Initiators, critics and go-betweens

Balancing informal roles to make meetings work.

Regardless of our profession, meetings are a part of most Americans daily lives. Between work meetings, civic organizations, religious organizations, parent/teacher organizations and recreational groups, meetings are a common way of conducting business. Regardless of the content and level of formality, meetings are most effective when there is an even distribution of formal and non-formal roles present in the group.

Formal roles in meetings are often elected officer positions, such as president, secretary, treasurer or chair/co-chair. Michigan State University Extension’s curriculum Developing Community Leadership examines the idea that every member of a group present in a meeting also takes on a non-elected, informal role that contributes to group effectiveness. Five of the most common roles are explored below.

  • Facilitator. The facilitator’s primary role is to help the group accomplish their goals. Ideally, a pre-determined chairperson or president will assume the facilitator role in meetings. Even without a formal role assignment, it’s important for someone to assume leadership for moving the discussion forward.
  • Initiator. These are the “idea” people. While not encompassed within formal meeting role assignments, initiators are important in meetings. These are expert brain-stormers who can bring energy to a group. However, too many ideas or too many initiators can result in groups that lack direction and focus.
  • Critic. Critics serve as a reality check for the group and are needed to balance the rapid-fire ideas occasionally presented by initiators. People in this role help to narrow down the focus of the group. However, too many critics can stall the progress of a group and can be seen as negative.
  • Observer. Often an overlooked group member, observers usually listen intently to the discussion and may be forming important ideas but may be less vocal about bringing those ideas forward. A good facilitator will identify these people and deliberately ask for their input, as observers often have important perspectives to share.
  • Go-between. Critical to the success of a group, a go-between is an expert compromiser who is able to draw connections between many different perspectives. A go-between balances the enthusiasm of initiators with the reality of critics, and proposes bridges that help maintain a forward direction.

The informal roles explained above are not assigned and are often fluid, depending on the subject of the conversation, the dynamics of the group and the mood of individual participants. A good meeting facilitator will observe how the informal roles of a group are balancing each other and will assume any under-represented role.

What role do you play at meetings you attend? Do you consistently fill one role, or are you able to assess the situation and switch from one role to another? Pay attention at your next meeting to see what roles different people take on. Future articles in this series will identify specific meeting challenges that facilitators and members of a group can work to overcome.

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