Functional Group Decision-Making Theory

Group communication scholars began developing theory in the 1970s (Poole 1999). In the 1980s, Gouran and Hirokawa developed one of the most influential group communication theories, the functional theory of group decision making (Salazar 2009). This theory promotes rational decision making and critical, reflective discussion. Its rational systematic approach is based on the work of philosopher John Dewey (Schultz 1999). Functional decision making involves understanding the problem, identifying criteria for judging solutions, generating a relevant set of alternatives, examining the alternatives in light of the criterion, and selecting the alternative that best meets the desired characteristics. Initially, group members must correctly understand the issue or problem to be resolved. Problems may be made up of questions of fact (e.g., How much CO2 are we omitting?), questions of conjecture (e.g., Is it cost-effective to change our processes so as to reduce our CO2 emissions?), and questions of value (e.g., Do we have a responsibility to reduce our CO2 emissions?). Which types of questions are your group, or the groups you are researching, focusing on? Do group members share a common understanding of the questions they need to address? After a group has identified the problem, members should identify the minimal characteristics any acceptable alternative must have (i.e., criterion) (e.g., be technologically and financially feasible, have a demonstrated record of success). How well groups discuss and evaluate their alternative choices in light of the criteria influences group decision-making performance.

While groups attempt to generate solutions and make decisions, they are simultaneously undergoing internal orientation processes. In the 1970s, Fisher developed a theory of decision emergence (Littlejohn and Foss 2005) which discussed how new groups go through four phases: orientation, conflict, emergence, and reinforcement. During orientation, group members become acquainted, begin to focus on the task, and start sharing their insights. During the conflict phase, debate occurs as people solidify their attitudes. Debate involves breaking issues/problems into parts; distinguishing between the parts; justifying/defending assumptions; persuading, selling, and telling; and finally gaining agreement. Polarization is likely. Conflict is a normal part of the process when groups create collaborative decisions around sustainability-related challenges (Livesey et al. 2009). The emergence phase is characterized by the beginning of cooperation, more ambiguous comments, and the emergence of a possible decision. During reinforcement, the decision solidifies and group comments reinforce the decision.

The functional model of decision making and the phase model are only generalizations. There is no single blueprint for how a group should work through a problem or arrive at a decision. Many groups do not follow a rational approach in their decision making (Schultz 1999). Groups move back and forth between issues and possible solutions amid shifting group dynamics. Some groups discuss, argue, and reconsider the same issues multiple times before reaching a decision. However, the functional model of decision making can help groups learn to make more highquality decisions. Best Practice: Vigilance to rational decision making is especially important when groups face unfamiliar, ambiguous, or difficult decisions and/or the group is heterogeneous (i.e., members represent different cultures, interests, value sets, or organizations). Unfamiliarity, ambiguity, difficulty, and heterogeneous participants are likely to characterize large groups facing complex sustainabilityrelated challenges.