Communication Currents

Sharing Information In Groups: Does It Matter?

June 1, 2008
Organizational Communication

Experience tells us not working groups is not always easy, partly because not everyone participates or does their fair share of the work. In some cases, the group succeeds despite inequality of participation and effort, and other times the group fails. Communication researchers are typically interested in cases where participation is instrumental to successful group outcomes, and focus on describing why people fail to participate. Taking this approach affords the opportunity to explore the consequences of unequal participation on group outcomes. Although there are many psychological and social factors that would compel one to participate (or not), communication scholars focus on process. Process has many definitions, but in general it refers to the notion that what one says during a discussion has an immediate impact on what others might say in response. Moreover, messages (or what is said) have a developmental role in the way a group thinks about a problem, including the viability of potential solutions.

The effects of what group members say are most important when the sharing of information is critical for successful outcomes. Typically, no one person knows everything about a particular problem. One of the reasons that organizations use work teams is because the combined information of group or team members is sure to exceed that of any particular member. This also implies that some members know things about the problem that others do not. Information known to one person is labeled unique, and information that the other members already know is labeled shared. Important to this distinction is that information is only useful in helping the group arrive at an effective solution if it is contributed, or communicated, during discussion. If unique information is not contributed then the group has an incomplete understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of each of the potential solutions.

So why wouldn't members contribute information to discussion? In terms of process, when information is contributed it says something about the person who contributed it, as well as it has implications for the task and the solution. Some research has shown that contributing shared information leads to higher credibility for the person who mentioned it, and when people are thought of as credible they tend to be given more speaking opportunities. Conversely, unique information, although usually persuasive, does not lead to the same kinds of credibility ratings as does shared information. Thus, groups that start off predominately mentioning shared information continue to talk about it, eventually pushing aside the unique information. The consequence is that when groups talk about information all member know they are unlikely to reach a good decision.

A recent study by Joe Bonito and colleagues examined in some detail the relationship between perceptions of group members as competent decision-makers with the mentioning of shared and unique information. The study used a task in which participants were first given a set of information items to memorize regarding three fictitious job candidates. Some of the information given to participants was shared and the remainder was unique. More importantly, the unique information was designed to be critical, as this information highlighted who would be the best candidate for the task. Once the participants had memorized the information they were asked to work on the problem as a group and select the best candidate. The discussions were videotaped. When discussion was finished, participants were asked to watch the recording of their interaction. After watching one minute of their discussion, group members were asked to rate the decision-making competence of others in their group. The recording was restarted, and participants watched until the end at which time they were asked to complete the same set of ratings.

The results were consistent with previous research, but also offered some surprises. Of the 30 groups in the study, only seven correctly identified the best candidate. Thus, the focus turned to the 23 groups that failed to identify the best candidate. Both shared and unique comments made during the first minute of discussion were associated with the initial ratings of decision-making competence. In turn, group members who were rated as competent were more likely to produce shared information comments in the remainder of the discussion. This is consistent with previous research, in which shared comments create social benefits despite the fact that groups that emphasize shared information make poor decisions. The best predictor of decision-making competence at the end of the discussion were the ratings taken at the first minute. In other words, if a group member doesn't demonstrate competence early in the discussion they are unlikely to change that perception. Comparatively, groups who selected the best candidate contributed both shared and unique comments whereas group that did not select the best candidate did not. Another way to put this is that groups tend to identify the best answer when unique comments are contributed by all members rather than by some.

Scholars continue to work on the problem of information sharing in groups, and are developing ways to help groups identify who knows what so that the group as a whole knows all of the information before it makes a decision. Knowing all of the information its members possess may not guarantee that groups will make the best decision, but it does improve the odds. It might also explain why some members wind up contributing less in general, and points to ways to minimize such differences.