8.3 Problem Solving and Decision-Making

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the standard components and characteristics of problems.
  • Explain the five steps of the problem-solving process.
  • Describe the brainstorming technique that should take place before decisions are made.
  • Compare and contrast various decision-making techniques.
  • Describe what influences decision-making.

Although the steps of problem-solving and decision-making that are discussed may seem obvious, you may not think to or choose not to use them. Instead, you may start working on a problem and later realize you need help and must backtrack. You may have reached a point in a project or task and had the “okay, now what?” moment. It is frustrating to get to a crucial point in a project only to realize that you must start over completely. This section will discuss the group problem-solving process, methods of decision-making, and influences on these processes.

Problem Solving

The problem-solving process involves thoughts, discussions, actions, and decisions from the first consideration of a problematic situation to the goal. Leaders face various problems, but some common problems include budgeting funds, raising funds, planning events, addressing customer or citizen complaints, creating or adapting products or services to fit needs, supporting members, and raising awareness about issues or causes.

Problems of all sorts have three standard components (Adams & Galanes, 2009):

An undesirable situation. When conditions are desirable, there is not a problem.

A desired situation. Even though it may only be a vague idea, there is a drive to better the undesirable situation. The vague idea may develop into a more precise goal that can be achieved, although solutions are not yet generated.

Obstacles between undesirable and desirable situations. These things stand in the way between the current situation and the group’s goal of addressing it. This problem component requires the most work and is where decision-making occurs. Some examples of obstacles include limited funding, resources, personnel, time, or information. Obstacles can also take the form of people working against the group, including people resistant to change or those who disagree.

Discussion of these three elements of a problem helps the group tailor its problem-solving process, as each situation will vary. While these three general elements are present in each problem, the group should also address specific characteristics of the problem. Five expected and essential characteristics to consider are task difficulty, number of possible solutions, group member interest in the problem, familiarity with the problem, and the need for solution acceptance (Adams & Galanes, 2009).

Task difficulty. Difficult tasks are also typically more complex. Groups should be prepared to spend time researching and discussing a challenging and complex task to develop shared foundational knowledge. This typically requires individual work outside the group and frequent group meetings to share information.

Several possible solutions. There are usually multiple ways to solve a problem or complete a task, but some problems have more potential solutions than others. Figuring out how to prepare a beach house for an approaching hurricane is relatively complex and challenging, but there are still a limited number of things to do — for example, taping and boarding up windows; turning off water, electricity, and gas; trimming trees; and securing loose outside objects. Other problems may be more creatively based. For example, designing a new restaurant may entail using standard solutions and many different types of innovation with layout and design.

Individuals are interested in the problem. When individuals are interested in the problem, they will be more engaged with the problem-solving process and invested in finding a quality solution. Individuals interested in and knowledgeable about the problem may want more freedom to develop and implement solutions. In contrast, low-interest individuals may prefer a leader who provides structure and direction.

Individual familiarity with the problem. Some groups encounter a problem regularly, while others are more unique or unexpected. Many groups that rely on funding have to revisit a budget every year, and in recent years, groups have had to get more creative with budgets as funding has been cut in nearly every sector. When group members are unfamiliar with a problem, they will need background research on what similar groups have done and may need to bring in outside experts.

Need for solution acceptance. In this step, groups must consider how many people the decision will affect and how much “buy-in” from others is needed for their solution to be successfully implemented. Some small groups have many stakeholders on whom the success of a solution depends. Other groups are answerable only to themselves. When a small group plans to build a new park in a crowded neighbourhood or implement a new health care policy, it can be very difficult to develop solutions that all will accept. In such cases, groups will want to poll those affected by the solution and may want to do a pilot implementation to see how people react. Imposing an excellent solution without stakeholders’ buy-in can still lead to failure.

Group Problem-Solving Process

Several problem-solving models exist in Dewey’s well-known reflective thinking process (Bormann & Bormann, 1988). As you read through the steps in the process, think about how you can apply what you learned regarding the general and specific elements of problems. Some of the following steps are straightforward and are things you would logically do when faced with a problem. However, taking a deliberate and systematic approach to problem-solve has been shown to benefit group functioning and performance. A deliberate approach is especially beneficial for groups with no established history of working together and who can only meet occasionally. Although a group should attend to each step of the process, group leaders or other group members who facilitate problem-solving should be cautious not to dogmatically follow each element of the process or force a group along it. Such a lack of flexibility could limit group member input and negatively affect cohesion and climate.

Step 1. Define the Problem

Define the problem by considering the three elements shared by every problem: the current undesirable situation, the goal or more desirable situation, and obstacles (Adams & Galanes, 2009). At this stage, group members share what they know about the current situation without proposing solutions or evaluating the information. Here are some good questions to ask during this stage: What is the current difficulty? How did you come to know that the difficulty exists? Who or what is involved? Why is it meaningful/urgent/essential? What have the effects been so far? What, if any, elements of the difficulty require clarification? At the end of this stage, the group should be able to compose a single sentence that summarizes the problem called a problem statement. Avoid wording in the problem statement or question that hints at potential solutions, such as “Our province currently does not have a mechanism for the public to report suspected ethical violations by health professionals.”

Step 2. Analyze the Problem

During this step, a group should analyze the problem and the group’s relationship to the problem. Whereas the first step involved exploring the “what” related to the problem, this step focuses on the “why.” At this stage, group members can discuss the potential causes of the difficulty. Group members may also want to begin setting an agenda or timeline for the group’s problem-solving process, looking forward to the other steps. The group can comprehensively analyze the problem by discussing the five standard problem variables discussed before. Here are two examples of questions that the group formed to address ethics violations might ask: Why does our profession not have an ethics reporting mechanism? Do other professions of similar size have such a mechanism? Once the problem has been analyzed, the group can pose a problem question that will guide the group as it generates possible solutions. “How can the public report suspected ethical violations of health professionals, and how will such reports be processed and addressed?” As you can see, the problem question is more complex than the problem statement since the group has moved on to a more in-depth discussion of the problem during Step 2.

Step 3. Generate Possible Solutions

During this step, group members generate possible solutions to the problem. Again, solutions should not be evaluated at this point, only proposed and clarified. The question should be what the group could do to address this problem, not what the group should do. It is perfectly okay for a group member to question another person’s idea by asking, “What do you mean?” or “Could you explain your reasoning more?” Discussions at this stage may reveal a need to return to previous steps to define better or more fully analyze a problem. Since many problems are multifaceted, group members must generate solutions for each part of the problem separately, ensuring multiple solutions for each part. Stopping the solution-generating process prematurely can lead to groupthink. For the problem question previously posed, the group would need to generate solutions for all three parts of the problem included in the question. Possible solutions for the first part of the problem (How can the public report ethical violations?) may include an “online reporting system, email, in-person, anonymously, on-the-record,” and so on. Possible solutions for the second part of the problem (How will reports be processed?) may include “daily by a newly appointed ethics officer, weekly by a nonpartisan nongovernment employee,” and so on. Possible solutions for the third part of the problem (How will reports be addressed?) may include “by a newly appointed ethics commission, by the accused’s supervisor, by professionals reporting body,” and so on.

Step 4. Evaluate Solutions

Solutions can be critically evaluated during this step based on their credibility, completeness, and worth. Once the potential solutions have been narrowed based on more apparent differences in relevance and merit, the group should analyze each solution based on its potential effects — predominantly adverse effects. Groups that must report the rationale for their decision or whose decisions may be subject to public scrutiny would be wise to make a list of criteria for evaluating each solution. Additionally, solutions can be evaluated based on their fit with the group’s charge and abilities. To do this, group members may ask, “Does this solution live up to the original purpose or mission of the group?” “Can the solution be implemented with our current resources and connections?” and “How will this solution be supported, funded, enforced, and assessed?” Secondary tensions and substantive conflict, two concepts discussed earlier, emerge during this problem-solving step, and group members must employ practical critical thinking and listening skills.

Decision-making is part of the more extensive problem-solving process and plays a prominent role in this step. While there are several pretty similar models for problem-solving, there are many varied decision-making techniques that groups can use. For example, to narrow the proposed solutions, group members may decide by majority vote, weighing the pros and cons, or discussing them until a consensus is reached. There are also more complex decision-making models, such as the “six hats” method. Once the final decision is reached, the group leader or facilitator should confirm that the group agrees. It may be beneficial to let the group break for a while or delay the final decision until a later meeting to allow people time to evaluate it outside of the group context.

Step 5. Implement and Assess the Solution

Implementing the solution requires some advanced planning and should not be rushed unless the group operates under strict time restraints or delay may lead to some harm. Although some solutions can be implemented immediately, others may take days, months, or years. As was noted earlier, it may be beneficial for groups to poll those affected by the solution and their opinion of it or do a pilot test to observe the solution’s effectiveness and how people react to it. Before implementation, groups should also determine how and when they would assess the solution’s effectiveness by asking, “How will the group know if the solution is working?” Since solution assessment will vary based on whether or not the group is disbanded, groups should also consider the following questions: If the group disbands after implementation, who will be responsible for assessing the solution? If the solution fails, will the same group reconvene, or will a new group be formed?

Some aspects of the solution may need to be delegated to various people inside and outside the group. Group members may also be assigned to implement a particular part of the solution based on their role in the decision-making or because it connects to their expertise. Likewise, group members may be tasked with publicizing the solution or “selling” it to a particular group of stakeholders. Last, the group should consider its future. Sometimes, the group will decide if it will stay together and continue working on other tasks or disband. In other cases, outside forces determine the group’s fate.

Problem-Solving and Group Presentations

Giving a group presentation requires that individual group members and the group solve many problems and make many decisions. Although having more people involved in a presentation increases logistical difficulties and has the potential to create more conflict, a well-prepared and well-delivered group presentation can be more engaging and effective than a typical presentation. The main problems facing a group giving a presentation are (1) dividing responsibilities, (2) coordinating schedules and time management, and (3) working out the logistics of the presentation delivery.

Regarding dividing responsibilities, assigning individual work at the first meeting and then trying to fit it all together before the presentation (which is what many college students do when faced with a group project) is not recommended. Integrating content and visual aids created by several different people into a seamless final product takes time and effort, and the person “stuck” with this job usually develops resentment toward his or her group members. While it is okay for group members to work independently outside of group meetings, spend time working together to help set up some standards for content and formatting expectations that will help make later integration of work more manageable. Taking the time to complete one part of the presentation together can help set those standards for later individual work. Discuss the roles that various group members will play openly to avoid confusion. There could be one point person for keeping track of the group’s progress and schedule, one for communication, one for content integration, one for visual aids, and so on. Each person should not do all that work on his or her own but help focus the group’s attention on his or her specific area during group meetings (Stanton, 2009).

Scheduling group meetings is one of the most challenging problems groups face, given people’s busy lives. From the beginning, it should be communicated that the group needs to spend considerable time in face-to-face meetings. Group members should know they may have to sacrifice to attend occasionally. Especially important is the commitment to scheduling time to rehearse the presentation. Consider creating a contract of group guidelines that include expectations for meeting attendance to increase group members’ commitment.

Group presentations require members to navigate many logistics of their presentation. While it may be easier for a group to assign each member to create a five-minute segment and then transition from one person to the next, this is not the most engaging method. Creating a master presentation and assigning individual speakers creates a more fluid and dynamic presentation and allows everyone to become familiar with the content, which can help if a person does not show up to present during the question-and-answer section. Once the presentation’s content is complete, figure out introductions, transitions, visual aids, and the use of time and space (Stanton, 2012). In terms of introductions, figure out if one person will introduce all the speakers at the beginning if speakers will introduce themselves at the beginning, or if introductions will occur as the presentation progresses. In terms of transitions, make sure each person has included in his or her speaking notes when presentation duties switch from one person to the next. Visual aids can potentially cause hiccups in a group presentation if they are not fluidly integrated. Practicing visual aids and having one person control them may help prevent this. Know how long your presentation is and how you will use the space. Presenters should know how long the whole presentation should be and how long each segment should be so that everyone can share the responsibility of keeping time. Also, consider the size and layout of the presentation space. You do not want presenters huddled in a corner until it is their turn to speak or trapped behind furniture when their turn comes around.

Decision-Making in Groups

You engage in personal decision-making daily and know that some decisions are more complex than others. When decisions are made in groups, you may face some challenges, but you also stand to benefit from some advantages of group decision-making (Napier & Gershenfeld, 2004). Group decision-making can appear fair and democratic but might only be a gesture that covers up the fact that certain group members or the group leader have already decided. Group decision-making also takes more time than individual decisions. It can be burdensome if some group members do not do their assigned work, divert the group with self-centred or unproductive role behaviours, or miss meetings. Conversely, group decisions are often more informed since all members develop a shared understanding of a problem through discussion and debate. The shared understanding may also be more complex and profound than what an individual would develop because the group members are exposed to various viewpoints that can broaden their perspectives. Most groups do not use a specific decision-making method, perhaps thinking they will work things out as they go. This can lead to unequal participation, social loafing, premature decisions, prolonged discussion, and other negative consequences.

Brainstorming Before Decision-Making

Before groups can decide, they need to generate possible solutions to their problem. The most commonly used method is brainstorming, although most people do not follow the recommended steps of brainstorming. As you will recall, brainstorming refers to the quick generation of ideas free of evaluation. The originator of the term brainstorming said the following four rules must be followed for the technique to be effective (Osborn, 1959):

  1. Evaluation of ideas is discouraged.
  2. Wild and crazy ideas are encouraged.
  3. Quantity of ideas is the goal.
  4. New combinations of ideas presented are encouraged.

Group communication scholars have suggested additional steps that precede and follow brainstorming to make brainstorming more of a decision-making method than an idea-generating one (Cragan & Wright, 1991).

Do a warm-up brainstorming session. Some people are more apprehensive about publicly communicating their ideas than others, and a warm-up session can help ease apprehension and prime group members for task-related idea generation. Anyone in the group can initiate the warm-up, and should only go on for a few minutes. To get things started, a person could ask, “If our group formed a band, what would it be called?” or “What other purposes could a university degree serve?” In the previous examples, the first warm-up flows the group’s more abstract creative juices, while the second focuses more on practical and concrete ideas.

Do the actual brainstorming session. This session should not last more than 30 minutes and follow the four brainstorming rules mentioned previously. The facilitator could encourage people to piggyback off each other’s ideas to ensure the fourth rule is realized.

Eliminate duplicate ideas. After the brainstorming session, group members can eliminate (without evaluating) similar or very similar ideas.

Clarify, organize, and evaluate ideas. Before evaluation, see if any ideas need clarification. Then try to theme or group ideas together in some orderly fashion. Since “wild and crazy” ideas are encouraged, some suggestions may need clarification. If it becomes clear that there is not a foundation to an idea and that it is too vague or abstract and cannot be clarified, it may be eliminated. As a caution, it may be wise not to throw out off-the-wall ideas that are hard to categorize and instead put them in a miscellaneous or “wild and crazy” category.

Discussion Before Decision-Making

This nominal group technique guides decision-making through a four-step process that includes idea generation and evaluation and seeks to elicit equal contributions from all group members (Delbecq & Van de Ven, 1971). This method is helpful because the procedure involves all group members systematically, which fixes the problem of uneven participation during discussions. Since everyone contributes to the discussion, this method can also help reduce instances of social loafing. To use the nominal group technique, do the following:

  1. Silently and individually list ideas.
  2. Create a master list of ideas.
  3. Clarify ideas as needed.
  4. Take a secret vote to rank group members’ acceptance of ideas.

During the first step, have group members work quietly in the same space to write down every idea to address their task or problem. This should not take more than 20 minutes. Whoever is facilitating the discussion should remind group members to use brainstorming techniques, which means they should not evaluate ideas as they are generated. Ask group members to remain silent once they have finished their list so they do not distract others.

During the second step, the facilitator goes around the group consistently, asking each person to share one idea at a time. As the idea is shared, the facilitator records it on a master list that everyone can see. Keep track of how many times each idea comes up, as that could be an idea that warrants more discussion. Continue this process until all the ideas have been shared. As a note to facilitators, some group members may begin to edit their list or self-censor when asked to provide one of their ideas. To limit a person’s apprehension about sharing his or her ideas and to ensure that each idea is shared, I have asked group members to exchange lists with someone else so they can share ideas from the list they receive without fear of being judged.

During step three, the facilitator should note that group members can now ask for clarification on ideas on the master list. Do not let this discussion stray into the evaluation of ideas. To help avoid an unnecessarily long discussion, it may be helpful to go from one person to the next to ask which ideas need clarifying and then go to the originator(s) of the idea in question.

During the fourth step, members use a voting ballot to rank the acceptability of the ideas on the master list. If the list is long, you may ask group members to rank only their top five or so choices. The facilitator then takes up the secret ballots and reviews them in a random order, noting the rankings of each idea. Ideally, the highest-ranked idea can then be discussed and decided on. The nominal group technique does not carry a group through to the point of decision; instead, it sets the group up for a roundtable discussion or uses another method to evaluate the merits of the top ideas.

Specific Decision-Making Techniques

Some decision-making techniques involve determining a course of action based on the level of agreement among the group members. These methods include majority, expert, authority, and consensus rule.

Majority rule is a commonly used decision-making technique in which a majority (one-half plus one) must agree before deciding. A show-of-hands vote, a paper ballot, or an electronic voting system can determine the majority choice. Many decision-making bodies use majority rule to make decisions, which is often associated with democratic decision-making since each person gets one vote, and each vote counts equally. Of course, other individuals and mediated messages can influence a person’s vote. Still, since the voting power is spread out over all group members, it is not easy for one person or party to take control of the decision-making process. The pros and cons of majority rule are:


  • quick
  • efficient in large groups
  • each vote counts equally


  • close decisions (e.g., 5–4) may reduce internal and external “buy-in”
  • does not take advantage of group synergy to develop alternatives that more members can support
  • the minority may feel alienated

Minority rule is a decision-making technique in which a designated authority or expert has the final say over a decision and may or may not consider the input of other group members. When a designated expert decides by minority rule, there may be buy-in from others, especially if the group members do not have relevant knowledge or expertise. When a designated authority makes decisions, buy-in will vary based on group members’ respect for the authority. For example, decisions made by an elected authority may be more accepted by those who elected them than those who did not. As with the majority rule, this technique can be time-saving. Unlike majority rule, one person or party can control the decision-making process. This type of decision-making is more similar to that used by monarchs and dictators. An obvious negative consequence of this method is that the needs or wants of one person can override the needs and wants of the majority. The pros and cons of minority rule by experts are:


  • quick
  • decision quality is better than what less knowledgeable people could produce
  • experts are typically objective and less easy to influence


  • expertise must be verified
  • experts can be challenging to find pay for
  • group members may feel useless

The pros of minority rule by authority are:

  • quick
  • buy-in could be high if authority is respected


  • authority may not be seen as legitimate, leading to less buy-in
  • group members may try to sway the authority or compete for their attention
  • unethical authorities could make decisions that benefit them and harm group members

The consensus rule is a decision-making technique in which all group members must agree on the same decision. Usually, a decision may be ideal for all group members, leading to a unanimous agreement without further debate and discussion. Although this can be positive, be cautious that this is not a sign of groupthink. More typically, the consensus is reached only after a lengthy discussion. On the plus side, consensus often leads to high-quality decisions due to the time and effort it takes to get everyone in agreement. Group members are also more likely to be committed to the decision because they invest in reaching it. On the negative side, the ultimate decision is often one that all group members can live with but is not ideal for all members. Reaching a consensus also includes conflict, as people debate ideas and negotiate the interpersonal tensions that may result. The pros and cons of the consensus rule are:


  • high-quality decisions due to the time invested
  • higher level of commitment because of participation in decision
  • satisfaction with the decision because of shared agreement


  • time-consuming
  • challenging to manage ideas and personal conflict that can emerge as ideas are debated
  • the decision may be okay but not ideal

Influences on Decision-Making

Many factors influence the decision-making process. For example, how might a group’s independence or access to resources affect their decisions? What potential advantages and disadvantages come with decisions made by groups that are more or less similar in terms of personality and cultural identities? This section will explore how situational, personality and cultural influences affect group decision-making.

Situational Influences on Decision-Making

A group’s situational context affects decision-making. One key situational element is the degree of freedom the group has to make its own decisions, secure its resources, and initiate its actions. Some groups undergo multiple approval processes before doing anything, while others are self-directed, self-governing, and self-sustaining. Another situational influence is uncertainty. In general, groups deal with more uncertainty in decision-making than individuals because of the increased number of variables that comes with adding more people to a situation. Individual group members cannot know what other group members are thinking, whether or not they are doing their work, and how committed they are to the group. So the size of a group is a powerful situational influence, as it adds to uncertainty and complicates communication.

Access to information also influences a group. First, the nature of the group’s task or problem affects its ability to get information. Group members can more easily decide about a problem when other groups have similarly experienced it. Even if the problem is complex and severe, the group can learn from other situations and apply what it learns. Second, the group must have access to flows of information. Access to archives, electronic databases, and individuals with relevant experience is necessary to obtain relevant information about similar problems or to research a new or unique problem. In this regard, group members’ formal and information network connections also become important situational influences.

The origin and urgency of a problem are also situational factors that influence decision-making. In terms of origin, problems usually occur in one of four ways:

Something goes wrong. Group members must decide how to fix or stop something. For example, health professionals find out that half of the building is contaminated with mold and must be closed down.

Expectations change or increase. Group members must innovate more efficient or effective ways of doing something. For example, health professionals find out that the city boundaries they are responsible for are being expanded.

Something goes wrong, and expectations change or increase. Group members must fix/stop and become more efficient/effective. For example, health professionals must close half the building and start seeing more clients due to the expanding boundaries.

The problem existed from the beginning. Group members must go back to the origins of the situation and walk through and analyze the steps again to decide what can be done differently. For example, health professionals have consistently had to work with minimal building space and supply resources.

In each case, the need for a decision may be more or less urgent depending on how badly something is going wrong, how high the expectations have been raised, or the degree to which people are fed up with a broken system. Decisions must be made in situations ranging from crisis level to mundane.

Personality Influences on Decision-Making

A long-studied typology of value orientations that affect decision-making consists of the following types of decision-makers: the economic, the aesthetic, the theoretical, the social, the political, and the religious (Spranger, 1928).

  • The economic decision-maker makes decisions based on what is practical and valuable.
  • The aesthetic decision-maker makes decisions based on form and harmony, desiring a solution that is elegant and in sync with the surroundings.
  • The theoretical decision-maker wants to discover the truth through rationality.
  • The social decision-maker emphasizes the personal impact of a decision and sympathizes with those who may be affected by it.
  • The political decision-maker is interested in power and influence and views people and property as divided into groups with different values.
  • The religious decision-maker seeks to identify with a larger purpose, works to unify others under that goal, and commits to a viewpoint, often denying one side and being dedicated to the other.

The personalities of group members, especially leaders and other active members, affect the group’s climate. Group member personalities can be categorized based on where they fall on a continuum anchored by the following descriptors: dominant/submissive, friendly/unfriendly, and instrumental/emotional (Cragan & Wright, 1999). The more group members there are in any extreme of these categories, the more likely the group climate will also shift to resemble those characteristics.

  • Dominant versus submissive. More dominant group members act more independently and directly, initiate conversations, take up more space, make more direct eye contact, seek leadership positions, and take control over decision-making processes. More submissive members are reserved, contribute to the group only when asked to, avoid eye contact, and leave their personal needs and thoughts unvoiced or give in to the suggestions of others.
  • Friendly versus unfriendly. Group members on the friendly side of the continuum find a balance between talking and listening, do not try to win at the expense of other group members, are flexible but not weak, and value democratic decision-making. Unfriendly group members are disagreeable, indifferent, withdrawn, and selfish, leading them to either not invest in decision-making or direct it in their interest rather than the group’s interests.
  • Instrumental versus emotional. Instrumental group members are emotionally neutral, objective, analytical, task-oriented, and committed followers, which leads them to work hard and contribute to the group’s decision-making as long as it is orderly and follows agreed-on rules. Emotional group members are creative, playful, independent, unpredictable, and expressive, which leads them to make rash decisions, resist group norms or decision-making structures, and often switch from relational to task focus.

Cultural Context and Decision-Making

Like neighbourhoods, schools, and countries, small groups vary in terms of their degree of similarity and difference. Demographic changes and technological increases that can bring different people together make it more likely that you will interact in more heterogeneous groups (Allen, 2011). Some small groups are more homogenous, meaning the members are more similar, and some are more heterogeneous, meaning the members are more different. Diversity and differences within groups have advantages and disadvantages. In terms of advantages, research finds that, in general, culturally heterogeneous groups have better overall performance than more homogenous groups (Haslett & Ruebush, 1999). Additionally, when group members have time to get to know each other and competently communicate their differences, diversity’s advantages include better decision-making due to different perspectives (Thomas, 1999). Unfortunately, groups often operate under time constraints and other pressures that make the possibility for intercultural dialogue and understanding difficult. The main disadvantage of heterogeneous groups is the possibility of conflict, but given that all groups experience conflict, this is not solely due to the presence of diversity.

International Diversity in Group Interactions

Cultural value orientations such as individualism/collectivism, power distance, and high-/low-context communication styles manifest on a continuum of communication behaviours and can influence group decision-making. Group members from individualistic cultures are likelier to value task-oriented, efficient, and direct communication. This could manifest in dividing tasks into individual projects before collaboration begins and then openly debating ideas during discussion and decision-making. Additionally, people from cultures that value individualism are more likely to openly dissent from a decision, expressing their disagreement with the group. Group members from collectivistic cultures are more likely to value relationships over the task. Because of this, they also tend to value conformity and face-saving (often indirect) communication. This could manifest in behaviours such as establishing norms that include periods of socializing to build relationships before task-oriented communication, such as negotiation begins, or norms that limit public disagreement in favour of more indirect communication that does not challenge the face of other group members or the group’s leader. In a group of people from a collectivistic culture, each member would likely play harmonizing roles, looking for signs of conflict and resolving them before they become public.

Power distance can also affect group interactions. Some cultures rank higher on power-distance scales, meaning they value hierarchy, make decisions based on status, and believe that people have a set place in society that is relatively unchangeable. Group members from high-power-distance cultures would likely appreciate a strong designated leader who exhibits a more directive leadership style and prefer groups in which members have clear and assigned roles. Higher-status members could provide information openly in a homogenous group with a high-power-distance orientation. Those with lower status may not provide information unless a higher-status member explicitly seeks it. Low-power-distance cultures do not place as much value and meaning on status and believe all group members can participate in decision-making. Group members from low-power-distance cultures would likely freely speak their minds during a group meeting and prefer a participative leadership style.

How much meaning is conveyed through the context surrounding verbal communication can also affect group communication. Some cultures have a high-context communication style in which much of the meaning in interaction is conveyed through contexts such as nonverbal cues and silence. Group members from high-context cultures may avoid saying something directly, assuming other group members will understand the intended meaning even if the message is indirect. So if someone disagrees with a proposed course of action, they may say, “Let us discuss this tomorrow,” and mean, “I do not think the group should do this.” Such indirect communication is also a face-saving strategy common in collectivistic cultures. Other cultures have a low-context communication style emphasizing the meaning conveyed through words rather than context or nonverbal cues. Group members from low-context cultures often say what they mean and mean what they say. For example, if someone does not like an idea, they might say, “I think the group should consider more options. This one does not seem like the best option.”

In any of these cases, an individual from one culture operating in a group with people of a different cultural orientation could adapt to the expectations of the host culture, especially if that person possesses a high degree of intercultural communication competence (ICC). Additionally, people with high ICC can also adapt to a group member with a different cultural orientation than the host culture. Even though these cultural orientations connect to values that affect our communication in reasonably consistent ways, individuals may exhibit different communication behaviours depending on their communication style and the situation.

Domestic Diversity and Group Communication

While it is becoming more likely that you will interact in small groups with international diversity, you are guaranteed to interact in diverse groups regarding the cultural identities within a single country or the subcultures within a larger cultural group.

Gender stereotypes sometimes influence the roles that people play within a group. For example, the stereotype that women are more nurturing than men may lead group members (both male and female) to expect that women will be supporters or harmonizers within the group. Since women have primarily performed secretarial work since the 1900s, they may also be expected to play the recorder role. In both cases, stereotypical notions of gender place women in roles that are typically less valued in group communication. The opposite is true for men. In terms of leadership, despite notable exceptions, men fill an overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of leadership positions. You may have been socialized to see certain behaviours by men as indicative of leadership abilities, even though they may not be. For example, men are often perceived to contribute more to a group because they tend to speak first when asked a question or to fill a silence and talk more about task-related matters than relationally oriented matters. Both of these tendencies create a perception that men are more engaged with the task. Men are also socialized to be more competitive and self-congratulatory, meaning that their communication may be seen as dedicated, and their behaviours are seen as powerful. When their work is not noticed, they will be likelier to make it known to the group rather than take silent credit. Even though relational elements of a group are crucial for success, even in high-performance teams, that work is not as valued in our society as task-related work.

Even though some communication patterns and behaviours related to our typical (and stereotypical) gender socialization affect how you interact in and form perceptions of others in groups, the differences in group communication that used to be attributed to gender in early group communication research seem to be diminishing. This is likely due to the changing organizational cultures from which much group work emerges, which now has more than 60 years to adjust to women in the workplace. It is also due to a more nuanced understanding of gender-based research, which does not take a stereotypical view from the beginning, as many early male researchers did. Now, instead of biological sex being assumed as a factor that creates inherent communication differences, group communication scholars see that men and women exhibit a range of more or less feminine or masculine behaviours. It is these gendered behaviours, and not a person’s gender, that seem to have more of an influence on perceptions of group communication. Interestingly, group interactions are still masculinist in that male and female group members prefer a more masculine communication style for task leaders. Both males and females in this role are more likely to adapt to a more masculine communication style. Conversely, men who take on social-emotional leadership behaviours adopt a more feminine communication style. In short, although masculine communication traits are more often associated with high-status group positions, men and women adapt to this expectation and are evaluated similarly (Haslett & Ruebush, 1999).

Other demographic categories are also influential in group communication and decision-making. In general, group members have an easier time communicating when they are more similar than different regarding race and age. This ease of communication can make group work more efficient, but the homogeneity may sacrifice some creativity. As learned earlier, diverse groups (e.g., they have members of different races and generations) benefit from the diversity of perspectives regarding the quality of decision-making and creativity of output.

In terms of age, for the first time since industrialization began, it is common to have three generations of people (and sometimes four) working side by side in an organizational setting. Although four generations often worked together in early factories, they were segregated based on their age group. A hierarchy existed with older workers at the top and younger workers at the bottom. Today, however, generations interact regularly, and it is not uncommon for an older person to have a younger leader or supervisor (Allen, 2011). The current generations in the workplace and, consequently, in work-based groups include the following:

  • The Silent Generation. Born between 1925 and 1942,  this is the most negligible generation in the workforce, as many have retired or left for other reasons. This generation includes people born during the Great Depression or the early part of World War II, many of whom later fought in the Korean War (Clarke, 1970).
  • The Baby Boomers. Born between 1946 and 1964, this is the largest generation in the workforce. Baby boomers are the most populous generation born in Canadian history, working longer than previous generations, which means they will remain the predominant force in organizations for 10 to 20 more years.
  • Generation X. Born between 1965 and 1981, this generation was the first to see technology such as cell phones and the Internet make its way into classrooms and our daily lives. Compared to previous generations, “Gen-Xers” are more diverse in terms of race, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation and also have a greater appreciation for and understanding of diversity.
  • Generation Y. Born between 1982 and 2000, “Millennials,” as they are also called, are currently in their early 20s up to about 40 years old. This generation is less likely to remember a time without technology, such as computers and cell phones. Many millennials entered the workforce at the height of the Great Recession and were significantly affected by this economic crisis of the late 2000s, experiencing significantly high unemployment rates.
  • Generation Z. Born between 1997-2012. This generation has been raised on technology, the internet, and social media. They are just entering the workforce.

The benefits and challenges of the diversity of group members are significant to consider. Since you will likely work in diverse groups, you should be prepared to address potential challenges to reap the benefits. Diverse groups may be wise to coordinate social interactions outside of group time to find common ground that can help facilitate interaction and increase group cohesion. You should be sensitive but not let sensitivity create fear of “doing something wrong,” preventing you from meaningful interactions.

Key Takeaways

  • Every problem has standard components: an undesirable situation, a desired situation, and obstacles between the undesirable and desirable situations. Every problem also has a set of characteristics that vary among problems, including task difficulty, number of possible solutions, group member interest in the problem, group familiarity with the problem, and the need for solution acceptance.
  • The group problem-solving process has five steps:

    1. Define the problem by creating a problem statement that summarizes it.
    2. Analyze the problem and create a problem question that can guide solution generation.
    3. Generate possible solutions. Possible solutions should be offered and listed without stopping to evaluate each one.
    4. Evaluate the solutions based on their credibility, completeness, and worth. Groups should also assess the potential effects of the narrowed list of solutions.
    5. Implement and assess the solution. Aside from enacting the solution, groups should determine how they will know whether the solution is working.
  • Before a group makes a decision, it should brainstorm possible solutions. Group communication scholars suggest that groups: (1) do a warm-up brainstorming session; (2) do an actual brainstorming session in which ideas are not evaluated, wild ideas are encouraged, quantity, not quality, of ideas, is the goal, and new combinations of ideas are encouraged; (3) eliminate duplicate ideas; and (4) clarify, organize, and evaluate ideas. The group may also use the nominal group technique to guide the idea-generation process and invite equal participation from group members.
  • Standard decision-making techniques include majority rule, minority rule, and consensus rule. With majority rule, only a majority, usually one-half plus one, must agree before deciding. With minority rule, a designated authority or expert has the final say over a decision, and the input of group members may or may not be invited or considered. With the consensus rule, all group members must agree on the same decision.
  • Several factors influence the decision-making process:

    • Situational factors include the degree of freedom a group has to make its own decisions, the level of uncertainty facing the group and its task, the size of the group, the group’s access to information, and the origin and urgency of the problem.
    • Personality influences on decision-making include a person’s value orientation (economic, aesthetic, theoretical, political, or religious), and personality traits (dominant/submissive, friendly/unfriendly, and instrumental/emotional).
    • Cultural influences on decision-making include the heterogeneity or homogeneity of the group makeup; cultural values and characteristics such as individualism/collectivism, power distance, and high-/low-context communication styles; and gender and age differences.


1. Specific decision-making techniques may work better than others in academic, professional, and personal contexts. For each scenario, identify the decision-making technique that you think would be best and explain why.

Scenario 1: Academic. A professor asks the class whether the final exam should be in class or taken home.

Scenario 2: Professional. A group of health professionals must decide who to nominate for a professional award.

Scenario 3: Personal. A family must decide how to divide the belongings and estate of a deceased family member who did not leave a will.

2. Of the three main problems facing group presenters, which do you think is the most challenging and why?

3. Why do you think people tasked with a group presentation (especially students) prefer to divide the parts and have members work on them independently before coming back together and integrating each part? What problems emerge from this method? In what ways might developing a master presentation and then assigning parts to different speakers be better than the more divided method? What are the drawbacks to the master presentation method?


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Haslett, B. B., & Ruebush, J. (1999). What differences do individual differences in groups make?: The effects of individuals, vulture, and group composition. In L. R. Frey (Ed.). The handbook of group communication theory and research. SAGE.

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Stanton, C. (2009, November 3). How to deliver group presentations: The unified team approach. Six minutes speaking and presentation skills. http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/group-presentations-unified-team-approach.

Thomas, D. C. (1999). Cultural diversity and work group effectiveness: An experimental study. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 30(2), 242–263. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1177/0022022199030002006

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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