all over the growing nation of the late 1700s and into the 1800s. Although the reach of magazines made them the first national medium, they were generally unsuccessful, and the content of the early magazines was not highly regarded.

The high cost of transportation and delivery made magazine subscriptions unaffordable for most people, and the content consisted mostly of stories reprinted from newspapers with the occasional essay on the arts or current events. Toward the middle of the 1800s, magazines began to play a more central role in society. At the time, magazines devoted more content to important issues such as slavery and women’s right to vote.Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos, Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2007),

307. Magazines as a mass medium overcame early challenges to enjoy a period of relative success in the early 1900s and then met one of their biggest challenges, the rise of television, in the mid-1900s. The following timeline traces some of the most important developments and changes in magazines.Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos, Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2007), 307– 26.

Timeline of Events in Magazine Publishing

• 1741. Colonial magazines are published. As with colonial newspapers, Benjamin Franklin plays a central role getting them started. Unlike newspapers, magazines face more challenges in terms of postage rates and finding an audience. Over the next thirty years, about one hundred magazines are published and go defunct.

  • Early 1800s. The number of magazines increases to about one hundred in circulation by 1825. Although they generate some revenue through advertising, they still face financial struggles. Most magazines serve a specific community or area and still consist of content that is mostly reprinted from other sources.
  • 1820s. Specialized magazines catering to niche audiences begin to emerge. For example, literary magazines feature the writing of people like

Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and magazines focus on specific

professions or topics such as farming, law, education, or science.

  • 1821. The Saturday Evening Post is founded and becomes the longest-published magazine in the United States and the first general-interest

    magazine to be successfully marketed to a national audience.

  • 1828. The first women’s magazine, Ladies’ Magazine, is founded andmarks the beginning of the trend toward targeting women as a distinct


  • 1850s. Magazines pioneer the use of images in printed texts, reproducinghigh-quality illustrations and sketches, though not photographs.
  • 1865. The Nation is published, which focuses on political opinion andcaters toward a more educated and liberal readership.
  • 1879–early 1900s. The Postal Act of 1879 is passed, which lowers thecost of postage for magazines. This, along with improvements in rail transportation and mass-production printing, leads to a surge in the number of magazines and the number of subscribers. These changes attract more advertisers, which allows magazine publishers to drop the price per issue below what it actually costs to produce the magazine. This attracts more readers, which attracts more advertisers and allows publishers to make up the loss between subscription and production rates with ad revenue.
  • 1900–1960. This is a peak time for magazine success. The early 1900s sees a rise in investigative journalism that goes into much more depth than newspaper coverage. The 1920s and 1930s see the rise of general-interest magazines such as Reader’s Digest, Time, and Life. Magazines play a key role in providing in-depth coverage of the World Wars and start to cover the cultural revolutions of the 1960s when they run into new challenges.

• 1960s and 1970s. As television explodes as the new mass medium of choice, national magazines lose advertisers to the new audiovisual

medium. Audiences (now viewers instead of readers) turn to nightly news programs to follow the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the Vietnam War.

• 1970s–present day. Magazines adapt to changing times by devoting pages or entire publications to the covering of television and movies. Magazines like People, launched in 1974, provide news on a wide range of celebrities. Magazines also adapt by becoming more specialized, trying to appeal more to niche rather than general-interest audiences.

While television forced magazines to adapt to an increasingly popular visual medium, radio and magazines coexisted relatively well. But the clash between print, audio, and visual media in the early 1900s marks an interesting time in the history of mass media. The growth and spread of print as a mass medium took hundreds of years, which seems like an eternity when compared to the spread of audiovisual media. The lack of and resistance to literacy made the printed medium spread less quickly than audio and visual media, which is not surprising from an evolutionary perspective. Humans evolved to talk, look, and listen, as evidenced by the fact that we have body parts/organs that help us do these things. We did not evolve to read and write, which is why the process of teaching those things is so difficult and time consuming.Marshall T. Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (New York: Cambridge, 2011), 114. In general, people enjoy watching and listening more than reading and writing. While we had to adapt our brains to decode written language and our arms, hands, and fingers to be able to produce written text, the turn to listening to the radio and watching and listening to television and movies was much more comfortable, familiar, and effortless.

Sound Mass Media

The origins of sound-based mass media, radio in particular, can be traced primarily to the invention and spread of the telegraph.Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos, Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2007),

113. Thetelegraph was invented in the 1840s and was made practical by Samuel Morse, who invented a system of dots and dashes that could be transmitted across the telegraph cable using electric pulses, making it the first nearly instant one-to-one communication technology. Messages were encoded to and decoded from dots and dashes on either end of the cable. The first telegraph line ran between Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Maryland, in 1844, and the first transcontinental line started functioning in 1861. By 1866, we could send transatlantic telegraphs on a cable that ran across the ocean floor between Newfoundland, Canada, and Ireland. This first cable could only transmit about six words per minute, but it was the precursor to the global communications network that we now rely on every day. Something else was needed, though, to solve some ongoing communication problems. First, the telegraph couldn’t transmit the human voice or other messages aside from language translated into coded electrical pulses. Second, anything not connected to a cable—like a ship, for instance—couldn’t benefit from telegraph technology. During this time, war ships couldn’t be notified when wars ended and they sometimes went on fighting for months before they could be located and informed.

Wireless Sound Transmission

As the telegraph was taking off around the world, the physicist Heinrich Hertz began to theorize about electromagnetic energy, which is measurable physical energy in the atmosphere that moves at light speed. Although Hertz proved the existence of this energy all around us in the atmosphere, it was up to later inventors and thinkers to turn this potential into a mass medium.John R. Bittner, Mass Communication, 6th ed. (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1996),

159. Hertz’s theories fascinated Italian-born Guglielmo Marconi, who in his late teens began capitalizing on Hertz and others’ theories of electromagnetism to inform and further his own experiments. By 1895 his work had enabled him to send a wireless signal about a mile and a half. With this, the wireless telegraph, which used electromagnetic waves to transmit signals coded into pulses and was the precursor to radio, was born. Marconi traveled to England, where he received a patent on his wireless telegraph machine in 1896. By 1901, Marconi successfully sent a wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean. Marconi became extremely successful, establishing companies in the United States and Europe and holding exclusive contracts with shipping companies and other large businesses. For example, the Marconi Telegraph Company had the communications contract with White Star Lines and was responsible for sending the SOS call that alerted other ships that the Titanic had struck an iceberg. For years, Marconi essentially had a monopoly on the transmission of wireless messages. His success at adapting the already existing system of Morse code to wireless transmission was apparently satisfying enough that Marconi showed little interest in expanding the technology to transmit actual sounds like speech or music.

After Marconi, the road to radio broadcast and sound-based mass media was relatively short, as others quickly expanded on his work. As is often the case with rapid technological advancement, numerous experiments and public demonstrations of radio technology—some more successful than others—were taking place around the same time in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This rapid overlapping development has created debate over who first accomplished particular feats. Although working separately, Nathan B. Stubblefield, a melon farmer from Kentucky, and Reginald A. Fessenden, a professor from Pittsburgh, paved the way for radio as a mass medium when they broadcast speech and music over a wireless signal in the 1890s.John R. Bittner, Mass Communication, 6th ed. (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1996), 160. Although these men were able

to transmit weather updates and music, their equipment was much too large and complicated to attract a mass of people eager to own it. Inventions by J. Ambrose Fleming and Lee de Forest paved the way for much more controlled and manageable receivers. Lee de Forest, in particular, was interested in competing with Marconi by advancing wireless technology to be able to transmit speech and music. Despite the contributions of the other inventors mentioned before, de Forest patented more than three hundred inventions and is often referred to as the “father of radio” because of his improvements on reception, conduction, and amplification of the signals—now including music and speech—sent wirelessly. His improvements on the vacuum tube made the way for radio and television and ushered in a new age of modern electronics.Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos, Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2007), 116–17. Since the technological advances that paved the way for radio and television happened during this time, we can mark this as the beginning of the “audiovisual age” that spanned the years from 1850 to 1990.Marshall T. Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (New York: Cambridge, 2011), 168.

The Birth of Broadcast Radio

As the technology became more practical and stable, businesses and governments began to see the value in expanding these devices from primarily a point-to-point or person-to-person application to a one-to-many application. It wasn’t until 1916 that David Sarnoff, a former Marconi telegraph operator, proposed making radio a household necessity. He suggested that his new employer, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), invest in a household radio that contained all the necessary parts in one box. His pitch was made more appealing by his suggestion that such a device would make RCA a household name and attract national and

international attention.John R. Bittner, Mass Communication, 6th ed. (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1996), 161.

Sarnoff’s plan to make radio a centerpiece of nearly every US American household was successful, and the still relatively new medium of sound transmission was on its way to becoming the primary means of entertainment and information for many. With the technology now accessible, other key elements of radio as a mass medium like stations, content, financing, audience identification, advertising, and competition began to receive attention.

Timeline of Developments in RadioThomas H. White, “United States Early Radio History,” accessed September 15, 2012, http://earlyradiohistory.us.

  • 1909. First commercial radio station signs on the air as an experimental venture by Dr. Charles David Herrold in San Jose, California, which he primarily uses to advertise for his new School of Radio.
  • 1919. First noncommercial radio station goes on the air at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
  • 1920. KDKA, the station often credited as signaling the beginning of the age of commercial broadcast radio, receives financial backing from Westinghouse (a major company) and gains much national attention for airing election returns following the 1920 presidential election.
  • 1921. The US Commerce Department licenses five radio stations.
  • 1922. The first broadcasting network is created by New York stationWEAF to give advertisers a discount and allow them to reach a larger

    audience at once.

  • 1923. More than 600 commercial and noncommercial radio stations arein operation and about 550,000 radio receivers have been sold to US consumers.
  • 1925. 5.5 million radios are now in use in the United States, making radio a powerful mass medium.
  • Late 1920s. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the largest radio network, begins to form affiliate relationships with independent stations that will broadcast NBC’s content to supplement their own programming (a practice that is still used today by radio and television networks). The network/affiliate model allows major networks to concentrate news broadcasting, acting, singing, and technical talent in one place and still have that programming reach people all over the country, which saves time and money.
  • 1927. 25–30 million people listen to a “welcome home party” for Charles Lindbergh, who had just completed the first solo transatlantic flight, making it the largest shared audience experience in history until that point.How Radio Adapted to Changing Technologies

    The 1920s boom in radio created problems as radio waves became so crowded that nearly every radio had poor or sporadic reception. The Radio Act of 1927 and the Federal Communications Act of 1934 helped establish some order and guidelines for frequency use and created a policy that stated any broadcaster using the now government-owned airwaves had to act in the public’s interest. As reception became more reliable, programming content became more diverse to include news, dramas, comedies, music, and quiz shows, among others, and radio entered its “golden age.” During the 1930s and 1940s, the radio was the center of most US American families’ living rooms. Later, as television began to replace the radio as the central part of home entertainment, radio was forced to adapt to the changing marketplace.Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos, Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2007), 125–45. For example, during the

1950s, radio technology had advanced to the point that it could now be made portable. Since radio was being forced outside the home, radio capitalized on its portability by marketing pocket-sized transistor radios that could go places television could not. Radio also partnered with car manufacturers and soon became a standard feature in new automobiles, something that was very uncommon before the 1950s. Radio also turned to the music industry to replace the content it had lost to television. Stations that once aired prime-time dramas and comedies now aired popular music of the day, as the “Top 40” format that played new songs in a heavy rotation was introduced. Talk radio also began to grow as radio personalities combined the talk, news, traffic, and music formats during the very popular and competitive “drive time” hours during which many people still listen to the radio while traveling to and from work or school. Even more recently, radio stations have turned to online streaming and podcasts so their content can still make its way to computers and portable devices such as smartphones. Just as radio caught on quickly, however, so did television and movies. In the end, the combination of audio and visual offered by these new media won out over radio.

Visual Mass Media

Humans like to both watch and listen to something at the same time. For at least 140,000 years, humans have been entertained and informed by watching and listening to the things going on around them.Marshall T. Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (New York: Cambridge, 2011), 154–55. But whether it was watching other humans or listening to the sounds of the forest, it had to happen in the moment, as there was no artificial way to convey images or sounds. It wasn’t until about 40,000 years ago that we know our ancestors first began to explore visual media including drawings, paintings, and sculptures. We later know that performing arts became a popular visual medium in societies like ancient Greece,

for example, where plays were an important but still relatively new and controversial form of entertainment. Plato’s early critiques of theater mirror those that have been targeted toward television and movies more recently.

Plato decried the fact that playwrights seemed to focus their plots on the most unpleasant and unrefined aspects of society, such as lust, greed, and violence. What Plato may not have realized was that the Greek playwrights were continuing a theme that started with the earliest producers of visual media. The drawings, paintings, sculptures, and plays produced until that point shared some human themes—namely, sex, food, drink, wealth, and violence. I’m sure Plato would not be pleased to learn that these themes continue today in more modern forms of visual media like television and movies. Although we can see that visual media have long been a part of human history, they didn’t constitute a mass medium until the late 1800s and early 1900s with the advent of motion pictures and television.

Technology Leading to Visual Mass Media

As with the birth of any mass medium, technological advances had to take place to move us from interpersonal or group engagement with visual media to mass engagement. In the 1830s, the technologies needed to create photographs were put together in Europe, and photos were in regular circulation by the 1840s. By the late 1800s, photographs could be mass-produced and included in existing print-based mass media like books, newspapers, and magazines. As soon as photographic technology began to circulate, people began to experiment with its limits to see what other potential it held. In the late 1870s, experiments with serial photography were under way, which was the precursor to motion pictures.Tim Dirks, “The History of Film: The Pre-1920s,” Filmsite, accessed September 15, 2012,http://www.filmsite.org/pre20sintro.html. In the 1890s, Thomas Edison commercialized film, creating a motion picture company and

demonstrating the new technology at expos and fairs and inviting guests to come watch short movies of people doing mundane things—for a fee, of course. At the same time, advances in sound recording and wireless transmission of sound were occurring, which was essential to bring together the audio and visual elements of modern movies and television. Movies became the first mass medium to combine audio and visual electronic communication. Movie technology developed more quickly than television because it didn’t have to overcome challenges presented by electromagnetic transmission and reception.

As was the case with radio, several people were simultaneously working to expand the technology that would soon be known as television. The earliest television was mechanical, meaning that it had to be turned or moved rather than relying on electronics. In 1884, Paul Nipkow invented a mechanical television- like device that could project a visual image of the then famous Felix the Cat. It took a while for this crude version of a television to be turned into a more functional electronic version. In 1923, Vladimir Zworykin improved on this technology, followed closely by John Baird and Philo Farnsworth.Marshall T. Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (New York: Cambridge, 2011), 158. Collectively, these men are responsible for the invention of television, which was the first mass medium capable of instantly and wirelessly transmitting audio and visual signals.

Timeline of Developments in Television TechnologyFederal Communications Commission, “Historical Periods in Television Technology,” accessed September 15, 2012,http://transition.fcc.gov/omd/history/tv.

• Late 1800s. The cathode ray tube is invented, which serves as the basic picture tube for later televisions. Paul Nipkow invents a scanning disk that separates a picture into small pinpoints of light that can be transmitted

line by line and decoded to recreate a rough (low-resolution by the

standards of early television) image.

  • 1923. Vladimir Zworykin develops the iconoscope, the first televisioncamera tube capable of converting light rays into electrical signals. At the same time, Philo Farnsworth patents an electronic image dissector tube and John Baird improves on Nipkow’s disk. Baird, working in Great Britain, transmits the first live moving pictures in 1926, and Farnsworth, working in the United States, transmits a picture (of a dollar sign) in 1927.
  • 1935–39. Public demonstrations of television capture the attention of people around the world, culminating in the famous demonstration of television by RCA at the 1939 World’s Fair.
  • 1940. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopts standards for television transmissions that help commercialize and turn television into a mass medium.
  • 1940s–70s. Television is in its “golden age,” dominating the visual medium market.
  • Late 1970s–80s. Satellite and cable providers challenge network television’s dominance.Television’s Golden Age

    Television’s initial success as a mass medium came largely from formats and programming strategies already tested and used by radio stations. From the perspective of successful radio stations, television stole the best ideas from radio, including prime-time programming and show ideas and even the stars of the shows. For example, the radio show Candid Microphone became the television show Candid Camera, and radio stars like George Burns became even larger television stars.Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina

Fabos, Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2007), 153. Television also secured

advertising and sponsorship from many of the same sources as radio, which started a fierce competition between radio and television.

Television’s rising popularity and its effect on other forms of entertainment are documented in many ways. For example, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, cities with television stations saw a drop in nightclub attendance, radio listening, and library book circulation, as well as a 20 to 40 percent drop in movie ticket sales.Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos, Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2007), 156. By 1951, television’s status as the most important mass media of the time was cemented, as sales of television sets surpassed radios for the first time. From the mid-1950s until the cable and satellite boom of the 1980s, broadcast television was in its “golden age.” Television was made more prominent with the advent of color broadcasting, which by 1966 was standard for the prime-time lineup at the three major networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC). The rush to include color programming is just one of many examples of the intense competition among the three major networks.

During the golden age of television, the major networks aired very similar types of programs, all aimed at gaining higher ratings and audience shares than the others. Programming was primarily divided into two main categories: information and entertainment. In terms of information, the three big networks viewed their nightly news programs as flagships that helped establish their credibility as a network and helped attract a loyal viewer base. Even today, the networks’ news programs are among some of the highest-rated programs on network television. In addition, to meet the requirement by the FCC that stations serve the public interest and offer more informational programs, the networks offered newsmagazines as a more dramatized source of news. These programs, including Nightline, Dateline,60 Minutes, and 20/20, are still important features of the network lineup that draw in large audiences.

Since the major networks broadcast to the whole country and the three options (NBC, CBS, and ABC) needed programming that appealed to mass audiences, television producers and executives were sometimes reluctant to stray from proven models of success. The typical lineup of sitcoms, hour-long dramas, news programs, sketch comedy and variety shows, and soap operas persisted from the 1950s until the 1980s. During this thirty-year period, the three main networks accounted for 95 percent of prime-time viewership, which meant that almost everyone in the country watching television was watching one of these three networks.Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos,Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2007), 172. The days of only having three options was about to change, however, and network television saw its influence decline starting in the 1980s. The introduction of FOX as a fourth network signaled a programming change as the new network tried to appeal to a more specific audience with some of its shows. Adult-oriented prime-time cartoons like The Simpsons and more diverse sketch comedy shows like In Living Color shook up the rather predictable lineup of the other three networks. The networks soon had more than three channels to compete with, however, as cable and satellite became more accessible and affordable and offered many more programming options.

Cable and Satellite Television

Network and broadcast television was forever changed by the growth of cable and satellite technology. Although the mass medium is still the same (moving images sent from one place to many television sets), the increased competition led to further development and changes to how we, as users, interact with and experience the medium.National Cable and Telecommunications Association, “History of Cable Television,” accessed September 15, 2012,http://www.ncta.com/About/About/HistoryofCableTelevision.aspx. Until the early 1970s, the major networks had lobbied the FCC to control and regulate

cable television to reduce the potential for competition. Although cable television technology had been around for thirty years, it wasn’t until the FCC changed policies in 1972 that cable got the green light to compete directly with the networks. Time, Inc. (which is still a part of Time-Warner Cable) launched a satellite to relay its HBO signal in 1975, and cable magnate Ted Turner launched a satellite for his WTBS station (still on cable as TBS) in 1976. Turner’s Cable News Network (CNN) also competed with the networks’ monopoly on televised news coverage. Cable television then grew steadily and quickly for the next several years, and many more channels were quickly introduced. Cable was especially attractive to people who lived in mountainous, hilly, or rural areas that had difficulty receiving the broadcast channels’ signals. Many people were also happy to give up ugly rooftop antennae that required readjustment for each channel change or to compensate for other signal interference. The price for the access and convenience, however, was a monthly cable charge, which was a big change from the public and free broadcast channels. As cable’s subscriber base and channel options grew, different pricing options helped make cable an “easier sell” to potential customers. Additionally, cable companies and satellite television providers compete fiercely with each other, which helps reduce cost. In 2012, 90 percent of US households with televisions subscribed to cable, satellite, or fiber- optic television.“Cross Platform Report: Q3 2011,” Nielsen, accessed September 20, 2012,http://www.nielsen.com/content/corporate/us/en/insights/reports- downloads/2012/cross-platform-report-q3-2011.html. Although this number makes it clear that the days of broadcast networks entering viewers’ homes free over the airwaves are over, there is a growing trend of people who are turning back to the free airwaves as a primary source of television. The “Getting Plugged In” box discusses this new phenomenon of “cord cutters” and broadcast television’s growing popularity over cable among a new generation of television viewers.

“Getting Plugged In”

Cord Cutters and the New Challenge to Cable Television

For the past few years, cable companies have grown increasingly nervous about a new trend in television-viewing habits. The practice of cord cutting refers to people who cancel their cable television packages and rely on broadband Internet service and traditional broadcast television signals to watch the programming they used to receive through monthly cable subscriptions.Mark Rogowsky, “Are Cable TV Carriers Seeing Meaningful Subscriber Degradation Due to Young People Not Signing Up?” Forbes.com, June 20, 2012, accessed September 19, 2012,http://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2012/06/20/are-cable-tv-carriers – starting-to-see-meaningful-subscriber-degradation-due-to-more-young-people – not-signing-up-for-cable-or-satellite-tv-in-their-homes. Although the number of television households in the cord-cutter category increased by approximately one million in 2011, they still only account for about 5 percent of total television households.

Age as a demographic category is key to understanding this phenomenon. There is a generation of television viewers that grew up on free broadcast television, didn’t get cable or satellite when they became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, and still doesn’t pay for television and never will. Market analysts note that this segment of the market is elderly and will not be around for much longer. Many baby boomers who saw the advent of cable and satellite and have long enjoyed the diverse programming their subscriptions offer view their monthly bills as a standard utility and will likely continue subscribing until they die. Generation Xers, who are currently in their thirties and forties, are caught in the middle. Many of these people are technologically savvy and know how to access (and occasionally do access) online television and movies. Many of them may also find their monthly cable or satellite bills annoying but acceptable. This group of

people will likely keep their subscriptions as well, out of convenience, but could be tempted to cut the cord if they hit a financial hardship and/or the process of going to an online-only viewing model became easier. Last, we have a generation of people who are in college or are recent graduates who happen to be coming of age during a harsh economic crisis. They have also spent much of their lives watching online videos, television shows, and movies. The thought of committing to a monthly cable or satellite bill that would likely run them upwards of $100 a month when money is tight and they know how to access their entertainment elsewhere doesn’t sound like a winning proposition. In a time when we can get unlimited streaming on Netflix and Hulu Plus for about $8 a month each, a la carte access to programs through iTunes or Amazon Streaming, or illegal downloads of shows through torrent services, cable and satellite have to face challenges that many of us couldn’t have imagined just ten years ago. Even though 98 percent of television viewing still occurs through traditional means (cable, satellite, broadcast, or telephone company), 9 percent of US Americans have cut the cord to rely only on online viewing content, and an additional 11 percent are considering doing the same, which points to the fact that this practice is only going to increase over the coming years.“Broadcast TV-Broadband Only Homes Rising Fast,” Marketing Charts, February 13, 2012, accessed September 19, 2012, http://www.marketingcharts.com/television/broadcast-only- broadband-tv-homes-rising-fast-21076. Luckily for the cable and satellite companies, many subscribers don’t cut their services completely, since they may also rely on the company to provide the Internet access they need to switch to online-only viewing.

1. How do you access your television shows and movies? What is your preferred way? How do you think your age group/generation feels about monthly cable/satellite subscriptions?

2. Do you think cable and satellite companies have a future in providing television programming? Why or why not? As we have learned in this chapter already, many forms of media have to adapt as technologies change and competition increases. How might cable and satellite adapt to these changing forces?

The Internet and Digital Media

The “Internet and digital media age” began in 1990 and continues today. Whereas media used to be defined by their delivery systems, digital media are all similarly constructed with digital, binary code made up of ones and zeros. Instead of paper being the medium for books, radio waves being the medium for sound broadcasting, and cables being the medium for cable television, a person can now read a book, listen to the radio, and access many cable television shows on the Internet. In short, digital media read, write, and store data (text, images, sound, and video) using numerical code, which revolutionized media more quickly than ever before.Shirley Biagi, Media/Impact: An Introduction to Mass
Media (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2007), 173–74.

Just as technological advances made radio and television possible, the Internet would not have been possible without some key breakthroughs. The Internet is a decentralized communications and information network that relies on the transmission of digital signals through cables, phone lines, and satellites, which are then relayed through network servers, modems, and computer processors. The development of digital code was the first innovation that made way for the Internet and all digital media. Surprisingly, this innovation occurred in the 1940s, leading to the development of the first computers. Second, in 1971, microprocessors capable of reading and storing electronic signals helped make the room-sized computers of the past much smaller and more affordable for individuals. Last, the development of fiber-optic cables in the mid-1980s allowed

for the transmission of large amounts of information, including video and sound, using lasers to create pulses of light. These cables began to replace the copper cables used by telephone, television, cable, and satellite companies. Because of these advances, information now travels all around us in the form of light pulses representing digits (digital code) instead of the old electrical pulses.Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos,Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2007), 45–47.

The birth of the Internet can be traced back to when government scientists were tasked with creating a means of sharing information over a network that could not be interrupted, accidentally or intentionally. More than thirty years ago, those government scientists created an Internet that was much different from what we think of as the Internet today. The original Internet was used as a means of sharing information among researchers, educators, and government officials. That remained its main purpose until the Cold War began to fade and the closely guarded information network was opened up to others. At this time, only a small group of computer enthusiasts and amateur hackers made use of the Internet, because it was still not accessible to most people. Some more technological advances had to occur for the Internet to become the mass medium that it is today.

Tim Berners-Lee is the man who made the Internet functional for the masses. In 1989, Berners-Lee created new computer-programming codes that fixed some problems that were limiting the growth of the Internet as a mass medium.Shirley Biagi, Media/Impact: An Introduction to Mass Media(Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2007), 177. The main problem was that there wasn’t a common language that all computers could recognize and use to communicate and connect. He solved this problem with the creation of the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), which allows people to make electronic connections or links to information on other

computers or servers. He also invented hypertext markup language (HTML), which gave users a common language with which to create and design online content. I actually remember learning HTML code and creating my first (very simple by today’s standards) website in 1996. Learning HTML code wasn’t something that the masses were going to rush to do, but new software programs and webpage building programs emerged that allowed people to build web content without having to know the code. As if inventing HTTP and HTML wasn’t enough, Berners-Lee also invented the first browser, which allowed people to search out information and navigate the growing number of interconnections among computers. Berners-Lee named his new network the “World Wide Web,” and he put all his inventions into the public domain so that anyone could use and adapt them for free, which undoubtedly contributed to the web’s exploding size. The growing web was navigable using available browsers, but it was sometimes like navigating in the ocean with no compass, a problem that led to the creation of search engines. Yahoo! launched in 1995 and became an instant phenomenon. I remember thinking how cool I was when I got my first yahoo.com e-mail address in 1996! Yahoo’s success spawned many more tech companies and the beginning of the “tech bubble” of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The following timeline provides an overview of some of the key developments related to the Internet:

Timeline of Developments in the Internet

• Late 1960s. The US Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) begins to develop a communications network called ARPAnet (“the Net” for short) with numerous points of connection (rather than a message coming from one place and going to many) for military and research use that was not as vulnerable to failure related to a technical malfunction, natural disaster, or planned attack.

  • 1970–82. The Net is in its developmental stage, being used primarily by academic and government researchers to send text-based information using e-mail and bulletin boards. Bulletin boards contained information on specific topics such as computer programs, historical events, and health issues.Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and BettinaFabos, Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 5th

    ed. (Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2007), 44.

  • 1982–93. The Net is in its entrepreneurial stage after an investment bythe National Science Foundation is used to create a high-speed communications network with connection points all across the country. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s brings an end to the military uses of ARPAnet. By that time people with computer know-how outside of the military had already begun to create many thousands of new connections on the Net, which meant ARPAnet couldn’t ever be turned off (finally fulfilling its original purpose).
  • 1993. The Net has now developed to the point that pictures, video, and sound (in addition to text) can be transmitted. The rapid growth of the Internet during this time is something that none of the developers could have imagined. The number of Internet users doubled each year during the 1990s.
  • 2005. Web 2.0 is realized as the Internet use becomes more social and communal, as evidenced by the popularity of such platforms and websites as Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, and Facebook that encourage and enable the creation and sharing of user-generated content.From the beginning, the Internet was a mass medium like none other. The majority of the content was user generated and the programs needed to create and navigate online content were in the public domain. This fusing of free access to information and user creativity still forms the basis of digital “new media” that

are much more user controlled and personal. Demand for Internet access and more user-friendly programs created the consumer side of the net, and old media companies and regular people saw the web as another revenue generator.

A major source of revenue generated by the Internet goes to Internet service providers (ISPs), who charge customers for Internet access. The more reliable and fast the connection, the more expensive the service. Interestingly, old media providers like cable companies (who were competing against satellite companies) and phone companies (who were also struggling after the growth of cell phone and e-mail communication) are the largest providers of high-speed Internet access. In the late 2000s, these companies were bringing in more than $30 billion a year from these services.Shirley Biagi,Media/Impact: An Introduction to Mass Media (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2007), 182.

Many others make money from the web through traditional exchanges of goods or services for money or by selling space to advertisers. These methods of commerce are not new for any mass media, as they were used in print, radio, and television. Online auction sites like eBay and online stores like Amazon simply moved a traditional commercial exchange to the realm of cyberspace. Advertising online, however, is quite different from advertising in other media. Old media advertisers measure their success with ads based on a corresponding increase or decrease in sales—a method that is not very precise or immediate. Online advertisers, on the other hand, can know exactly how many people see their ads based on the number of site visitors, and they can measure how effective their ad is by how many people click on it. This can allow them to revise, pull, or buy more of an ad quickly based on the feedback. Additionally, certain online environments provide even more user data to advertisers, which allows them to target advertisements. If you, for example, search for “vacation rentals on Lake Michigan” using a search engine, ads for lake houses or vacation spots may also show up. The social networks that people create on the Internet also create

potential for revenue generation. In fact, many people have started to take advantage of this potential by monetizing their personal or social media sites, which you can read more about in the “Getting Real” box.

“Getting Real”

Monetizing the Web: Entrepreneurship and Digital/Social Media

The “Getting Real” boxes in this book have focused on how the concepts we are learning relate to specific careers. Although you might not make a whole career out of being a web entrepreneur, many people are turning to the Internet as an extra source of income. People have been making money off the web for decades now, but sites like eBay really opened people’s eyes, for the first time, to the possibility of spinning something you already have or already do into some extra cash. Anyone can establish a web presence now, whether it’s through starting your own website, building a profile on an existing website like a blog-hosting service, or using a space you already have like your Facebook or Twitter account. Next, you need to think about what it is you’re offering and who it is that might want it. For example, if you have a blog that attracts a regular stream of readers because they like your posts about the weekend party scene in your city, you might be able to utilize a service like Google’s AdSense to advertise on your page and hope that some of your readers click the ads. In this case, you’re offering content that attracts readers to advertisers. This is a pretty traditional way of making money through advertising just as with newspapers and billboards.

Less conventional means of monetizing the web involve harnessing the power of social media. In this capacity, you can extend your brand or the brand of something/someone else. To extend your brand, you first have to brand yourself. Determine what you can offer people—consulting in your area of expertise such as voice lessons, entertainment such as singing at weddings, delivering speeches

or writing about your area of expertise, and so on. Then create a web presence that you can direct people back to through your social media promotion. If you have a large number of followers on Twitter, for example, other brands may want to tap into your ability to access that audience to have you promote their product or service. If you follow any celebrities on Twitter, you are well aware that many of their tweets link to a product that they say they love or a website that’s offering a special deal. The marketing agency Adly works with celebrities and others who have a large Twitter audience to send out sponsored tweets from more than 150 different advertisers.Courtney Friel, “Celebrities Finding New, Lucrative Ways to Monetize Their Social Network Presence,” Foxnews.com, August 19, 2011, accessed September 19, 2012,http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2011/08/19/business-celebrity- tweets. Two movie studios now include in actors’ contracts terms that require them to make a certain number of social mentions of the project on all their social media sites. Another online company, MyLikes (http://www.mylikes.com), works with regular people, too, not just celebrities, to help them monetize their social media accounts.Damian Davila, “How Twitter Celebrities Monetize Their Accounts,” Idaconcpts, accessed September 19,

2012, http://idaconcpts.com/2011/01/11/how-twitter-celebrities-monetize-their- accounts.

  1. How do you think your friends would react if you started posting messages that were meant to make you money rather than connect with them?
  2. Do you have a talent, service, or area of expertise that you think you could spin into some sort of profit using social or digital media?
  3. What are some potential ethical challenges that might arise from celebrities using their social media sites for monetary gain? What about for people in general?

Internet access is also following people away from their home and work computers, just as radio followed people into their cars. Smartphones and the development of cell phone networks capable of handling data traffic allowed cell phone providers to profit from the web. The convergence of the Internet with personal electronics like smartphones and the use of the Internet for social purposes are key parts of the discussion of personal media and social media that we will take up in Chapter 16 “New Media and Communication”.


• Technological advances made possible newer forms of media that displaced others.

o The Print Age. The development of the printing press in Europe around 1450 was the key technological advance that moved us from the manuscript era to the print era. As paper and bookbinding materials became cheaper, books spread around the world and literacy rates increased. Cheaper paper, more advanced printing presses, and faster and more reliable transportation technologies also contributed to the rise of newspapers and magazines as print media.

o The Audiovisual Age. Wireless telegraphy paved the way for radio and television broadcasts. Advances in signal transmission and reception as well as vacuum tube technology made televisions and radios more reliable and compact. Cable and satellite television began to compete with broadcast television, as they provided access to more channels and service in areas where broadcast signal reception was unreliable.

o The Internet and Digital Media Age. The development of digital code, microprocessors, and fiber-optic cables were key technological advances that made the Internet and digital communication possible. Rapid developments around 1990, such as the creation of HTTP and HTML

coding and Internet browsers, created what we know today as the World Wide Web.

  • Each form of mass media affected society in important ways. Books allowed people to educate themselves and be more selective about the information to which they were exposed rather than relying solely on teachers or clergy. Newspapers chronicled the daily life of societies and provided a public forum for information sharing and debate. Magazines were the first medium to make major advances in the mass printing of photographs, which brought a more visual medium to their audience before the advent of television. Radio allowed masses of people to experience something at the same time, which helped create a more unified national identity and also brought entertainment and news programs into people’s homes. Television copied many of radio’s ideas and soon displaced the radio as the centerpiece for entertainment in people’s homes. The Internet brought a new decentralized and communal form of media that could not be controlled by any one government or business and allowed for the creation of user-generated content.
  • Electronic media especially has had to adapt as new forms of media are invented. Radio, for example, lost much of its advertising revenue to television, which led radio to adapt its programming from news and entertainment to broadcasting music. Radio also took advantage of new technologies to become portable and follow people out of their house. Broadcast television had to diversify its program lineup as cable and satellite providers offered many more channels. All these media, even print, had to adapt to the advent of the digital age. Copyright violations—pirating—become a problem when old media content is digitized, which makes it more easily reproducible and sharable.


1. Getting integrated: Discuss how technology affects your communication in various contexts including academic, professional, civic, and personal. Also

discuss how your engagement with technology changes from context to context. For example, do you use online technology more in one context than another? In what contexts/situations might you prefer “old media” like phone, written letter, or even face-to-face communication?

  1. Print and broadcast media have been struggling to survive in a digitized world. Do some research on one of these media to see what some of the current issues are. Why are they struggling? What do you think they could do to remain profitable and relevant?
  2. As more media products become digital, issues of ownership and copyright get more attention. Identify some pros and cons of limits on sharing digital media and stricter copyright laws.

15.2 Functions and Theories of Mass Communication


How does mass communication function differently than interpersonal communication? Do we have relationships with media like we have relationships with people? To answer these questions, we can look at some of the characteristics and functions of mass communication. One key characteristic of mass communication is its ability to overcome the physical limitations present in face-to-face communication. The human voice can only travel so far, and buildings and objects limit the amount of people we can communicate with at any time. While one person can engage in public speaking and reach one hundred

  1. Identify key functions of the mass media.
  2. Explain how the media functions as a gatekeeper.
  3. Discuss theories of mass communication, including hypodermic needle theory,media effects, and cultivation theory.

thousand or so people in one of the world’s largest stadiums, it would be impossible for one person to reach millions without technology.

Another key characteristic of mass communication in relation to other forms of communication is its lack of sensory richness. In short, mass communication draws on fewer sensory channels than face-to-face communication. While smell, taste, and touch can add context to a conversation over a romantic dinner, our interaction with mass media messages rely almost exclusively on sight and sound. Because of this lack of immediacy, mass media messages are also typically more impersonal than face-to-face messages. Actually being in the audience while a musician is performing is different from watching or listening at home. Last, mass media messages involve less interactivity and more delayed feedback than other messages. The majority of messages sent through mass media channels are one way. We don’t have a way to influence an episode of The Walking Dead as we watch it. We could send messages to the show’s producers and hope our feedback is received, or we could yell at the television, but neither is likely to influence the people responsible for sending the message. Although there are some features of communication that are lost when it becomes electronically mediated, mass communication also serves many functions that we have come to depend on and expect.

Functions of Mass Media

The mass media serves several general and many specific functions. In general, the mass media serves information, interpretation, instructive, bonding, and diversion functions:

• Information function. We have a need for information to satisfy curiosity, reduce uncertainty, and better understand how we fit into the world. The amount and availability of information is now overwhelming

compared to forty years ago when a few television networks, local radio stations, and newspapers competed to keep us informed. The media saturation has led to increased competition to provide information, which creates the potential for news media outlets, for example, to report information prematurely, inaccurately, or partially.

  • Interpretation function. Media outlets interpret messages in more or less explicit and ethical ways. Newspaper editorials have long been explicit interpretations of current events, and now cable television and radio personalities offer social, cultural, and political commentary that is full of subjective interpretations. Although some of them operate in ethical gray areas because they use formats that make them seem like traditional news programs, most are open about their motives.
  • Instructive function. Some media outlets exist to cultivate knowledge by teaching instead of just relaying information. Major news networks like CNN and BBC primarily serve the information function, while cable news networks like Fox News and MSNBC serve a mixture of informational and interpretation functions. The in-depth coverage on National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service, and the more dramatized but still educational content of the History Channel, the National Geographic Channel, and the Discovery Channel, serve more instructive functions.
  • Bonding function. Media outlets can bring people closer together, which serves the bonding function. For example, people who share common values and interests can gather on online forums, and masses of people can be brought together while watching coverage of a tragic event like 9/11 or a deadly tornado outbreak.
  • Diversion function. We all use the media to escape our day-to-day lives, to distract us from our upcoming exam, or to help us relax. When we are being distracted, amused, or relaxed, the media is performing the diversion function. 

The Media as Gatekeeper

In addition to the functions discussed previously, media outlets also serve agatekeeping function, which means they affect or control the information that is transmitted to their audiences. This function has been analyzed and discussed by mass communication scholars for decades. Overall, the mass media serves four gatekeeping functions: relaying, limiting, expanding, and reinterpreting.John R. Bittner, Mass Communication, 6th ed. (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1996),
11. In terms of relaying, mass media requires some third party to get a message from one human to the next. Whereas interpersonal communication only requires some channel or sensory route, mass media messages need to “hitch a ride” on an additional channel to be received. For example, a Sports Illustratedcover story that you read at SI.com went through several human “gates,” including a writer, editor, publisher, photographer, and webmaster, as well as one media “gate”—the Internet. We also require more than sensory ability to receive mass media messages. While hearing and/or sight are typically all that’s needed to understand what someone standing in front of you is saying, you’ll need a computer, smartphone, or tablet to pick up that SI.com cover story. In summary, relaying refers to the gatekeeping function of transmitting a message, which usually requires technology and equipment that the media outlet controls and has access to, but we do not. Although we relay messages in other forms of communication such as interpersonal and small group, we are primarily receivers when it comes to mass communication, which makes us depend on the gatekeeper to relay the message.

In terms of the gatekeeping function of limiting, media outlets decide whether or not to pass something along to the media channel so it can be relayed. Because most commercial media space is so limited and expensive, almost every message we receive is edited, which is inherently limiting. A limited message doesn’t necessarily mean the message is bad or manipulated, as editing is a necessity. But

a range of forces including time constraints, advertiser pressure, censorship, or personal bias, among others, can influence editing choices. Limiting based on bias or self-interest isn’t necessarily bad as long as those who relay the message don’t claim to be objective. In fact, many people choose to engage with media messages that have been limited to match their own personal views or preferences. This kind of limiting also allows us to have more control over the media messages we receive. For example, niche websites and cable channels allow us to narrow in on already-limited content, so we don’t have to sift through everything on our own.

Gatekeepers also function to expand messages. For example, a blogger may take a story from a more traditional news source and fact check it or do additional research, interview additional sources, and post it on his or her blog. In this case, expanding helps us get more information than we would otherwise so we can be better informed. On the other hand, a gatekeeper who expands a message by falsifying evidence or making up details either to appear more credible or to mislead others is being unethical.

Last, gatekeepers function to reinterpret mass media messages. Reinterpretation is useful when gatekeepers translate a message from something too complex or foreign for us to understand into something meaningful. In the lead-up to the Supreme Court’s June 2012 ruling on President Obama’s health-care-overhaul bill, the media came under scrutiny for not doing a better job of informing the public about the core content and implications of the legislation that had been passed. Given that policy language is difficult for many to understand and that legislation contains many details that may not be important to average people, a concise and lay reinterpretation of the content by the gatekeepers (the media outlets) would have helped the public better understand the bill. Of course, when media outlets reinterpret content to the point that it is untruthful or misleading, they are not ethically fulfilling the gatekeeping function of reinterpretation.

In each of these gatekeeping functions, the media can fulfill or fail to fulfill its role as the “fourth estate” of government—or government “watchdog.” You can read more about this role in the “Getting Critical” box.

“Getting Critical”

The Media as “Watchdog”

While countries like China, North Korea, Syria, and Burma have media systems that are nearly if not totally controlled by the state regime, the media in the United States and many other countries is viewed as the “watchdog” for the government. This watchdog role is intended to keep governments from taking too much power from the people and overstepping their bounds. Central to this role is the notion that the press works independently of the government. The “freedom of the press” as guaranteed by our First-Amendment rights allows the media to act as the eyes and ears of the people. The media is supposed to report information to the public so they can make informed decisions. The media also engages in investigative reporting, which can uncover dangers or corruption that the media can then expose so that the public can demand change.

Of course, this ideal is not always met in practice. Some people have critiqued the media’s ability to fulfill this role, referring to it instead as a lapdog or attack dog. In terms of the lapdog role, the media can become too “cozy” with a politician or other public figure, which might lead it to uncritically report or passively relay information without questioning it. Recent stories about reporters being asked to clear quotes and even whole stories with officials before they can be used in a story drew sharp criticism from other journalists and the public, and some media outlets put an end to that practice. In terms of the attack-dog role, the twenty- four-hour news cycle and constant reporting on public figures has created the kind of atmosphere where reporters may be waiting to pounce on a mistake or

error in order to get the scoop and be able to produce a tantalizing story. This has also been called being on “scandal patrol” or “gaffe patrol.” Media scholars have critiqued this practice, saying that too much adversarial or negative reporting leads the public to think poorly of public officials and be more dissatisfied with government. Additionally, they claim that attack-dog reporting makes it more difficult for public officials to do their jobs.Shelia S. Coronel, “The Media as Watchdog,” Harvard-World Bank Workshop, May 19, 2008, accessed September 19, 2012,http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/pnorris/Conference/Conference%20paper s/Coronel%20Watchdog.pdf.

  1. In what ways do you think the media should function in a democratic society?
  2. Do you think the media in the United States acts more as a watchdog, lapdog, or attack dog? Give specific examples to support your answer.
  3. In an age of twenty-four-hour news and instant reporting, do you think politicians’ jobs are made easier or more difficult? Do you think reporters’ jobs are made easier or more difficult? Support your answers.

Theories of Mass Communication

Theories of mass communication have changed dramatically since the early 1900s, largely as a result of quickly changing technology and more sophisticated academic theories and research methods. A quick overview of the state of the media in the early 1900s and in the early 2000s provides some context for how views of the media changed. In the early 1900s, views of mass communication were formed based on people’s observation of the popularity of media and assumptions that something that grew that quickly and was adopted so readily must be good. Many people were optimistic about the mass media’s potential to be a business opportunity, an educator, a watchdog, and an entertainer. For

example, businesses and advertisers saw media as a good way to make money, and the educator class saw the media as a way to inform citizens who could then be more active in a democratic society. As World War I and the Depression came around, many saw the media as a way to unite the country in times of hardship. Early scholarship on mass media focused on proving these views through observational and anecdotal evidence rather than scientific inquiry.

Fast forward one hundred years and newspapers are downsizing, consolidating to survive, or closing all together; radio is struggling to stay alive in the digital age; and magazine circulation is decreasing and becoming increasingly more focused on microaudiences. The information function of the news has been criticized and called “infotainment,” and rather than bringing people together, the media has been cited as causing polarization and a decline in civility.Charles C. Self, Edward L. Gaylord, and Thelma Gaylord, “The Evolution of Mass Communication Theory in the 20th Century,” The Romanian Review of Journalism and

Communication 6, no. 3 (2009): 29. The extremes at each end of the twentieth century clearly show that the optimistic view of the media changed dramatically. An overview of some of the key theories can help us better understand this change.

Hypodermic Needle and Beyond

In the 1920s, early theories of mass communication were objective, and social- scientific reactions to the largely anecdotal theories that emerged soon after mass media quickly expanded. These scholars believed that media messages had strong effects that were knowable and predictable. Because of this, they theorized that controlling the signs and symbols used in media messages could control how they were received and convey a specific meaning.Charles C. Self, Edward L. Gaylord, and Thelma Gaylord, “The Evolution of Mass Communication Theory in the 20th

Century,” The Romanian Review of Journalism and Communication 6, no. 3 (2009): 34.

Extending Aristotle’s antiquated linear model of communication that included a speaker, message, and hearer, these early theories claimed that communication moved, or transmitted, an idea from the mind of the speaker through a message and channel to the mind of the listener. To test the theories, researchers wanted to find out how different messages influenced or changed the behavior of the receiver. This led to the development of numerous theories related to media effects. Media businesses were invested in this early strand of research, because data that proved that messages directly affect viewers could be used to persuade businesses to send their messages through the media channel in order to directly influence potential customers.

This early approach to studying media effects was called the hypodermic needle approach or bullet theory and suggested that a sender constructed a message with a particular meaning that was “injected” or “shot” into individuals within the mass audience. This theory is the basis for the transmission model of communication that we discussed in Chapter 1 “Introduction to Communication Studies”. It was assumed that the effects were common to each individual and that the meaning wasn’t altered as it was transferred. Through experiments and surveys, researchers hoped to map the patterns within the human brain so they could connect certain stimuli to certain behaviors. For example, researchers might try to prove that a message announcing that a product is on sale at a reduced price will lead people to buy a product they may not otherwise want or need. As more research was conducted, scholars began to find flaws within this thinking. New theories emerged that didn’t claim such a direct connection between the intent of a message and any single reaction on the part of receivers. Instead, these new theories claimed that meaning could be partially transferred, that patterns may become less predictable as people are exposed to a particular

stimulus more often, and that interference at any point in the transmission could change the reaction.

These newer theories incorporated more contextual factors into the view of communication, acknowledging that both sender and receiver interpret messages based on their previous experience. Scholars realized that additional variables such as psychological characteristics and social environment had to be included in the study of mass communication. This approach connects to the interaction model of communication. In order to account for perspective and experience, mass media researchers connected to recently developed theories in perception that emerged from psychology. The concept of the gatekeeper emerged, since, for the first time, the sender of the message (the person or people behind the media) was the focus of research and not just the receiver. The concepts of perceptual bias and filtering also became important, as they explained why some people interpreted or ignored messages while others did not. Theories of primacy and recency, which we discussed in Chapter 9 “Preparing a Speech”, emerged to account for the variation in interpretation based on the order in which a message is received. Last, researchers explored how perceptions of source credibility affect message interpretation and how media messages may affect viewers’ self-esteem. By the 1960s, many researchers in mass communication concluded that the research in the previous twenty years had been naïve and flawed, and they significantly challenged the theory of powerful media effects, putting much more emphasis on individual agency, context, and environment.Denis
McQuail, McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, 6th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010), 457.

The next major turn in mass communication theory occurred only a few years after many scholars had concluded that media had no or only minimal effects.Denis McQuail, McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, 6th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010), 459. In the 1970s, theories once again

positioned media effects as powerful and influential based on additional influences from social psychology. From sociology, mass media researchers began to study the powerful socializing role that the media plays but also acknowledged that audience members take active roles in interpreting media messages. During this time, researchers explored how audience members’ schemata and personalities (concepts we discussed in Chapter 2 “Communication and Perception”) affect message interpretation. Researchers also focused more on long-term effects and how media messages create opinion climates, structures of belief, and cultural patterns.

In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, a view of media effects as negotiated emerged, which accounts for the sometimes strong and sometimes weak influences of the media. This view sees the media as being most influential in constructing meanings through multiple platforms and representations. For example, the media constructs meanings for people regarding the role of technology in our lives by including certain kinds of technology in television show plots, publishing magazines like Wired, broadcasting news about Microsoft’s latest product, airing advertisements for digital cameras, producing science fiction movies, and so on. Although these messages are diverse and no one person is exposed to all the same messages, the messages are still constructed in some predictable and patterned ways that create a shared social reality. Whether or not the media intends to do this or whether or not we acknowledge that how we think about technology or any other social construct is formed through our exposure to these messages is not especially relevant. Many mass communication scholars now seek to describe, understand, or critique media practices rather than prove or disprove a specific media effect.

Additionally, mass communication scholars are interested in studying how we, as audience members, still have agency in how these constructions affect our reality, in that we may reject, renegotiate, or reinterpret a given message based on our

own experiences. For example, a technology geek and a person living “off the grid” have very different lives and very different views of technology, but because of their exposure to various forms of media that have similar patterns of messages regarding technology, they still have some shared reality and could talk in similar ways about computers, smartphones, and HD television. Given the shift of focus to negotiated meaning and context, this view of mass communication is more in keeping with the transactional model of communication.

Media Effects

Media effects are the intended or unintended consequences of what the mass media does.Denis McQuail, McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, 6th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010), 465. Many of the key theories in mass communication rest on the assumption that the media has effects on audience members. The degree and type of effect varies depending on the theory. In general, we underestimate the effect that the media has on us, as we tend to think that media messages affect others more than us. This is actually so common that there is a concept for it! The third-party effect is the phenomenon just described of people thinking they are more immune to media influence than others. If this were true, though, would advertisers and public relations professionals spend billions of dollars a year carefully crafting messages aimed at influencing viewers?

There are certain media effects that are fairly obvious and most of us would agree are common (even for ourselves). For example, we change our clothes and our plans because we watch the forecast on the Weather Channel, look up information about a band and sample their music after we see them perform on a television show, or stop eating melons after we hear about a salmonella outbreak. Other effects are more difficult to study and more difficult for people to accept

because they are long term and/or more personal. For example, media may influence our personal sense of style, views on sex, perceptions of other races, or values just as our own free will, parents, or friends do. It is difficult, however, to determine in any specific case how much influence the media has on a belief or behavior in proportion to other factors that influence us. Media messages may also affect viewers in ways not intended by the creators of the message. Two media effects that are often discussed are reciprocal and boomerang effects.Denis McQuail, McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, 6th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010), 466.

The reciprocal effect points to the interactive relationship between the media and the subject being covered. When a person or event gets media attention, it influences the way the person acts or the way the event functions. Media coverage often increases self-consciousness, which affects our actions. It’s similar to the way that we change behavior when we know certain people are around and may be watching us. For example, the Occupy Movement that began on Wall Street in New York City gained some attention from alternative media and people using micromedia platforms like independent bloggers. Once the movement started getting mainstream press attention, the coverage affected the movement. As news of the Occupy movement in New York spread, people in other cities and towns across the country started to form their own protest groups. In this case, media attention caused a movement to spread that may have otherwise remained localized.

The boomerang effect refers to media-induced change that is counter to the desired change. In the world of twenty-four-hour news and constant streams of user-generated material, the effects of gaffes, blunders, or plain old poor decisions are much more difficult to control or contain. Before a group or person can clarify or provide context for what was said, a story could go viral and a media narrative constructed that is impossible to backtrack and very difficult to

even control. A recent example of such an effect occurred at the University of Virginia when the governing body of the university forced President Teresa A. Sullivan to resign. The board was not happy with the president’s approach to dealing with the changing financial and technological pressures facing the school and thought ousting her may make room for a president who was more supportive of a corporate model of university governance.Richard Pérez-Peña, “Ousted Head of University Is Reinstated in Virginia,” New York Times, June 26, 2012, accessed November 11, 2012,http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/27/education/university-of-virginia- reinstates-ousted-president.html?pagewanted=all. When the story picked up local and then national media coverage, students, faculty, and alumni came together to support Sullivan, and a week later she was reinstated. Instead of the intended effect of changing the direction and priorities for the university, the board’s actions increased support for the president, which will also likely add support to her plans for dealing with the issues.

Cultivation Theory

Cultivation theory is a media effects theory created by George Gerbner that states that media exposure, specifically to television, shapes our social reality by giving us a distorted view on the amount of violence and risk in the world. The theory also states that viewers identify with certain values and identities that are presented as mainstream on television even though they do not actually share those values or identities in their real lives.Em Griffin, A First Look at Communication Theory, 7th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 352–

53. Drawing on cultivation as it is practiced in farming, Gerbner turned this notion into a powerful metaphor to explain how the media, and television in particular, shapes our social realities. Just as a farmer plants seeds that he or she then cultivates over time to produce a crop, the media plants seeds in our minds and then cultivates them until they grow into our shared social reality.

Over decades of exploring cultivation theory, Gerbner made several well- supported conclusions that are summarized as follows:

  • Prime-time television shows and weekend morning children’s programming have been found to contain consistently high amounts of violence over the past thirty years.
  • Older people, children, African Americans, and Latino/as are more likely to be shown as victims of violence than are their young-adult, middle- aged, and/or white counterparts. This disparity is more meaningful when we realize that these groups are also underrepresented (relative to their percentage in the general population) on these shows while their vulnerability to violence is overstated.
  • The effects of television viewing on our worldview build up over years, but in general, people who are more heavy viewers perceive the world as more dangerous than do light viewers. Gerbner coined the phrase “mean world syndrome,” which refers to the distorted view of the world as more violent and people as more dangerous than they actually are.

o Heavy viewers predict that their odds of being a victim of violence within the next week are 1 in 10, while light viewers predicted 1 in 100. Real crime statistics give a more reliable estimate of 1 in 10,000.

o Heavy viewers fear walking alone on the street more than do light viewers, believing that criminal activity is actually ten times more prevalent than it actually is.

o Heavy viewers believe that more people are involved in law enforcement and that officers draw and use their weapons much more than is actually the case.

o Heavy viewers are generally more suspicious of others and question their motives more than do light viewers (the basis of the mean world syndrome).

• Given that most people on television are portrayed as politically moderate and middle class, heavy viewers are more likely to assume those labels even though heavy users tend to be more working class or poor and more politically conservative than moderate. In short, they begin to view themselves as similar to those they watch on television and consider themselves a part of the mainstream of society even though they are not.

“Getting Competent”

Applying Media Theories

Although most do not get mass public attention, there are many media criticism and analysis organizations that devote much time and resources to observing, studying, and/or commenting on how the media acts in practice, which often involves an implicit evaluation of media theories we have discussed so far, in particular media effects theories. Media outlets and the people who send messages through media outlets (i.e., politicians, spokespeople, and advertisers) are concerned about the effects and effectiveness of their messaging. As we already learned, the pervasive view of media effects today is that media messages do affect people, but that people have some agency in terms of how much or little they identify with or reinterpret a message.

To understand media effects, media criticism organizations do research on audience attitudes and also call on media commentators to give their opinions, which may be more academic and informed or more personal and partisan. In either case, taking some time to engage with these media criticism organizations can allow you to see how they apply mass communication theories and give you more information so you can be a more critical and informed consumer of media. You can find a list of many media criticism organizations at the following

link: http://www.world-newspapers.com/media.html. Some of these

organizations have a particular political ideology or social/cultural cause that they serve, so be cautious when choosing a source for media criticism to make sure you know what you’re getting. There are also more objective and balanced sources of media criticism. Two of my personal favorites that I engage with every week are CNN’s showReliable Sources (http://reliablesources.blogs.cnn.com) and the public radio show On the Media(http://www.onthemedia.org). Reliable Sources even has an implicit reference to reciprocal effects in its show description, stating, “The press is a part of every story it covers.”“About This Show,”CNN Reliable Sources, accessed September 20,

2012, http://reliablesources.blogs.cnn.com. On the Media ran a story that implicitly connects to cultivation theory, as it critiques some of the media’s coverage of violence and audiences’ seeming desensitization to it.Bernie Bernstein, “The Story of the Times Gory Empire State Shooting Photo,” On the Media, August 24, 2012, accessed September 20,

2012, http://www.onthemedia.org/blogs/on-the-media/2012/aug/24/story- times-gory-empire-state-shooting-photo1.

  1. Of the “functions of mass media” discussed earlier in the chapter, which functions do media criticism organizations like the ones mentioned here serve? Specifically, give examples of how these organizations fulfill the gatekeeping functions and how they monitor the gatekeeping done by other media sources.
  2. Since media criticism organizations like Reliable Sources and On the Media are also media sources (one a television show and one a radio show), how might hey be contributing to reciprocal effects?
  3. Using the links provided, find a substantial article, study, or report that analyzes some media practice such as the covering of a specific event. Apply some aspect of media effects from the chapter to the story. How might media effects theory help us understand the criticism being raised?


  • The mass media serves information, interpretation, instructive, bonding, and diversion functions.
  • As a gatekeeper, the media functions to relay, limit, expand, and reinterpret information.
  • The hypodermic needle theory of mass communication suggests that a sender constructs a message with a particular meaning that is “injected” into individuals within a mass audience.
  • Theories of media effects explore the intended or unintended effects of what the media does. Theories have claimed strong effects, meaning that media messages can directly and intentionally influence audience members. They have also claimed weak effects, meaning that media messages have no little power over viewers. More recently, theories have claimed negotiated effects, meaning that media messages do affect viewers but that viewers also have some agency to identify with, reject, or reinterpret a message.
  • Cultivation theory explores a particular kind of media effect claiming that media exposure, specifically to television, shapes our social reality by giving us a distorted view on the amount of violence and risk in the world.


  1. Which function of mass media (information, interpretation, instructive, bonding, or diversion) do you think is most important for you and why? Which is most important for society and why?
  2. What ethical issues are created by the gatekeeping function of the media? What strategies or suggestions do you have for bypassing this function of the media to ensure that you get access to the information you want/need?
  3. Getting integrated: Discuss media messages that have influenced or would influence you in a professional, academic, personal, and civic context.

15.3 Mass Communication and Ethics


  1. Discuss patterns of ownership and control as they currently exist in the media.
  2. Explain the relationship between the media and globalization.
  3. Evaluate the diversity (or lack thereof) of representations in the media anddiscuss potential effects.
  4. Employ media-literacy skills to evaluate media messages.

Given the potential for mass communication messages to reach thousands to millions of people, the potential for positive or negative consequences of those messages exceed those of interpersonal, small group, or even public communication messages. Because of this, questions of ethics have to be closely considered when discussing mass communication and the media. In this section, we will discuss how media-ownership regulations, globalization, and representations of diversity tie in with mass communication ethics.

Media Control and Ownership

Media interests and ownership have become more concentrated over the past few decades as a result of deregulation. Deregulation refers to the overturning or revising of policies that were in place to ensure that media outlets serve the interests of the public and include diverse viewpoints, programs, and ownership. Deregulation occurred as a result of the rapid technological changes in the 1980s and 1990s, including the growth of cable and satellite outlets. The argument for deregulation was to make the overall market for network, cable, satellite, and other media outlets more competitive.

Timeline of Changes Made by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)Caridad Austin, “Overwhelmed by Big Consolidation:

Bringing Back Regulation to Increase Diversity in Programming That Serves Minority Audiences,” Federal Communications Law Journal 63, no. 3 (2011): 746–48.

  • 1954–84. National ownership is limited to seven stations and each station is required to be in a separate geographic market.
  • 1984. The FCC expands ownership to twelve stations as long as the number of stations owned doesn’t reach more than 25 percent of the national market
  • 1996. The Telecommunications Act eliminates a maximum on number of stations that one person or entity can own, as long as they do not reach more than 35 percent of the national market.
  • 2003. Cross-media ownership rules are relaxed, which allows for a person or entity to own both newspaper and broadcast outlets and radio and television outlets. The FCC increases the maximum audience one person or entity can reach to 45 percent of the national market, but Congress intervenes and reduces that to 39 percent.The pressure to lessen regulations came as media outlets struggled to keep up with increased competition and technological changes and saw mergers and consolidations as a way to save money and keep a competitive edge. Television was one of the first forms of electronic mass media to begin to merge. Companies that you’re familiar with now but probably didn’t know were once separate entities include Time-Warner Cable (formed from the 1989 merger of Time, Inc. and Warner Communications, Inc.). General Electric, a company we may know for making refrigerators and stoves, bought the NBC television network in 1986. These are just two of the many megamergers that have occurred in the past few decades.“Media Mega Mergers: A Timeline,”Common Cause: Holding Power Accountable, accessed September 20, 2012,http://www.commoncause.org/site/pp.asp?c=dkLNK1MQIwG&b=4923181

. The merger of these media companies was meant to provide a synergy that could lower costs and produce higher profits by, for example, merging Disney (with its expertise and market share of children’s entertainment) and the broadcast network ABC (with its expertise in television and news).

As computers and the Internet began to enter households, media companies wanted to take advantage of the prospect of providing additional media services under one umbrella. Media convergencerefers to the merging of technologies that were previously developed and used separately.Philip Rayner, Peter Wall, and Stephen Kruger, Media Studies: The Essential Resource (London: Routledge, 2004), 249. One such convergence that affects many if not most of you reading this book is the creation of broadband Internet access through existing cable lines and the bundling of cable and high-speed Internet services. This marked the beginning of a rush, on the part of media conglomerates, to own the methods of distribution for media messages as a means of then controlling the devices and technology that can be used on them. A recent and well-known example of this was iPhone’s exclusive contract with AT&T. For the first few years that iPhones were on the market, AT&T was the only service provider that worked with the phones. To handle the data load needed to service all the new phones, AT&T had to rush and spend millions of dollars to upgrade its cellular network. These moves help preserve the media conglomerates’ power, because smaller, independent, or competing companies cannot afford the time, resources, and money needed to build a competing or even functional distribution mechanism.

Consolidated media ownership has led to a decrease in localism in terms of local news and local reporters, radio DJs, and editors.Caridad Austin, “Overwhelmed by Big Consolidation: Bringing Back Regulation to Increase Diversity in Programming That Serves Minority Audiences,” Federal Communications Law Journal 63, no. 3 (2011): 734. Since business is handled from a central hub that might be hundreds or thousands of miles away from a market the media outlet

serves, many of the media jobs that used to exist in a city or region have disappeared. While media consolidation has led to some structural and cultural changes in the United States, similar forces are at work in the process of globalization.

Media and Globalization

Globalization refers to a complex of interconnecting structural and cultural forces that aid the spread of ideas and technologies and influence the social and economic organization of societies. Just as modernization in the form of industrialization and then later a turn toward an information-based society spread across the globe, so do technologies and the forms of media they create. In all these cases, the spread of ideas, technologies, and media is imbalanced, as we will discuss more later. This type of cultural imperialism is often criticized as being a part of globalization, and scholars acknowledge that cultural imperialism is largely achieved through media messages.Eugenia Siapera, Understanding New Media (London: Sage, 2012), 23–26.

Media imperialism refers to the domination of other countries through exported media and the values and ideologies they contain.Philip Rayner, Peter Wall, and Stephen Kruger, Media Studies: The Essential Resource (London: Routledge, 2004), 242. Just as corporations have helped further globalization, media companies have expanded into multinational conglomerates in such a way that allows them to have power and influence that is difficult for individual nations to regulate or control. During the first seventy or so years of electronic mass media, countries could more easily control messages that were sent through cables or other hard structures. For example, telegraph, telephone, and television lines could be cut and even radio television stations that broadcast over the airwaves could be taken offline by cutting the power to the transmitter. As more

information became digitized and sent via satellite, countries had much more difficulty limiting what could get in and out of their borders.

Media-fueled cultural imperialism is critiqued because of the concern that the imported cultural images and values will end up destroying or forever changing the cultural identity of the countries being “occupied” by foreign media. The flow of media is predictable and patterned. The cultural values of more-developed Western and Northern countries flow via media messages to the global East and South, mimicking the flow of power that has existed for centuries with the western and northern hemispheres, primarily Europe and the United States, politically and economically dominating countries in the southern and eastern hemispheres such as those in Asia, South America, and Africa. As with any form of imperialism, the poorest countries are the ones who are the most vulnerable and subjected to the most external control.Philip Rayner, Peter Wall, and Stephen Kruger, Media Studies: The Essential Resource (London: Routledge, 2004), 243. The reason more-developed countries dominate the media in other countries stems from available resources and knowledge needed to produce and transmit media content. Developing countries lack the same level of infrastructure (such as fiber-optic cables and satellite systems), technical expertise, and technology needed to produce their own content, which makes it cheaper to purchase Western, predominantly US American, content to fuel the growing desire of people in these countries to have access to media. This creates a negative cycle in which poorer countries use what resources they do have to carry Western content, which prevents them from investing in additional organic and local content and creates a demand for more Western content. Critics have also focused on the quality of the content that is exported, which is only representative of a narrow range of Western identities and values. Content tends to be dramatized programs likeBaywatch, which at one point was the most- watched television program in the world. Dramas are preferred because humor is

more likely to be lost in translation, while viewers can often identify with stock plot lines in dramas, which make the shows easier to translate and attracts a larger audience. The downside to this is that these narrowly chosen shows that run over and over in a specific country contribute to a stereotypical view of what life in the United States is like.

Not all the discussion of and scholarship on globalization and the media is negative. More recently, much research has focused on the notion of cultural hybridity and the ways in which some cultures take in foreign, predominantly Western media messages and representations and integrate them into existing cultural beliefs and practices. For example, one scholar writes about a quartet in Africa that takes European chamber music and incorporates African rhythms and another group that takes American hip-hop music and gives it a more traditional African flair.Philip Rayner, Peter Wall, and Stephen Kruger, Media Studies: The Essential Resource (London: Routledge, 2004), 246. Additionally, the emergence of social and personal media allows users in specific countries to generate their own content and adopt and utilize media platforms in their own ways. As we will learn later, social and personal media have been used to overthrow oppressive governments and to increase the flow of information in places where it was once restricted. So, in these cases, we can see that