Communication Currents

Why Can't Groups Focus on New Information?

April 1, 2009
Interpersonal Communication, Organizational Communication

In discussions, groups often fail to adequately use the unique information of their members. Rather, groups focus upon and repeat information that all group members knew, even before the discussion began. That is, group members repeat what they know and every other group member knows, and fail to share new information with others. When this happens, the group cannot take advantage of the diverse informational perspectives available from its members. However, recent research has found that structuring group members into the roles of decision-maker and advisor may increase the focus on unique information.

Imagine a group of three members (member A, member B, and member C) discussing whether to hire a job applicant. Assume all members of the hiring team have read the applicant's resume. This would be shared information. However, from individual interviews with the applicant, each learned information that the other two did not. For example, A may have had knowledge about the applicant's educational history that B and C did not have, and C may have talked to the applicant about a mutual professional interest, but A and B did not. According to research on the discussion of information in groups, members of the hiring team would probably mention and repeat more information about the applicant's resume--the shared information--in their discussion and fail to integrate the unshared information that each member has.

One reason shared information is mentioned more is that all group members have access to it. However, once shared information is mentioned, groups often keep repeating the same shared information.

When unshared information is mentioned, groups often fail to repeat and integrate the unshared information into discussion. Thus, an opportunity to gain a new perspective is lost. Research by Gwen Wittenbaum on mutual enhancement has helped shed light on why groups continue to focus on shared information. When shared information is first mentioned, other members can validate this information because they too are aware of it. They might respond by nodding their head or making comments affirming the information, such as “Yes, yes I know.” Group members observe this positive response to the shared information and may be more likely to then repeat that information later in the discussion. However, when unshared information is mentioned, other group members may not be able to respond to the information and cannot validate it. They may not completely trust the information since they are learning about it secondhand from another person. Therefore, members may respond less enthusiastically to unshared information. This can cause the member who mentioned the unique information to not repeat it. In support of mutual enhancement, it has been found that members who mention shared information are more influential and viewed as more competent in the group discussion.

Would the same pattern of information sharing hold true in groups that have differences in status and roles? What if one group member holds the decision-making power for the group? Imagine a group in which a cancer patient is meeting with a medical team to discuss treatment options, a congresswoman meeting with constituents to get feedback about upcoming legislation that she needs to vote on, or a group in which a manager meets with subordinates to discuss reducing the budget. In each case there is a group discussion, but only one person will ultimately make the decision.

Research by Lyn Van Swol has found that in structured groups with one decision maker and multiple advisors, there is greater focus on unshared information. Moreover, members are more likely to repeat unshared information. For example, several studies have found that decision makers prefer to receive advice from group members who have more unshared information than those with shared information. Decision makers perceive group members with more unshared information as more competent. This is the opposite of studies about unstructured groups. In unstructured groups, members who shared information were more influential and perceived as more competent.

There are several reasons why structured groups may focus more on unshared information. Unstructured groups need to reach a group consensus. Because shared information influences everyone's opinion, it validates everyone's opinion and facilitates reaching consensus. When one person is the decision-maker in a group, consensus is not necessary, so group members may be more open to new information and viewpoints and do not have to worry about the new information upsetting group agreement. Also, when put in the role of advisor, a group member may feel more responsible for providing a unique perspective than when a group member is in an unstructured group and has no assigned role. Decision-makers may also try to pool more unique perspectives from their advisors and may expect advisors to provide new information as part of their role. These expectations may not exist for members of unstructured groups.

In conclusion, if your goal is to encourage your group or team members to share information that is unknown to others, then assigning members the roles of advisor and decision-maker may help.

About the author (s)

Lyn M. Van Swol

University of Wisconsin – Madison

Assistant Professor