Group roles: maximizing group performance

Having a diversity of skills and ideas within a group often enriches the group process and can improve the final product. However, working with others different from ourselves can be a challenge. One way to structure group functioning and benefit from one another’s strengths is to assign roles to each member of the group. These team roles can be assigned based on individuals’ strengths or rotated periodically to increase each member’s understanding of the roles and of themselves as team members. There are four fundamental roles to consider: leader/facilitator, arbitrator/monitor, notetaker/time keeper, and devil’s advocate. For larger groups, some of these roles can be divided between two students (see notes below).

Leader/facilitator

  • Clarifies the aims of the group and helps the group to set sub-goals at the beginning of each meeting. Sub-goals should serve as an agenda of issues that need to be addressed during the meeting.
  • Makes sure that all group members understand the concepts and the group’s conclusions.
  • Starts the meetings, introduces each topic, and keeps the group on task and oriented towards its goals.
  • Ensures that the group completes its tasks before deadlines.

Typical phrases:

  • "Thanks for your contribution, Bill. What do you think, Mary?”
  • "From what I’m hearing, it appears that the key issues are A, B, and C. Why don’t we start by discussing A, if that is agreeable to everyone?”
  • "So, it appears that we are all agreed that …”

Arbitrator/monitor

  • Observes group functioning carefully and initiates regular discussions on group climate and process, especially if he or she senses tension or conflict brewing.
  • During disagreements or conflicts, clarifies the arguments and proposes suggestions for resolving dispute.
  • Ensures that all group members have a chance to participate and learn; may elicit comments from members if they are not participating.
  • Acts as a cheerleader for the group whenever possible, praising members for work well done.

Note: For larger groups the role of “encourager” could be done by a different student.

Typical phrases:

  • "We haven’t heard much during our meeting from you, John. Do you have any thoughts?” “It might be helpful if you backed off a bit, Kate, so we can hear what Doug has to say.”
  • "I’m sensing a bit of tension among us over this decision; I think we should get our disagreements out into the open.”
  • "I think we can feel really good about what we’ve accomplished to this point. Especially nice work on the project outline, Kim!”

Notetaker/time keeper

  • Takes notes during meetings to keep a record of what has been decided, tasks that have been assigned, when meetings are scheduled, etc.
  • Summarizes discussions and decisions for the rest of the group. Distributes a summary of each meeting to all group members.
  • Presents group material to the rest of the class/supervisor.
  • Keeps track of time during meetings to avoid spending excessive time on one topic. This is best handled by deciding how much time will be allocated to each issue in the agenda, and letting everyone know when this time is up. It is also useful to point out when time is almost up so that issues can be wrapped up appropriately.

Note: For larger groups, the roles of notetaker and time keeper could be fulfilled by two students.

Typical phrases:

  • "Hold on, please, I just need to get this down before we move on.”
  • "I’ll send you an updated version of our report tomorrow, along with a summary of today’s meeting.”
  • "We’ve spent about 15 of the 20 minutes we allocated to this topic, so we’ve got about 5 more minutes to sort it out.”

Devil’s advocate

  • Remains on guard against “groupthink” scenarios (i.e., when the pressure to reach the group goal is so great that the individual members surrender their own opinions to avoid conflict and view issues solely from the group’s perspective).
  • Ensures that all arguments have been heard, and looks for holes in the group’s decision-making process, in case there is something overlooked.
  • Keeps his or her mind open to problems, possibilities, and opposing ideas.
  • Serves as a quality-control person who double-checks every detail to make sure errors have not been made and searches for aspects of the work that need more attention. Keeps an eye out for mistakes, especially those that may fall between the responsibilities of two group members.

Note: For larger groups, this role of devil’s advocate could be divided into two roles: devil’s advocate and quality control.

Typical phrases:

  • "Let’s give Mike’s idea a chance.”
  • "OK, we’ve decided to go with plan C, but I noticed that we still haven’t dealt with the same problem that plan A didn’t address. What can we do to solve this?”