Leading Group Meetings

Leading Group Meetings

How many times have you complained that a meeting you attended was a waste of time? Good group meetings do not just happen. Rather, they are intentionally planned, facilitated and followed up. One of the principal duties that both formal and informal leaders perform is to plan and run effective group meetings. Here are some guidelines that can help leaders make meetings productive.

Before the Meeting

1. Prepare the agenda. An agenda is an organized outline of the items that need to be covered during a meeting. Items for the agenda come from reviewing the minutes of the last meeting to determine what the group agreed to take as next steps and from new issues that have arisen since the last meeting. Effective leaders make sure the agenda is appropriate for the length of the meeting. A group meeting to decide which one of three courses to offer over the Internet next semester.
2. Decide who should attend the meeting. In most cases, all members of a group will attend meetings. Occasionally, one or more members of the group may not need to attend a particular meeting but may only need to be informed of the outcomes of the meeting.
3. Arrange an appropriate location and meeting time. Be sure that the location has all the equipment and supplies the group will need to work effectively. This may include arranging for audiovisual equipment, computers and other specialized equipment. Groups become less effective in long meetings and ideally a meeting should last no longer than ninety minutes. If a meeting must be planned for a longer period of time, schedule hourly breaks to avoid fatigue.
4. Distribute the agenda. The agenda should be in the hands of attendees several days before the meeting. Unless group members get an agenda ahead of time, they will not be able to prepare for the meeting.
5. Speak with each participant prior to the meeting. It is important to understand members positions and personal goals. Spending time pre working issues helps the leader anticipate conflicts that are likely to emerge and plan how to manage them so that the group makes effective decisions and maintains cohesiveness.

During the Meeting

1. Review and modify the agenda. Begin the meeting by reviewing the agenda and modifying it based on members suggestions. Because things can change between the time an agenda is distributed and when the meeting is held, reviewing the agenda ensures that the group is working on items that are still important and relevant. Reviewing the agenda also gives members a chance to control what is to be discussed.
2. Monitor roles members assume and consciously play needed roles that are unfilled by others. The role of the leader during a discussion is to provide the task or procedural direction and relationship management that the group lacks. Leaders need to maintain awareness of what specific roles are needed by the group at a specific time. When other group members are assuming the necessary roles, the leader need do nothing. But when there is need for a particular role and members are not assuming that role, the leader should perform the necessary behaviors. For example, if the leader notices that some people are talking more than their fair share and that no one else is trying to draw out quieter members, the leader should assume the gatekeeper role and ask reluctant members to comment on the discussion.
3. Monitor the time so that the group stays on schedule. It is easy for a group to get bogged down in a discussion. Although another group member may serve as expediter, it is the leader’s responsibility to make sure the group stays on schedule.
4. Monitor conflicts and intervene as needed. A healthy level of conflict should be encouraged in the group so that issues are fully examined. But if the conflict level becomes dysfunctional, the leader may need to mediate so that relationships are not unduly strained.
5. Periodically check to see if the group is ready to make a decision. The leader of the group should listen for agreement and move the group into its formal decision process when the leader senses that discussion is no longer adding insight.
6. Implement the group’s decision rules. The leader is responsible for overseeing that the decision making rule the group has agreed to is used. If the group is deciding by consensus, the leader must make sure that all members feel that the chosen alternative is one that they can support. If the group is deciding by majority rule, the leader calls for the vote and tallies the results.
7. Before ending the meeting, summarize decisions. To bring closure to the meeting and to make sure that each member leaving the meeting is clear about what has been accomplished, the leader should summarize what has happened in the meeting, reiterate task responsibilities assigned to members and review the next steps that have been planned.
8. Ask the group to decide if and when another meeting is needed. Ongoing groups should be careful not to meet just for the sake of meeting. Leaders should clarify with members when and if, future meetings are necessary. The overall purposes of future meetings will dictate the agenda that will need to be prepared.

Meeting Follow up

1. Review the meeting outcomes and process. A good leader learns how to be more effective by reflecting on and analyzing how well the previous meeting went. Leaders need to think about whether the meeting accomplished its goals and whether group cohesion was improved or damaged in the process.
2. Prepare and distribute a summary of meeting outcomes. Although some groups have a member who serves at the recorder and who distributes minutes, many groups rely on their leaders. A written record of what was agreed to, accomplished and next steps serve to remind group members of the work they have to do. If the group has a recorder, the leader should check to make sure that minutes are distributed in a timely manner.
3. Repair damaged relationships through informal conversations. If the debate during the meeting has been heated, it is likely that some people have damaged their relationships with others or left the meeting angry or hurt. Leaders can help repair relationships by seeking out these participants and talking with them. Through empathetic listening, leaders can soothe hurt feelings and spark a re-commitment to the group.
4. Follow up with members to see how they are progressing on items assigned to them. When participants have been assigned specific task responsibilities, the leader should check with them to see if they have encountered any problems in completing those tasks.

Evaluating Group Effectiveness

There is an old saying that goes, “A camel is a horse built by a committee.” Although this saying is humorous, for some groups it is also true. If we are to avoid ending up with camels when we want horses, we need to understand how to assess a group’s effectiveness and how to improve group processes based on those evaluations. Groups can be evaluated on the quality of the decision, the quality of role taking and the quality of leadership.

The Decision

The questionnaire provides one method for evaluating the quality of a group’s decision based on three major aspects of groups: group characteristics, member relationships and problem solving ability.
That a group meets to discuss an issue does not necessarily mean that it will arrive at a decision. As foolish as it may seem, some groups thrash away for hours only to adjourn without having reached a conclusion. Of course, some groups discuss such serious problems that a decision cannot be made without several meetings. In such cases, it is important that the group adjourn with a clear understanding of what the next step will be. When a group “finishes” its work without arriving at some decision, however, the result is likely to be frustration and disillusionment.

Individual Participation and Role Behavior

Although a group will struggle without good leadership, it may not be able to function at all without members who are willing and able to meet the task, maintenance and procedural functions of the group.


Some group discussions are leaderless, although no discussion should be without leadership. If there is an appointed leader and most groups have one evaluation can focus on that individual. If the group is truly leaderless, the evaluation should consider attempts at leadership by various members or focus on the apparent leader who emerges from the group. A simple checklist for evaluating group leadership.

Summary (Member Roles and Leadership in Groups)

When individuals interact in groups, they assume roles. A role is a specific pattern of behavior that a member of the group performs based on the expectations of others.
There are four types of roles: task oriented roles, maintenance roles, procedural roles and self centered roles. Members select the roles they will play based on how roles fit with their personality, what is required of them by virtue of a position they hold and what roles the group needs to have assumed that are not being played by other members. One role that is of particular importance to effective group functioning is the leadership role.
Leadership is the process of influencing members to accomplish goals. As such, leadership is a general role that includes providing whatever is needed by the group but missing in other members behavior, Groups may have a single leader, but more commonly leadership is shared among group members. Groups may have both formal and informal leaders. Formal leaders have formal authority given to them either by some entity outside of the group or by the group members themselves. Informal leaders emerge during a two stage process. Individuals who want to become recognized as informal leaders in a group should come to group meetings prepared, actively participate in discussions, actively listen to others, avoid appearing bossy or stating overly strong opinions and manage the meaning for other participants by framing.
Both members and leaders can improve the effectiveness of the meetings they attend by pre meeting preparations, during meeting behaviors, and post meeting activities.

Member Responsibilities In Group Meetings

 Member Responsibilities In Group Meetings

Although members specialize in particular roles during group discussions and problem solving, members of effective groups also assume common responsibilities for making their meetings successful. Here are some guidelines prepared by a class of university students to help group members prepare, behave and follow up in a manner that will increase the effectiveness of the meeting (“Guidelines,” 1998).


As the chapter opening vignette illustrated, too often people think of group meetings as a happening that requires attendance but no particular preparation. Countless times we have observed people who bring packets of material about a meeting with them but have spent little, if any, time studying the material. The reality is that meetings should not be treated as impromptu events but as activities that pool information from well prepared individuals. Here are some important steps to take prior to attending a meeting.
1. Study the agenda. Determine the purpose of the meeting and what you need to do to be prepared. Consider the agenda as an outline for preparation.
2. Study the minutes. If this is one of a series of meetings, study the minutes and your own notes from the previous meeting. Each meeting is not a separate event. What happened at one meeting should provide the basis for preparation tor the next meeting.
3. Prepare for your contributions. Read handouts and do the necessary research to become better informed about items on the agenda. If no hand outs are given, it is up to you to think of the kinds of information you will need to be a productive member of the group. Bring any materials that you have uncovered that will help the group accomplish the agenda. If appropriate, discuss the agenda with others who will not be attending the meeting and solicit their ideas concerning issues to be discussed in the meeting.
4. Prepare to play a major role. Consider which roles you are assigned or which you are interested in playing. What do you need to do to play those roles to the best of your ability?
5. List questions. Make a list of questions related to agenda items that you would like to have answered during the meeting.


Go into the meeting with the expectation that you will be a full participant. If there are five people in the group, all five should be participating.
1. Listen attentively. Concentrate on what others are saying so that you can use your material to complement, supplement or counter what has been presented.
2. Stay focused. In a group setting, it is easy to get the discussion going in nonproductive directions. Keep your comments focused on the specific agenda item under discussion. If others have gotten off the subject, do what you can to get people back on track.
3. Ask questions. “Honest” questions whose answers you do not already know help to stimulate discussion and build ideas.
4. Take notes. Even if someone else is responsible for providing the official minutes, you will need notes that help you follow the line of development. Also, these notes will help you remember what has been said.
5. Play devil’s advocate. When you think an idea has not been fully discussed or tested, be willing to voice disagreement or encourage further discussion.
6. Monitor your contributions. Especially when people are well prepared, they have a tendency to dominate discussion. Make sure that you are neither dominating the discussion nor abdicating your responsibility to share insights and opinions.

Following Up

When meetings end, too often people leave and forget about what took place until the next meeting. But what happens in one meeting provides a basis for what happens in the next; be prepared to move forward at the next meeting.
1. Review and summarize your notes. Try to do this shortly after you have left the meeting while ideas are still fresh in your mind. Make notes of what needs to be discussed next time.
2. Evaluate your effectiveness. How effective were you in helping the group move toward achieving its goals? Where were you strong? Where were you weak? What should you do next time that you did not do in this meeting?
3. Review decisions. Make note of what your role was in making decisions. Did you do all that you could have done?
4. Communicate progress. Inform others who need to know about information conveyed and decisions that were made in the meeting.
5. Follow up. Make sure you complete all assignments you received in the meeting.
6. Review minutes. Compare the official minutes of the meeting to your own notes and report any significant discrepancies that you find.


Although performance of all task, maintenance and procedural roles aid groups in accomplishing their goals, good leadership is also necessary to accomplish group goals. A great number of definitions of leadership have been offered by scholars, but common to most definitions is the notion that leadership is a process of influencing members to accomplish group goals (Shaw, 1981, p. 317). As you will recall, influence is a communication process that brings about changes in the beliefs and actions of others, but leadership is more than influence. It is the use of influence to aid the group in reaching its goals. Leadership involves motivating other members to continue working toward common objectives. Let’s look at how leadership serves a group.

The Function of Leadership

In their book on small-group communication, Fisher and Ellis (1990) argue that leadership is involved in performing “vital functions” in the group. These functions include influencing the group’s procedures and task accomplishment and maintaining satisfactory relationships between members.
Because various roles in the group are specifically designed to fulfill each of these functions, leadership can be shared by all group members. However, in most groups, some of the roles that are necessary for effective group functioning are not assumed by members. Current thinking is that the leader’s role is to step in and assume whatever roles are needed in the group at a particular time that are not being assumed by other group members (Rothwell, 1998, p. 168).
B. Aubrey Fisher (1985), a noted communication scholar, believes that those filling the leadership role must be versatile and able to adapt their behavior to the situation. Leaders are adept at listening to the group and becoming attuned to what the group needs at a particular time. Based on what they have heard, leaders adapt their behavior to the situation and influence the group to behave in ways that will lead to goal accomplishment.

Types of Leaders

A group will often have more than one leader. Many groups have a designated formal leader, an assigned leader who is given legitimate power to influence others. The formal leader may be appointed by some entity outside the group. For example, the dean of the college might appoint a student to chair a committee of students and faculty who are reviewing the college’s policy on class attendance. In some settings. the group itself elects a formal leader. Instead of appointing someone to lead the committee, the dean may have requested that the committee elect its own chair. In both cases, the person who assumes formal leadership of the group will have gained legitimate power on which to base influence attempts. In one case, the authority comes from outside the group; in the other case, it comes from inside the group.
During its work life, a group may have only one formal leader, but several people may play leadership roles. Informal leaders are members of the group whose authority to influence stems from the power they gain through their interactions in the group. Informal leaders do not have legitimate power; rather, their influence attempts are usually based on expert or referent power.

How Members Gain and Maintain Informal Leadership

According to research by Ernest Bormann (1990), members who become informal leaders of a group are not really selected. Rather, they are the members who emerge through a two step elimination process. During the first step of the process, members form crude impressions about one another based on early interactions. During this phase, members who do not demonstrate the commitment or skillfulness necessary to fulfill leadership roles are eliminated. Among those who are less likely to emerge as leaders are those who do not participate (either due to shyness or indifference); those who are overly strong and bossy in their opinions and positions; those who are perceived to be uninformed, less intelligent or unskilled and those with irritating interpersonal styles.
During the second phase, those who are still acceptable to the group may vie for power. Sometimes one contender will become an informal leader because the group faces a crisis that this member recognizes and is better able to help the group remedy than others are. At other times, a contender may become an informal leader because one or more members of the group have come to trust this person and openly support influence attempts made by that contender.
Students are often interested in how they can exert leadership in a group. Because leadership is demonstrated through communication behaviors, following these recommendations can help you gain influence.
1. Actively participate in discussions. When members do not participate, others may view them as disinterested or uninformed. Indicate your interest and commitment to the group by participating in group discussions.
2. Come to group meetings prepared. Uninformed members rarely achieve leadership, whereas those who demonstrate expertise gain the power to influence us.
3. Actively listen to the ideas and opinions of others. Because leadership requires analyzing what a group needs, the leader must understand the ideas and needs of members. When you actively listen, you also demonstrate your willingness to consider a point of view different from your own. We are more likely to accept influence attempts when we believe the person really understands us.
4. Avoid stating overly strong opinions. When other members of the group perceive that someone is inflexible, they are less likely to accept that person as a leader.
5. Actively manage meaning. During problem solving, members can become unclear about what is happening. As a result, they experience uncertainty. If you have a mental map or framework that can help the group clarify and understand issues it is facing, you can use it to influence the group. Gail T. Fairhurst has explored how leaders manage meaning in groups; she calls this process framing. You can read about her work in the Spotlight on Scholars.

Gender Differences in Emerging Leaders

A question that has generated considerable research is whether the gender of a leader has any effect on a group’s acceptance of leadership. Some research suggests that gender does affect group acceptance, but not because women lack the necessary skills. A persistent research finding is that messages are evaluated differently depending on the source of the message (Aries, 1998, p. 65). Thus, the same behavior may be perceived differently depending on whether it is performed by a woman or a man. For example, a group member says, “I think we are belaboring the point and should move on.” If the speaker is a woman, the comment may well be perceived as bossy, dominating and critical. If a man makes the same comment, he is more likely to be perceived as being insightful and task oriented. One problem women face is that their efforts to show leadership may be differently interpreted.
Moreover, gender role stereotypes can lead to devaluing cooperative and supportive behaviors that many women use quite skillfully. Yet, as Sally Helgesen (1990) points out, many female leaders are successful because they respond to people and their problems with flexibility and because they are able to break down barriers between people at all levels of the organization.
Fortunately, changes in perception are occurring as the notion of “effective” leadership changes. Patricia Andrews (1992) supports this conclusion, noting that it is more important to consider the unique character of a group and the skills of the person serving as leader than the gender of the leader (p. 90). She goes on to show that a complex interplay of factors (including how much power the leader has) influences effectiveness more than gender does. As Jurma and Wright (1990) have pointed out, research studies have shown that men and women are equally capable of leading task oriented groups (p. 110).
Moreover, by the mid 1990’s, studies were showing that task relevant communication was the only significant predictor of who would emerge as leaders, regardless of gender. Katherine Hawkins’s (1995) study noted no significant gender differences in the production of task relevant communication. Such communication, it seems, is the key to emergent leadership in task oriented group interaction for either gender.

Member Roles and Leadership in Groups

Member Roles and Leadership in Groups

“Well, since we’re all here, let’s get started. The agenda calls for us to begin by reviewing the three bids we received for landscaping servicing. Dontonio, will you be the recorder again?”
“Sure, Ray, no problem.”
“OK. Sarella, we know we can depend on you to have studied the bids. So why don’t you start us out by summarizing what you found?”
“Well, only three of the six companies submitted detailed bids in line with our request. After reviewing each, I concluded that they all will provide the same basic services and on similar schedules. Two of the bids came in at about the same amount, but the other one is much higher. The two lower bids were from Wildflowers and from J&M.”
“Well, I’ve never heard of Wildflowers, but my brother in law used J&M for a while and dropped them because they ran over his flower beds with their big riding movers. I don’t think we want that here.”
“Hey, Jose, be careful, my boyfriend works for J&M and I don’t think his crews are that irresponsible.”
“Judith, I don’t think Jose meant his comment as a personal attack on your boyfriend. I think he was just trying to share something he had heard.”
“Yeah, you’re right, Shawn, thanks. Sorry, Jose. It’s a good thing we have Shawn to keep us from popping off at each other.”

Our beginning conversation is typical of interactions in groups. If you listened closely, you could hear that the members of this group were not only discussing the topic but were each acting in the ways expected of them by others in the group. Our goal in this chapter is to explain how members of groups take on specific roles that help or detract from the effectiveness of the group. A role is a specific pattern of behavior that one group member performs based on the expectations of other members. We will learn about the types of roles members assume and how these roles are developed. Then we will look more closely at leadership roles. Most groups can identify one person who serves as its leader and we will examine those characteristics that distinguish leaders from other group members. We will also discuss several types of leaders and how groups develop leaders. We will present behavioral guidelines that will increase your chances of becoming a leader in your group. Finally, we will discuss what leaders must do to facilitate group meetings.

Member Roles

The roles group members play depend on their personalities and what is required or needed by the group. Four common types of roles are task related, maintenance, procedural and self centered roles.

Task Related Roles

Task related roles require specific patterns of behavior that directly help the group accomplish its goals. Members who play task roles are likely to be information or opinion givers, information or opinion seekers or analyzers.
Information or opinion givers provide content for the discussion. People who perform these roles are expected to have developed expertise or to be well informed on the content of the task and to share what they know with the group. The more material you have studied, the more valuable your contributions will be. “Well, the articles I read seem to agree that … ” and “Based on the years I’ve been in the community and given what the recent citizens poll revealed, I think we should … ” are statements typical of information and opinion givers.
Information or opinion seekers are expected to probe others for their ideas and opinions on issues before the group. Typical comments by those performing these roles include, “Before going further, what information do we have about how raising fees is likely to affect membership?” or “How do other members of the group feel about this idea?”
Analyzers are expected to probe the content and the reasoning of members during discussion. In so doing, their role is to question what is being said and to help members understand the hidden assumptions in their statements. Analyzers make statements such as “Enrique, you’re generalizing from only one instance. Can you give us some others?”

Maintenance Roles

Maintenance roles require specific patterns of behavior that help the group develop and maintain good member relationships, group cohesiveness and effective levels of conflict. Members who play maintenance roles are likely to be supporters, tension relievers, harmonizers or interpreters.
Supporters are expected to encourage others in the group. When another member contributes to the group, supporters show appreciation through their nonverbal or verbal behavior. Non verbally, supporters may smile, nod or vigorously shake their heads. Verbally, they demonstrate support through statements like” Good point, Ming,” “I really like that idea, Nikki,” or “It’s obvious you’ve really done your homework, Janelle.”
Tension relievers are expected to recognize when group members are stressed or tiring and to intervene in some way that relieves the stress or re energizes the group. People who are effective in this role are able to tell jokes, kid around, and tell light hearted stories so that the group is refreshed when it returns to the task. In some situations, a single well placed one liner will get a laugh, break the tension or the monotony and jolt the group out of its lethargy. Although the tension reliever momentarily distracts the group from its task, this helps the group remain cohesive.
Harmonizers are expected to intervene in group discussions when conflict is threatening to harm group cohesiveness or the relationships between specific group members. Tension relievers distract group members, whereas harmonizers mediate and reconcile differences between group members. Harmonizers are likely to make statements such as “Tom, Jack, hold it a second. I know you’re on opposite sides of this, but let’s see where you might have some agreement,” “Cool it, everybody, we’re really coming up with some good stuff; let’s not lose our momentum by getting into name calling. ”
Interpreters are expected to be familiar with the differences in the social, cultural and gender orientations of members of the group and to use this knowledge to help group members understand each other. Interpreters are especially important in groups whose members are culturally diverse (Jensen & Chilberg, 1991). For example, an interpreter might say, “Paul, Lin Chou is Chinese, so when she says that she will think about your plan she probably means that she does not support your ideas, but she doesn’t want to embarrass you in front of the others.” Or an interpreter might say, “Jim, most of us are Latino and in our culture it is considered impolite to begin business before we socialize and catch up with one another.”

Procedural Roles

Procedural roles require specific patterns of behavior that help the group manage its problem solving process. Members who play procedural roles are likely to be expediters, recorders or gatekeepers.
Expediters are expected to keep track of what the group is trying to accomplish and to help move the group through the agenda. When the group has strayed, expediters will make statements like “I’m enjoying this, but I can’t quite see what it has to do with resolving the issue” or “Let’s see, aren’t we still trying to find out whether these are the only criteria that we should be considering?”
Recorders are expected to take careful notes of the what the group has decided and the evidence upon which the decisions are based. Recorders usually distribute edited copies of their notes to group members prior to the next meeting. Sometimes these notes are published as minutes, which become a public record of the group’s activities.
Gatekeepers are expected to manage the flow of conversation so that all members have an equal opportunity to participate. If one or two members begin to dominate the conversation, the gatekeeper is expected to acknowledge this and to invite other members of the group to participate. Gatekeepers also notice nonverbal signals that indicate that a member wishes to speak. The gatekeeper is the one who sees that Juanita is on the edge of her chair, eager to comment and says, “Let me interrupt you, Doug. We haven’t heard from Juanita and she seems to have something she wants to say.”

Self Centered Roles

Self centered roles reflect specific patterns or behavior that focus attention on individuals needs and goals at the expense of the group. Task related, maintenance and procedural roles must be played for groups to be effective, but self centered roles detract from group effectiveness. Members who play self centered roles are likely to be aggressors, jokers, with drawers or monopolizers.
Aggressors seek to enhance their own status by criticizing almost everything or blaming others when things get rough and by deflating the ego or status of others. Aggressors should be confronted and helped to assume a more positive role. They should be asked whether they are aware of what they are doing and of the effect their behavior is having on the group.
Jokers attempt to draw attention to themselves by clowning, mimicking, or generally making a joke of everything. Unlike tension relievers, the joker is not focused on helping the group to relieve stress or tension. Rather, a joker disrupts work when the group is trying to focus on the task. Jokers should also be confronted and encouraged to use their abilities when the group needs a break but to refrain from disrupting the group when it is being productive.
With drawers can be expected to meet their own goals at the expense of group goals by not participating in the discussion or the work of the group. Sometimes with drawers do so by physically missing meetings. At other times, with drawers are physically present but remain silent in discussion or refuse to take responsibility for doing work. When a person has assumed this role, the group needs to find out why the person is choosing not to participate. When possible, the goals of the with drawer need to be aligned with the goals of the group. For example, members of a group noticed Marianne came late to meetings and didn’t seem to be prepared. The group finally confronted her and learned that she was late arriving because of her job. She also indicated that she did not contribute because she usually missed so much of the discussion. This group was able to change meeting dates and Marianne became a fully participating member.
Monopolizers can be expected to talk all the time, giving the impression that they are well read, knowledgeable and of value to the group. They should be encouraged when their comments are helpful and reined in when they are talking too much or when their comments are not helpful.

Normal Distribution of Roles

What proportion of time in a “normal” group should be devoted to the various roles described in this section? According to Robert Bales (1971), one of the leading researchers in group interaction processes, 40 to 60 percent of discussion time is spent giving and asking for information and opinion; 8 to 15 percent of discussion time is spent on disagreement, tension or unfriendliness and 16 to 26 percent of discussion time is characterized by agreement or friendliness (positive maintenance functions). We can apply two norms as guidelines for effective group functioning: (1) approximately half of all discussion time should be devoted to information sharing and (2) group agreement time should far outweigh group disagreement time.