Small Group Communication in the Workplace

In small group communication, the group can be extremely productive and close knit. Long lasting work relationships get formed and extraordinary feats are accomplished. That's when small groups communicate effectively. When they don't, not only may they have friction, but they may also produce bad results.

In small group communication, people may take on roles and postures that affect the outcome of the communication. Some of these roles are helpful and some are not.

As a facilitator or participant in a small group discussion, you can observe these dynamics and redirect them as needed.

Small group communication takes place among members of a department, committee, task force, work group, board, project team or any other small groups brought together by a common purpose.

Small group communication is affected by how individuals approach the meeting: Potential group dynamics include: Grandstanding, groupthink, conflict, uneven participation, venting, ganging up, wisdom of crowds.


PeacockDuring problem solving or status reporting meetings, someone may take the opportunity to posture and voice strong self-serving opinions.

The whole purpose of voicing such opinions is to look good in front of others (and themselves) in the meeting.

If this is a repeating pattern, all that grandstanding may be getting on people’s nerves, or other people may feel like it is ok to grandstand and start doing it too. It’s best to call the grandstander on it, before it gets out of hand.

Group Think or Groupthink

GroupthinkA 1985 study by Stasser and Titus found that people in groups express mostly the opinions already known by the group, not their own unique view.People in groups may tend to agree with the group just to avoid rocking the boat or slowing the group down.

Other people may be averse to confrontation altogether, so they will agree with what the group decides, independently of any deadlines or the ability of the group to handle conflict.

Techniques for avoiding groupthink include:

  • Sharing the “Abelene Paradox” and asking the group if it’s Going to Abelene
  • Reminding the group that a bad decision is worse than a delay. Going down the wrong path will just take longer to correct later.
  • Including in the agenda a time slot to discuss drawbacks of current direction or decision.
  • Laying down rules to handle (1) difference of opinions and (2) consensus building. Set an explicit time for debate and an explicit time for consensus and alignment.

Group Conflict

group conflictSome members are too attached to their points of view, and intent on convincing others of their truth. In a group, people have a stronger pressure to look good and to play a specific role, so they may not be listening as well.

When these circumstances are present, conflict in the group is likely to occur.

A good way to prevent a good discussion from degenerating into conflict is to lay down the rules of the meeting in advance, telling people that whenever a member starts getting obnoxious about being right, other people in the meeting will call him/her on it.

Talkative v. Quiet Ones

Some members don’t participate, while others dominate the conversation. Most of the time, the people in higher positions of authority talk more.

If you are the quiet person with something to say, by all means, speak up. Get over the fear of criticism and think only about the welfare of the group and the value of the ideas you need to share.

If you are the person talking too much, try to give others some room to participate. You may be thinking, If I don’t talk, nobody will. That’s likely true, but if you continue talking, you ensure that nobody else will. The group may have to go through growing pains, where the talkers stop talking and no one else picks up the air time. Give the group an opportunity to make the transition and grow.

If you are the group facilitator, discuss with the group that you are shifting the way people participate, that you expect to see the talkers talk a bit less, and the quiet ones to share their views a bit more.

Venting Anger or Frustration

At times, people need to vent their frustrations and the small group seems the perfect setting for it. The appeal lies in that liked minded individuals with a common purpose can hear your concerns.

venting angerSometimes it’s good for the group to vent, especially when nobody has had an opportunity to discuss what’s bothering them about a given situation at work. However, venting can become unhealthy when it becomes repetitive: it becomes a waste of time and it robs power away from people, leading into feelings of victimization.

The facilitator of the small group needs to manage venting. If you're the facilitator, allow the venting to go on until people start repeating themselves and sink into self-pity. At that point, rescue the group from its misery and lead the discussion toward actions and decisions within the group's control.

Ganging Up

ganging upIn small group communication, sometimes people gang up on an individual or a minority.

The interaction may not start as a verbal attack, just as a different opinion or a complaint.

Let’s review an example:

Several representatives from the HR department have come to meet with your staff to go over some delays in trying to fill some vacancies. One of your staff starts describing the problems to the HR reps.

So far, so good.

Then, someone else in your department mentions "Well, some people in HR don't really know the job market that well and are providing very poor service to us, we can't get the right people if HR doesn't know what we need". This comment may be ok too, your staff may be venting out of frustration.

But it’s starting to get ugly.

You get the conversation back to the recruitment in question when another one of your employees adds: "Remember the time HR helped us go through a promotion process and they lost the paperwork and everything had to be redone?"

At this point, people are starting to get side-tracked of the issue at hand: the delays with the current recruitment. People are starting to bring up old history to make a case for incompetence of the HR staff. They have lost focus.

While issues of competence could be present, this is not the proper setting to fix them. The people being accused of incompetence are not the ones that are going to resolve it on the spot. Now the meeting is headed the wrong way, it’s no longer a problem solving but an attack on an internal service department.

As soon as you perceive that ganging up is starting for occur, nip it. Redirect the discussion to the current problems and take note of related complaints. In the example above, the issue of continued delays in hiring seems larger and needs to be addressed with the head of the HR department.

Summing Up Small Group Communication

Small groups have an advantage over individuals or large groups: a lot of productive work can be accomplished by small groups.

Small groups develop strong cohesion, creating bonds that span time and organizational boundaries.

Small group communication can be very rewarding and productive. The communication just needs to be managed to avoid its pitfalls and reap its rewards.

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