Managing Groups and Teams/Communication
Communication is something we humans do extraordinarily well. Some cynics say that the primary purpose of language is to allow us to tell lies! Hopefully, this is a misconception - for good communication requires that the 'mental model' being transmitted by the originator and the experience of the person interpreting the received information be sufficiently similar. For example, a brain surgeon explaining a procedure to a patient would use more simple, precise, unequivocal 'mental models' than if she was presenting a paper to a seminar of specialist colleagues who each enjoyed comprehensive and independent checking, cross-checking capabilities. It is important, when communicating, to apply an adequately 'balanced' checking 'protocol.' Failure to do so is at our peril!
On January 3 2006 at approximately 11:50 pm, CNN and other news outlets reported that 12 of 13 miners trapped in the Sago Mine were alive. Families of the victims celebrated for three hours before mine company officials informed them that the report was wrong and 12 of the 13 miners were dead. The families would later report that a mine foreman, who had overheard the rescue team, had contacted the families with some initial but unverified information and the media picked the story up from the families. Reporters then 'verified' that information with other families and other news sources without realizing those 'cross-check' sources originated from the very same, single unverified source. They failed to 'dig down to the roots' of their story and relied instead on visible superficiality.
Beyond compounding the mental anguish of the families, many professional news media outlets appeared unprofessional and the mine company experienced a far worse public relations problem than if they had communicated clearly and quickly using more formal protocols. Unfortunately formal protocols involve verification, and this slower process can seem rather like censorship or deliberate information management to news gatherers. While most business communication issues don’t result in such dramatic public displays, 'quick and dirty' communications often prevent teams from functioning properly and cost companies uncountable billions of dollars. But so too does the over-cautious, 'need to know' secrecy beloved of military style organizations, who thereby miss many opportunities. The trick is to strike a balance, and that balance will change, depending on the sensitivity, importance and urgency of the message.
Unbalanced messages are likely to cause “communication breakdown” which can engender conflict. Over cautious protocol can prevent important information from reaching decision makers accurately and in time, while listening to messages with no verification protocol - rumors - can easily reduce the morale of team members. By understanding the causes of communication breakdown and effective techniques for group communication, team members can create a more productive working environment for themselves, and increase their effectiveness when dealing with outsiders such as customers or the wider public (or vice versa - as occurred at the Sago Mine 'information leak'). Effective communication techniques maximize team productivity and creativity while minimizing the chance of miscommunication. Just to make things even more complicated, deliberately 'unbalancing' messages to provoke miscommunication can be quite creative! Unbalanced - unverified messages are the essence of formal 'brain-storming' events, and also occurs routinely in gentle banter and ironic satire among colleagues. However, it can not be over-emphasized that these 'wrong protocol' techniques should only be used exceptionally as they require very careful management in a business environment!
Communication breakdown can be the source or the result of conflict, but it is also important to recognize that a lack of conflict can also be a sign of communication breakdown. Inadequate training, apathy, misunderstandings, channel noise, differing backgrounds, or lack of respect can all be causes of communication breakdown. The results of communication issues include withholding information, loss of trust, reduced cooperation, reduced productivity, reduced creativity, reduced risk taking, personal attacks, sabotage, complaints, clique formation and team breakup or individual resignation. The North American Blackout of 2003 is an interesting example. One power plant failed to accurately communicate the status of their section of the power grid, causing more than one hundred power plants to go off line, forty million people to lose power, and an estimated six billion dollars in losses to businesses.It is caused by problems which occur daily which allows people to stop their communication.
A survey of 560 MBA students with work experience from across the USA helps to illustrate some of the problems that communication breakdown can cause. The table labeled "Hard Costs" shows the number of respondents that can recollect certain hard costs that were incurred due to communication breakdown. The table labeled "Soft Costs" shows the soft costs incurred (Gilsdorf 191-192). The soft costs may result in losses as high as or higher than hard costs, but they are difficult to quantify. As you can see, the effects of communication breakdown are far from trivial. The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) has recently released an article stating that poor communication is more of a threat to the failure of a business than competition or the economy ("Communication Errors Undermining Business.").
|# of respondents||Hard cost|
|34||$100 - $499|
|24||$500 - $999|
|82||$1,000 - $9,999|
|25||$10,000 - $19,999|
|35||$20,000 - $49,999|
|11||$50,000 - $99,999|
|21||$100,000 - $499,999|
|3||$500,000 - $999,99|
|11||$1,000,000 - $10,000,000|
|# of respondents||Soft cost|
|101||Lowered productivity, efficiency, or quality|
|82||Bad image, word of mouth, publicity|
|79||Grave erosion of individuals' effectiveness|
|72||Damaged working environment of relationship|
|56||Stupid risk or liability|
|51||Lowered team spirit|
|34||Waste of money|
There are many books written with psychological and linguistic perspectives on communication breakdown. “That’s Not What I Meant!” by Deborah Tannen explains how ambiguities in our speech can cause people to misinterpret what we intend to say. She also talks about how the majority of what we say isn’t in the actual words, but in the way they are said. This involves pacing, volume, expression of emotion (pitch, tone). There is a higher incidence of misinterpretation when communicating between cultures, due to differences in the norms of “meta messages” between cultures. Communication breakdown can also be manifested as politeness taken too far. Tannen talks about the “Two-edged Sword of Politeness” where, in the interest of maintaining relations with others, important things are not said. The motive here is to get along, but people often end up getting along worse when this is done. When communicating, we don’t always say what we mean due to what we think others might think of us. This is known as indirectness and is a type of self-defense mechanism. Communicating with others is far more complicated than simply turning an idea into words, saying it, and having it turned back into the same idea. All these complications are places where communication breakdown can occur, frustrating those involved.
Richard J. Mayer has a slightly different perspective on breakdown. He came up with the hypothesis that “Virtually all communication problems and conflicts between people, no matter how serious they appear, are due to an accumulation of un-confronted and unresolved minor issues, each of little or no apparent importance.” (Mayer 3). He studied hundreds of instances where communication breakdown had occurred to come up with this idea. Many of these minor issues are caused by the communication concepts mentioned earlier by Tannen. The new part of this perspective is that major problems are caused by an accumulation of minor issues. He suggests confronting these little issues every time they are encountered. He also proposes the idea that we are more skilled at being competitive than we are at being collaborative, which makes it difficult to work in effective teams.
A certain amount of communication conflict within a team is good. Both too little, as well as too much conflict is a type of communication breakdown. Too little communication conflict most likely means either that nobody cares very much or they are all brainwashed to think alike ('group-think'). Both of these factors mean the team is not being effective (Lemmex 2004). In an article about communication breakdown, Larry Lauer says that communication breakdown is inevitable due to the complex nature of human experience and thus interpretation, so the communications need to be reiterated back and forth until both the transmitter and all those receiving messages have a common and verifiable understanding. He suggests some ways to spot communication breakdown, and suggests we should look for 'activity plateaus' after a goal is met.
These plateaus often cause members to be more focused on their personal matters, and communication begins to slow down. Another sign is productivity falling off. A plateau might be due simply to members of a group who feel that their input isn’t much valued, and start to withdraw from the group activity. Executive isolation is another sign of communication breakdown. This is the process of a manager suffering from 'head in the office syndrome'. Effective communication is difficult. During times of stress, it is tempting to avoid conflict by spending less and less time with others, and not engaging in verifiable communication with them about the critical issues. Finally, either too few or too many comments, queries or complaints is likely be a sign of communication breakdown (Lauer 1994). It is all a matter of balance between 'foot in mouth' and 'paralysis by analysis'!
Communication breakdown is all around us, and is responsible for more problems than anyone takes the time to realize. Through the use of examples, survey results, and various perspectives on the inner workings and diagnosis of communication breakdown, we try to develop a better idea as to why we should want to avoid communication breakdown. The following sections will help you communicate effectively with others so that, together, you can plan and implement effective communication techniques and checking protocols within your group or team.
Effective communication within a team doesn’t happen by accident; instead, it requires planning and organization, and an effective team leader or facilitator. Planning for good communication in a meeting setting takes even more preparation. This section will discuss how leaders and facilitators can plan ahead for good communication.
Planning for Communication
In modern organizations, teams may be entirely virtual and never interact in person. This presents a unique set of communication challenges which are outside the scope of this paper, although certain techniques presented will work well for virtual teams.
Larson and LaFasto (1989, 55-57) consider an effective communication system to be one of the four necessary features of team structure. The communication system must focus on accessible information, utilize information from credible sources, provide opportunities for informal communication and have a way to document decisions in planning for communication. Leaders must take care to structure the team and interactions in such a way that these four elements are a part of the system. For existing teams, the team will probably already have procedures in place, whether or not conscious effort went into developing them. As groups work together, certain norms of behavior develop. Team leaders should be aware of this process and work to develop an effective set of norms from the beginning. Opportunity for informal communication needs to be deliberately coordinated, not left to chance. To enhance the likelihood of informal communication, a team leader will want to allow time at the beginning of the process for group members to get to know one another and interact informally. An offsite retreat or team activity will build personal relationships among members and facilitate communication down the road. The facilitator should continue to build in regular opportunities for informal discussion in ways that work with the team culture.
Another important technique in preparing for communication is to train group members in advance on communication techniques. A leader should train team members about group techniques for meeting facilitation and conflict resolution as well as individual skills such as listening, communicating criticism and mediation. This process facilitation can have positive effects on team accomplishment. (Wheelan 2005) Finally, good communication requires feedback among group members. The facilitator must build in ways for team members to provide one another evaluative information about their behavior. (Wheelan 2005)
Once general systems are in place for good communication, the team leader can focus on specific situations such as a team meeting. For teams working face to face, meetings are one of the most common ways groups communicate, so planning for effective communication at meetings is critical. Part of planning a meeting means having the logistics in place for success. The timing and location must be right and the technologies must be in place for effective communication. Logistics such as the time of day members are likely to be available to meet and at their best, a location that will minimize interruptions and technologies such as PowerPoint that provide visual aids are all important foundations for a successful meeting. (Whetton and Cameron, 1995) Even more importantly, the leader must be clear on the purpose of the meeting and make sure the right participants are involved. Then, he or she must plan the structure. (Whetton and Cameron, 1995)
To be most effective, a facilitator must explicitly determine the most appropriate meeting structure and procedures. Some of the basic procedural options include: “1) an agenda-guided discussion, 2) a problem- or item-list procedure, and 3) simplified parliamentary procedure.” (Stech/Ratliffe, 243) Extensive detail on each of these options can be found in the book, “Effective Group Communication” referenced at the end of the paper. For most meetings, a detailed agenda, distributed in advance, is an effective way to help participants prepare for the meeting. The agenda gives group members time to consider issues to be discussed so the group does not, “waste time discussing ill-conceived suggestions.” (Whetton and Cameron, 460) The group also needs to have a clear decision making format in place. Communication structure options include: ordinary group discussion (the most common default), brainstorming and nominal group technique. The appropriate choice depends on the group task. (Whetton and Cameron, 1995) Effective implementation of these various communication strategies will be discussed in the next section. Beyond determining the structural format, a leader also needs to prepare by making sure the participants fully understand the purpose of the meeting and their role in the process. In many cases, particularly when there is a controversial item on the agenda, pre-meetings with specific participants are important. “…it is advisable to discuss the matter before the meeting with key opinion leaders. This polling of sentiment is useful for gauging how much time should be set aside for discussing an issue and how it should be presented to the group. In addition, if the chairperson can obtain the support of key group members before the meeting, it is less likely that a controversial issue will dominate the group discussion…” (Whetton and Cameron, 461)
Facilitators and leaders must plan for good communication. In general, investment in structure (including informal communication) and member training can set the stage to allow team members to communicate well. For a team meeting, more planning should be done including deciding on the meeting purpose, participants, structure, logistics and decision making process. Agendas and pre-meetings with individuals can help members prepare and ensure the group meeting moves smoothly.
While planning for effective communication is key in order to achieve specific objectives, it is equally important to utilize tried and tested 'tools' that can facilitate 'live' real time communication between a transmitter and an audience.
First, some communication is what Eric Birne called 'parent to child'- the issuing of clear and unequivocal orders to make sure that tasks are completed quickly in what the authority figure thinks is the best way possible. Other times, we act more like adults, and hold discussions that require awareness, active listening, using names, making “I” statements, the Nominal Group Technique, developed by Delbecq and VandeVen, is a method of ranking various contributions. Appropriate body language, mirroring and eye contact can all help individuals to understand each other better. The first step in facilitating clear team communication is to be aware of who is in the group. Bringing the group together in a social setting allows team members to learn each other’s personalities, work situation, and personal background. This understanding prevents issues and differences from arising that could inhibit communication between team members. The next technique that can improve communication is the use of active listening skills. Active listening occurs when people really hear what the other person is saying and both paraphrase what was said and identify any nonverbal cues that a person may also be trying to express through body language.
Sometimes this means more than just identifying the concrete comments or suggestions that a person is making, but also addressing any underlying emotional issues that are also affecting what a person is trying to say (Thompson and Gooler, 1996). A simple way to help a person understand that you are actively listening is to use their name a few times during the course of a conversation. This helps a person to realize that you are focusing your attention on what they are saying, and really hearing their full meaning (Connolly and Syer, 1996). When you are the person who feels misunderstood or not heard, make sure to express your feelings through the use of “I” statements. Using “I” statements allows people to express themselves without putting others on the defensive. For example, instead of saying, “You are completely ignoring me,” phrasing that feeling as “I feel like I am not being heard by the group” allows others to realize how you are feeling without starting a conflict (Connolly and Syer, 1996). If a group is having trouble creating and communicating divergent ideas, one way to facilitate this process is through the Nominal Group Technique. This technique preempts conflict by allowing individuals to generate ideas individually and have everyone share their thoughts with the group. “The advantage of the nominal group technique is that it maximizes information gain, ensures a democratic representation of all members’ ideas…and avoids production blocking” (Thompson, 162). Ultimately, some conflict will arise. But through the use of the nominal group technique and the use of “I” statements, conflict may be productive in the generation of new ideas and not lead to permanent rifts between team members.
Though these tools for facilitating verbal communication are essential, the importance of understanding nonverbal cues cannot be underestimated. “The use of space, eye contact, body orientation, head movements and other behaviors are often used to transmit messages without the use of words” (Thompson and Gooler, 407). Regardless of what team members actually say, it is important to be aware of the nonverbal messages communicated through body language. Though a person may verbally agree, it may be clear that they are uncomfortable or dissatisfied with an idea or solution, and that needs to be addressed for good communication to be permanently achieved. In addition to being cognizant of others’ nonverbal cues, it is also important for team members to be aware of how their own nonverbal behavior is perceived. Team members should be very aware of eye contact. Maintaining eye contact with individuals who are communicating their ideas indicates interest (Connolly and Syer, 1996). Staring out the window or around the room is often perceived as boredom or disrespect. Another simple nonverbal technique to facilitate good communication is the act of mirroring. Mirroring involves mimicking others gestures and ideas. This is especially helpful for making outsiders feel comfortable sharing ideas. While mirroring may seem over the top, in fact, it “is a highly effective way of stating the obvious and raising awareness to allow change.” (Connolly and Syer, 210). While these tools can help to address the nonverbal aspects of communication, in the end team members must be aware of how they are expressing themselves both through what they say and what they don’t say.
While these general techniques are effective for most teams, individual team differences often arise with special needs. Though there are too many to enumerate in this paper, we would like to address two of the most common and difficult groupings that people encounter – diverse groups and groups with personality clashes. “There is a delicate balance in teams between appreciating individual differences and requiring unity” (Larson and LaFasto, 79). Finding the balance between creating cohesiveness and respecting differences is difficult, but can ultimately strengthen teams if it is leveraged properly through good communication. In today’s diverse, international work environment, people of differing work and cultural backgrounds are often working together on teams. Finding a way to communicate despite differences is not only necessary, but also needed in order to find the best solutions. “The belief is that diverse teams have a broader range of knowledge, skills, abilities, and experiences that can enhance the group’s ability to critically analyze problems and generate more creative solutions and ideas” (Thompson and Gooler, 397).
Common problems that occur in diverse groups include stereotyping, language barriers, and misunderstandings. For example, in the United States a thumbs up means okay, in Japan the same gesture means money, and in Iran it is an obscene gesture. (Henderson, 1994). Also, people from different cultures do not have the same shared history and stories that they can relate to when explaining issues. “When group members do not share common social signals, the development of group cohesiveness may be hindered and the team may have greater difficulty establishing a positive social climate” (Thompson and Gooler, 409). For this reason, it is particularly important that diverse teams have shared social team activities outside of the workplace so that they can not only get to know each other, but also have these shared stories to refer to when trying to communicate particular points. During team meetings, team members must take the time to pause and make sure that everyone is grasping the issues and solutions being discussed (Henderson, 1994). If the team rushes ahead without everyone on board, conflict will probably ensue at a later time. A degree of formality is also helpful in diverse team meetings. Using proper titles (and always pronouncing names correctly, of course) and avoiding slang may help people understand each other and not be inadvertently offended. In diverse teams, keeping an open mind and really hearing what other team members are trying to say must be made a priority in every meeting (Henderson, 1994). In general, in diverse groups it is better to use the Nominal Group Technique than devil’s advocate, which can cause the group to turn on one member, or simply create unproductive conflict that does not lead to the best solution. However, despite the extra effort that must be put into communication in diverse groups, the benefits often make the work worth it when highly effective, innovative solutions to problems are generated.
Another factor that plays a role in team communication is the differing personalities between team members. In fact, Weblin goes so far as to say that “personality may be described as the sum pattern of a person’s way of communicating – the total impression he makes on others” (quoted in Huseman, 1977: p. 417). Because of their varying personalities, members of teams receive, process, and act on information and situations differently. Differences can be helpful by bringing fresh perspectives and skill sets to the team, but can also create conflict if communication styles differ or are misunderstood. If team members understand their own personality tendencies as well as those of their teammates, the communication between members and therefore effectiveness of the team will improve drastically. It will also allow the team to emphasize and appreciate each member’s strengths. As Ruderman hypothesizes, “the level of team personality diversity will be positively and significantly related to team productivity, especially on problem solving teams” (1996, p. 79).
One of the most prevalently used personality assessment tools is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). This technique can prove to be a powerful tool in learning about your own personality as well as those of your teammates. Unfortunately, it is not especially 'scientific' and some less secure personalities may place too much faith in their 'type' so that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The assessment relies on a long and recursive series of questions, none of which have an 'obviously correct' answer, but all are rather ambiguous in nature.
This MBTI tool is just one of many which seeks to analyze and measure a person’s predisposed preferences about the world and other people. MBTI identifies people as points along four axes. These four dimensions thus produce 16 broad possible personality types and a range of 'shades' within each category. The first dimension refers to how a person prefers to be energized. An extrovert (E) mainly gains energy from interaction with others while an introvert generally (I) prefers being alone. The second dimension deals with how a person prefers to take in information from the external world. A sensing (S) person likes distinct facts and details while an intuitive (N) person prefers to see the big picture. The third dimension relates to how people usually make decisions. A thinking (T) person generally utilizes 'cold' logical thinking for their decisions while a feeling (F) person tends to make judgments based on personal and subjective values. The final dimension deals with an individual’s preference for their relationship with the external world. A perceptive (P) person with the perceives situations in an emotional, flexible and spontaneous way. A more judgmental (J) person prefers to live in planned and organized situations that is susceptible to analysis and synthesis (Bradley 1997: p. 341; Dent 2004: p. 67)
Understanding differing personality types in general can help the group communication and functional process. “The ideal team should be highly diversified in the talents and knowledge each member contributes, while maintaining open, non-threatening communication” (Bradley 1997: p. 338). Extroverts tend to open the lines of between group members, while introverts provide internal reflection of group discussions. Both are important functions of group communication. The sensing-intuition dimension can produce the greatest divisions in teams but both are absolutely necessary” (Lyman 1995: p. 58). Sensing types take in and bring up pertinent, concrete, and precise facts, and recognize the practical realities of the situation. On the other hand, intuitive types take in data as a whole, focusing on associations and relationships and seeing new possibilities and ideas. Thinking types present a logical analysis of the decision-making situation and therefore communicate in this way, while feeling individuals offer insights into how feelings of other group members might affect the situation.
Feelers may view thinkers as insensitive while thinkers might view feelers as touchy feely if each does not appreciate the others perspective. The planned and orderly approach of the judging type will typically help keep the team on schedule, while perceivers help
Utilizing a variety of these tools and techniques to facilitate effective communication is crucial in order to maximize team effectiveness. When communication structures and protocols ares not in place, the communication breakdown is more probable than not. Fairly simple misunderstandings, if not detected, can impair, sometimes even devastate the productivity of a team. On the other hand, some misunderstandings can actually lead to creative leaps of the imagination, especially if the checks and balances we call 'protocol' are working properly. Careful planning for meetings with simple tools like the minutes of previous transactions and and not too flexible agendas can help in advance. During the encounter, attention to verbal and non-verbal communication, and understanding different participants’ backgrounds and communication styles can all help teams capture the productivity improvements associated with effective team operation. Ultimately, the increased productivity that results from developing a range of 'communications protocols' for different situations, circumstances and audiences is likely to be well worth the effort. The essence is in finding the right balance between spontaneity and carefully edited messages likely to be appropriate in each foreseeable situation.
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