1. Ethical Reasoning (supplement)
    1. Evaluating Criteria
    2. Stakeholder analysis
  2. Ethical Analysis Essay (example)
  3. Group Communication (supplement)
    1. Norming group behavior
    2. Leadership
    3. Virtual teams for online classes
    4. Developing ideas and plans as a group
    5. Managing group meetings

Evaluating Criteria

How can a person decide whether a certain act is ethical without being influenced by his biases? Similarly, how can the members of your team avoid being influenced by their biases when the group is evaluating whether certain actions may be ethical? The thoughtful development of criteria is one method to keep biases from having an excessive influence on the group’s decision-making process. Criteria are carefully considered, objective principles that can be applied to a situation in order to reach measured conclusions. So that you and your group can use criteria effectively, read the answers to the following questions:

  1. What are criteria?
  2. How does the group determine how to weight each criterion?
  3. What are examples of ethical criteria?
  4. How can criteria be worded to be measurable and specific?

1. What are criteria?

Criteria are the standards you apply to determine whether a solution to a problem is ‘good’ or ‘right’. People apply criteria to solve both ethical and non-ethical problems.

Criteria need to be specific and measurable in some fashion to allow them to be used to judge whether a solution is likely to successfully address a problem.

Example of criteria for evaluating a solution to a non-ethical problem:

A university has a parking problem, and a committee is trying to decide what to do to help make parking more convenient for students. Cost, proximity of parking to classroom buildings, and the length of time to implement a solution are among the concerns, although there are others. Before evaluating any proposals, the committee comes up with criteria to address all the issues that it expects may arise. The committee decides that any proposed solution should

  • be budget neutral, either not costing anything to implement or immediately recovering any costs;
  • be implementable within two years;
  • not require anyone to walk farther than 10 minutes to get to a classroom building;
  • meet handicap accessibility guidelines;
  • provide parking for the entire day, without requiring students to move cars between classes;
  • not take away existing faculty parking;
  • conform to local zoning laws; and
  • keep cars out of flood zones

On the other hand, the following requirement would not be acceptable as one of the criteria: “The solution must include building a parking deck.” This criterion (singular of ‘criteria’) would not be acceptable because criteria are supposed to help people remain open minded, whereas this supposed criterion would show that the committee has already made up its mind about the best solution. Criteria are supposed to be used to evaluate solutions; they are not supposed to be the solutions!

2. How does the group determine how to weight each criterion?

Depending on the problem, it is sometimes useful to rank your criteria, deciding which ones it would be nice to meet and which ones must absolutely be met. In evaluating parking proposals, for example, the committee might decide that legal requirements, such as handicap accessibility, must be met and that the project must stay within budget. On the other hand, the committee might decide the criteria that the project be completed within two years and that students not be required to walk for more than ten minutes, while desirable, may be waived in order to meet other, more necessary criteria. These more necessary criteria might include mandatory ones, such as compliance with handicap accessibility guidelines and local zoning laws, as well as criteria that a group has determined are most vital, such as providing parking for the entire day, without requiring students to move cars between classes.

3. What are examples of ethical criteria?

In the parking example, the committee did not include any ethical criteria in its list. Instead, the members of the committee were looking at issues such as cost and the convenience. Any ethical criteria on the list, however, would have required committee members to evaluate the morality of each proposal. Imagine that the university was large and influential, a major employer in the area and able to rely upon the favor of local politicians. Without including ethical criteria on the list, it would be easy to imagine the committee settling upon a solution to the parking problem that would have been unfair to vulnerable members of the surrounding community, for example, lower-income residents without much political clout. Ethical criteria in such a case might be drawn up to require that any solution

  • not cause permanent damage to the quality of life of the university’s neighbors,
  • cause temporary harm for the shortest time possible,
  • harm the fewest number of people,
  • avoid harming the most vulnerable members of the population, and
  • help the greatest number of people.

4. How can criteria be worded to be measurable and specific?

The more specific criteria are, the more helpful they will be as tools for measuring the success of a solution. How will your group know how well a criterion has been met unless you and your team members used precise wording when formulating that criterion?

Examples of vague criteria:

Upgrade of a facility

  • cannot harm the community,
  • cannot result in net loss of playing fields, and
  • cannot result in net loss of tree cover .

Examples of specific criteria:

Upgrade of a facility

  • cannot result in the permanent removal of the bus stop now located outside the building,
  • may begin only after a temporary bus stop has been constructed that is no further than two blocks from its current location,
  • must be accompanied by the purchase of the adjacent half-acre lot to replace the playing fields that will be covered by the outdoor theater, and
  • must be followed by the planting of ten Arbor vitae trees to replace the ones that will be removed from the front of the building

Stakeholder analysis

One way to make certain that your team thoroughly explores its assigned or chosen ethical issue is to identify all the individuals and groups that have an interest in the outcome or solution to the issue. This step is part of a stakeholder analysis. The answers to the questions below provide information about how to perform a stakeholder analysis.

  1. What is a stakeholder analysis?
  2. What are the different positions or roles of stakeholders?
  3. What questions can my group and I ask in order to identify the different perspectives and positions held by stakeholders?
  4. How can my group and I research stakeholder positions?

1. What is stakeholder analysis?

A stakeholder analysis is a utilitarian approach to ethical decision making. In a stakeholder analysis, you and your team evaluate ethical decisions by considering the individuals and groups who contribute to or are affected by a particular situation. The analysis identifies the people who are likely to benefit from or be hurt by various decisions in order to figure out which course of action will result in the greatest benefit and the least harm.

People may assume that there are ‘two sides to every issue,’ but in fact there may be many more than two sides. Make certain that your group identifies all the individuals and groups involved in a situation. The group should consider the perspectives of everyone involved and should understand what each party has ‘invested’ in the situation.

To review how stakeholders are identified, read the answer to this question under the Academic Argument assignment in CORE 101: How do I identify the different people involved in an issue?

2. What are the different perspectives or positions of stakeholders?

Stakeholders are those people or groups who have an interest in or will be affected by the outcome of a situation. The perspectives or positions of stakeholders may vary significantly. Stakeholders may be decision makers, or they may be people about whom decisions are made or for whose benefit decisions are made.

One purpose of stakeholder analysis is to get organizations and their employees to take into consideration the effects of their actions on people both within and without their organization. The organization and its employees are stakeholders who are decision makers on some level; the people outside the company often are those about whom or for whom decisions are being made.

Examples of stakeholders with different perspectives

A company is deciding whether to expand an existing plant or close it and move to another, cheaper location. The CEO and the company’s board must approve this decision and clearly have decision making power. The company’s shareholders and employees will be affected by the decision and may be able to bring some pressure to bear that could affect the decision. Others outside the organization will be affected as well but may have fewer options for influencing the decision. The company buys its supplies and materials from vendors, who may lose a valued customer. The company sells its product to customers, who may pay less for products made at the new location. The company and its employees pay taxes and other fees to the local government, which uses that money to fund schools and provide other services. That local government may even have given the company a tax break to build at its current location. A wide range of small businesses in the community rely on income they make by serving the needs of the employees. Each of the above groups will be affected by the decision, but their power to affect the decision varies.

3. What questions can my group and I ask in order to identify the different perspectives and positions held by stakeholders?

A stakeholder’s perspective or position is based upon the stakeholder’s relationship to the situation. That relationship can be captured by asking questions about power, support, influence, and need in the context of the situation that the stakeholder has an interest in.

  • Power—How much decision-making authority does the stakeholder have over the situation?
  • Support—How strongly is the stakeholder for or against the idea?
  • Influence—How much ability does the stakeholder have to affect the decisions made by other people?
  • Need—For the stakeholder to benefit, what does she need to have happen (or not happen) in the situation?

Be certain that your group looks for interests and perspectives that may be shared by different stakeholders, and be certain that your group does not automatically side with the stakeholders who have the most power and influence. If your team gravitates toward the parties with the most power and influence, you and your classmates may end up ignoring the individuals or groups with the most need, the ones who may be badly hurt by an unethical decision.

4. How can my group and I research stakeholder positions?

When you research an issue, look beyond yes/no, pro/con arguments in order to see the people involved in the situation. Remember that often there are more than the oversimplified ‘two sides’, so be open to identifying more than two stakeholders.

Make a list of the individuals and groups who affect or are affected by the issue. Add to the list as your research uncovers additional aspects of the situation that bring in additional stakeholders.

Analyze the positions held by each stakeholder, based on what they have said about the issue, using questions that include the following:

  • What values are important to this stakeholder?
  • What is the stakeholder’s financial investment in the situation?
  • What is the stakeholder’s emotional investment in the situation?
  • Are stakeholders invested because they are likely to benefit from the situation? How would they benefit? How greatly would they benefit?
  • Are stakeholders invested because they are likely to be harmed by the situation? How would they be harmed? How badly would they be harmed?
  • What are the stakeholder’s primary motivations for being involved in the situation?
  • What is the stakeholder’s current opinion about the situation?
  • What kind of information does the stakeholder have about the situation? How good is that information? What is its source?
  • What kind of information about the situation does the stakeholder want or need? What sources would be most helpful to this stakeholder? How could this stakeholder be encouraged to consult and trust these sources?
  • Who influences the opinions of the stakeholder? Is another stakeholder influencing this stakeholder? Who could influence this stakeholder?
  • How does the stakeholder communicate to stakeholders who have perspectives or positions that are different from their own? Is the stakeholder’s response effective in terms of winning a respectful hearing from other stakeholders? How could the stakeholder communicate more effectively?
  • How firm or flexible is the stakeholder’s position on the situation? What elements of the situation are ‘nonnegotiable’? What elements are subject to discussion?
  • How crucial is the stakeholder’s opinion on the situation?  Are the stakeholder ‘s concerns central to the decision, or are they peripheral?
  • How necessary is it that the stakeholder have a voice in any decision about this situation? If the stakeholder were left out, would a workable and ethical solution or decision be reached, or would leaving out this stakeholder’s perspective or position be a huge mistake?

The following essays have been reformatted for publication. Please follow the manuscript formatting guidelines provided by your instructor.


Michelle Valcourt

Radford University

Dobby’s Dilemma: Choosing the Hard Right Over the Easy Wrong

When an individual is faced with a situation that forces them to pick between two opposing values or loyalties, it can pose a difficult internal struggle. In J. K. Rowling’s novel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dobby, a house-elf, is faced with one such ethical dilemma. Dobby must choose to place his loyalty to either, his wizarding family, or Harry Potter, a boy he greatly admires. His duty as a house elf dictates that he is bound to his family and their wishes; he must submit to their authority, even if his own feelings aren’t in agreement.   Dobby is also bound in allegiance to the plight of Harry Potter. Before Harry overpowered Voldemort and ended his dark reign of terror, house-elves were subject to maltreatment and oppression. Dobby feels a strong loyalty to the boy whose triumph bettered living conditions for house-elves and other magical creatures alike. The dilemma splinters Dobby’s conscious and divides him between the value of duty to his family, and the values of loyalty and gratitude to Harry Potter and the ideals he represents.

A house-elf’s purpose in life is to live dedicated to his or her wizard family, the value of duty is engrained within each elf. They are “bound to serve one house and one family forever” (Rowling,1999, p.14). Dobby is burdened with heavy obligation to the Malfoy family and has a habitual need to physically punish himself in a sort of flagellation whenever he does anything that they would find disloyal. When Dobby absent-mindedly agrees with Harry that no decent wizard would use dark powers like his family does, he “started beating himself around the head with earsplitting yelps” (Rowling, 1999, p.17). His self-punishment for warning Harry will be to “shut his ears in the oven door” (Rowling, 1999, p.14).   The self-infliction of pain is his way of compensating for the betrayal of his duty. The Malfoy family remains loyal to Voldemort and is instrumental in the dark plot to resurrect the Dark Lord’s influence within Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This plight will endanger all students, but will be especially threatening to Harry Potter. When Harry was a baby, Lord Voldemort killed his parents and attempted to do the same to the infant. However, he was unable to do so because of the protection placed on the boy from his mother’s loving sacrifice. Harry overpowered Voldemort and ended his dark reign.

Dobby’s motivation to go against his house and family is his adoration for Harry Potter and the good that came from his triumph over the dark lord. Dobby explained that “when He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was at the height of his powers[…] house-elfs were treated like vermin”(Rowling, 1999, p.178). After Potter thwarted Voldemort’s power, life for most of the lowly magical creatures greatly improved. Dobby explained that “it was a new dawn […] and Harry Potter shone like a beacon of hope for those of us who thought the Dark days would never end” (Rowling, 1999, p.178 ).   It is because of Dobby’s adoration and gratitude that he feels an overwhelming urge to protect Harry Potter, despite his duty to the Malfoys. To Dobby, Harry is too valuable and important for those who fight against the Dark Lord and his followers. This devotion challenges his duty to the Malfoys. He must choose; either he serves his family as house-elves should do, or he warns Harry Potter of the danger he faces and thus choosing to protect the savior to his kind.

There are many ethical theories to help determine one’s approach to an ethical dilemma. When assessing Dobby’s options there are four different sets of eyes to look through; they are relativism by way of ethical subjectivism, utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics.   Relativism “denies that there are any objective moral values” (Handbook Readings, 2014, p.201). This way of looking at ethical dilemmas suggests that since there is no way to have a neutral moral perspective, that any situation is subjective. Ethical subjectivism would argue “that moral claims have to be assessed in relation to an individual” (Handbook Readings, 2014, p.201) and the decision maker needs to examine their own personal convictions. In the case of Dobby and his struggle between obedience to his family and his adoration for Harry Potter, an ethical subjectivist would say that Dobby should do what he, as an individual, feels is right. Dobby’s conviction for aiding Harry suggests that, for Dobby, helping Harry trumps obligation to the Malfoys.

Another viewpoint would be the approach from a utilitarian perspective. This theory is rooted in the consequences of an action and would favor the choice that would yield the best results for the greatest number of lives. It is also important to understand that “Utilitarianism stress[es] equality and fights against self-interest on the part of the ethical actor” (Handbook Readings, 2014, para.9). Dobby is faced with two options, to warn Harry Potter about the evil plot, or not to. If Dobby chooses not to warn Harry the only person who would benefit directly would be Dobby himself. He wouldn’t feel the urge to harm himself for disobeying his family. Utilitarianism disregards self-interest, and therefore would not find this to be a very helpful action. If Dobby chooses to warn Harry Potter, Harry would not be in harm’s way and would remain safe. Harry is a very influential and inspirational member of the magical community and his safety would benefit many. Therefore, from a utilitarian approach, the ethical action would be to warn Harry of the dangers awaiting the students at Hogwarts.

When looking through the eyes of a deontologist one would have to weigh Dobby’s duty as well as the rights of all parties involved. Though deontology would acknowledge that Dobby has a duty to perform for his family, his intentions are not to challenge their authority, rather his motivation is to protect Harry Potter’s right to safety. Deontology claims that, “if you intended good through your action, then the action is good, no matter what actually happened as a result” (Handbook Readings, 2014, para.4). Dobby’s motivation to not warning Harry would simply be to obey authority, however his intention in warning Harry would be to respect Harry’s right to safety. Another thought to consider is that the Malfoy Family supports the oppression of house elves, whereas Harry Potter embodies acceptance of them. By choosing to help Harry, Dobby sides to support the rights of house elves and other magical creatures alike, as well as ensuring Harry’s right to safety.

Lastly we must consider virtue ethics. This theory looks at the virtues we value most and challenge the decision-maker to embody them. One approach is to “think about what the most virtuous person you know would do in that situation” (Handbook Readings, 2014, para.12). Harry Potter is Dobby’s idol; to the house-elf, the wizard embodies courage, bravery, goodness, and kindness. By protecting Harry, Dobby would be displaying such virtues. Harry protects the under-dog and places others’ safety about his own, if Dobby were to follow Harry’s example, then Dobby would choose to warn Harry of the dangers at school.

In the end Dobby chooses to warn Harry Potter in an attempt to keep him from the threats at Hogwarts. Though many of the theories supported his choice to warn Harry, I believe Dobby was acting with a mentality most in-line with value ethics. There are many examples of Dobby’s adoration toward Harry Potter and it is clear that he values the virtues the boy exhibits. His decision to warn him was ethical, not only because his choice was supported by all four theories, but because it was selfless in nature and was intended to protect and help another.

Reference Page

Handbook readings. (2014). Radford University Core Handbook. Retrieved from http://learn.radford.edu

Rowling, J.K. (1999). Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.

Group Communication

Norming group behavior

1. What are norms?

Norms are expectations about how people should act. Norms can be explicit or implicit. Explicit norms are stated verbally or written. Implicit norms are the rules that people pick up from cues, sometimes nonverbal ones, as a result of being part of the group. It can be very difficult for a person who joins a new group to learn implicit norms.

  • Example of an explicit norm: The group agrees that anyone who is going to miss a meeting needs to text everyone in the group a day in advance.
  • Example of an implicit norm:  The group expects the person who had to miss a meeting to volunteer for more outside-of-group work, to show that they will do their fair share. But because this is an implicit norm, it is usually an unspoken expectation.

2. Why are norms important?

Norms are important because they govern the group’s interactions. They both influence how relationships are built and maintained and provide rules for how the group accomplishes tasks.

Groups tend to repeat behaviors and use that repetition to create norms. That means that once something has been done, it likely will become the norm for the group, even if it’s not a positive behavior. For example, at the first meeting someone arrives 10 minutes late and no one in the group says anything. That person may assume that being late is acceptable. Others may also start coming to meetings late, thinking it’s not an issue.

Having clear norms that everyone agrees on can get the group off on the right foot. For example, for some groups being late might not violate a norm as long as each member arrives within a ten minute grace period. For other groups, coming late may be unacceptable behavior. To avoid conflict, group members need to reach a consensus about this issue and others, and this consensus needs to be communicated to all participants.

3. How does my group decide on norms?

A group will have a better chance of succeeding at a task if everyone has the same expectations. With that in mind, when a group is formed, it is useful for the members to meet and discuss some issues that may affect the functioning of the group. Finding common ground in your choice of norms as a group should be the result of open, honest discussion. The decision should not be hurried or decided upon by a single person. Everyone must agree to the norms and be comfortable with the options that the group has chosen.

As the group is establishing its norms, it may be useful to discuss previous group experiences. Can group members point to any practices or behaviors that contributed greatly to a previous group’s success? On the other hand, can they point to any practices or behaviors that inhibited a group’s success? Take what group members have learned from previous experiences and apply it, as appropriate, as you establish expectations for the current group.

4. What are some issues for which norms should be established?

Below are some common issues for which norms may need to be established. Based on your past experience with groups or on the specific group assignment, you and your classmates may be able to suggest others.

  • How will we stay in contact between meetings?
  • When and how often should we meet? How will the schedule be determined?
  • What are the expectations for attendance?
  • If someone has to miss a meeting, what should that person do?
  • How do we want to schedule the stages of our project and by what date do we want it completed?
  • How will we hold each other accountable for tasks that people are assigned to complete on their own as individual contributions to the group project?
  • How will we share information and files?
  • How will we back up work?
  • What limits, if any, do we want to place on the use of cell phones, tablets, or laptops during meetings?
  • What kind of climate do we want at our meetings?  Relaxed, professional, casual, fun?
  • How will we reach decisions as a group?
  • Will we have a set leader? If so, how will that leader be selected and what will her responsibilities be?
  • Are there other individuals who will have set roles? If so, how will they be selected and what will their responsibilities be?
  • If leadership or other roles rotate, what will be the mechanism for members of the group moving from one role to another?
  • What will we do if someone violates a norm?

5. What are sanctions?

Sanctions are the repercussions for violating norms. When an individual violates a group expectation, the group must respond. If group members do not show the offender that there are consequences to violating norms, then the unwelcome behavior may become the new norm. The scenario below illustrates how that process can occur.

A group has agreed that members cannot use cell phones for personal texts during meetings. A person in the group uses his phone to answer a few texts during a meeting. Some group members are annoyed by his divided attention but do not say anything. At the next meeting, he starts texting a little more, thinking no one was bothered. This cycle will continue, possibly with others starting to text as well, until the group acknowledges that there’s too much texting going on and not enough people giving the meeting their undivided attention. If the offender had been subject to a sanction at the first offense, the problem might have been avoided.

6. What are reasonable sanctions?

A sanction can be anything that shows the group’s disapproval and deters people from breaking the norms. Finding sanctions that work for your group is important and if possible should be honestly discussed early on in the group’s formation. Your group may decide on different sanctions for different offenses. Whatever you decide, sanctions must be enforceable.

Examples of sanctions:

  • Lowering an individual’s grade on an assignment, with the size of the deduction depending upon the number of violations and/or the severity of the offenses.
  • Assigning additional work to the individual. (Consider first, though, whether you can rely on that person to complete the extra work.)
  • Delegating refreshments, an option that may be appropriate if relationships within the group are good and you want to gently remind one group member to follow the norms more carefully—come late, bring cookies next time.
  • Noting offenses in the minutes. Keeping a log may be enough of a deterrent. If not, the group will have a record if it is necessary to hold a group member accountable for repeated violations of the norms.
  • Developing creative sanctions, such as wearing an embarrassing hat or paying ‘fines’.
  • Terminating membership in the group. This is the most severe sanction available to any group. However, if someone has violated important norms and is not pulling her weight, it may be better for the group to work without her.

7. How should sanctions be applied?

Sanctions must be consistently applied by the group and not just by a single person in the group. Likewise, they need to be consistently applied to all group members and not just to one or some members. Everyone in the group must be treated as an equal.

In addition to being consistently applied, sanctions must be applied openly. Do not make a habit of talking about people behind their backs instead of confronting an issue and determining, as a group, the appropriate sanctions.

Sanctions can escalate. Your group may determine that minor offenses can add to a serious sanction or that the first, non-serious violation is a “freebie” and only requires a verbal warning.

Some groups have had success with a strike system. Some violations may merit one strike; other more serious ones may be two or more strikes. At a certain number of strikes, some groups consider terminating group membership.

Your group may not wish to rely on that system. Whatever approach to sanctions your group adopts, however, you and your classmates need to keep an open dialog going throughout the life of the group to make sure that everyone is participating to their fullest and the group is functioning as well as possible.

Virtual Teams for online classes

What are the best practices for virtual teams?

If you are taking Core 202 online, or if your group has chosen to meet virtually, you will need to adjust to the format. A lot of the same rules apply: You should be prepared, you should contribute equally, you should listen to others. You may find you need to make a little more effort to focus; it can be tempting to play with your phone, to surf in another browser window, or to do homework for another class because no one can see you.  But your disengagement will come through loud and clear to the rest of the group, as it usually translates to less contributions from you.  You may want to find a quiet place, away from other distractions, during your online meetings.

You will also need to be more proactive in encouraging other team members to speak.  Most virtual meetings do not include video of all members, so you won’t be able to read the body language or see cues that someone is upset, confused, etc.  If you are leading the group discussion, check in with each member verbally before moving from one task to another: “Samantha, do you agree that this is the best solution to the problem?”  Do not assume silence means assent.


1. What are different ways leadership roles can be assigned in groups?

All members of a group can exert leadership, and shared leadership (as explained below) results when the group encourages everyone to exhibit leadership behaviors and to hold all members accountable for the group’s progress. 

On some occasions, though, it may be useful to have someone take on an ‘executive function’.

A group may elect someone to be the leader and to be officially responsible for some of the leadership behaviors listed under the previous question. This person may focus on facilitating group discussion and making sure everyone is contributing equally.

In appointed leadership, a leader is chosen given the circumstances. For example, a manager may be part of a working group or task force. In this case, the leader may focus on top-down communication. He may tell people what to do rather than facilitate discussion or ask for feedback.

2. What are the two main leadership orientations?

Leaders may be task-oriented or relationship-oriented.

A task-oriented leader takes primary responsibility for moving the group towards its goal. This person may be highly motivated and may possess a go-getter personality. Such a leader tends to be organized and good at problem solving.

In the past, groups often assumed that men would take on this role, but in American culture this mindset is receding.

Task-oriented leaders often are focused on

  • planning—drawing up agendas for individual meetings and helping the group break up a complex task into smaller, more manageable tasks,
  • coordinating—pulling together the individual contributions, and
  • facilitating, making certain that the group is working collaboratively so that the final product will be more than the sum of individual efforts.

Facilitating work and discussion often requires this person to remain neutral and to focus on clarifying, elaborating, and summarizing others’ ideas.

A relationship-oriented leader (or “socio-emotional” leader) focuses on maintaining healthy interaction between members of the group. This person promotes feelings of equality and worth, makes certain that no one leaves a meeting feeling bad, and is generally well liked by everyone in the group. In the past, groups often expected women to fill this role, but men are likewise capable of fostering good relationships among group members.

Task-oriented leaders often are focused on

  • monitoring the group’s communication and being the one to speak up if the group is making a decision in a way that might lead to conflict later—for example, reminding the group of its commitment to reaching agreements that everyone can be happy with, even those in the minority,
  • building and maintaining relationships—for example, helping the group navigate personal issues, and
  • supporting and affirming members—for example, helping everyone feel valued by making certain that communication within the group is inclusive and equitable.

3. What are the main leadership styles?

Top-down communication is a feature of an autocratic style. Autocratic leaders tend to tell people what to do rather than ask for their thoughts, ideas, or opinions. Autocratic leaders may be poor listeners and may come across as bossy and condescending. They may use coercion or rewards to get people to do what they want. They also may manipulate group conflict for personal gain.

A leader with a democratic style focuses on fostering communication between equals. Democratic leaders try to make certain that everyone has input. Decisions made by groups with this type of leadership tend to be made by consensus. As a result, even if everyone is not completely satisfied with the outcome, everyone can feel that their ideas have been considered. Democratic leaders tend to be good listeners and provide frequent, positive feedback to other group members. Their communication style usually is relaxed, animated, friendly, and attentive.

A leader who has minimal interaction with the group is said to have a laissez-faire style. (“Laissez-faire” is French for “let it be.”) A laissez-faire leader may not communicate much with the group. When he does interact with group members, he may stick to superficial talk and to chat about topics other than the group’s progress.  A laissez-faire leader may avoid conflict and provide infrequent feedback.

4. How do I know which style is appropriate?

At first glance, the democratic style of leadership may seem preferable, but often it is in the best interests of the group for the leader to consider the context before deciding upon a leadership style. As the group progresses, that context may change, so a leader should be able to switch between leadership styles in order effectively manage the group.

Most group members report being highly dissatisfied with autocratic leaders, but sometimes this style is appropriate. If the group has reached an impasse and a decision must be made or a deadline is looming, it may be appropriate for someone to step up and get the group to act.

The democratic style of leadership is the most popular. Everyone wants to be able to contribute in a group. (Otherwise, there is no reason to be in the group in the first place). In most situations, then, the democratic style of leadership may be the best choice, but making it work does take coordination, planning, and time so that everyone has a say in the outcome of a project.

Sometimes the laissez-faire style may be appropriate. A person may be the manager of a group, but the group itself is made up of experts on aspects of the project while the manager himself may not have mastery of every element. In a situation like this, it makes sense for the manager to defer to group members who understand what must be done and are able to carry on the necessary discussions about how to proceed. As long as the group is functioning as it should, the manager need only step in at certain points to make certain that the group is still on track.

5. What is shared leadership?

Shared leadership occurs when groups allow multiple people to be responsible for leadership behaviors. The role of leader may be rotated through members during the life of the group, but shared leadership generally refers to when people take on leadership responsibilities at the same time.

A shared-leadership scenario:

A student who is excellent at project planning and scheduling takes on the logistics for meetings. She writes the agendas and makes certain that everyone knows what they need to prepare and bring for the meetings.

A second student is comfortable facilitating group discussion, so the group looks to him to keep the meetings orderly and everyone on track according to the agenda that the first student has prepared.

A third student makes certain that everyone feels valued as a member of the team and comfortable contributing.

Collectively, the three demonstrate the behaviors of a strong, competent leader.

Such shared leadership can be very beneficial for the group because it allows people to take on the roles and behaviors that they are most comfortable with and to use their strengths to make the group better as a whole. Shared leadership also relieves the pressure an individual leader may feel to be everything that the group wants in a leader.

When shared leadership arises from the group’s recognition that there are natural fits between individuals and certain tasks or roles, it can be very beneficial for the group. However, if a person tries to force the group to recognize him as a leader in some way, power struggles may ensue and the individual may come across as pushy. Shared leadership is best achieved through open and honest communication and by letting people step up when they are comfortable and can do a good job in a role.

Developing ideas and plans as a group

1. What is idea writing?

Idea writing is a way for groups to share solutions and ideas via a written ‘discussion’.

Idea writing should be limited to a single, well-defined question and can usually be completed in an hour or less.

  • Members are given a question or problem to think about. Without worrying about spelling, grammar, or punctuation, each person writes down three or four possible answers or solutions, along with why each one has merit.
  • Everyone’s answers are placed in the center, and each group member selects a page that isn’t her own, reads the ideas on it, and responds to them in writing, recording agreements or disagreements or suggestions, along with explanations of her responses.
  •  Once again, pages are returned to the center to be drawn by other classmates. The process continues until everyone has responded to everyone else’s ideas.
  • At that point, group members retrieve their original answers, which now have responses from every other group member. Group members read their classmates’ comments thoroughly and objectively.
  • Then, the group, for the first time in the process, discusses the ideas aloud, looking for a consensus as to which ideas are the best or most useful and keeping a public record of those ideas. While this discussion and recording is taking place, the group may build on ideas or discover more reasons why they are good ones.

2. When is idea writing useful for a group?

Because idea writing starts as a discussion that takes place on paper, everyone has a voice and less assertive members of the group are not as likely to be ‘drowned out’ by dominant communicators. As a result, the process may encourage otherwise quiet members of the group to participate fully in group deliberations.

Idea writing also may be an excellent choice if the group is meeting in a loud place where it is difficult for group members to hear one another. It also may work if a group needs to meet virtually and by text only. Forum threads and shared online documents may substitute for papers being passed around the group.

In addition, idea writing may be helpful when groups have limited meeting time. The process requires the group to carefully define a specific problem, and once that is done, the meeting often concludes in less than an hour.

3. Why should my group break a complex task into smaller tasks?

One of the difficulties of group work is logistics: coordination of the efforts of different people working on different parts of a project so that the group may finish the project on time and create a quality product. Because coordination is difficult, groups may procrastinate and wait until the last minute to pool resources. You may have been in such a group—one whose members waited until the last minute to pull the project together—and you may know that the results can be mediocre or even poor. Groups tend to be far more successful when members break up large, complex tasks into a series of smaller, more manageable tasks that are assigned to individuals, along with appropriate deadlines for the completion of each task.

There is a second good reason to break a complex task into smaller ones that individual members can accomplish within reasonable time frames. Groups that fail to break projects into manageable portions that are assigned to individual members risk ending up with one or two people quickly doing the bulk of the work at the last minute. This situation is unfair. Moreover, it results in an outcome that may not reflect all the insights and resources that the group as a whole could have brought to bear on the project.

4. How does my group create a project plan that will give everyone adequate time to contribute effectively?

The best way to plan a project as a group is to meet at the beginning of the project to divide the task into parts. Once a large task is broken down into smaller tasks, consider group members’ needs and schedules when assigning responsibilities and settling upon a timeline that will result in completion of a creditable project by the due date. Below are some of the actions that your group can take to accomplish the goal of completing the project on time and in a manner that the group can be proud of.

  • Make a practice of keeping a calendar open that is easily accessible to everyone, and encourage group members to consult it regularly.
  • Working backward from the instructor’s due date, choose a day prior to this official one that will be the point at which the group will put the finishing touches on its project. Usually it is helpful to shoot for a target at least 48 hours ahead of the official due date. This margin should give your group time to make last minute changes, to clear up any misunderstandings, and to rehearse without the stress of simultaneously scrambling to complete the project.
  • Break up the assignment into major parts and agree upon firm deadlines for the completion of each part.
  • Determine what needs to be done to complete each major part. Assign tasks, plan meetings, and set deadlines to make certain that each part is completed when it needs to be.
  • Be reasonable when setting deadlines. Take into account the other commitments that individual members have, such as work or social obligations or assignments in other classes.
  • Make certain everyone is committed to the deadlines.  Keeping deadlines should become a norm, and sanctions should be imposed on those who do not do their parts. When a group gets behind on an internal deadline, it tends to stay behind, and group members find themselves rushing to get things accomplished at the last minute. This state of affairs both creates unnecessary stress and results in a finished project that is unlikely to represent the group’s best efforts.

Managing group meetings

1. What is an agenda?

An agenda is a list of items that will be tackled during a meeting. Items typically listed on agendas include decisions that must be made, topics that must be discussed, and old business that must be wrapped up. Agendas usually are distributed prior to meetings.

2. Why are agendas useful?

Agendas create expectations about what will be addressed during a meeting. By distributing an agenda before a meeting, an organizer communicates what must be accomplished and allows participants time to plan so that they come prepared.

During meetings, agendas help keep a group on track. A moderator or facilitator can use the agenda as a way to keep participants on topic and forward-oriented, moving from one task to another as each task is completed.

Agendas also may be used to encourage participation. Provided that the agenda went out sufficiently far enough in advance, it is appropriate to ask all group members to share their input (either aloud or via writing) based on their having had time to prepare.

If an agenda is distributed, someone does need to use it. If agendas are distributed but then not followed during meetings, group members will come to ignore them. The agendas no longer will be a means for making certain that group members prepare for meetings and use meeting time productively.

3. How do I prepare an agenda?

Prepare each agenda carefully. Give yourself the time adequate for doing a careful job. An incomplete or inaccurate agenda may result in confusion during a meeting. The upshot of such confusion may be that important decisions are not made on time.

Start by asking yourself the meeting’s purpose and goals. Every item on your agenda should support your meeting’s purpose and goals.

Once you have a draft of your agenda, it is a good idea to ask the participants of the planned meeting if they have any items to add to the agenda.

4. What goes into an agenda?

An agenda begins with information about the date, time, and location of the meeting, as well as with information about the members who are expected to attend. In addition, an agenda may include information about material that members should prepare and bring.

After the above, list items in the order in which they will be raised. Indicate, too, who will facilitate the discussion and the approximate time allotted to each stage of the meeting.

Below is information generally found in agendas, in an order that is typical for this organizational tool.

  • Headings: a title for the meeting, its date and location, and attendees
  • Call to order: welcome and general announcements.
  • Review of old business: status reports and updates and action on items left unfinished from previous meetings
  • Purpose: reasons and goals for the meeting
  • New business: additional items to be discussed and acted upon in order of importance, with the most important item listed first
  • Other issues: time set aside for participants to raise issues or concerns not on the agenda.
  • Closing: summary of the meeting (including recap of decisions, assignment of tasks, and establishment of deadlines) and confirmation of next meeting

5. When should an agenda be made available to my group?

An agenda should be available at least 24 hours in advance of a scheduled group meeting. That lead of at least 24 hours allows participants time to reflect on discussion topics and to prepare, including completing any necessary research.

Agendas may be sent via e-mail as attachments. Avoid copying and pasting into an e-mail message because the agenda formatting may be corrupted. Be certain to include a relevant title in the subject line so that your group members do not inadvertently overlook the message.

6. What are minutes?

Minutes are a tool for summarizing what takes place during a meeting. They provide a detailed record of discussions and decisions. Frequently they are organized in outline form, with Arabic or Roman numerals assigned to each heading.

Generally, one person during each meeting is responsible for keeping minutes or taking careful notes about what was discussed and decided.

7. Why are minutes useful?

Minutes are important because they serve as a summary of what happened for those who were at the meeting as well as for those who may have been unable to attend.

If someone does not remember what they were assigned to do or the deadline for its completion, they should refer to the minutes for that information.

Similarly, someone who misses a meeting must review the minutes to learn whether she has been assigned to complete a task. For a group member who misses a meeting, reviewing the minutes is a MUST. She should not expect those in attendance to fill her in on what happened at the meeting—that is what minutes are for.

8. How do I keep minutes?

Typically, the person taking minutes captures the following information, usually in the order listed below.

  • Records the date and time of the meeting at the top of the page
  • Lists members present and members absent
  • Follows along the agenda by (1) making notes about discussions under each agenda item and (2) by recording information about decisions or about the need for follow-up
  • Labels as action items any tasks that have been assigned to group members, as well as including the completion date
  • Includes the date, time, and location of the next meeting

9. When should minutes be sent out?

Distribute minutes within 24 hours after a meeting has taken place. The minutes serve as a detailed record of the meeting and will inform everyone, whether they were present or absent, of what was discussed, how long the discussion took, what was decided, and what was assigned.




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