4 Group Membership

Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.

Vince Lombardi

Getting Started

If all the world is a stage, then we each play distinct roles, whether we know it or not, when we are members of a group, team, family, or community. If we are aware of our roles, then we can know our lines, our responsibilities, and perform. When we do not know what we are supposed to do it is awfully hard to get the right job done correctly the first time. In this chapter we will explore the many facets to group membership.

4.1 Introducing Member Roles

Learning Objective

  1. Describe group member roles and their impact on group dynamics.

The performance of a team or group is often influenced, if not determined, by its members’ roles.

We can start our analysis of member roles with the work of Benne and Sheats (1948). They focused on studying small discussion groups that engaged in problem-solving activities. From their observations they proposed three distinct types of roles: task, building and maintenance, and self-centered. Task roles were identified by facilitating and co-coordinating behaviors such as suggesting new ideas or ways of solving problems. Building and maintenance roles involved encouragement, including praise, statements of agreement, or acceptance of others and their contributions nonverbally or verbally. Self-centered roles involved ego-centric behaviors that call attention to the individual, not the group, and distract or disrupt the group dynamic.

Table 4.1 Group Roles

Group Task Roles

Coordinator: facilitates order and progress

Evaluator-critic: analyzes suggestions for strengths and weaknesses

Orienter: focuses on group progress, recaps discussions

Recorder: takes notes on the group discussions, important decisions, and commitments to action

Group Building and Maintenance Roles

Supporter: Encourages everyone, making sure they have what they need to get the job done

Harmonizer: Helps manage conflict within the group, facilitating common ground, helping define terms, and contributing to consensus

Tension-releaser: Uses humor and light-hearted remarks, as well as nonverbal demonstrations (brings a plate of cookies to the group), to reduce tensions and work-related stress

Compromiser: Focuses on common ground, common points of agreement, and helps formulate an action plan that brings everyone together towards a common goal, task, or activity

Standard Setter: Sets the standard for conduct and helps influence the behavior of group members

Self-Centered Roles

Aggressor: Belittles other group members

Block: Frequently raises objections

Deserter: Abandons group or is very unreliable

Dominator: Demand control and attention

Recognition-seeker: Frequently seeks praise

Confessor: Uses the group to discuss personal problems

Joker or Clown: Frequent use of distracting humor, often attention-seeking behavior.

Bales (1950) built on their research and analyzed interaction from two categorical perspectives: task-orientation and socio-emotional. Belbin’s (1981) work on successful teams focused on the number of team members in a group and their respective roles. Imagine a baseball team, with each distinct team member with a clearly defined role and territory. Someone guards first base, and someone covers left field. Each person has both a role and a personality. The role, according to Belbin, was imposed. The team manager would assign a team member, or player in our example, to a position. Some people place first base better than others. Personality traits, talents, and relative skills are relatively stable over time (Pervin, 1989), and it was a challenge to match the best player to the most appropriate role. Get the combinations right across the whole team and you have a serious contender for the World Series. Get the combinations wrong and the manager will be looking for a job in short order.

Again the emphasis in this area of inquiry was effectiveness of teams. It is all about the win, or the progress, or the degree of completion. This line of investigation does not explore what it means to be a healthy family, or a productive community, though each type of group is related to this discussion.

Belbin (1981, 1983) used a Self Perception Inventory that consists of seven sections to assess which group member would be best for his nine group roles:

Table 4.2 Belbin’s Role Characteristics

Title Description
1 Plant (PL) Creative, imaginative, unorthodox. Solves difficult tasks and problems.
2 Resource Investigator (RI) Extrovert, enthusiastic, communicative. Develops contacts, networks, and explores opportunities.
3 Co-Coordinator Mature, confident, effective chairperson. Promotes decision-making, delegates, and clarifies goals.
4 Shaper (SH) Challenging, dynamic, thrives on pressure. The drive and courage to overcome obstacles.
5 Monitor Evaluator (ME) Sober, strategic, and discerning. Makes accurate judgments. Perceives several options.
6 Team Worker (TW) Cooperative, perceptive, mild, and diplomatic. Avoids tension, listens, a consensus builder
7 Implementer (IMP) Reliable, disciplined, and efficient. Turns abstract ideas into practical actions
8 Completer-Finisher (CF) Anxious, detail-oriented, and conscientious. Searches out errors and omissions. Delivers on time.
9 Specialist (SP) Dedicated, self-motivated, and single-minded. Provides specific knowledge or skills

If someone in your group always makes everyone laugh, that can be a distinct asset when the news is less than positive. At times when you have to get work done, however, the class clown may become a distraction. Notions of positive and negative will often depend on the context when discussing groups. Table 4.3 “Positive Roles” and Table 4.4 “Negative Roles” list both positive and negative roles people sometimes play in a group setting. Beene, K., & Sheats, P. (1948). Functional roles of group members. Journal of Social Issues, 37, 41–49.,McLean, S. (2005). The basics of interpersonal communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Table 4.3 Positive Roles Beene, K., & Sheats, P. (1948). Functional roles of group members. Journal of Social Issues, 37, 41–49.,McLean, S. (2005). The basics of interpersonal communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Initiator—Coordinator Suggests new ideas or new ways of looking at the problem
Elaborator Builds on ideas and provides examples
Coordinator Brings ideas, information, and suggestions together
Evaluator-Critic Evaluates ideas and provides constructive criticism
Recorder Records ideas, examples, suggestions, and critiques

Table 4.4 Negative RolesBeene, K., & Sheats, P. (1948). Functional roles of group members. Journal of Social Issues, 37, 41–49.,McLean, S. (2005). The basics of interpersonal communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Dominator Dominates discussion, not allowing others to take their turn
Recognition Seeker Relates discussion to their accomplishments, seeks attention
Special-Interest Pleader Relates discussion to special interest or personal agenda
Blocker Blocks attempts at consensus consistently
Joker or Clown Seeks attention through humor and distracts group members

Now that we’ve examined a classical view of positive and negative group member roles, let’s examine another perspective. While some personality traits and behaviors may negatively influence groups, some are positive or negative depending on the context.

Just as the class clown can have a positive effect in lifting spirits or a negative effect in distracting members, so a dominator may be exactly what is needed for quick action. An emergency physician doesn’t have time to ask all the group members in the emergency unit how they feel about a course of action; instead, a self-directed approach based on training and experience may be necessary. In contrast, the pastor of a church may have ample opportunity to ask members of the congregation their opinions about a change in the format of Sunday services; in this situation, the role of coordinator or elaborator is more appropriate than that of dominator.

The group is together because they have a purpose or goal, and normally they are capable of more than any one individual member could be on their own, so it would be inefficient to hinder that progress. But a blocker, who cuts off collaboration, does just that. If a group member interrupts another and presents a viewpoint or information that suggests a different course of action, the point may be well taken and serve the collaborative process. If that same group member repeatedly engages in blocking behavior, then the behavior becomes a problem. A skilled communicator will learn to recognize the difference, even when positive and negative aren’t completely clear.

Key Takeaway

  • Group members perform distinct roles that impact and influence the group in many ways.


  1. Think of a group of which you are currently a member. Create a list of the members of your group and see if you can match them to group roles as discussed in this section. Use describing words to discuss each member. Share and compare with classmates.
  2. Think of a group of which you are no longer a member. Create a list of the members of the group and see if you can match them to group roles as discussed in this section. Use describing words to discuss each member. Share and compare with classmates.


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