Roles in Small Groups

Learning Objectives

Identify the different roles in small groups.

In small groups, members can be assigned roles by themselves or “fall into” roles based on personality, group needs, background, and experience. All these roles will affect the communication in a small group. Group members might perform multiple roles in a particular group, and more than one group member might perform the same role. O’Hair and Wiemann describe three categories of roles that group members tend to assume.[1]

Task Roles

These roles relate to what the group wants to accomplish, or what it will take to reach specific goals. An information giver provides input in group discussions, including feedback, experiences, or opinions. An information seeker seeks clarity or additional information when others are talking—asking questions like, “Can you tell me more about what you mean by that?” Elaborators add on to what other group members have said, offering agreement or additional insights. Initiators are good at presenting new ways of thinking about a problem by offering solutions or new ideas. Finally, administrators take the lead on keeping a discussion, meeting, or exchange moving along, including starting and ending on time.

Social Roles

Social roles are typically based on members’ personalities, abilities, background, and interests. Harmonizers try to resolve differences or tensions in the group. A harmonizer might restate a harsh comment in less abrasive language or offer encouragement to a member who is struggling. Gatekeepers make sure everyone has a chance to participate and contribute. You might hear a gatekeeper stop and ask a group member who hasn’t commented to add their feedback to an idea. Finally, sensors are in tune with the group’s feelings and express feedback to try and resolve that feeling. They might say something like, “I feel like we’re really unified right now and making a lot of progress. Shall we keep going for another 15 minutes?”

Taxonomies of Roles

Various communication researchers have elaborated other taxonomies—or systems of classification—of group roles.[2] For instance, Mathieu et al. proposed and validated the Team Role Experience and Orientation (TREO), that includes six team roles:

  • organize Organizer: Structures the team and task to ensure goals are being met
  • to do list Doer:  Completes taskwork
  • Goldfish jumping out of bowl Challenger: Challenges the team to question assumptions and approaches to the task
  • lightbulb Innovator:  Generates ideas and solutions
  • lego blocks Team Builder: Maintains a positive atmosphere within the team, establishes norms, and supports team decisions.
  • network Connector: Connects the team with outside entities.[3]

Anti-group Roles

Unlike task and social roles, anti-group roles work against the group because they prioritize their own needs over those of the group. You will probably recognize at least some of these roles from your own small group experiences.

Blockers shoot down everyone’s ideas and insist on continually bringing up their own ideas even when they have already been rejected by the group. Avoiders refuse to join in the group discussion and receive others’ ideas with indifference or cynicism. As the term suggests, recognition seekers try to bring attention to themselves and their accomplishments. Distractors go off-topic and bring up unrelated ideas during group meetings. Finally, trolls try to create controversy with irrelevant and provocative comments.

To Listen: This american life, “Bad Apples”

On this episode of the radio show This American Life, Will Felps, a researcher from the University of Rotterdam, talks about his work studying “bad apple” behavior within groups. The segment offers intriguing insights into the way one bad actor (in this case, literally an actor) can undermine a group. Click here to listen to the episode; this segment is the Prologue (the first 12 minutes or so).


Practice Question


  1. Wiemann, Mary, and O'Hair, Dan. Real Communication: An Introduction with Mass Communication. N.p., Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012.
  3. Mathieu, John, et al. "Team effectiveness 1997-2007: A review of recent advancements and a glimpse into the future." Journal of management 34.3 (2008): 410-476.