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.


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