Many assignments at university involve group-work. Working in a group can be challenging, especially where the members are very diverse in age, cultural background, linguistic and academic ability, and preferred learning styles. However, when well-managed, groups can provide a valuable experience of the kind of collaboration required in the professional workplace.
A useful strategy for developing effective working relationships in your discussion group is to identify enterprise and development roles that members can take up.
Well-managed groups have clear ground-rules agreed on by all members at the beginning of the group assignment. A few examples of these ground-rules might be:
- Group members will treat each other with courtesy.
- Every group member will contribute to the best of their ability.
- Timelines for assignments will be closely adhered to.
- Everyone is encouraged to express their own opinion and to seriously consider the opinions of others.
- A timetable for out-of-class meetings will take into consideration the preferences and other commitments of all members.
- All members will attend out-of-class meetings.
- Cultural differences will be respected and members will make the effort to understand the cultural conventions of others.
By discussing and setting ground-rules early in the assignment process, groups save time and avoid misunderstandings later.
Group discussion allows you to exchange information and ideas and gives you the experience of working in a team. In the work place, discussions enable management to draw on the ideas and expertise of staff, and to acknowledge the staff as valued members of a team.
Some advantages of group discussion are:
- Ideas can be generated.
- Ideas can be shared.
- Ideas can be 'tried out'.
- Ideas can be responded to by others.
- When the dynamics are right, groups provide a supportive and nurturing environment for academic and professional endeavour.
- Group discussion skills have many professional applications.
- Working in groups is fun!
Group enterprise roles are the behaviours needed to achieve a particular performance goal or purpose; the focus is on the success of an enterprise of some kind. Useful roles are:
- Initiator - gets the discussion started
- Information seeker - asks relevant questions about the discussion topic
- Information giver - suggests possible answers, gives relevant information
- Procedure facilitator - takes notes and keeps the discussion on-track
- Opinion seeker - encourages group members to speak out
- Opinion giver - shares thoughts, ideas, and opinions with the group
- Clarifier - keeps track of the discussion and identifies what needs to be done next
- Summariser - draws together the main points of the discussion
Here is the dialogue that might accompany these enterprise roles in a group discussion on the topic of environmental responsibility of Australian companies.
"Let's take a local perspective on environmental responsibility. Maybe a fast-food outlet?"
"Does anyone know what Bentley Beta Burgers does with its garbage? Does it recycle?"
"They won a local government award last year for running an environmentally friendly operation."
"I'll write this down to keep track of our discussion."
"Do you think they're really responsible or is it just a bit of good PR?"
"I think it's a combination of the two, but at least they're taking the issue seriously."
"We need to get hold of Betta Burgers' annual report to get a better picture of what they're doing."
"O.K. We're taking a local perspective, using Bentley Betta Burgers as our example, and we'll have a look at last year's annual report to see in what way they practised environmental responsibility."
Group development roles are the behaviours needed to develop cohesion the group; the focus is on the relationship between group members. Useful roles are: social supporter, harmoniser, tension reliever, energiser, compromiser, gatekeeper. These become particularly important as the discussion develops and opposing points of view begin to emerge.
Here is the dialogue that might accompany these development roles in a group discussion about 'environmental responsibility of Australian companies'.
Social Supporter: "We're coming up with some good ideas here."
Harmoniser: "Jane and Tsen have looked at the issue from opposing points of view. Let's see if we can take something from both points of view."
Tension Reliever:"This discussion's really dynamic. It's good that we have so many different valid angles on the issue."
Energiser: "Hey, the point that Ahmed made has really got me thinking. Let's explore his idea some more."
Compromiser: "Half the group supports Jane's view and half supports Tsen's. Now we need to formulate a compromise that we can all live with."
Gatekeeper: "How do you feel about the issue, Greg? Your contribution here would be really valuable.
During an effective group discussion each participant may take up a number of enterprise and maintenance roles to keep the discussion moving productively.
As well as these positive roles, there are a number of dysfunctional roles which are SOMETIMES taken up in group discussion. You should avoid taking up these roles yourself and learn to identify them in other group members. The discussion group may adopt the ground-rule that dysfunctional role behaviour will be censured by members of the group.
Described below are some dysfunctional roles to be avoided.
Disgruntled (non)participant: Someone who does not contribute and whose presence inhibits the participation of other group members.
Attacker: someone who acts aggressively by expressing disapproval of other members and their contributions to the discussion.
Dominator: someone who takes control of the discussion by talking too much, interrupting other members, or behaving in a patronising way.
Clown: someone who 'shows off', refuses to take the discussion seriously, or disrupts it with inappropriate humour.
Social loafer: someone who puts in less than 100% effort when they work in a group, assuming that the combined group effort will carry them.
Fill out this Discussion Feedback sheet to have a look at what roles you play in a group discussion.
Click here and download the form to fill it out.
The context of this case is a university class group assignment.
The group consists of four students - Jasmin, Alvin, Melissa, and Ramesh, who are involved in completing a report and group presentation worth 20 per cent of the assessment in a core subject of their course. The group began well when they started the project in week three, but by week six progress has declined as the following problems have emerged.
Jasmin has been conducting telephone interviews with a survey sample on behalf of the group and has not been keeping detailed records of each call.
Alvin agreed to meet Melissa at the library, but Melissa did not show up.
Ramesh set up a spreadsheet for recording the results without consulting the others. Both Alvin and Melissa saw significant disadvantages with Ramesh's spreadsheet.
Jasmin is in the process of moving to another suburb, where public transport is more limited.
During the group meetings Ramesh likes to focus on one issue at a time, while Melissa likes to chat generally about ideas and presentation strategies. Ramesh thinks that Melissa interrupts Jasmin and Alvin too much and causes the group to lose focus.
All members are feeling frustrated with their experience of working in the group. There are three weeks before the report and presentation are due and anxiety is high.
Consider the following questions and suggest some solutions.
- What is the nature and likely cause of communication breakdown in the group?
- How could the group improve the group process and build better interpersonal relations between the members?
- List some ground rules that the group might establish to avoid conflict.