NCA Inside & Out

Joe Bonito

5 Questions With Joe Bonito

July 8, 2020

Joseph Bonito is Professor of Communication at the University of Arizona. Dr. Bonito researches small group communication and is particularly interested in research methods for studying small groups. Dr. Bonito was a co-investigator on a project funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health that examined communication and decision making within the North American Quitline Consortium. Dr. Bonito is the former Chair of the NCA Research Board (now the Research Council). Dr. Bonito is also an award-winning teacher, having won the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Dean's Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching for the 2014-2015 academic year.

1. What are some common mistakes that groups make in decision making or when completing tasks?

I’ve had many people ask how to put together successful groups, and that question begs others. Most assume that there’s a formula related to group composition that, if followed, makes some outcomes more likely than others. That’s what jury consultants are paid to do—identify potential jurors who are sympathetic to a given type of case (or exclude those deemed prejudicial toward it)—and sometimes choosing the “right” jurors works and sometimes it doesn’t. The process stuff—the actual communication that occurs among group members—is just “magic” that is explained by composition or other non-interaction factors like the task, context, seating arrangements, and so on. 

One of my favorite stories is from when I was part of a group of researchers who worked to secure grant funding. One of the participants traveled some distance to attend the meetings, and upon learning that I studied groups told me in no uncertain terms that groups were “all about power.” My response was to say, “Then why are you here? Wouldn’t it have been simpler to measure each person’s power and preferred decision alternative than to waste time traveling to and having meetings?” In some sense, it would be far less costly and more efficient for institutions and organizations to make decisions by polling members and weighting preferences by factors such as power, but the fact that groups are central to organizational decision making says something about the value of group interaction.

So groups meet and members spend effort communicating during meetings because discussion is good for something. But good for what? Ideally, it’s where persuasion occurs as a function of the arguments and evidence presented during discussion. And, as deliberation scholars have shown, persuasion requires an environment in which everyone feels comfortable speaking and all issues and concerns can be aired. But creating that kind of environment is in itself a communication problem. Structuration theorists tell us that group discussion follows rules that emanate from, among other things, the institution (e.g., a university) and the nature of the task (e.g., budget planning), but discussion creates other rules, some of which run counter to original expectations. 

Group communication has value even if it doesn’t directly change opinions. As an example, I was chair of our college’s promotion and tenure committee. The task seems pretty simple—an up or down vote based on a candidate’s productivity in the usual areas. But we noticed that some cases were fairly easy to judge and others not so much. We became concerned that we either spent too much or too little time discussing some cases. The end result was that we revisited some of the cases to make sure all due consideration was given. We didn’t change any decisions, but reviewing those cases made us feel more confident in our decisions, and it was communication that influenced the trajectory and function (beyond the up or down vote) of discussions across the cases we evaluated.

Bottom line: Don’t expect an outcome given the task and group composition. Many scholars have provided guidelines for discussion that are easily and profitably followed, and research mostly supports the fact that democratic discussion pays off in the usual ways (i.e., optimal decision making) and also in other, less obvious ways (e.g., greater satisfaction with the process and outcomes).  

2. Do you have any suggestions for people looking to improve their communication in groups?

Sure. Talk! Don’t assume! Ask questions, and don’t be afraid to disagree. Group scholars have shown that disagreement is the generative mechanism of group discussion—without it, there’s not much to talk about. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that, but there are consequences in real life, both professional and personal, for expressing disagreement. There is plenty of research on persuasive strategy choice and one is well advised to consult that work for options on how to disagree. Ideally, a group should build a context for constructive disagreement by learning how to express and manage disagreement, all the while looking for common ground on which to build consensus. 

3. In the NIH and NCI project, your team examined how smoking quitlines (telephone hotlines for those seeking help) shared information about smoking cessation programs. What were the findings of that research project?

That was an interesting project. The primary research question concerned communication networks among the quitlines. As we worked on the project, we found that there were all sorts of institutional and contextual factors that influenced services offered and who offered them. Some quitlines were more central to the network than were others—information regarding service effectiveness, cost, and so on flowed through and from those at the center of the network. But a network approach strikes me as similar to the assumption that the right group composition makes for good discussions. It’s one thing to note that some quitlines are more central than others, but it’s also important to document what type of information flows through the network and whether there is some improvement in cessation services that results from having been exposed to that information. That’s what interested us—we wanted to say more than “maybe you should communicate more with quitline X.”  It’s better to identify what gets talked about, with whom, and to what effect.

4. Having served as the Chair of the NCA Research Board, what advice do you have for Communication scholars interested in taking on NCA leadership roles?

Great question! I loved my time as chair of the Research Board. I developed some great and lasting friendships. But, more importantly, I learned about the effort and commitment needed to make NCA run. And it takes a lot of effort and commitment! And I also discovered how important the national office is to the association’s functioning. 

One of the nice things about the Research Board and Executive Committee was the institutional diversity the members brought to discussions. I’m a quantitative communication scholar at an R1 university, which suggests a certain kind of academic world view, one that seems (on the surface, at least) much different from an instructor at a community college, or a qualitative researcher at a four-year college, or a dean. And I found most of the discussions quite productive, not just because we have more or less the same goal, to make NCA better (although we certainly disagreed on what “better” means), but because I learned so much about the problems and challenges that my colleagues face across the discipline. 

My advice is to serve! Organizations and associations don’t run on magic—all aspects of NCA, including the obvious things (e.g., conferences and journals) and some less obvious, for example, representation at the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), establishing and maintaining a social media presence, and media relations. These all take time and effort, and members have to be willing to step into leadership roles in order to keep NCA viable and moving forward. 

5. You’re also an award-winning teacher. Do you have any tips for instructors looking to improve their instruction in research methods courses?

Talk about teaching a course that most undergraduate students would like to take a pass on! I try to make it relevant. I’m always scanning the major news sites for stories that involve communication research. It’s fun to talk through the study and ask whether we should trust the results. Election years are always fun, because we can evaluate polling and ask why some polls differ from others. As for grad courses, I try to stay up on the latest developments and work through problems that grad students might encounter in their research. I specialize in multilevel analyses and structural equation modeling, and that’s where some of the most exciting and relevant work is—to what extent do individuals and groups affect process and outcomes? That still gets me excited and I’d like to think that my excitement is contagious or infectious—nice to use those terms in a positive way!