Chapter 8 – Role of Communication

8.5. In-depth Look: Poole’s Model of Small Group Communication

In-depth Look

Marshall Scott Poole is a senior research scientist and professor of communication and director of I-CHASS at the University of Illinois. Poole was researching for his dissertation  attempting to discover when small groups follow the single-sequence model.  He studied many groups, highlighting important decision making.  He discovered that very few of these groups made use of the  the single-sequence models.   From this research, he compiled information following Poole’s Model of Small Group Communication.

Small Group Communication

Employees experience a sense of belonging in the organization when they feel valued and that they actively contribute to decisions that influence the business (Chron Contributor, 2021). Ideally, these small groups of individuals have a variety of strengths, job functions, and knowledge. Being an active member in a small group also encourages responsibility and accountability, as each member will have an important role when working on projects.  It gives employees a chance to showcase their areas of expertise, improving confidence and enhancing feelings of self-efficacy (Chron Contributor, 2021).  Within organizations, there are often unintentional barriers between different departments, levels of management, or according to job duties.  Encouraging the creation of small groups between and among peers helps teams encourage an environment of cohesiveness, teamwork, and allows employees to form long-lasting friendships. Working with others stimulates employees, motivates them to apply their knowledge and skills, and can even create career advancement.

Poole’s Model of Small Group Communication

Poole’s Model consists of various activity tracks. These tracks do not need to occur in a logical sequence. They may overlap, or start-and-stop, and are used for interpreting the communication style that a group uses. The following are different activity tracks that are used by groups:

  • Task track: This is the initial stage. It is an understanding period, where the group sets goals and tries to figure out its procedure (Communication Theory, n.d.). Poole suggests that task factors (e.g., the novelty of the problem) influence what path the group takes to reach a decision, the number of steps it takes to reach this decision, and the complexity of the decision making process (Beck et al., 2021). Some groups may be extremely task focused and not pay much attention to building personal relationships and trust (Beebe & Masterson, 2016).
  • Relation track: This is an interpersonal relation between members of the group. In this track the group members pause and focus on the decision-making. They interact and relax as friends, and maybe share stories. Some social factors (e.g., cohesiveness) influence how group members interact with each other and how much conflict they experience when working through the decision-making process (Beck et al., 2021). Some groups may take a lengthy amount of time building a relationship with each other before committing to decision-making or discussing their tasks (Beebe & Masterson, 2016). In this activity track there may be relational issues, such as the following:
    1. Work-focused relationships.
    2. Conflict relationships (opposing ideas and conflict resolution techniques).
    3. Integration issues.
    4. Ambiguity issues (Harris & Nelson, 2018).
  • Topic track:  This track focuses on issues regarding group communication. It can be argumentative or cooperative. It also refers to the specifics the group is discussing at a specific time.
  • Break points: These are group shifts through tracks during conversations which are turning points and help the group reach a consensus. When a breakpoint occurs, groups must accommodate them and turn their focus to getting back on track. Breakpoints can be in the form of delays. When recycling through the same issues the group decides they need to reevaluate or repeat part of the task, or disruptions, where conflicts or group failures may stop or pause work altogether and postpone the discussion to a later date. Normal breakpoints do not interrupt the ability to decide or impede the task at hand. Meetings may be adjourned, the topic may shift during discussion, or the focus may be on another aspect of the task, or it could be a coffee break (Harris & Nelson, 2018).


The basis of Poole’s research is focused on explaining development and change in organizations (Harris & Nelson, 2018). A large facilitator of organizational change is effective communication that flows amongst employees at all levels. Poole derived his theory from the traditional phase models and gives credit to these approaches, but says it is only one option in the larger sequence of how decisions can be made, and groups can develop (Harris & Nelson, 2018).

This theory seeks to explain that not all small groups communicate and reach decisions in the same way. What works for one small group, may not work for another. It is important that management and individuals in supervisory roles understand this when directing their employees. They may follow different sequences and methods during deliberation.  Poole believes that decision-making is too complex to be explained by a single-sequence of phases or specific chain of events. Groups can be in communication for the purpose of completing a task or deciding. However, they may also be performing other functions that add value to the discussion and overall success of the team.

Poole believes his theory is adaptive rather than linear and helps us understand why certain groups deviate from traditional phases such as Fisher’s model of small-group communication (Harris & Nelson, 2018).  While most draw from Tuckman’s model of linear group development, Tubbs and Fisher offer different models.  In Tubb’s model, there is an emphasis on conflict and groupthink.  Whereas in Fisher’s model is made on group decision-making. Poole’s theory is derived from this basis but believes the process is much more complex (Polites, 2021).  He explains that groups may at times follow conventional rules when in deliberation, but effective communication and decision-making does not need to be clear cut in every situation.

Human Resources and Project Management

How does Poole’s model help us understand small-group communication more effectively? By providing a descriptive approach to group communication, Poole helps Human Resources and Project Managers to realize why certain types of statements are made by team members and how the team develops together over time. Exercising use of his model can help Human Resources and Project Managers become better evaluators of communication styles and approaches. As well, the team itself can better evaluate when performing tasks in a small group setting, allowing for improvement in how they participate now and in the future.

Understanding how groups communicate and reach decisions can be helpful to Human Resources and Project Managers. A group that has been assigned a task, deadline, training modules, etc. must effectively utilize good forms of communication and deliberation skills in to contribute to the teams’ success. When groups come to conclusions efficiently, it helps the project keep pace according to the timeline they created.

Poole’s theory explains that when attempting to reach decisions, groups are also focusing on building their relationship and improving their bond with one another (Harris & Nelson, 2018).  The more cohesive a team becomes, the better success they will have in future projects and assignments.  From a Human Resources perspective, management wants their employees to work together as a team effectively, with all members utilizing their strengths and contributing ideas. Poole’s theory supports this desire and clarifies the importance of allowing for deviance from the task at hand, as this is the time when relationships strengthen, and group members get to know each other as individuals (Harris & Nelson, 2018). Understanding and applying the methods that Poole’s theory explains can help identify when groups are being successful in their communication efforts and make changes when collaboration is not going accordingly.

Poole was not the first to come up with a communication theory. There were several people before him.  Some of the models were more basic and have evolved over time. Shannon-Weaver was the first to come up with a communication theory back in 1948. Her theory was linear in nature and had 4 different steps:

  1. The sender encodes a message and chooses a communication channel.
  2. The encoder, a part of the channel, converts the code into signals.
  3. The decoder takes those signals and translates them into a message for the receiver.
  4. The receiver gets the message and interprets it (as cited in Novak, 2019).

Lasswell’s communication theory came out shortly after and was also linear, but studied mass communication versus the smaller group or 2-person communication theory of Shannon-Weaver. Then in 1960, Berrie developed a theory similar to Shannon-Weaver, but evolved it slightly to consider things that can happen during the communication between the sender and the receiver. Nearly 10 years later came Barnium’s Communication model in 1970.  Barnum was the first one to deviate from the linear model and use a circular model.  According to Novak (2019), “it is a never-ending cycle between sender and receiver where their roles switch depending on who is speaking.” Then there is the Schramm Communication model which is different from the others. In this model nobody is labeled the sender and receiver as it focuses more on the message and less on who is sending and who is receiving the message.

Since these communications models were created, communication has changed drastically. No longer is it just individuals speaking to each other either in person or over the phone. We now consider communication in written form such as emails and text messages and social media as this can be the form of communication that happens much more frequently than in-person communication. In fact, Aydinyan (2018) found that text messaging was used by 89% of survey respondents for daily communication.


  1. Poole’s model of small group communication allows for variance when it comes to communicating, deliberating, and reaching decisions in the workplace. His theory supports differences when it comes to the types of communication utilized, the phases that occur when working towards a goal, and how conflict is resolved by the group members.
  2. Poole’s theory is adaptive in that group members can affect the outcomes based on how they communicate or how they react. The group members will change things to make it work for them and what they are trying to accomplish. Poole’s theory understood this, and it was part of his theory that this would happen.
  3. Since Poole’s theory is much more free-flowing, it can adapt to various groups and group dynamics.


Poole’s Model of small-group communication has limitations. First, some people found it was confusing. For the most part, up until Poole’s Model, Communication was looked at as a linear process.  While Poole was not the first to not use a linear approach, he was one of the firsts.  Also in his model, there were many moving parts. In total there are 36 clusters which can make it difficult to follow.

The second limitation is that not everyone followed the same path. It was up to the group to determine which step was followed; and therefore, which cluster group or cluster set was used. This could be confusing. Leaving it up to the group to determine may lead to different results if they map it out.

Regardless of the challenges, Poole’s model of small group communication has been around since the 1980’s, and is useful for Human Resources professionals, Project Managers, and groups.  It explains how important it is for groups to get along and communicate as friends to have the most effective communication style. This is important to understand how staff members/employees communicate effectively and help to create a better working environment. The more cohesive a team is the better they will be in communicating. This leads to success in their tasks and projects. Poole’s model allows for variance when it comes to communicating in the workplace and for how decisions are reached. It recognizes that all groups are different and may not follow the same path. Poole’s model can be adapted to each unique group for ultimate success.

Class of 2022 contribution:  Andreanna Whitty, Cassandra Lytle, Eryn Kell