Teamwork Skills: Communicating Effectively in Groups

So I took another course on Coursera, this time about communication in groups. This course basically made me realize that communication is far more complex than I imagined. Let me show some of the things discussed in this course.

Rethink Communication

Module one discusses rethinking communication. First it discusses the model of communication as a transmission system. This idea is very simple as it involves a sender which uses a channel that can be affected by noise to send a message to a receiver. And eventually the receiver can send back some feedback. The problem with the transmission model is that it works best when messages:

– clearly represent the meanings in the mind of the sender

– are transmitted without distortion

– are received and interpreted in the same way they are intended.

I said that the transmission model uses a channel that can be affected by noise. Noise can be:

– nonverbal communication

– unintentional messages

– interpretative messages.

Because this model cannot explain complex forms of communication another model has been introduced: social construction model. This model takes into account: social worlds, meaning, common understanding and negotiation of our future together. Communication is basically divided into content (what you say) and relationship (how you say it). Words in this model do things, reflect reality and create reality. 

What fascinated me the most is that words change the environment. Imagine for example a decision factor that orders the construction of a building. Those words (the order) will actually change the environment. 

So social worlds are part of the social construction model. Social worlds are constructed and are defined by pluralism (another idea that fascinated me is that each of us has its own social world, his own way of interpreting what is being communicated to him). Social worlds can also be seen as temporary configurations of continuous processes. 

Some other ideas discussed in module 1 are:

– getting the right information to the right people is absolutely critical

– different people interpret the exact same message very differently

– what you say is often much less important than how you say it.

Two types of groups are discussed further on: professional groups and civic groups.

Professional groups are defined by:

– teamwork and task accomplishment

– involvement is usually required

– lines of authority are relatively clear.

Civic groups are defined by:

– stakeholder representation and public deliberation

– involvement is voluntary

– authority is complicated.

In the social construction model there are three hidden forces that influence communication:

– context

– interaction design

– systems and institutions.

Context will influence what you say, how you say it, to whom you say it and the overall impact of your communication. To understand context we can ask ourselves the following questions:

– What kind of group is this… a professional group, a civic group, or some kind of combination of the two?

– Why has our group been convened? Are we meeting out of necessity or opportunity?

– What is our end goal?

– How and why are people involved in our group? Are they here voluntarily, or are they required to be here? And how can their involvement be sustained or lost?

– Who’s in charge of our group? And where does their authority come from?

– Who does this group answer to? To whom are they accountable?

Next we have interaction designs which have an internal logic and enable and constrain how we communicate. Interaction designs address the following issues:

– What is the nature of communication?

– What is the preferred mode of talk?

– How should diversity and competing interests be managed?

– How should the problem of scale be addressed?

– What is the preferred outcome(s) of the interaction?

– What constitutes a decision?

Interaction designs are not deterministic but do have a propensity towards certain outcomes.

Other elements of hidden forces are systems. A system is a set of interacting or interdependent components that form an integrated whole. A system is composed of agents, inputs, outputs, processes (that transform inputs into outputs), boundaries (defines what is outside the system) and feedback loops (outputs that will generate new inputs for the system). When a system becomes too powerful it transforms into an institution. Systems and institutions deserve the following questions:

– What system or systems is this group a part of?

– How does the system work, and what is the role of our group in making the system work?

– What are the interdependencies in this system… How are things connected?

– Has this system become institutionalized… or is it shaped by any particular institutional pressure?

– What is the internal logic of this institutionalized system? What does institution privilege or punish, what does it enable or constrain, and what are the paths of least resistance in this institutionalized system?

Group Development

Module two continues with group development. Basically the group is a living system in a continual evolution based on how members interact with each other. Groups are characterized by

– socialization

– norms

– roles

– phase models

– multiple sequence models.

The concept of socialization comes in handy when someone enters a group. If that person has been assigned to the group this does not imply that the person will actually be a part of that group beyond the assignment. To fit in a person has to socialize especially informally. I noticed this a lot at jobs where there are all sorts of opportunities for informal socialization in order for group members to get to know each other.

Norms are some sort of rules or behaviours of the group that everybody in the group knows about even though they are not written somewhere. In other words, norms are a function of our group communication. Norms consist of standards, customs and expectations.

Roles are formal divisions of labor. Roles also involve informal expectations about one’s place. For example one can be a developer but also the sarcastic one. Roles develop over interactions with our group members via ongoing communication.

Phase models suggest that groups develop through a series of phases that shape the group structure, relationship patterns and task behaviour. Bruce Tuckman phase model of groups development suggest four phases in any group: 

– forming (members act as individuals and everyone starts to figure its place in the group)

– storming (team effectiveness decreases as members engage in constructive or destructive conflict to settle their place in the group)

– norming (expectations and patterns of behaviour become predictable, general consensus about who the group is and how everyone fits in)

– performing (group has a clear strategy and clear vision and executes at a high level).

Another level was added later: adjourning, which implies task completion and recognition of the group’s accomplishments.

The main critique of the phase model is that it is a liner model that passes through unitary stages. The problem with the phase model is that it has been developed in the laboratory with zero history groups. Real life groups cycle between various phases and can be involved in multiple phases at the same time.

Multiple sequence models. Marshall Scott Poole contradicted the phase model suggesting that groups evolve in activity tracks that don’t always proceed in a linear sequence. Poole suggested that groups evolve in a set of interlocking tracks of activities oriented toward task or goal accomplishments. So Poole identified three key activity tracks:

– task-process (problems solving and decision making)

– relational (activities that promote member relationships)

– topic focused (when members are concerned with issues that become subsequent work later on the agenda of the group).

So groups oscillate between these key activity tracks in a nonlinear fashion. And when groups oscillate a breakpoint occurs defined by: shift in focus or reexamination of a position or conflict.

Decision Making

Next module two continues with group decision making. Most groups are formed to make decisions out of necessity or opportunity. Groups are prone to bad decisions and the likelihood of good decisions can be increased through communication.

Decision making traps come from hidden biases and distortions in our thinking.

There are six hidden traps in decision making:

1. the anchoring trap (more weight to the first idea or solution offered)

2. the status quo trap (tendency to favor conventional wisdom – “the way things are”)

3. the sunk cost trap (tendency to pursue a bad idea due to time, energy and resources already spent)

4. the confirming evidence trap (tendency to only seek evidence that confirms preconceptions)

5. the framing trap (decisions are based on the language used to describe and explain ideas – for example an incident can be framed as a threat or an opportunity, as a favor or an obligation, as intentional or accidental)

6. estimating/forecasting trap (tendency to adhere to initial estimates or forecasts regardless of new information).

Conclusions of the six traps:

1. These six traps point to two key things: the quality of the information and the perspectives. Many bad decisions are related to bad information and limited perspectives. So we need to work with good information and explore multiple perspectives.

2. These traps are related and feed each other. If you fall into a trap you’re more likely to fall in other decision making traps too.

3. We are always susceptible to these decision making traps even though we made good decisions or avoided traps in the past. This susceptibility occurs because each decision is different.

Practices for making better decisions. The first thing to discuss is advocacy vs. inquiry. Sometimes we think the best way to make decisions is by advocating them (pushing them forward) when in fact it is better to use inquiry (considering other people’s ideas and engaging in constructive critique). Groups which fall into decision making traps often engage in communication which is marked by advocacy while good decision making is generally marked by inquiry. The idea is to perceive decision making as a process (something that evolves over time) rather than an event (a shift from uncertainty to decisive action). 

So there are 5 ways to practice the process of inquiry:

1. multiple alternatives (look at ideas with relation to other possibilities – discussion of sufficient number of alternative ideas)

2. assumption testing (stop and revisit the assumptions that your ideas are based on)

3. well defined criteria (clearly define the standards by which ideas will be assessed)

4. dissent and debate (engage in healthy back-and-forth among alternatives and challenge the premises on which ideas are based)

5. perception of fairness (engage in a fair and reasonable process for accepting or rejecting ideas)

Inquiry is all about improving the quality of information and incorporating multiple perspectives.

Some decisions will be routine and straightforward while other decisions require novelty and originality.

So we need to know how to make decisions that require creativity and innovation. Contrary to popular belief, creativity and innovation are not genetic, innate or inherent. Creativity and innovation are social and process oriented.

To foster creativity and innovation in our group we need:

1. connectivity (collision of small hunches – oftenly multiple people have each a part of the solution. We need to develop social systems that enable hunches to come together to form a breakthrough)

2. constraints (structure enables creativity. To foster creativity we need a certain degree of freedom but also boundaries to channel our creativity. Basically we need to find the right box in which to structure our decisions and enable creativity. Constraints help people by enabling them to make connections and associations. Without constraints a person is faced with an infinite number of ideas to sort through)

3. how or when NOT to communicate (take for example the most popular technique of coming up with ideas: brainstorming. And the #1 rule of brainstorming: don’t criticise. But despite popular belief brainstorming doesn’t work. Instead we need dissent and debate and also to give people space to work individually and come back to the group to refine their ideas. Research has shown that groups that are engaged in constructive criticism come up with 24-40% more ideas and those ideas are more original. The bottom line is that creative ideas are more likely when idea generation happens both on an individual level and group level)

Manage Group Conflict And Negotiation

Module three continues with managing group conflict and negotiation and appreciating group difference and diversity.

How can groups have a good fight?

People have different interests and motivation, emotions and priorities, personal biases and irrational behaviors. People generally avoid conflict or disengage from the group – this kind of behavior perpetuates the group’s dysfunctionality leading to a miserable experience or detrimental outcomes. Lack of conflict isn’t harmony, it’s apathy. 

Conflict is good for groups because it means that the group’s members are engaged and also causes: 

– the surfacing of differences

– decisions challenging

– the exposure of patterns

– the refinement of ideas. 

So instead of aiming to eliminate conflict we should manage conflict and respond to conflict appropriately.

Successful teams keep conflict constructive and focused on the issues. Successful teams employ six tactics related to communication:

– work with more information and debate on the basis of facts

– develop multiple alternatives

– have commonly agreed upon goals

– inject humor into their deliberations

– maintain a balanced power structure

– resolve issues without forcing consensus.

Choosing the right words in a conflict.

We will never be certain which words or methods of communication to use in a situation, we can choose a path that has a higher probability of a positive outcome.

Questions to ask in a conflict situation to put us in a better mindset to choose better words:

– What do I want to say vs what do I want to accomplish?

– What are we making together and how could I frame things differently?

– Does this need to be said by me right now?

– What is this conflict really about?

– What question can I ask instead of what statement can I make?

– How can I be reflexive in this conflict situation? (the common denominator in all your dysfunctional relationships is you).

Basics of effective negotiation.

Negotiation implies getting things done with the consent of other people. Effective negotiation should strive to create value for all of the individuals involved in the decision.

There are 4 key concepts in any negotiation: 

– problems (we need to separate the problem from the people – for example not taking things personally)

– interests (focus on interests, not positions – what do we want and why do we want what we want? Focusing on interests can introduce additional positions, which may be more valuable to both parties)

– options (multiple options for mutual gains)

– standards (insist that the results of the negotiation be based on objective standard – imagine how a successful outcome would look like to have a reference in the negotiation).

Effective negotiation also requires that we always keep in mind our: best alternative to a negotiated agreement. If your BATNA is worse than the outcome of a negotiation then you should be flexible so that an agreement is reached rather than stick to your initial proposal or disregard the interests of the other party.

If people don’t play fair in a negotiation (dishonesty or personal attacks for example) we should:

– recognize the tactic

– raise the issue explicitly

– question whether or not the tactic is legitimate and desirable.

Appreciating Difference And Diversity

Difference and diversity matters.

Difference matters implies:

– the issues or categories that are significant and impact how we communicate (gender, race, ethnicity, politics, religion, social class)

– difference is important for three main reasons. Factual: diversity is a basic democratic fact of modern society. Strategic: difference brings strategic advantages to our groups (more perspectives and ideas). Moral: growing moral imperative to include those who have been historically marginalized (encouraging diversity is the right thing to do).

Understanding identity.

Identity can be thought of as a social construct that people create, maintain and alter through their interactions with other people. Identity is best understood as a relational property: produced, sustained and changed through our communication with other people.

The course introduces the concept essentialism: the belief that social characteristics are inherent or essential to one’s identity. Essentialism constrains the possibilities of our communication. Essentialism becomes dangerous when we consider our identity determines our behavior (that is what women talk or do for example). Essentialism is also dangerous when we believe behavior equals character. There are social forces that influence our behavior in any given situation.

Another concept is the fundamental attribution error: the mistake of attributing behavior to personal character rather than broader situational factors.

How do we make sense of the actions of other people?

We can focus on situational factors rather than reduce people’s behavior to an extension of their character.

How do we manage our own identities?

Communication helps construct a robust and complex identity. Often you may present a monolithic identity that makes it easier for others to marginalize or discard your ideas. A better approach is to tell people what hat you are wearing in your group discussions.

The entire topic of identity can be summarized to move away from essentialist identity perception towards a relational identity perception based on interaction.

There is one last concept on the topic of identity which can be called collective identity: distinct personality formed via communication that transcends any individual group member. Not all groups achieve collective identity, some groups are just aggregations of individuals.

Communication and gender.

People tend to think that men and women are very different. They may be biologically and physiologically but from the communication point of view men and women are somewhat similar in their communication behavior. And differences are best explained in terms of socialization. Culture socializes us into different roles, norms and expectations.

There is another concept called linguistic style: characteristics patterns of speech. And these patterns of speech differ between men and women.

From an early age boys and girls are socialized into different conversation rituals. In general girls tend to learn conversation rituals that tend to focus on the rapport dimension of relationships. While boys tend to learn conversational rituals that focus on the status dimension of relationships. Communication rituals of rapport are marked by a linguistic style of cooperation, getting along and making sure nobody gets too far ahead or falls behind. Communication rituals of status involve ways of talking that distinguish one from the group, that showcase knowledge and expertise and that minimize challenges from others.

Our linguistic style is more of a result of socialization rather than genetics. In other words our style of communicating with other people is something we learn over time, not something we are born with (although our biology is a factor in how we communicate in certain situations – especially regarding our hormones).


Module four focus on group communication technology.

Virtual work.

Three waves of virtual work:

– 1980: when the internet was beginning to be available for commercial use – this gave rise to virtual freelancers (graphic design, report writing, transcription and translation services). More flexibility but without the security of formal organizations.

– 1990 and early 2000: virtual corporate colleagues (full time employees who work remotely most of the time). Provides flexibility but also the stability of organizations. Compromises conventional workplace benefits (less face to face interactions, fewer informal interactions and diminished workplace communities).

– present tense: virtual coworkers (people who do a lot of work online but reconnect in physical spaces). Research from the Gallup organization shows that working remotely about 60% to 80% provides the highest level of engagement. This trend gave rise to coworking spaces or urban hubs – perfect for small companies who need intermittent common space without commitment.

Key implications of virtual group work

– presenteeism (the act of making oneself present in a space when one could be more productive elsewhere)

– always-on context (when the lines between work and free time get blurry).

To counteract presenteeism and always-on context groups nowadays need to develop good norms, boundaries and expectations.

Categories of digital communication technology

– online video conferencing (audio video conversations and screen sharing)

– group decision support systems (contribute ideas, offer feedback, vote proposals, decide on a final plan)

– telepresence robots (mobile or table top – improves people’s interactions when they are absent)

– collaboration technologies (project management software, file sharing applications)

– wearable technologies (devices that record body language to learn more about group’s communication and interaction patterns)

– gamification (transforming routine work into a gaming format – gamification can make some aspects of group work more interesting and engaging)

– virtual and augmented reality (cutting age technology; virtual reality – people are present in virtual spaces that look real; augmented reality – superimposed information to add an extra layer to reality).

It is important to assess the advantages and disadvantages of digital technologies before implementing them because every group is unique.

Theoretical models of communication technology

Media richness model.

This model states that effective communication in terms of message transmission comes from matching the richness of the communication medium with the ambiguity of the task at hand. For example face to face is the richest communication medium due to verbal and non-verbal communication and most suited for ambiguous tasks. In contrast a quick hand written note is a poor communication medium. Email is the opposite of rich media, the so-called lean media, and is most suited for unambiguous tasks as it does not waste time for face to face communication.

Dual capacity model.

The idea is that every communication has data carrying capacity and symbol carrying capacity. For example email and texting are not neutral mechanisms that just transmit information, email and texting have particular cultural meanings which have norms and expectations. Email may suggest formality, detachment and professionalism while texting may suggest informality and efficiency.

A conceptual consideration for technology

How to increase social presence? Ask questions. Ask for feedback. Encourage participants to share experiences. Utilize technology that incorporates webcams and/or microphones.

Social and material factors of technology

Social and material are entangled which results in sociomateriality.

There is a concept of the constitutive entanglement of the social and the material in everyday life. The social and the material have a separate theoretical existence but in practice they are inseparable. Some of the best examples of social materiality are Google search or smartphones.

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