Communication Roles

Team Leadership requires communication that positively influences the team to move in the direction of the team’s goals. Discussion participation involves communication behavior which can move the team positively or negatively towards the team’s goals.


The following communication behavior roles influence the productivity and outcomes of team meetings and are mostly played without the individual’s knowledge. It is a challenge for the Project Manager (PM) to identify these roles (or the absence of them) within the meetings and manage them to steer the project discussions in a positive direction where the meeting goals can be obtained. Speech communication scholars concluded that people in teams share roles and that there seems to be agreement that the Task Leader, Social-Emotional, Tension Releaser, Information Provider, and Central Negative roles are essential for good discussions to take place. The quality of the meeting agenda discussion will increase when the Questioner, Silent Observer, Active Listener, and Recorder roles are played in the discussion. The Self-Centered Follower role will always have a negative effect on the discussion and the PM should therefore ensure that this role is eliminated. This is more extreme when the Self-Centered Follower role is played by a senior employee.

The Task Leader enjoys, for the most part, high team status and is recognized as a mature person who has good problem-solving abilities and has had training in leadership skills. In most instances, the task leader is as well educated as any other team member and has a firm grasp of the discussion topic with expert power influence. Although the task leader has high team status, the person playing this role also feels responsible for the team members and the work the team does. This role is not always played by the PM, but mostly by the senior topic Subject Matter Expert (SME) and may change throughout team meetings.

While the Social-Emotional Leader may not be the most popular person on the team, he or she is normally well liked by the rest of the team members. Social-Emotional leaders have some experience with handling interpersonal problems and score high on the ability to empathize with other people. The Social-Emotional Leader does not rival or compete with the task leader of the team and may even actively support the task leader in a complementary role. The person playing this role is extroverted and speaks frequently in the team. This person is normally acutely aware of the emotion of the team and is constantly on guard for any interpersonal damage that might take place in solving the task. This person is also responsible for the team’s well-being and individual members’ satisfaction.

The person playing the Tension Releaser role not only has the ability to be funny but is also aware of the sensibilities of the team in given work environments. Tension-releasing humor for a team must be funny to all the team members. The more heterogeneous the team membership, the harder it is for a person to play this role. In addition to providing humor to break tension, this person can resolve interpersonal conflict with well-timed humorous barbs. The Tension Releaser is always on call to break up debilitating interpersonal tension in the team and to smooth over those awkward moments of first meetings. The more dependent the team members are on one another and on the work the team does, the more important the role of the Tension Releaser is. When this role is not active in a specific meeting, the PM should take that role on where needed.

The role of the Information Provider is probably one of the most shared roles in teams. The Information Provider has research skills that exceed the team’s norms and sometimes has expert knowledge of the discussion topic. As well as providing a volume of accurate information, the Information Provider frequently performs the leadership communication skill of contributing ideas and critically evaluates ideas that are not soundly based in the research data. Effective teams tend to share the Information Provider role where the SMEs can play this role depending on the agenda or discussion topic.

The Central Negative in a team usually is not pleased with what is going on. This person tends to have the same abilities as the Task Leader and in fact continually challenges him or her for the leadership of the group. The person who is constantly challenging the leader in the task and procedural areas is said to be the Central Negative. The three leadership functions that a Central Negative most frequently attempts to perform are evaluating ideas, making agendas, and instigating conflict. When a Central Negative is too strong in his or her challenge for leadership, he or she frequently engages in two deviant behaviors: dominating and blocking. When a team member plays the Central Negative role properly, the impact is favorable. The Central Negative forces the team to rethink its position carefully and makes the Task Leader acutely aware of his or her responsibilities in terms of team productivity. It is often difficult to distinguish between the Central Negative role, which is mainly positive in scope, and the Self-Centered Follower role, which is a negative one. The PM should manage this role very carefully during meetings.

The role of Questioner is not played as often as it should be in teams. It is rare that one person specializes in this role. The role of Questioner can significantly increase the quality of the team output. The person playing this role has the ability to probe the ideas under discussion incisively without threatening or alienating team members and without challenging the task leader. The two task functions that the Questioner performs are seeking ideas and seeking idea evaluation. The procedural function that the Questioner most often performs is clarification.

A role in a team that is not appreciated is that of the Silent Observer. People who play this role quietly observe and evaluate the discussion being carried on by more active team members. However, it is their nonverbal approval or disapproval that ultimately resolves the debate. Teams that exceed five members may have a person who silently observes much of the discussion, but when he or she does make clear, either verbally or nonverbally, what his or her conclusion is, it is decisive. Before the formation of their opinion, people who play the role of Silent Observer appear pleasant but evasive when asked for their opinion. They listen passively to all arguments and then form an opinion.

Predominantly nonverbal and supportive behaviors characterize the role of the Active Listener in a team. This role frequently is shared and played in good teams. All members of a team should feel an obligation to listen attentively and encourage other members to explain their positions. A team member occasionally will specialize in this role by assisting in the performance of two leadership skills: summarizing and verbalizing consensus. The person who plays this role remains argumentatively neutral, while at the same time being actively supportive of any member who attempts to contribute an idea or evaluate an idea under consideration.

The role of Recorder and the skill of recording are isomorphic in team discussions. This is the one role in which one communication behavior completely defines the role. At any meeting of importance, a team member is designated as the official recorder of the meeting. Because low status often is attached to this role and a person who continually plays it feels subservient to the rest of the team members, most work teams rotate the role around the group. It is very difficult for the person playing this role to participate properly in the team discussions or play any other role.

The role of Self-Centered Follower works against the team’s best interest. In fact, if this role is played by too many team members or a senior member, the team will surely fail. The person who plays a Self-Centered role is using the team for his or her own ends. He or she may engage in special-interest pleading, seeking help, or any of the other deviant behaviors. Although all team members engage in some negative behaviors, a person is probably playing the role of a Self-Centered Follower when he or she repeatedly engages in one or more of the deviant behaviors.

The PM should monitor each meeting to manage the roles played in a positive way to ensure all meeting goals are met. He or she must use all their communication knowledge and skills (as described in previous articles) to ensure Effective Communication which will lead to proper Motivation. I will discuss Motivation in the next few articles.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.


Communication-Related Skills

This post covers communication-related skills that have the most impact on the communication process in the project team environment.


Problem-solving skills refer to competencies needed for effective decision-making processes of a team, and as such is founded in the Decision-Making and Systems Theories. The success of solving complex problems in organizations relies increasingly less on individual team members’ expertise and more on the collective problem solving ability of a team. How effective the communication skills of the team members are, will determine if the group will become a functional team. As communication is the most intensive in the early stages of project management, it is essential to focus on those skills that can enhance problem-solving communication processes. These skills sets include communication behaviors such as contribution to group discussions; actively asking questions; clearly and accurately defining the problem; seeking information and opinions from fellow team members; thoroughly examining, digesting, clarifying, and then integrating this information. This skill will therefore lead to the ability of the group to examine the advantages and disadvantages of solutions offered.

Role-playing skills have their foundation in the Role Emergence Theory. Once a team has established trust and pride, the members communicate by ways of their social roles. Some of the roles are tied to the members’ expert knowledge and specific skills; others refer to group building roles; and then there are individual roles in the team. It is essential that people understand the roles they are expected to play in order to improve the effectiveness of the team’s communication. Effective members will focus on their roles and not digress; they will clarify the goals and set criteria; offer appropriate solutions and alternatives, and keep the group aligned. Since role formation is not a static process, it requires skill to determine who is playing what role for the benefit of the group; and it is equally important to be role-flexible to accomplish the goals.

Trust-building skills have been identified as critical for team effectiveness; but for trust to develop in a team environment, the interactions must be more than just a formulaic attempt to gain credibility, respect and acceptance. Trust-building skills have their foundation in the Uncertainty Reduction Theory, which contends that people strive to diminish uncertainty about other individuals through the process of information gathering. Team members’ task achievement depends on the efforts and skills of their fellow team members and not only on their individual skills. It is, therefore, important to establish trust in each other through task-oriented communication at the early stages of team development.

Team-building skills in communication relate to the Symbolic Convergence Theory, and as such explains the establishment of certain behaviors and language in small groups, such as words, signs, jokes etc. that are very specific to them. This contributes to shared experiences and understandings, promoting an increased sense of community. One of the skills needed for effective team building is that of creating group pride based on measurable productivity. Effective team members seek out opportunities to assist and accommodate other team members; they work on improving relationships and the team environment for the benefit of all.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.

Communication Theories

Research on small groups led to the conclusion that communication within teams is not random, but rather highly structured and predictable. Theoretical perspectives for the study of small group communication are expressed in a number of theories, some of which attempt to explain and predict small group phenomena, while others take a prescriptive approach. None of the theories are complete in their explanation of human behaviors in the team setting, but it is a valuable framework for project management practices.


Some of the more prominent theories of small group communication are:

Decision-Making Theory has its roots in three earlier theories: John Dewey’s (1910) observations on the systematic problem-solving strategies of people; McBurney and Hance’s (1939) adaptation of Dewey’s theory into an application for group analysis of problems and solutions; and Bales’s (1950) theory that a group of people attempt to maintain equilibrium through three stages (orientation, evaluation, and control) on the way to problem-solving. These authors added to the earlier work on small group communication by expanding the initial two decision-making dimensions of a work group (task dimension and social dimension) into their four-dimension model, emphasizing that decision-making and problem-solving in groups take place by means of repeated and uneven patterns.

Role Emergence Theory was the result of Ernest Bornman’s research on communication behaviors associated with the two stages decision-making groups go through when creating group roles. Its goal is to explain the development of group roles and leadership: those roles members believe are associated with a task group, and the consequent effort and behaviors of the members to fill those roles. He posits in his theory that two types of group tension exist in small groups: primary tension (for example, the initial tension associated with formation of a new group and the roles individuals should play) and secondary tension, which is more serious and relates to role struggles in groups.

Systems Theory states that groups are dynamic systems, shaped by a number of variables that are in a relationship with one another as well as with external settings. A change in one section of the system can have an impact on one or all of the other parts. The group, as part of the system, is constantly influenced by its surroundings, but it also has an influence on its surroundings. Within this theoretical perspective, a team shows synergy when it functions as one and not as individuals; when it is flexible to adapt in order to reach the goal. This theory is very useful for organizational strategies, as it not only addresses interdependence in the small group, but also on the organizational level.

Functional Theory is concerned with the results or outcomes of group behaviors and structures. Several conditions must exist for group members to make appropriate decisions and effectively solve problems. Team members are most likely to reach their task goals if they competently communicate through the processes of task analysis, conflict encounters, and decision-making. The theory is prescriptive in nature; that is, it suggests that critical thinking, sound logic, informed discussion, and systematic procedures are essential to effective decision making and problem solving.

Symbolic Convergence Theory studies the sense-making function of communication, and is descriptive rather than predictive. “Symbolic” refers to verbal and nonverbal messages and “convergence” refers to shared understanding and meaning. In small groups, members establish certain behaviors and language, such as words, signs, jokes etc. that are very specific to them. This contributes to shared experiences and understandings, promoting an increased sense of community. One strength of symbolic convergence theory is the focus on group identity and the development of group consciousness.

Social Exchange Theory is an influential conceptual framework for understanding organizational behavior. Despite different views of the theory, there is general agreement amongst theorists that social exchange involves a sequence of interactions that exchange valued commodities. Group members engage in interaction to meet their needs (whether power, influence or money), and are generally inclined to strive to obtain more resources than they are willing to give up. In doing so they consider the risks and benefits of encounters: when risks outweigh the benefits, people will terminate that relationship.

Structuration Theory. Marshall Poole challenged the linear phases of the communication process, and instead presented a theory of iterative activities in irregular patterns. Structuration Theory is largely descriptive in nature, and refers to the processes group members utilize when working together. According to the theory, members follow specific rules when engaging in communication and have expectations of the outcome, while simultaneously expressing themselves as existential beings that unintentionally assess their conduct and make choices in social environments.

New Technologies Theories. This is a group of more recent and emergent group communication theories. Its focus is on the impact that convergent technologies – such as Group Decision Support Systems (GDSS) or Electronic Meeting Systems (EMS) – have on group communication. As new technologies are introduced in the team’s communication process, groups have to reorient themselves in terms of roles and re-adjust their ways of interaction and communication. The challenge is to make highly technical collaboration tools available to non-experts in such a way as to facilitate effective role performance, but limit or prevent process loss.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.


Effective Project Communications

With Project Definition, Structure, and Teams covered, Dawie Steenkamp (our guest writer and PM extraordinaire) will focus the next few articles on Effective Communication within Project Teams.


Communication is “a social process that involves the social exchange of symbols or behaviors (translatable into symbols) between two or more people” (Sullivan & Short, 2011, p. 471). Since the focus of this article is on project teams, it will be appropriate to narrow down the scope and focus on communication as it is observed in a group context. Beebe and Masterson (2012, p. 3) define small group communication as “communication among a small group of people who share a common purpose, who feel a sense of belonging to the group, and who exert influence on one another”. Paul Glen (2003, p. 35) provides insight when he describes effective communication as a process “when a thought of one person is translated into words, expressed, heard, and translated back into an identical thought in the mind of another”.

Communication in general is an indispensable aspect of teamwork, but effective communication translates to high performance and achieving goals. In the past, communication research has focused on goals, individual roles, and group norms. In more recent years, there has been an increased awareness that not all groups develop to the level of effective functioning prescribed in group development theories, and that perhaps most groups never reach those desired levels. Effective communication is one of the indicators of a cohesive team and is essential for project success; in fact, 95 percent of project problems are related to poor project communication. Pentland (2012) confirms this observation in his research by presenting data showing that established patterns of communication is the single most important thing to measure when gauging the effectiveness of a team. Communication Theories, Factors, Skills, and Roles will be discussed in the next few articles.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.


Diversity in Project Teams

The final step of the project manager before assigning specific people to the identified project roles is to consider the diversity of the planned team members. Group think must be avoided within the team to allow healthy project discussions. Sociocultural and individual diversity are some of the factors that will have an influence on group behavior. Building relationships are crucial to the newly-formed team, and the more diverse a team is, the more challenging this task will be. If diversity is managed strategically, it can increase the effectiveness of the team significantly.


The following factors must be considered by the project manager:

Culture. As companies increasingly include virtual teams in their organizational makeup, they also increase the levels of diversity. This will have an impact on whether information is communicated implicitly or explicitly; whether conflict is addressed directly or indirectly; whether decision-making is expected to be collaborative or by those in power only.

Gender. Gender stereotyping has its foundation in a cultural approach: it is suggested that men and women have different communication styles, which impact interactions in a team. Even though these perceptions have changed over years and it is now believed that there are more similarities than differences between the two genders’ communication styles, it may pose a challenge in some teams. Teams should, therefore, be aware of the potential for people to be stereotyped into a particular role based on their gender.

Age. It is very likely that project teams will be formed with individuals representing members from three or four generations (Seniors, Baby Boomers, Gen -Xers, and Gen-Yers), and flexibility will be of great value in the intergenerational trust-building process. Building an understanding of the diverse values and personal needs of the team members representing the generational span will be a challenge in most project teams. Teams that contain marked age differences must work harder to find social conversations that will serve as a common denominator by which team members can share their experiences.

Education. It is generally assumed that there is a connection between academic achievement and the ability to perform the necessary skills in day-to-day discussions. If members of a team have a more homogeneous education, the socialization process is more easily facilitated.

Professional Diversity. Professional background, organizational standing, and expertise can have an impact on the productivity of teams. People in the highly-skilled professions may be perceived to hold stereotyped views of less-qualified workers’ intellectual abilities. The tension usually is reduced by finding some basis of equality outside team members’ occupations.

Interpersonal Needs. The Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation (FIRO) theory assumes that individuals in a small group pursue the satisfaction of interpersonal needs. Individual personalities and cultural backgrounds are determinants in the level of need, and as the group becomes more comfortable with each other, shifts on the continuum occur.

Managing the different characteristics of teams and the factors that contribute to team effectiveness, poses challenges in organizations. Even though there may be less conflict in homogeneous teams, task performance may not be as effective as that of a heterogeneous team. Therefore, investment in management awareness of and sensitivity-training in diversity will reap significant organizational benefits.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.

Project Team Characteristics

After the project has been defined and the project team structure finalized, the project team characteristics must be considered by the project manager. The following characteristics are considered central to small groups and teams. How these characteristics and traits present themselves in team settings have an impact on the level of motivation, the quality of communication, and the effectiveness of the transfer of knowledge in project teams.


Communication. Verbal and nonverbal communication are considered some of the most fundamental behaviors associated with a team’s actions and are often the first indications of the presence of a team. True team communication is not random, but purposeful interaction where problem solving, role playing, team building, and trust building occur.

Structural patterns of talk. This characteristic is considered an indirectly observable communication characteristic. If an individual understands the four types of communications (problem-solving talk, role talk, consciousness-raising talk, and relational talk) of the team, it is sufficient for participation as an effective team member.

Space. Even though physical proximity of individuals previously indicated the presence of a group or team, the emergence of new technologies has changed this indicator significantly. Integrated communication systems have modified the understanding of face-to-face and virtual communication between team members and the challenges around these environments, and will continue to do so.

Time. A group of individuals typically have to communicate with one another for some period before the discussion can be considered team communication. This time period will vary depending on the unique situations within the team

Size. The definition of a team should include the characteristic of size, but scholars have not been able to agree on the exact parameters of team sizes. The optimum size of a team must ensure enough diversity of opinion, knowledge, and roles to prevent group thinking within the team while still being productive.

Interdependence. True interdependence occurs when the tasks of the team are complex and of such a nature that the team cannot divide into separate, parallel teams. The achievement of the common goal of the team through interdependency is the key characteristic that distinguishes a team that is a team in name only vs. a cohesive team.

Norms. Team norms are shared ethics, convictions, behaviors, and procedures regarding the team’s purpose, which usually is agreed upon subconsciously by the team. Once the team has established a history, new group norms will begin to emerge.

Goals. Teams are held together by their commitment to cooperate in the achievement of a common purpose or goal. A group of people can only become a team when the common goal is sufficiently attractive for the individual to set aside personal goals for the sake of team goal achievement.

Shared Identity. Another way to identify a team from a group of people is to determine whether there is a perceived line that separates the insiders from the outsiders. This characteristic of a team refers to the process when people come to think of themselves as members of the team, and see other people as not being members of the team.

Team characteristics are not the only factors that impact project teams; the individual and sociocultural diversity of team members also play a role in the effectiveness of teams.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.

Project Team Structure

Depending on the organizational structure and project specifics, the project team structure can have different formats. Although there are a variety of tools available for the delivery of information relevant to the project team, the actual transfer of knowledge is a deliberate act of communication. How to become successful as a project team and stay successful in a constantly changing business environment is directly related to capable employees, and more specifically, how these individuals function as a team. Newly-formed project teams often consist of a group of individuals organized in a novel way with a specific project goal.


When the Project Manager (PM) is assigned, the first action he or she must perform is to create the best possible Project Management Team for the specific project. This must include roles such as Vendor PM (if required) and Business Analyst. The next action is to create the Core Project Team structure which must include roles such as Executive Sponsor, Business and Technical Owners, Business, Technical, and Testing Leaders, and Vendor Lead if required. When the Core Team structure is completed, the rest of the project team roles must be created, which should include all the relevant Business, Technical, and Testing Subject Matter Experts. The relevant Project Stakeholders must then be identified which should lead to the creation of the Project Steering committee. This team should include all relevant decision makers for the project and chaired by the Business Owner.

These individuals typically represent different organizational departments such as Information Technology or any of the business functionalities. As individuals, they come to the project team with unique skills, values, characteristics and individual personality differences. Research has shown that projects fail largely not due to a lack of professional skills, but due to a lack of social intelligence – that is, the ability to effectively function in intricate social relationships and environments. The complexity of the project, organizational structures, technology, or the required skills and experience may, however, require teams to be geographically or functionally dispersed. In these situations the project team may become partly virtual, or even fully virtual, creating another layer of potential challenges.

Being in the same physical location with most of the other team members has been indicated as a contributing factor to project success: it facilitates communication that is necessary for project execution, increases opportunities to apply motivational strategies, creates a sense of camaraderie, improves communication and allows for personal interaction. Even though the advantages of virtual teams seem to be obvious (such as a large knowledge pool and lower project costs), there are risks associated with this team structure. Results from a study by Andres and Shipps (2009) show virtual teams have difficulty with social context: members were unaware of colleagues’ professional needs such as clarification, recognition, and feedback. This might adversely impact knowledge transfer and the productivity of virtual team members. Whether team members are virtual or non-virtual, the composition of these teams is crucial to the success of projects. As such, the characteristics and factors that impact project teams must be acknowledged and managed if a project is to be successful.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.