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.


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