Group Contributors:

Alex Geukjian, Elita Partosoedarso, Amanda Paul, Gavin Robertson, Dawn McGuckin


The functional perspective on group decision making is a communication theory that deals with the decisions made by groups. It was originated by Hirokawa and Gouran. It focuses on how a group can increase the likelihood of making a good decision.

Key Words:

decisions, functions, criteria, communication, reflection

The Theory and Four Functions

There are very few policies and laws in our lives that were not formed by group decision, including but not limited to; educational policy, foreign policy, laws, private and public corporation policy. Hirokawa and Gouran outline four functions that can increase beneficial decision making:
1) Analysis of the Problem
Groups must first create an understanding of the nature of the problem, the seriousness and urgency of the problem, the feasible origin of the problem and the consequences associated with not solving the problem. 2) Goal Setting
Next they must establish criteria by which to judge proposed solutions. If they fail to do this, their decisions are more likely to be driven by politics than reason.

3) Identification of Alternatives
Hirokawa and Gouran stressed the importance of considering a number of alternative solutions from which the group members could choose. Hirokawa and Gouran argue that, “If no one calls attention to the need for generating as many alternatives as is realistically possible, then relatively few may be introduced, and the corresponding possibility of finding the acceptable answer will be low’” (Hirokawa and Gouran 250-251).

4) Evaluation of Positive and Negative Characteristics
After a group has identified alternative solutions, the participants must take care to test the relative merits of each option against the criteria they believe are important.

Some group tasks have a positive bias. They believe that spotting the favorable characteristics of alternative choices is more important than identifying negative qualities.

Other group tasks have a negative bias. They believe that the unattractive characteristics of choice options carry more weight than the positive attributes.
It is important to note that Hirokawa nd Gouran believe that all four functions serve an important purpose and that no individual function is better than another. They must all be used to reach a high quailty decision. The Role of Communication in the Theory
Hirokawa and Gouran outline three types of communication in decision-making groups

1) Proactive - interaction that calls attention to one of the four decision-making functions. 2) Disruptive - interaction that detracts from the group’s ability to achieve the four task functions. 3) Counteractive - interaction that refocuses the group. Since most interaction is disruptive, the functional perspective relies heavily on counteractive communication to refocus the group.
Critique of the Theory


The ideal is to create a synergy within the group so that the resultant is greater than that of the individual members.
The varied perspectives of the members bring them to look at the issue from a wide variety of views and thus would be able to generate a far wider list of alternative possible solutions
This in turn would create a higher quality solution


The person in charge may not be the best person to develop a synergy within the group. The loyalty of the members may thus be divided between the best ideas (from any source) and the leader’s ideas. This negates the benefits of having a group.
The members may have a difficult time remaining on task. Diversion, social activity detracts from productive work.
Silent members who listen intently but do not contribute.

Pragmatic Difficulties

The scheduling of meeting time.
The time frame for rendering solutions to the issue.
Observations from the research—it is not the quantity of ‘utterances’ but the quality of them.
It is easier the evaluation of negative consequences of alternative solutions was by far the most crucial to ensure a quality decision.

Cragan (1991) tested Hirokawa's function theory and has found it wanting. He believes that:

a) Not all functions are equally important.
b) The second function (assessing requirements for an acceptable choice) is important when selecting the best choice from a given number of options.
c) The fourth function (assessing negative characteristics) is important in reaching a 'quality decision in a specific task."d) Hirokawa's functional theory should only be applied to group tasks that have a preferred outcome.
Hewes (2009) argues that

a) There was no credible evidence that communication processes had any impact on group outcomes.
b) There was credible evidence to the contrary.
c) There was a plausible reason for communication not to have any such impact.
d) According to Hewes, a group is a collection of people who act individually (2009).


Cragan, J.F., Wright, D.W. (1991). Replicating Small Group Reseach Using the Functional Theory. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Central States Communication Associtation. Chicago, IL, April 11-14, 1991.
Hewes, D.E. (2009). The Influence of Communication Processes on Group Outcomes:Antithesis and Thesis. Human Communication Research, 35, 249-271.
Hirokawa, R. Y. & Scott-Poole, M. (1996). Communication and Group Decision Making. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.
Hirokawa, Randy, and Dennis Gouran. "Functional Perspective on Group Decision Making." Communication Communication Communication a First Look At Communication Theory 6 (2006): 249-260.
Orlitzky, M., & Hirokawa, R. Y. (2001). To err is human, to correct for it divine: A meta-analysis of research testing the functional theory of group decision-making effectiveness. Small Group Research, 32(3), 313-341.
Scott Poole, M. (1999) Group Communication Theory. From The handbook of group communication theory and research. Frey, L.R., Gouran, D.S., Scott Poole, M. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications..
Villanueva, J. S. (2009, December 27). Functional Perspective on Group Decision Making. Retrieved October 7, 2010