Group Communication Roles: The Roles To Play in Meetings

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.” As You Like it,  William Shakespeare
Every day we play many roles, both: formal and informal, major and minor, task and relationship. And the more roles that you play, the more likely it is that you will say the right thing at the right time. Remember, you can be a star on the stage of work or a bit player. Bit players never get noticed. But stars play many roles allowing them to create high performance teams, run better meetings and, and make better decisions. 
To be the star on the stage of business, you must have a deep understanding of:
    • Meeting Processes,
    • Types of Groups, and
    • Social Communication Roles (both major and minor).

Playing the right communication roles (at the right time no less) is one of the primary communication skills needed by leaders.

Types Of Communication Roles We Play


In social psychology, one of the key elements of understanding how a group functions is to examine the roles played by each of its members. You might say a role is a set of behaviors associated with an individual, it is a pattern of behavior that is relatively consistent over time, and it changes depending on the situation.
Formal Roles
Formal roles have labels assigned to them. Formal family roles Include: Father, Mother, aunt, uncle, son, daughter and so on. Formal work roles include: worker, supervisor, manager, executive, investor, and of course, The Boss. if you stop to think about it, many university degrees are really preparation for formal work roles. It takes more study time learn how to be a doctor, a lawyer, much less time to be an electrician or a plumber. In meetings, the formal role includes leader, facilitator, scribe, etc.
So besides knowing how to play well your formal roles, its very important to learn how to develop the skills associated with the informal communication roles, especially the communication roles that help you run meetings.
Informal Roles
These communication roles get played in a group setting. They typically last a very short time, anywhere from a second to a minute or so. Some of these roles are played spontaneously, almost randomly, like a stream of consciousness. With practice, one learns to play the right role at the right time. There are three categories of these communication roles: task, relationship and self-centered ones.
The Importance Of Communication Roles
“Meetings are events in which minutes are kept but hours are lost.” Anonymous


If you never worried about group communication, consider this. In larger organizations, you will be spending 70% of your time in a group ritual known as a meeting, that’s thousands of hours over the life of your career. And as you go toward the ranks of the executive, more and more time is spend in more and more meetings. Despite lists of good advice on how to run meetings, a great deal of time is still wasted. It estimated that time wasted in meetings is at least 25 percent and commonly 50%.

Think for a moment, how many hours have you spent in wasted meetings? You all know what I am talking about, the frustrating long, boring, staff meeting occurs every week. The problem solving meeting that somehow never solves the problem, the decision making meeting that ends. Your only recourse it to complain about it outside the room. 
To cite one simple example, you may to be talking about the budget but all of a sudden you observe the participants talking about pay, and how bad the pay is around this organization. You may reflect for a moment about the craziness of group dynamics that allows participants to be so undisciplined that they stray off topic and might be reminded of the old saying, “All sheep need a shepherd.”

Informal (Facilitator) Communication Roles

Facilitator communication roles (sometimes known as informal communication roles) are where you need to focus if one wants to run meetings really well. A great leader or facilitator needs to develop skill in playing task and relationship (maintenance) roles to deal with the self-oriented roles.

Task Roles 

Task roles facilitate the process of getting the job done. They help to come up with a solution for a problem, identify who’s responsible, ensure that there is a plan. Collectively, these roles are necessary to execute on the task dimension of situational leadership models. There are ten of these task roles.  But if you want to be a great leader of facilitator, you must also understand the relationship roles as well.

Relationship Roles 

Sometimes problems occur in relationships. One example is conflict. Typically people categorize conflict as either constructive or destructive. No conflict in a group can be just as bad as too much conflict. Getting good at the relationship roles is important in seeing real teamwork. But these roles are tough to play — they require a great deal of skill. There are eight of these communication roles. Relationship roles act as a counter to the dysfunctional self-oriented communication roles you see when suffering through a bad meeting.


Self-Oriented Roles

A great facilitator has to deal with self-oriented roles. You might call this good people behaving badly or selfish people behaving normally. There are 13 of these. 
Some of these are extremely difficult to handle since they are traits of personality, others just bad behavior. When these roles are overplayed, groups lock up and you walk out frustrated. By understanding the self-oriented roles, you can diagnose what’s going wrong. And by playing relationship and task roles, you can get the group going forward instead of seeing them stuck.
Measuring Communication Effectiveness
How you define effectiveness, depends on your purpose. Let’s say your purpose is to inform. In that case one can measure the ability of people to comprehend your message. A simple way would be to send out a written message and then ask a question in a meeting. Of course, asking a question has its limitations. Most members won’t want to admit that they didn’t read the message or didn’t understand it.

One can also try to measure confusion. It’s amazing how often people and groups are confused but fail to say anything. This happens many times in every meeting. And of course, there are certain types of meetings where the audience is almost always confused, almost all a time. Think about when you’re a student listening to professor’s lecture.

Another type of purpose has to do with persuasion. Different people define persuasion differently. 

Why can also indirectly measure effectiveness of group communication by the actions taken by group members. However, the realm of action also depends on other factors such as human motivation.

How To Learn These Roles

Besides understanding the roles, it’s important to apply what you know. You will need to practice exercises and assignments allowing you to take the theory into the real world. Here are the first two steps in the application sequence. There are four major application steps areas:

    • Memorizing
    • Putting Words To Roles
    • Building Observation Skills: Detecting Self Oriented Roles, and last but not least,
    • Intervening in Group Dynamics

it’s not rocket science, but one does have to spend a little bit time memorizing those communication roles. Once you’ve done this, you must put words to the roles and begin more complicated elements of practice. 

Effective group communication is complicated, more complicated than you think. And it becomes even more complicated the more political the group or the larger the size of the group. Just like the city cannot work without the invisible infrastructure of clear water and waste removal, so a group needs skilled individuals who can play the right task and relationship roles by a group at the right moment.

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References and Resources

Tubbs, Stewart (2012). A Systems Approach to Small Group Interaction, 11th Edition. McGraw-Hill.
Cool Stuff on Communication Glengary Glen Ross (1992)

This is a tale of the more nasty side of groups in business. The focus is on four real estate agents who will use about any persuasive tool they can, legal and illegal) to close. One gets a feel for why there are so many victims out there and who easy it is to persuade.

12 Angry Men (1957)
You are stuck with a twelve strangers you would rather not be with. It’s very hot in the room and a decision has to be made whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. Almost everyone present wants to leave.The first vote is taken and it’s eleven to one — you being the only one to vote innocent. What to do?
A jury has a foreman, but that person may or may not be the real leader of the group. In this movie, emerging leader Juror 8 (played by Henry Fonda) rather than caving to peer pressure, uses a number of different techniques to get the others in the room to reconsider their positions.
Through the cleaver use of subtle patterns of persuasion and questions, Fonda emerges as the de facto leader of the group. After watching this leadership movie, you may want to forget about the MBA and get a degree in psychology instead.

Leadership Skill Development