8.2 Follower Group Roles

Learning Objectives

  • Describe task-related follower group roles and behaviours.
  • Describe maintenance follower group roles and behaviours.
  • Describe negative follower group roles and behaviours.

Just as leaders have been long studied as a part of group communication research, so too have group member roles. Group roles are more dynamic than leadership roles in that a role can be formal or informal and played by more than one group member. Additionally, one group member may exhibit various role behaviours within a single group meeting or play a few consistent roles throughout their involvement with a group. Some people’s role behaviours result from their personality traits. In contrast, others act out a specific role because of a short-term mood, as a reaction to another group member, or out of necessity. Group communication scholars have cautioned us not to always think of these roles as neatly bounded all-inclusive categories. After all, we all play multiple roles within a group and must draw on various communication behaviours to play them successfully. When someone continually exhibits a particular behaviour, it may be labelled as a role, but even isolated behaviours can impact group functioning. This section will discuss task-related, maintenance and individual roles that are self-centred or unproductive for the group (Benne & Sheats, 1948).

Task-Related Follower Roles and Behaviours

Task-related roles and their related behaviours contribute directly to the group’s completion of a task or achievement of its goal or purpose. Task-related roles typically serve leadership, informational, or procedural functions. An individual may be a task leader, expediter, information provider, information seeker, gatekeeper, or recorder.

Task Leader

Within any group, a task leader may have a high group status because of their maturity, problem-solving abilities, knowledge, or leadership experience and skills and who functions primarily to help the group complete its task (Cragan & Wright, 1991). This person may be a designated or emergent leader, but in either case, task leaders talk more during group interactions than other group members and do more work in the group. Depending on the group’s number of tasks, there may be more than one task leader, especially if the tasks require different skills or knowledge. Because of the added responsibilities of being a task leader, individuals in these roles may experience higher stress levels. However, a task leader’s stresses may be lessened through some of the maintenance role behaviours discussed later in this chapter.

Task-leader behaviours can be further divided into substantive and procedural (Pavitt, 1999). The substantive leader is the “idea person” who communicates “big picture” thoughts and suggestions that feed group discussion. The procedural leader is the person who gives the most guidance, perhaps following up on the ideas generated by the substantive leader. A skilled and experienced task leader may be able to perform both of these roles. Still, when two different people fill the roles, the person considered the procedural leader is more likely than the substantive leader to be viewed by members as the overall group leader. This indicates that task-focused groups assign more status to the person who guides the group toward the completion of the task (a “doer”) than the person who comes up with ideas (the “thinker”).


The expediter is a task-related role that keeps the group on track toward completing its task by managing the agenda and setting and assessing goals to monitor its progress. An expediter does not push group members mindlessly toward completing their task; an expediter must have a good sense of when a topic has been sufficiently discussed or when a group’s extended focus on one area has led to diminishing returns. In such cases, the expediter may say, “Now that we have had a thorough discussion of the pros and cons of switching the staff from working in-person to virtual or hybrid, which side do you think has more support?” or “We have spent half of this meeting looking for examples of what other programs have done and have not found anything useful. Maybe we should switch gears to get something concrete done tonight.”

To avoid the perception that group members are being rushed, a skilled expediter can demonstrate active-listening skills by paraphrasing what has been discussed and summarizing what has been accomplished to make it easier for group members to see the need to move on.

Information Provider

The role of information provider includes behaviours that are more evenly shared than in other roles. Ideally, all group members present new ideas, initiate discussions of new topics, and contribute their relevant knowledge and experiences. When group members are brought together because they each have different types of information, early group meetings may consist of group members taking turns briefing each other on their areas of expertise. In other situations, only one person in the group may be chosen because of their specialized knowledge. This person may be expected to be the primary information provider for all other group members.

Information Seeker

The information seeker asks for more information, elaboration, or clarification on items relevant to the group’s task. The information sought may include factual information or group member opinions. In general, information seekers ask questions for clarification but can also ask questions that help provide an essential evaluative function. Most groups could benefit from more critically oriented information-seeking behaviours. Critical questioning helps increase the quality of ideas and group outcomes and helps avoid groupthink. By asking for more information, people have to defend (in a nonadversarial way) or support their claims, which can help ensure that the information being discussed is credible, relevant, and thoroughly considered. When information seeking or questioning occurs due to poor listening skills, it risks negatively impacting the group. Skilled information providers and seekers are also good active listeners. They increase all group members’ knowledge when paraphrasing and asking clarifying questions about the information presented.


The gatekeeper manages the flow of conversation in a group to achieve an appropriate balance so that all group members participate meaningfully. The gatekeeper may prompt others to provide information by saying, “Let’s each share one idea for a movie to show during Black History Month.” They may also help correct an imbalance between members who have provided much information already and members who have been quiet by saying something like, “Aretha, we have heard a lot from you today. Let’s hear from someone else. Beau, what are your thoughts on Aretha’s suggestion?” Gatekeepers should be cautious about “calling people out” or at least making them feel that way. Instead of scolding someone for not participating, they should be invitational and ask a member to contribute to something specific instead of just asking if they have anything to add. Since gatekeepers make group members feel included, they also service the relational aspects of the group (Engleberg et al., 2015).


The recorder takes notes on the discussion and activities that occur during a group meeting. The recorder is the only role limited to one person at a time since, in most cases, it would not be necessary or beneficial to have more than one person recording. At less formal meetings, there may be no recorder, while at formal meetings, there is almost always a person who records meeting minutes, which are an overview of what occurred at the meeting. Each committee will have different rules or norms regarding the level of detail within and the availability of the minutes. While some groups’ minutes are required by law to be public, others may be strictly confidential. Even though a record of a group meeting may be valuable, the role of the recorder is often regarded as a low-status position since the person in the role may feel or be viewed as subservient to the other members who can more actively contribute to the group’s functioning. Because of this, it may be desirable to have the role of the recorder rotate among members (Cragan & Wright, 1991).

Maintenance Follower Roles and Behaviours

Maintenance roles and their corresponding behaviours function to create and maintain social cohesion and fulfill the interpersonal needs of group members. These role behaviours require strong and sensitive interpersonal skills. The maintenance roles include social-emotional leader, supporter, tension releaser, harmonizer, and interpreter.

Social-Emotional Leader

The social-emotional leader within a group may perform a variety of maintenance roles and is generally someone well-liked by the other group members and whose role behaviours complement but do not compete with the task leader. The social-emotional leader may also reassure and support the task leader if they become stressed. Generally, the social-emotional leader is a reflective thinker with good perception skills. They use them to analyze the group dynamics and climate and initiate appropriate role behaviours to maintain a positive climate. Unlike task leader, this is not a role that typically shifts from one person to another. While all group members perform some maintenance role behaviours at various times, the social-emotional leader reliably functions to support group members and maintain a positive relational climate. Social-emotional leadership functions can become detrimental to the group and lead to less satisfaction among members when the maintenance behaviours performed are considered redundant or too distracting from the task (Pavitt, 1999).


The role of supporter is characterized by communication behaviours that encourage other group members and provide emotional support as needed. The supporter’s work primarily occurs in one-on-one exchanges that are more intimate and in-depth than the exchanges that take place during full group meetings. While many group members may make supporting comments publicly at group meetings, these comments are typically superficial or brief. A supporter uses active, empathetic listening skills to connect with group members who may seem down or frustrated by saying, “Tayesha, you seemed kind of down today. Is there anything you would like to talk about?” Supporters also follow up on previous conversations with group members to maintain the connections they’ve already established by saying things like, “Thomas, I remember you said your mom is having surgery this weekend. I hope it goes well. Let me know if you need anything.” The supporter’s communication behaviours are probably the least noticeable of any other maintenance roles, which may make this group member’s efforts seem overlooked. Leaders and other group members can help support the supporter by acknowledging their contributions (Engleberg et al., 2015).

Tension Releaser

The tension releaser is someone who is naturally funny and sensitive to the personalities of the group and the dynamics of any given situation and who uses these qualities to manage the frustration level of the group. Being funny is not enough to fulfill this role, as jokes or comments could be humourous to other group members but delivered at an inopportune time, ultimately creating rather than releasing tension. The healthy use of humour by the tension releaser performs the same maintenance function as the empathy employed by the harmonizer or the social-emotional leader. Still, it is less intimate and is typically directed toward the whole group instead of just one person. The tension releaser may start serving this function during the forming stage of group development when primary tensions are present due to the typical uncertainties present during initial interactions. The tension releaser may help “break the ice” or make others feel at ease during the group’s more socially awkward first meetings.


The harmonizer role is played by group members who help manage the various types of group conflict that emerge during group communication (Engleberg et al., 2015). They keep their eyes and ears open for signs of conflict among group members and ideally intervene before it escalates. For example, the harmonizer may sense that one group member’s critique of another member’s idea was not received positively. They may be able to rephrase the critique more constructively, which can help diminish the other group member’s defensiveness. Harmonizers also deescalate conflict once it has already started — for example, by suggesting that the group take a break and then mediating between group members in a side conversation. These actions can help prevent conflict from spilling over into other group interactions. In cases where the whole group experiences conflict, the harmonizer may help lead the group in perception-checking discussions that help members see an issue from multiple perspectives. For harmonizers to be effective, they must be viewed as impartial and committed to the group as a whole rather than to one side of an issue or one person or faction within the larger group. A special kind of harmonizer that helps manage cultural differences within the group is the interpreter.


The interpreter helps manage the diversity within a group by mediating intercultural conflict, articulating common ground between different people, and generally creating a climate where difference is seen as an opportunity rather than something to be feared. Just as an interpreter at the United Nations acts as a bridge between two languages, the interpreter can bridge identity differences between group members. Interpreters can help perform the other maintenance roles discussed with a particular awareness of and sensitivity toward cultural differences. While a literal interpreter would serve a task-related function within a group, this type of interpreter may help support a person who feels left out because they have a different cultural identity than most group members. Interpreters often act as allies to other people even though the interpreter does not share a specific cultural identity. The interpreter may help manage conflict resulting from diversity, in this case, acting as an ambassador or mediator. Because of their cultural sensitivity, interpreters may also take a proactive role to help address conflict before it emerges — for example, by taking a group member aside and explaining why their behaviour or comments may be perceived as offensive.

Negative Follower Roles and Behaviours

It is essential to acknowledge that you may perform some negative behaviours within groups but that those behaviours do not necessarily constitute a role. A person may temporarily monopolize a discussion to bring attention to their idea. If that behaviour gets the group members’ attention and makes them realize they were misinformed or headed in a negative direction, the behaviour may have been warranted. Negative behaviours can be enacted with varying intensity and regularity, and their effects may range from mild annoyance to group failure. The effects grow increasingly hostile as they increase in intensity and frequency. While a single enactment of a negative role behaviour may still harm the group, regular enactment would constitute a role. Playing that role is guaranteed to impact the group negatively. This section will divide the discussion of negative roles into self-centred and unproductive roles.

Self-Centred/Individual Roles

The behaviours associated with these divert attention from the task to the group member exhibiting the behaviour. Although all these roles share in their quest to put their own needs and goals ahead of the group’s, they also serve to divert attention, and they do it in different ways and for other reasons (Engleberg et al., 2015).

Central Negative

The central negative role argues against most of the ideas and proposals discussed in the group and often emerges due to a leadership challenge during group formation. The failed attempt to lead the group can lead to resentment toward the leader or the group’s purpose, manifesting in negative behaviours that delay, divert, or block the group’s progress toward achieving its goal (Engleberg et al., 2015). This scenario is unfortunate because the central negative is typically a motivated and intelligent group member who can benefit the group if adequately handled by the group leader or other members. Group leaders should actively incorporate central negatives into group tasks and responsibilities to make them feel valued and to help diminish any residual anger, disappointment, or hurt feelings from leadership conflict (Bormann & Bormann, 1988). Otherwise, the central negative will continue to argue against the proposals and decisions of the group, even when they may agree. Sometimes, the central negative may unintentionally serve a beneficial function if their criticisms prevent groupthink.

Monopolizer (Dominator)

The monopolizer (dominator) is a group member who makes excessive verbal contributions, preventing equal participation by other group members. In short, monopolizers like to hear the sound of their voices and do not follow typical norms for conversational turn-taking. Some people are well-informed, charismatic, and competent communicators who can get away with impromptu lectures and long stories, but monopolizers need to possess the magnetic qualities of such people. A group member’s excessive verbal contributions are more likely to be labelled as monopolizing or dominating when unrelated to the task or provide unnecessary or redundant elaboration. Some monopolizers do not intentionally speak for longer than they should. Instead, they think they are making a genuine contribution to the group. These members likely lack sensitivity to nonverbal cues, or else they would see that other group members are tired of listening or are annoyed. Other monopolizers like to talk and don’t care what others think. Some may try to make up for a lack of knowledge or experience. This monopolizer is best described as a dilettante or an amateur who tries to pass themselves off as an expert.

The “stage hog” monopolizes discussion with excessive verbal contributions and engages in one-upping and narcissistic listening. One-upping is a spotlight-stealing strategy in which people try to verbally “outdo” others by saying something like, “You think that is bad? Listen to what happened to me!” They also listen to others to find something they can connect back to themselves, not to understand the message. The stage hog is like the diva that refuses to leave the stage to let the next performer begin. Unlike monopolizers, who may unknowingly engage in their behaviours, stage hogs are usually aware of their actions.


The self-confessor is a group member who tries to use group meetings as therapy sessions for issues unrelated to the group’s task. Self-confessors tend to make personal self-disclosures that are unnecessarily intimate (Beebe et al., 2010). While it is reasonable to expect that someone experiencing a personal problem may want to consult with the group, mainly if they have formed close relationships with other group members, a self-confessor consistently comes to meetings with drama or a personal problem. A supporter or gatekeeper may be able to manage some degree of self-confessor behaviour. Still, a chronic self-confessor is likely to build frustration among other group members, leading to interpersonal conflict and a lack of cohesion and productivity. Most groups develop a norm regarding how much personal information is discussed during group meetings. Some limit such disclosures to the time before or after the meeting, which may help deter the self-confessor.

Insecure Compliment Seeker

The insecure compliment seeker wants to know that the group values them and seeks recognition that is often not task-related. For example, they do not want to be told they did a good job compiling a report; they want to know that they are a good person or attractive or intelligent — even though they might not be any of those things. In short, they try to get validation from their relationships with group members, validation that they may be lacking in relationships outside the group. Or they may be someone who continually seeks the approval of others or tries to overcompensate for insecurity through excessive behaviours aimed at eliciting compliments.

Joker (Clown)

A joker (clown) is a person who consistently uses sarcasm, plays pranks or tells jokes, which distracts from the overall functioning of the group (Engleberg et al., 2015). In short, the Joker is an incompetent tension releaser. Rather than being seen as the witty group member with good timing, the Joker is seen as the “class clown.” Like the insecure compliment seeker, the joker usually seeks attention and approval because of underlying insecurity. A group leader may have to intervene and privately meet with a person engaging in joker behaviour to help prevent a toxic or unsafe climate from forming. This may be ineffective, though, if a joker’s behaviours are targeted toward the group leader, which could indicate that the joker has a general problem with authority. In the worst-case scenario, a joker may have to be expelled from the group if their behaviour becomes violent, offensive, illegal, or unethical.

Unproductive Roles

Some negative roles in group communication do not primarily function to divert attention from the group’s task to a specific group member. Instead, these prevent or make it more difficult for the group to progress.


The blocker intentionally or unintentionally keeps things from getting done in the group. Intentionally, a person may suggest that the group look into a matter further or explore another option before making a final decision, even though the group has already thoroughly considered the matter. They may cite a procedural rule or suggest that input be sought from additional people to delay progress. Behaviours that lead to more information gathering can be good for the group, but when they are unnecessary, they block behaviours. Unintentionally, a group member may set blocking behaviours in motion by missing a meeting or not completing their work on time.

Social Loafer

A social loafer, also known as a withdrawer, mentally or physically removes themselves from group activities and only participates when forced to. When groups exceed five members, the likelihood of a member exhibiting social loafing behaviours increases; for example, a member may attend meetings and seemingly pay attention but not contribute to discussions or volunteer to take on tasks, instead waiting on other members to volunteer first. Social loafers often make other group members dread group work. A member may also avoid eye contact with other group members, sit apart from the group, or orient their body away from the group to avoid participation. Social loafers generally do not exhibit active listening behaviours. At the extreme, a group member may stop attending group meetings altogether. Adopting a problem-solving model that requires equal participation, building social cohesion early, and choosing a meeting space and seating arrangement that encourages interactivity can help minimize withdrawing behaviours. Gatekeepers, supporters, and group leaders can also intervene after early signs of withdrawing to reengage the group member.


An aggressor exhibits negative behaviours such as putting others’ ideas down, attacking others personally when they feel confronted or insecure, competing unnecessarily to “win” at the expense of others within the group, and being outspoken to the point of distraction (Engleberg et al., 2015). An aggressor’s behaviours can quickly cross the line between being abrasive or dominant and unethical. For example, a person vigorously defending a relevant and valid position differs from someone who claims others’ ideas are stupid but has nothing to contribute. As with most behaviours, the aggressors fall into a continuum based on intensity. On the more benign end of the continuum is assertive behaviour, toward the middle is aggressive behaviour, and on the unethical side is bullying. At their worst, an aggressor’s behaviours can lead to shouting matches or even physical violence within a group. Establishing group rules and norms that create a safe climate for discussion and include mechanisms for temporarily or permanently removing a group member who violates that safe space may proactively prevent such behaviours.

Key Takeaways


  • Task-related follower group roles and behaviours contribute directly to the group’s completion of a task or achieving its goal. These roles typically serve leadership, informational, or procedural functions and include the following: task leader, expediter, information provider, information seeker, gatekeeper, and recorder.
  • Maintenance of follower group roles and behaviours functions to create and maintain social cohesion and fulfill the interpersonal needs of the group members. A person needs strong and sensitive interpersonal skills to perform these role behaviours. These roles include social-emotional leader, supporter, tension releaser, harmonizer, and interpreter.
  • Negative follower role behaviours delay or distract the group. Self-centred role behaviours divert the group’s attention to the group member exhibiting the behaviour. These roles include central negative, monopolizer, self-confessor, insecure compliment seeker, and joker. Unproductive role behaviours prevent or make it difficult for the group to progress. These roles include blocker, social loafer, and aggressor.


  1. Which task-related follower roles do you think to have the most significant potential for going wrong and causing conflict within the group and why?
  2. Which maintenance follower role have you performed best in previous group experiences? How did your communication and behaviours help you perform the role’s functions? Which maintenance follower role have you had the most difficulty or least interest in performing? Why?
  3. Describe a situation in which you have witnessed a person playing one of the self-centred roles in a group. How did the person communicate? What were the effects? Now describe a situation in which you have witnessed a person playing one of the unproductive roles in a group. How did the person communicate? What were the effects?


Beebe, S. A., Beebe, S., & Ivy, D. K. (2010). Communication principles for a lifetime (4th ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

Bormann, E. G., & Bormann, N. C. (1998). Effective small group communication (4th ed.). Burgess.

Cragan, J. F., & Wright, D. W. (1991). Communication in small group discussions: An integrated approach (3rd ed.) West Publishing.

Engleberg, I. N., Wynn, D. R., & Roberts, M. (2015). Think interpersonal communication (1st Canadian ed.). Pearson.

Pavitt, C. (1999). Theorizing about the group communication-leadership relationship. In L. R. Frey (Ed.), The handbook of group communication theory and research (pp. 313–334). SAGE.

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:

University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. (2013). Communication in the real world [Adapted]. https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/

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Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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