If we wish to build an applied social science grounded in the principles and practice of collective intelligence, then we need to understand team communication.
Indeed, rather than treat individuals as the primary unit of analysis, as is generally the case in the science of psychology, many scholars in the field of communication treat communication itself as the primary unit of analysis. Certainly, no societal problem can be solved without communication. Even the Zen Buddhist, after discovering nothingness and silent enlightenment, returns to the world and everyday interactions with others. Although the evidence imported from psychological science may be the product of a single (quiet) researcher focused on a sample of independent participant observations (who never once communicate with one another), as soon as this evidence is brought to bear on a societal problem it needs to be communicated to key stakeholders and coordinated in a system with other evidence relevant to the societal problem. It is the system of evidence, as communicated amongst members of the problem solving team that helps the team to understand and resolve the societal problem. As such, team facilitators need to facilitate team communication.
Therefore, as a facilitator, it is useful to understand barriers to communication in group problem solving. This blog post will focus on a fascinating study by Broome and Fulbright (1995). It is a very unique study which I believe can be used to frame a broad understanding of team communication. Here’s what they did: over a six-year period, working with seven teams of 12 to 18 participants, each with significant group work experience, Broome and Fulbright (1995) facilitated teams in identifying and categorizing barriers to communication in group problem solving. The list of categories and sample barriers is presented below and range from planning, process, resource and methodological barriers to group composition, organizational culture, attitude, and cultural diversity barriers. Aspects of interpersonal communication were identified as barriers (e.g., “Dominance by one person or faction in the group”), but the first and most obvious thing to observe here is that, in the broader context, barriers to communication in group problem solving are very wide-ranging — we need to see beyond the ‘simple’ act of communication in a team context to understand the broader environmental and contextual factors that act as barriers to effective communication and problem solving in a team. Let’s consider the set of barriers in more detail:
List of Categories and Sample Barriers
A Methodology Deficiencies
- Lack of strong procedural guidelines
- Lack of legitimate strategy for problem solving
- Lack of methodology and guidelines for group process
B Cultural Diversity Issues
- Existence of biases, prejudices, sexism
- Failure to take cultural differences into account
- Differences of “world” view
C Planning Shortfalls
- Failure to define the focus of the group
- Inadequate preparation by facilitator and/or participants
- Inadequate planning of meeting strategy
D Resource Constraints
- Inadequate physical setting and necessary tools
- Lack of technological support
- Lack of resources
E Group Composition Inadequacies
- Failure to have participants with right level of authority at table
- Failure to include key actors
- Participants have inadequate content knowledge of problem
F Organizational Culture Forces
- Desire to give the boss an answer that he/she wants
- Pressure for immediate results
- Existence of rewards for not solving the problem
G Communication Barriers
- Inability to find and use a common language among the group
- Inability to effectively listen to what others are saying
- Dominance by one person or faction in the group
H Climate Concerns
- Lack of supportiveness for open expression
- Lack of group identity or cohesiveness
- Lack of trust among group members
I Attitude Problems
- Existence of negative and resistant attitudes
- Unrealistic expectations of the process
- Unwillingness to be flexible and compromising
J Process Failures
- Failure to reach a consensus
- Lack of group participation
- Tendency to focus on solution before defining the problem
The great advantage of the study by Broome and Fulbright (1995) is that they asked each of their teams to develop a systems model, designed to model the relationships between these barriers. More specifically, teams were facilitating through a matrix structuring exercise, which allowed them to make judgements as to how barriers relate to one another in a system of negative influence. As the same systems modeling method was used by all seven teams, it was possible for Broome and Fulbright (1995) to conduct a meta-analysis and thus combine all seven systems models. The combined influence structure can be seen in figure 1. The model has five stages, and should be read from left to right. On average, barriers in stage 1, to the left of the structure, have the greatest overall negative influence – they have a negative influence, or further aggravate, the barriers to the right, in stage 2. Similarly, both stage 1 and stage 2 barriers, together, aggravate stage 3 barriers, and so on. As such, this influence structure helps us to understand quite a lot about the overall system of negative influence – and this understanding can help facilitators as they approach the challenge of working with teams.
Figure 1. Influence structure describing barriers to communication in group problem solving
The influence structure is fascinating in many ways. Focusing first on the stage 1 barriers, in relation to methodology barriers, Broome and Fulbright (1995) highlight an intriguing conflict between the perception of the experts in their study and the perceptions of a select group of scholars focused on group problem solving. While teams identified methodology deficiencies as having the highest average influence score across the ten barrier categories, Broome and Fulbright note that many scholars have downplayed the importance of methodology in group problem solving, going so far as to suggest that “the manner in which a group arrives at a decision” is “a relatively unimportant variable” for group effectiveness (Hirokawa, 1985, p. 204). This seems like a startling claim – that methodology is unimportant. However, as noted by Broome and Fulbright, a model of decision-making has been popular in the past, which states that as long as key team functions are realised (e.g., reaching a thorough understanding of the problem), the methodology used is irrelevant. I disagree, and so too did the experts. As noted by Warfield (1976), methodologies that help to overcome human cognitive limitations are important for ensuring that our best scientific and contextual understanding is given due consideration in our efforts to resolve societal problems. At the same time, as noted by Broome and Fulbright, a long-standing contrast of approach to group problem solving exists in the field of social science, with some researchers arguing that group decision making performance may actually be enhanced when groups approach their task in an unstructured manner, whereas others advocate the importance of structured methodologies and procedures to high quality decision making. I’ll examine some of the evidence in future blog posts. For now, the approach to applied systems science and collective intelligence I advocate includes a strong emphasis on both structured methodologies to help groups generate and structure ideas, and facilitation of the subtle and often unstructured communication of groups, such that clarity of meaning and critical and reflective thinking skills are facilitated in the collective intelligence process. Facilitating collective intelligence implies the cultivation of skill in the use of structured methodologies and in working directly with the content of team communication and the broader psychological and social dynamics of team deliberation. As we will come to see in future blogs, there is much to be understood in relation to the broader psychological and social dynamics of team deliberation.
Returning to the findings of Broome and Fulbright, collectively, teams in the study judged barriers associated with planning, organizational culture, and resource constraints as three of the most negative factors influencing group communication and problem solving. As noted by Broome and Fulbright, while planning and resources are important for group work to take place, traditionally, they have not been a focus of analysis for researchers in the fields of communication, psychology, and management. When facilitating teams, there may be a tendency to focus on activities that occur when the team is working together in the same space. However, this reflects a narrow focus of analysis is common, and facilitation methods can help to overcome this problem. Importantly, the participants in the study by Broome and Fulbright (1995) were knowledgeable stakeholders who were clearly aware of a very broad range of contextual factors that influence the problem situation – they generated a total of 490 barrier statements; they were not limited by a disciplinary or even a social science perspective; they were facilitated using a collective intelligence method that allowed them scope to fully describe the problem situation, and they clearly identified the important role of both planning and resource constraints as factors influencing group progress.
As noted by Broome and Fulbright, without proper planning, group sessions waste members’ time and most attempts at dealing with complex problems are doomed to failure without planning. Conversely, with proper planning prior to a team meeting, many difficulties can be avoided or minimized, for example, by allowing time to identify appropriate methodologies for group problem solving, consider group composition and the key knowledge and skills needed to address the problem, and taking steps to integrate the team work in the organization’s culture. This planning must be done in advance of a session, and in addition to specific planning behaviors (e.g., identifying and inviting participants, organising materials and methods, etc.), this work generally involves mental simulation (i.e., simulating and talking through various methodological options and procedural steps, adjusting simulated methods in response to group size, work space, materials available, time available etc.). The mental simulation may be run and rerun many times before the facilitator is ready to proceed with the team meeting. Although teams may complain after a group session that the session was poorly planned, they may not learn from experience and plan well in advance of subsequent group sessions. In fact, it is common practice for organisations to use a standard agenda-driven approach to group meetings, even in situations where this approach frustrates the progress of a team that is seeking to solve problems.
Similarly, while team members often complain about resource constraints, if they are unwilling to set aside the resources needed for effective team communication and problem solving — time, facilities, planning sessions — then perhaps the group work should not take place at all. As Broome and Fulbright note, “engineers would refuse to build a bridge across a ravine if resources were not available to insure its structural integrity. Yet we constantly hold group meetings in the hope that something is better than nothing, when in fact an inappropriately supported meeting may do much more damage than simple inaction”.
In relation to organizational culture, it is evident that the cultural rules, belief, and practices influence what can occur in that group. Indeed, organizational rules may not even allow for deliberation and problem solving – decisions may be made at a ‘higher level’ outside of the control of some groups. Even governance groups can cultivate a culture of compliance and obedience to the leader’s wishes. Broome and Fulbright (1995) highlight some of the problems, such as: “existence of rewards that are inherent to not solving the problem” and the “desire to give the boss an answer to what he/she wants”. These barriers imply norms of behavior within an organization that fail to empower group member’s collective intelligence and collective action, and thus violate the principle of freedom as non-domination. Within both public and private sector organisations, freedom as non-domination is a norm that needs to be cultivated if collective intelligence is to be maximized. Although the Zen Buddhist may, for a time, choose the path of silence, they have made this choice freely. Freedom as non-domination implies that people should be free to think and express their thoughts in a team context.
Broome and Fulbright (1995) also highlight barriers linked to cultural diversity, more specifically, the negative impact of racial, ethnic, and gender prejudice, differing value systems, world views and language barriers. Akin to earlier observations on righteousness and differing moral perspectives, and their effect on interpersonal conflict, diversity itself can present groups with a challenge. The clash of values and worldviews, and racial, ethnic, and gender prejudice have been described by many scholars as problematic, and as diversity becomes the rule rather than the exception in work teams, and as public and private sector organisations grow in size and diversity, the challenge of embracing diversity is increasingly evident. As noted by Broome and Fulbright (1995), cultural diversity is not something to be considered as an adjunct to understanding and facilitating group communication, cultural considerations are central to each and every aspect of group communication. For the facilitator, group composition and cultural diversity influence judgement as to the appropriateness of specific structured methodologies, how one plans and simulates in advance of a session, how one works with the content of group deliberation, how one manages the psychological and social dynamics of group deliberation, and how one reinforces the principle of freedom as non-domination in the team. As we will come to see, this implies a range of behaviors that are central to facilitating collective intelligence.
Based on the collective intelligence of their study participants, Broome and Fulbright (1995) suggest that we should view climate and communication as primary conduits of group interaction. These barriers are located at stage 3, in the center of the overall influence structure (see figure 1). Resonating with the principle of freedom as non-domination, barriers in the climate category point to problems associated with power and (relationship) dominance, interpersonal conflict, and personal fears of criticism and reprisal. Lack of trust, respect, and group cohesiveness and supportiveness were also identified as barriers. In the communication category, major barriers included ineffective listening, communication dominance and problems with articulation, translation, and feedback. This is challenging territory. Broome and Fulbright note that resolution of problems in the climate and communication categories are sometimes seen as a “cure all” for resolving team problems and enhancing group problem solving efficacy. However, as highlighted by the experts, problems linked to culture and communication may be driven by other problems (planning, methodology, etc.). Climate and communication problems in turn can have a negative influence on attitudes and process outcomes.
Broome and Fulbright (1995) describe the scenario as follows: certainly, team members can actively control their behavior, but they are also limited by the social system that they themselves are constantly creating. Notably, how they characteristically plan and resource their own team problem solving sessions and develop expertise in working with specific group methodologies are important ways in which they structure their social system. Also, how they characteristically maintain behavioral norms around idea generation, turn-taking, speaking, and how they embrace a diversity of views, allowing for the freedom of expression of every group member, are central features of their social system. Within this broader social system that they are constantly creating, team communication and culture are a conduit of influence that shape team problem solving and decision making outcomes. Broome and Fulbright point to evidence showing that “low quality” communication, including highly abstract statements, irrelevant statements, and statements reflecting a desire to withdraw from the group, have a negative effect on the quality of decision making in a group. As the content and outcome of any collective intelligence session is a direct function of what is communicated in the session, the quality of communication may be the single, most important determinant of the decision-making success or failure of a group. Therefore, the team facilitator needs to support team members in communicating their knowledge and reasoning. Importantly, when it comes to addressing societal problems, in efforts to understanding relationships between problems in a problem field, team facilitation involves catalyzing critical thinking and reflective judgement as regards the nature of system relationships.
Looking again at the overall influence structure, it is interesting to see attitudes and process outcomes to the far right of the model. While research in psychology traditionally views attitudes as influencing outcomes, teams in the study by Broome and Fulbright (1995) viewed attitudes as a major recipient of negative influence. The idea that attitudes are a primary driver of behavior is common. For example, scholars have highlighted openmindedness, self-acceptance, patience, willingness to communicate, egalitarianism, commitment to the group, and equal commitment of group members as key attitudes associated with democratic group deliberation and team success. However, it has been long recognized that attitudes rarely explain more than 10% of the variance in behavioral outcomes and behavior is often more strongly influenced by the environment and contextual factors within which behaviors manifest. As described by participants in the study by Broome and Fulbright (1995), key attitudes related to group performance such as the ability to be flexible and compromising may be influenced by the broader organizational and environmental context, including all those factors highlighted across stage 1, 2, and 3 in figure 1.
Similarly, process failures, including the inability to reach consensus, failure to understand the problem, and the lack of group participation, cannot be adequately addressed without first addressing other barriers in the system. Again, this may run counter to popular belief, but only if we neglect the bigger picture and the broader organizational and environmental context shaping behavior. A central task for the team facilitator involves an effort to understand the bigger picture and the broader organizational and environmental context shaping the behavior of the team. What this implies in practice is that the facilitator takes time to immerse themselves in the organizational and environmental context of the team they are working with. It also implies that the facilitator make important distinctions between aspects of the environment that are open to change, and aspects of the environment that need to be taken into awareness by the team. By becoming mindfully aware of the environment, the team has a greater chance of understanding and adapting to the problematic situation they are addressing.
As suggested by Broome and Fulbright (1995), “This view of process failures challenges us to rethink the role of the process expert, often labeled a “facilitator.” Perhaps more variables are out of the facilitator’s control than we would like to think. Those who have become frustrated with their own efforts to keep a group on task intuitively sense that their effectiveness in doing so is often mitigated by other circumstances. Consultants have sold many organizations on the idea that the use of a facilitator will allow them to conduct effective meetings. While this may be true for normal meetings that address relatively simple problems, the complex situations faced by groups in today’s organizations need more assistance than a single facilitator can provide. The best efforts of the most talented and well-trained facilitator can be ineffective in the face of planning shortfalls, methodology deficiencies, differences in cultural expectations, inadequate group composition, organizational culture limitations, resource constraints, communication barriers, climate concerns, and attitude problems. We tend to view the facilitator’s role primarily in terms of managing communication flow and encouraging the development of a supportive climate. We need to demonstrate that success is unlikely, especially in the long term, without careful attention to contextual influences and other concerns. We are doing both ourselves and the organizations who look to us for guidance a serious disservice by allowing inaccurate claims to be put forth about the role of the facilitator. Hopefully, the use of influence maps of obstacles, such as those developed by the participants in this study, will begin to set the stage for a broader view of process experts. We must identify the range of issues impacting the facilitation process and depict them as a system of problems.”
Yes, it is true that the facilitator may have limited influence, but the teams that they facilitate may have more influence, particularly over the long run, in shaping their environment, transforming their social system, and adapting and flourishing in response to the societal problems they are working to resolve. Naturally, all of this involves mindful work and the pragmatist within us all thus needs to focus squarely on successful workings.
Broome, B. J., & Fulbright, L. (1995). A multi-stage influence model of barriers to group problem solving. Small Group Research, 26, 25-55.
Hirokawa, R. Y. (1985). Discussion procedures and decision-making performance: A test of a functional perspective. Human Communication Research, 12(2), 203-224.
Warfield, J. N. (1976). Societal systems : planning, policy, and complexity. New York: Wiley.