7.1 Understanding Small Groups

Learning Objectives

  • Define small group communication.
  • Discuss the characteristics of small groups.
  • Explain the functions of small groups.
  • Compare and contrast types of small groups.
  • Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of small groups.

Most communication skills discussed so far are directed toward dyadic communication, which is applied in two-person interactions. While many of these skills can be transferred to and used in small group contexts, the more complex nature of group interaction necessitates some adaptation and additional skills. Small group communication refers to interactions among three or more people connected through a common purpose, mutual influence, and a shared identity. This section will learn about small group characteristics, functions, and types.

Size of Small Groups

There is no set number of members for the ideal small group. A small group requires a minimum of three people (because two people would be a pair or dyad), but the upper range of group size is contingent on the group’s purpose. When groups grow beyond 15 to 20 members, it becomes difficult to consider them a small group based on the previous definition. An analysis of the number of unique connections between members of small groups shows that they are deceptively complex. For example, there are 15 potential dyadic connections within a six-person group, and a twelve-person group would have 66 possible dyadic connections (Hargie, 2011).

As you can see, when the number of group members doubles, the number of connections more than doubles, which shows that network connection points in small groups grow exponentially as membership increases. So, while there is no set upper limit on the number of group members, the number of group members should be limited to those necessary to accomplish the goal or serve the group’s purpose. Small groups with too many members increase the potential for group members to feel overwhelmed or disconnected.

Structure of Small Groups

Internal and external influences affect a group’s structure. Regarding internal forces, member characteristics play a role in initial group formation. For instance, a person who is well informed about the group’s task or highly motivated as a group member may emerge as a leader and set into motion internal decision-making processes, such as recruiting new members or assigning group roles that affect the structure of a group (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). Different members will also gravitate toward different roles within the group and advocate for specific procedures and courses of action over others. External factors such as group size, task, and resources also affect group structure. Some groups will have more control over these external factors through decision-making than others. The group structure is also formed through formal and informal network connections (Evans, 2019). Regarding formal networks, groups may have clearly defined roles and responsibilities or a hierarchy that shows how members are connected. The group may also be a part of an organizational hierarchy that networks the group into a larger organizational structure. This type of formal network is especially important in groups that report to external stakeholders. These external stakeholders may influence the group’s formal network, leaving it little or no control over its structure. Conversely, groups have more control over their informal networks, which are connections between individuals within and among group members and people outside the group that are not official. For example, a group member’s friend or relative may be able to secure a space to hold a fundraiser at a discounted rate, which helps the group achieve its task. Both types of networks are important because they may help facilitate information exchange within a group and extend its reach to access other resources.

Size and structure also affect communication within a group (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). In terms of size, the more people in a group, the more issues with scheduling and coordination of communication. Remember that time is an essential resource in most group interactions and a resource that is usually strained. The structure can increase or decrease the flow of communication. Reachability refers to how one member is or is not connected to other group members. For example, the “decentralized” group structure in Figure 7.1.1 shows that each group member is connected to two others. This can make coordination easy when only one or two people need to be brought in for a decision. In this case, Erik and Callie are very reachable by Winston, who could easily coordinate with them. However, if Winston needed to coordinate with Bill or Stephanie, he would have to wait for Erik or Callie to reach that person, which could create delays. This can be a good structure for groups who are passing along a task, where each member is expected to build progressively on the others’ work. A group of scholars coauthoring a research paper may work in such a manner, with each person adding to the paper and then passing it on to the next person. In this case, they can ask the previous person questions and write with the next person’s area of expertise in mind.

The “centralized” group structure in Figure 7. 1.1 shows an alternative organization pattern. In this structure, Tara is very reachable by all group members. This can be helpful when Tara has the most expertise in the task or the leader who needs to review and approve work at each step before it is passed to other group members. However, Phillip and Shadow, for example, would not likely work together without Tara being involved.


Decentralized structure (left) and centralized structure (right). Decentralized: Winston, Erik, Stephanie, Bill, and Callie are arranged in a circle and connected by left-right arrows to the person on their left and right. Centralized: Tara is in the middle, connected to Pam, Shadow, Phillip, and Tallulah who surround her. They are not connected to each other, only to Tara.
Figure 7.1.1. Two types of small group structures. Two box depictions of small groups.

When looking at the group structures, you can make some assumptions about their communication. Research has shown that centralized groups are better than decentralized groups in speed and efficiency (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). Nevertheless, decentralized groups are more effective at solving complex problems. In centralized groups, the person at the centre with the most connections is also more likely to be the group leader and may have more status among group members, mainly because that person has a broad perspective of what is happening in the group. The most central person can also act as a gatekeeper. Since this person has access to the most information, usually a sign of leadership or status, they could consciously decide to limit the flow of information.

But in complex tasks, that person could become overwhelmed by the burden of processing and sharing information with all the other group members. Decentralized structure is more likely to emerge in groups where collaboration is the goal, and a specific task and course of action are not required under time constraints. The person who initiated the group or who has the most expertise in the task may emerge as a leader in a decentralized group with a common purpose and fate (Bonito & Staggs, 2018). If the actions of one or two group members lead to a group deviating from or not achieving its purpose, then all group members are affected. Conversely, if the actions of only a few group members lead to success, then all members of the group benefit. This is a significant contributor to many university students’ dislike of group assignments because they feel a loss of control and independence that they have when they complete an assignment alone. This concern is valid in that their grades might suffer because of someone else’s hostile actions, or their hard work may benefit the group that just skated by. Group meeting attendance is a clear example of the interdependent nature of group interaction. Many of us have arrived at a group meeting only to find half of the members present. Sometimes, the group members who show up have to leave and reschedule because they can not accomplish their tasks without the other members present. Group members who attend meetings but withdraw or do not participate can derail group progress. Although it can be frustrating to have your job, grade, or reputation partially dependent on the actions of others, the interdependent nature of groups can also lead to higher-quality performance and output, especially when group members are accountable for their actions.

Shared Identity

The shared identity of a group manifests in several ways. Groups may have official charters or mission and vision statements that lay out the identity of a group. Group identity is often formed around a shared goal and previous accomplishments, which adds dynamism to the group as it looks toward the future and back on the past to inform its present. Shared identity can also be exhibited through group names, slogans, songs, handshakes, clothing, or other symbols. At a family reunion, for example, matching t-shirts specially made for the occasion, dishes from recipes passed down from generation to generation and shared stories of family members who have passed away help establish a shared identity and social reality.

A key element of forming a shared identity within a group is the establishment of the in-group instead of the out-group (Greenaway et al., 2015). The degree to which members share in the in-group identity varies from person to person and group to group. Even within a family, some members may not attend a reunion or get as excited about the matching t-shirts as others. Shared identity also emerges as groups become cohesive, meaning they identify with and like the group’s task and other group members. The presence of cohesion and a shared identity leads to building trust, which can also positively influence productivity and members’ satisfaction.

Functions of Small Groups

Why do individuals join groups? Even with the challenges of group membership that individuals face, they still seek out and desire to be a part of numerous groups. Sometimes, you join a group because you need a service or access to information. You may also be drawn to a group because you admire the group or its members. Whether conscious of it or not, our identities and self-concepts are built on the groups you identify with. So, to answer the earlier question, you join groups because they help to meet instrumental, interpersonal, and identity needs.

Groups Meet Instrumental Needs

Groups have long served the instrumental needs of humans, helping with the essential elements of survival since ancient humans first evolved  (Wakefield et al., 2017). Groups helped humans survive by providing security and protection through increased numbers and resource access. Today, groups are rarely such a matter of life and death, but they still serve essential instrumental functions. Labour unions, for example, pool efforts and resources to attain material security through pay increases and health benefits for their members, which protects them by providing a stable and dependable livelihood. Individual group members must also work to secure the instrumental needs of the group, creating a reciprocal relationship. Members of labour unions pay dues that help support the group’s efforts. Some groups also meet our informational needs. Although they may not provide material resources, they enrich our knowledge or provide the information you can use to meet our instrumental needs. Many groups provide referrals to resources or offer advice. For example, several consumer protection and advocacy groups have been formed to offer referrals for people who have been victims of fraudulent business practices. Whether a group forms to provide services to members they could not get otherwise, advocate for changes that will affect members’ lives, or provide information, many groups meet some instrumental need.

Groups Meet Interpersonal Needs

Group membership meets interpersonal needs by giving us access to inclusion, control, and support. Regarding inclusion, people have a fundamental drive to be a part of a group and create and maintain social bonds (Osborne, 2020). You have learned that humans have always lived and worked in small groups. Family and friendship groups, shared-interest groups, and activity groups give us a sense of belonging and inclusion in an in-group. People also join groups because they want to have some control over a decision-making process or to influence the outcome of a group. Being a part of a group allows people to share opinions and influence others. Conversely, some people join a group to be controlled because they do not want to be the sole decision-maker or leader and instead want to be given a role to follow. Just as you enter into interpersonal relationships because you like someone, you are drawn toward a group and their members when you are attracted to it. Groups also support others in ways that supplement our support from significant others in interpersonal relationships. Some groups, like therapy groups for survivors of sexual assault or support groups for people with cancer, exist primarily to provide emotional support. While these groups may also meet instrumental needs through connections and referrals to resources, they fulfill the interpersonal need for belonging, a central human need.

Groups Meet Identity Needs

Our affiliations are building blocks for our identities because group membership allows us to use reference groups for social comparison — in short, identifying us with some groups and characteristics and separating us from others. Some people join groups to be affiliated with people who share similar or desirable characteristics in terms of beliefs, attitudes, values, or cultural identities. For example, people may join the Native Women’s Association of Canada to affiliate with others who support the diversity of all Indigenous women, girls, 2SLGBTQAI+ people, and families. Group memberships vary in how much they affect our identity, as some are more prominent than others at various times. While religious groups are too large to be considered small groups, the work people do as a part of a religious community—as a lay leader, deacon, prayer group member, or committee may have deep ties to a person’s identity.

The prestige of a group can initially attract us because you want that group’s identity to “rub off” on your identity. Likewise, our achievements as group members can enhance our self-esteem, add to our reputation, and allow us to create or project specific identity characteristics to engage in impression management. For example, a person may take numerous tests to become a part of Mensa, an organization for people with high IQs, not for material gain, but for the recognition or sense of achievement that the affiliation may bring. Likewise, people may join sports teams, professional organizations, and honour societies for a sense of achievement and affiliation. Such groups allow us opportunities to better ourselves by encouraging further development of skills or knowledge. For example, a person who used to play the clarinet in high school may join the community band to continue to improve their ability.

Types of Small Groups

There are many types of small groups, but the most common distinction between types of small groups is that of task-oriented and relational-oriented groups (Hargie, 2011).

Task-oriented groups are formed to solve problems, promote a cause, or generate ideas or information (McKay et al., 1995). In groups like a committee or study group, interactions and decisions are primarily evaluated based on the final product or output quality. The three main types of tasks are production, discussion, and problem-solving (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). Groups faced with production tasks are asked to produce something tangible from their group interactions, such as a report, design for a playground, musical performance, or fundraiser event. Groups faced with discussion tasks are asked to talk through something without trying to come up with a right or wrong answer. Examples of this group include clinical or community support groups or a group for new parents. Groups faced with problem-solving tasks must devise a course of action to meet a specific need. These groups also usually include a production and discussion component, but the end goal is not necessarily a tangible product or a shared social reality through discussion. Instead, the end goal is a well-thought-out idea. Task-oriented groups require honed problem-solving skills to accomplish goals, and the structure of these groups is more rigid than that of relational-oriented groups.

Relational-oriented groups are formed to promote interpersonal connections and focus on quality interactions that contribute to the well-being of group members. Decision-making is directed at strengthening or repairing relationships rather than completing discrete tasks or debating specific ideas or courses of action. All groups include task and relational elements, so it is best to consider these orientations as two ends of a continuum rather than mutually exclusive. For example, although a family unit works together daily to accomplish tasks like getting the kids ready for school, and friendship groups may plan a surprise party for one of the members, their primary and most meaningful interactions are still relational. Since other chapters in this book focus specifically on interpersonal relationships, this chapter focuses more on task-oriented groups and the dynamics that operate within these groups.

Some groups are formed based on interpersonal relationships. Our family and friends are considered primary or long-lasting groups, formed based on relationships and including significant others. These are the small groups in which interaction occurs most frequently. They form the basis of our society and our social realities. Kinship networks provide necessary support early in life and meet physiological and safety needs essential for survival. They also meet higher-order needs, such as social and self-esteem needs. When people do not interact with their biological family, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, they can establish fictive kinship networks composed of people who are not biologically related but fulfill family roles and help provide the same support.

You also interact in many secondary groups, characterized by less frequent face-to-face interactions, less emotional and relational communication, and more task-related communication than primary groups (Barker, 1991). While you are more likely to participate in secondary groups based on self-interest, your primary-group interactions are often more reciprocal or other-oriented. For example, you may join groups because of shared interests or needs.

Other groups are formed primarily to accomplish a task. Teams are task-oriented groups in which members are incredibly loyal and dedicated to the task and other group members (Larson & LaFasto, 1989). In professional contexts, the word team has become popularized as a means of drawing on the positive connotations of the term — connotations such as “high-spirited,” “cooperative,” and “hardworking.” Scholars who have spent years studying highly effective teams have identified several common factors related to their success. Successful teams have:

  • straightforward and inspiring shared goals
  • a results-driven structure
  • competent team members
  • a collaborative climate
  • high standards for performance
  • external support and recognition
  • ethical and accountable leadership

(Adler & Elmhorst, 2005)

Increasingly, small groups and teams are engaging in more virtual interaction. Virtual groups use new technologies and meet exclusively or primarily online to achieve their purpose or goal.

Virtual groups and teams are now common in academic, professional, and personal contexts. Classes meet entirely or partially online, work teams interface using a webinar or video-conferencing programs, and people connect around shared interests in various online settings. Virtual groups are popular in professional contexts because they can bring together geographically dispersed people (Ahuja & Galvin, 2003). Virtual groups also increase the possibility of the inclusion of diverse members. The ability to transcend distance means that people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives are more easily accessed than in many offline groups.

One disadvantage of virtual groups stems from technological mediation’s difficulties in the relational and social dimensions of group interactions (Walther & Bunz, 2005). An essential part of coming together as a group is the socialization of group members into the desired norms of the group. Since norms are implicit, much of this information is learned through observation or conveyed informally from one group member to another. In traditional groups, group members passively acquire 50 % or more of their knowledge about group norms and procedures, meaning they observe rather than directly ask (Comer, 1991). Virtual groups experience more difficulty with this part of socialization than traditional copresent groups do since any form of electronic mediation takes away some of the richness of face-to-face interaction.

To help overcome these challenges, members of virtual groups should be prepared to put more time and effort into building the relational dimensions of their group. Members of virtual groups need to make the social cues that guide new members’ socialization more explicit than in an offline group (Ahuja & Galvin, 2003). Group members should also contribute often, even if supporting someone else’s contribution because increased participation has been shown to increase liking among members of virtual groups (Walther & Bunz, 2005). Virtual group members should also try to put relational content that might otherwise be conveyed through nonverbal or contextual means into the verbal part of a message, as members who include little social content in their messages or only communicate about the group’s task are more negatively evaluated. Virtual groups who do not overcome these challenges will likely struggle to meet deadlines, interact less frequently, and experience more absenteeism. What follows are some guidelines to help optimize virtual groups (Walter & Bunz, 2005):

  • Get started interacting as a group as early as possible since it takes longer to build social cohesion.
  • Interact frequently to stay on task and avoid having work build up.
  • Start working toward completing the task while initial communication about setup, organization, and procedures occurs.
  • Respond overtly to other people’s messages and contributions.
  • Be explicit about your reactions and thoughts since typical nonverbal expressions may not be received as easily in virtual groups as in colocated groups.
  • Set deadlines and stick to them.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Small Groups

As with anything, small groups have their advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of small groups include shared decision-making, shared resources, synergy, and exposure to diversity. Most decisions that guide our country to introduce local laws and influence our family interactions are made within small groups. In a democratic society, participation in decision-making is a key part of citizenship. Groups also help make decisions involving judgment calls that have ethical implications or potentially affect people negatively. Individuals making such high-stakes decisions in a vacuum could have negative consequences, given a lack of feedback, input, questioning, and proposals for alternatives from group interaction. Group members also help expand our social networks, which provide access to more resources. A local community-theatre group may be able to put on a production with a limited budget by drawing on these connections to get set-building supplies, props, costumes, actors, and publicity in ways that an individual could not. The increased knowledge, diverse perspectives, and access to resources that groups possess relate to another advantage of small groups — synergy.

Synergy refers to the potential for gains in performance or heightened quality of interactions when complementary members or member characteristics are added to existing ones (Larson, 2010). Because of synergy, the final group product can be better than any individual could have produced because of synergy.

Participating in groups can also increase our exposure to diversity and broaden our perspectives. Although groups vary in the diversity of their members, you can strategically choose groups that expand our diversity, or you can unintentionally end up in a diverse group. When you participate in small groups, you expand your social networks, which increases the possibility of interacting with people who have different cultural identities than ourselves. Since group members work together toward a common goal, shared identification with the task or group can give people with diverse backgrounds a sense of commonality they might not have otherwise. Even when group members share cultural identities, the diversity of experience and opinion can lead to broadened perspectives as alternative ideas are presented and opinions are challenged and defended. A favourite part of facilitating class discussions is when students with different identities and perspectives teach one another things in ways that you could not do on your own. This example brings together the potential of synergy and diversity. People who are more introverted or avoid group communication and voluntarily distance themselves from groups  (or are rejected from groups) risk losing opportunities to learn more about others and themselves.

There are also disadvantages to small group interaction. Sometimes one person can be just as or more effective than a group. Consider a situation where a highly specialized skill or knowledge is needed to accomplish something. In this situation, one knowledgeable person is probably a better fit for the task than a group of less knowledgeable people. Group interaction also tends to slow down the decision-making process. Individuals connected through a hierarchy or chain of command often work better when decisions must be made under time constraints. When group interaction does occur under time constraints, having one “point person” or leader who coordinates action and gives final approval or disapproval on ideas or suggestions for actions is best.

Group communication also presents interpersonal challenges. A common problem is coordinating and planning group meetings due to busy and conflicting schedules. Some people also struggle with the other-centeredness and self-sacrifice that some groups require. The interdependence of group members discussed earlier can also create some disadvantages. Group members may take advantage of the anonymity of a group and engage in social loafing, meaning they contribute less to the group than other members or work alone (Karau & Williams, 1993). Social loafers expect that no one will notice their behaviours or that others will pick up their slack. This potential for social loafing makes many students and professionals dread group work, especially those who tend to cover for other group members to prevent the social loafer from diminishing the group’s productivity or output.

What is a Team?

Think about how you define a team. What is an example of a team working toward an achievable goal?

You probably described a team as a group of some kind. However, a team is more than just a group. When you think of all the groups you belong to, you will probably find that very few are real teams. Some will be family or friendship groups formed to meet a wide range of needs such as affection, security, support, esteem, belonging, or identity. Some may be committees whose members represent different interest groups and who meet to discuss their differing perspectives on issues of interest.

In this sense, the term “workgroup” (or “group”) is often used interchangeably with the word “team,” although a team may be thought of as a remarkably cohesive and purposeful type of work group. Distinguishing work groups or teams from more casual groupings of people can be achieved by using the following criteria. A collection of people can be defined as a work group or team if it shows most, if not all, of the following characteristics (Adair, 1983):

  • A definable membership: a collection of three or more people identifiable by name or type;
  • A group identity: the members think of themselves as a group;
  • A sense of shared purpose: the members share some common task or goals, or interests;
  • Interdependence: the members need the help of one another to accomplish the purpose for which they joined the group;
  • Interaction: the members communicate with one another, influence one another, and react to one another;
  • Sustainability: the team members periodically review the team’s effectiveness;
  • An ability to act together.

Usually, the tasks and goals set by teams cannot be achieved by individuals working alone because of constraints on time and resources and because few individuals possess all the relevant competencies and expertise. Sports teams, healthcare teams or orchestras fit these criteria.

In contrast, many groups are less explicitly focused on an external task. In some instances, the growth and development of the group itself is its primary purpose; the process is more important than the outcome. Many groups are reasonably fluid and less formally structured than teams. In the case of work groups, an agreed and defined outcome is often regarded as a sufficient basis for practical cooperation and the development of adequate relationships. Teamwork is usually connected with project work, a feature of much work. Teamwork is particularly useful when you have to address risky, uncertain, or unfamiliar problems with a lot of choice and discretion surrounding the decision. In voluntary and unpaid work, where pay is not an incentive, teamwork can help motivate support and commitment by offering opportunities to interact socially and learn from others (Piercy & Kramer, 2017).

Notably, groups and teams are not distinct entities. Both can be pertinent in personal and organizational development and managing change.

Key Takeaways

  • Small group communication refers to interactions among three or more people connected through a common purpose, mutual influence, and a shared identity. Small groups are essential academic, professional, and personal communication units.
  • Several characteristics influence small groups, including size, structure, interdependence, and shared identity.
    • In terms of size, small groups must consist of at least three people, but there is no set upper limit on the number of group members. The ideal group members are the smallest number needed to competently complete the group’s task or achieve the group’s purpose.
    • Internal influences such as member characteristics and external factors such as the group’s size, task, and access to resources affect a group’s structure. A group’s structure also affects how group members communicate, as some structures are more centralized and hierarchical, and others are more decentralized and equal.
    • Groups are interdependent in that they have a shared purpose and fate, meaning that each member’s actions affect every other group member.
    • Groups develop a shared identity based on their task or purpose, previous accomplishments, future goals, and an identity that sets their members apart from other groups.
  • Small groups serve several functions as they meet instrumental, interpersonal, and identity needs.
    • Groups meet instrumental needs, allowing us to pool resources and provide access to information to help us better survive and succeed.
    • Groups meet interpersonal needs, providing a sense of belonging (inclusion), an opportunity to participate in decision-making and influence others (control), and emotional support.
    • Groups meet identity needs, as they offer a chance to affiliate with others whom you perceive to be like us or whom you admire and would like to be associated with.
  • There are various groups, including task-oriented, relational-oriented, primary, and secondary groups and teams.
    • Task-oriented groups are formed to solve problems, promote a cause, or generate ideas or information, while relational-oriented groups promote interpersonal connections. While there are elements of both in every group, the overall purpose of a group can usually be categorized as primarily task- or relational-oriented.
    • Primary groups are long-lasting, formed based on interpersonal relationships, and include family and friendship groups. Secondary groups are characterized by less frequent interaction and less emotional and relational communication than primary groups. Our communication in primary groups is more often other-oriented than in secondary groups, which is often self-oriented.
    • Teams are similar to task-oriented groups but are characterized by high loyalty and dedication to the group’s task and other group members.
  • Advantages of group communication include shared decision-making, shared resources, synergy, and exposure to diversity. Disadvantages of group communication include unnecessary group formation (when one person would better perform the task), difficulty coordinating schedules, and difficulty with accountability and social loafing.


  1. For each of the following examples of a small group context, indicate what you think would be the ideal size of the group and why. Also, indicate who the ideal group members would be (in terms of their occupation/study major, role, level of expertise, or other characteristics) and what structure would work best.
  • a study group for this class
  • a committee to decide on improving access to rural health care services
  • a curriculum review for your program
  • a group to advocate for more awareness of and support for abandoned animals

2. List some groups to which you have belonged that focused primarily on tasks, and then list some that focused primarily on relationships. Compare and contrast your experiences in these groups.

3. Synergy is one of the main advantages of small-group communication. Describe a time when a group you were in benefited from or failed to achieve synergy. What contributed to your success or failure?


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Image Attributions

Figure 7.1.1. Small Group Structures by University of Minnesota. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:

eCampusOntario. (n.d.). Advanced professional communication: A principled approach to professional writing. https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/llsadvcomm/

Linabary, J. R. (Ed.). (2021). Small group communication. https://pressbooks.pub/smallgroup

Piercy, C. W. (2021). Defining teams and groups. In C. W. Piercy (Ed.), Problem solving in teams and groups. University of Kansas Libraries. https://opentext.ku.edu/teams/chapter/teams-and-groups/

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