Roles In Groups

The many forms of leadership and participation

One of the articles in Strategies For Cultural Change (IC#9)
Originally published in Spring 1985 on page 24
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

The following article is based on material from the Family Community Leadership program of the Cooperative Extension Service. Later in this issue we have an interview with the Washington State Coordinator for FCL, Ardis Young, which provides more detail on this remarkable leadership training program.

AS WE MOVE AWAY FROM the simple but rigid authoritarian patterns of the age of empire, we need to refine and enrich our understanding of how we can work together in ways that draw on the full human potential among us. One of the most useful insights for doing this is to realize that "leadership" is not a simple property of one person ("the leader"), but rather it is a rich and diverse series of roles that are frequently shared by many people within a healthy group. We can think of leadership as anything that serves to move the group forward.

To give this more detail, it will be helpful to distinguish between leadership roles that help the group accomplish its task, and roles that help the group build and maintain itself as a group:

Task Roles

The INITIATOR suggests or proposes to the group new ideas. S/he offers a novel point of view concerning problems, procedures, goals, or solutions.

The INFORMATION SEEKER asks for clarification of suggestions made in terms of their factual adequacy, for authoritative information and facts pertinent to the problem being discussed.

The OPINION SEEKER asks primarily for a clarification of values pertinent to what the group is undertaking or values involved in various suggestions that have been made.

The INFORMATION GIVER offers facts or generalizations which are "authoritative" or relates his/her own experience pertinent to the group problem.

The OPINION GIVER states his/her belief pertinent to a suggestion made. The emphasis is on what s/he believes should be the group’s view of pertinent values, not primarily upon relevant facts or information.

The ELABORATOR spells out suggestions in terms of examples or developed meanings, offers a rationale for suggestions previously made, and tries to deduce how an idea or suggestion would work out if adopted primarily upon relevant facts or information.

The COORDINATOR shows or clarifies the relationships among various ideas and suggestions, tries to pull ideas and suggestions together or tries to coordinate the activities of various members of sub-groups.

The ENERGIZER prods the group to action or decision, attempts to stimulate or arouse the group to "greater" or "higher quality" activity.

The PROCEDURAL TECHNICIAN expedites group movement by doing things for the group, e.g. passing out materials or setting up chairs.

The RECORDER writes down suggestions, makes a record of group decisions, or writes down the product of discussion. The recorder fills the role of "group memory."

Maintenance Roles

The ENCOURAGER praises, agrees with, and accepts the contribution of the others. S/he indicates warmth and solidarity in her/his attitude toward other group members, offers commendation and praise and in various ways indicates understanding and acceptance of other points of view, ideas, and suggestions.

The HARMONIZER mediates the differences between other members, attempts to reconcile disagreements, relieves tension in conflict situations through good hearted jokes, a soothing attitude, etc.

The COMPROMISER operates from within a conflict in which his/her idea or position is involved. S/he may offer compromise by yielding status, admitting his/her error, by disciplining him/herself to maintain group harmony, or by "coming halfway" in moving along with the group.

The GATE-KEEPER expedites attempts to keep communication channels open by encouraging or facilitating the participation of others ("we haven’t gotten the ideas of Mr. X yet," etc.) or by proposing regulation of the flow of communication ("why don’t we limit the length of our contributions so that everyone will have a chance to contribute?" etc.)

The STANDARD SETTER expresses standards for the group. These standards apply to the quality of the group process, or set limits on acceptable individual behavior within the group.

The GROUP OBSERVER keeps records of various aspects of group process and feeds such data with proposed interpretations into the group’s evaluation of its own procedures.

The SUMMARIZER defines the position of the group with respect to its goals by summarizing what has occurred, points to departures from agreed upon directions or goals, or raises questions about the direction which the group discussion is taking.

The REALITY TESTER subjects the accomplishment of the group to some standard or set of standards of group- functioning in the context of the group task. Thus, s/he may evaluate or question the "practicality," the "logic," the "facts," or the "procedure" of the suggestion or of some unit of group discussion.

Each of these roles is part of the leadership process. Which roles a person plays depends his/her abilities, personality and preferences. Some may fill more than one role, at the same time or over a period of time. There may be one person who fills several of these roles and is considered to be the group "leader," but without the leadership contributions made by others in the group, the group would function less effectively, if at all. Roles are also often shared, with, for example, many people serving as initiators or encouragers.

Looking at leadership in this way, we can see that it is not a limited or exclusive possession. Quite the contrary, for the more leadership capacity and expression within a group, the more effective and alive the group will be. When leadership is seen as a set of mutually re-enforcing roles, the better your leadership becomes, the more my leadership is empowered and encouraged.

As we identify more clearly the roles we each play in the group processes, we can see our individual strengths in the overall pattern. The challenge is for each to take as many different roles as are appropriate to the group’s need in the various phases of its movement toward achieving its purposes.

Blocking Roles

Members of a group obviously have their own individual desires, needs, and agendas, some of which may be in harmony with the group’s purpose and some not. In any case, these must be recognized and dealt with, and either explicitly brought into the group’s process or consciously set aside. Ignoring or suppressing these needs often result in individual as well as group frustration. This frustration is frequently expressed through behaviors that tend to block the effective functioning of the group. For example:

The AGGRESSOR may work in many ways – deflating the status of others, expressing disapproval of the values, acts, or feelings of others, attacking the group or the problem it is working on, joking aggressively, showing envy toward another’s contribution by trying to take credit for it, etc.

The BLOCKER tends to be negativistic and stubbornly resists, disagreeing and opposing without or beyond "reason" and attempting to maintain or bring back an issue after the group has rejected or by-passed it.

The RECOGNITION-SEEKER works in various ways to call attention to her/himself, whether through boasting, reporting on personal achievements, acting in unusual ways, struggling to prevent being placed in an "inferior" position, etc.

The SELF-CONFESSOR uses the audience opportunity which the group setting provides to express personal, non- group oriented "feeling," "insight," "ideology," etc.

The PLAYBOY-PLAYGIRL makes display of his/her lack of involvement in the group’s processes. This may take the form of cynicism, nonchalance, horseplay, and other more or less studied forms of "out-of-field" behavior.

The DOMINATOR tries to assert authority or superiority in manipulating the group or certain members of the group. This domination may take the form of flattery, of asserting a superior status or right to attention, giving directions authoritatively, interrupting the contributions of others, etc.

The HELP-SEEKER attempts to call forth a "sympathy" response from other group members or from the whole group, whether through expressions of insecurity, personal confusion or depreciation of him/herself beyond "reason."

The SPECIAL INTEREST PLEADER speaks for the "small business man," the "grass roots" community, the housewife, "labor," etc., usually cloaking her/his own prejudices or biases in the stereotype which best fits his individual needs.

What can be done when members of a group play these blocking roles? First, take it as a message that perhaps the group has not given enough space and recognition to normal personal agendas. Take time for this so that individuals can be freed-up to contribute their energy to the group. Second, while giving these individual needs time, maintain a balance. The group as a whole must be willing to set limits on acceptable individual behavior, and to enforce those limits in an equitable and sensitive manner. Finally, the group must be willing to exclude an individual whose personal needs and hidden agendas threaten to disrupt and derail the entire group process.

The range of roles within groups is much richer than just "leaders" and "followers." By opening our eyes to this diversity, and stretching our own capacities, we can develop skills of group process that will enable us to work together in ways that are joyous and empowering.

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