Only in the movies do groups come together and magically coalesce as if they were long lost soulmates, destined to come together for the greater good. In reality, things are often a bit less smooth. In most cases, teams go through a definable set of stages—something that Psychologist and professor Bruce Tuckman identified and developed a model for back in 1963.
Tuckman’s “stages of group development” (sometimes referred to as “team” development) progress through the following phases: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. Understanding the steps along the way can be helpful in speeding up the process since you’ll know what to expect and thus be more prepared.
This first step involves the team’s beginnings, when everyone gets together for the first time and feels each other out. It’s often characterized by politeness and relative independence as people are not yet used to working with one another. Moreover, during this stage goals are established and tacitly agreed upon, though there may be reservations. There is a lot of dependence on leadership for direction at this stage, with emphasis on defining roles, scope, and focus for the team. Group member attitudes can range from excitement to anxiety during this portion of the process. In general conflict is avoided during this orientation period.
As its name implies, this stage of the development process is where challenges often arise. Team members will sometimes butt heads over work styles or trying to establish some sort of hierarchy, all while trying to solidify behind a common goal which also may be questioned. Likewise, boundaries are sometimes tested, with regard to the group’s mission and its leadership—which, during this phase, still tends to be directive in nature. While clashes may occur, healthy conflict is not a bad thing. Good leaders can guide the team through this process in a constructive manner, surfacing issues and ironing out wrinkles within the team. While most teams eventually make it out of this process, it’s important to note that a few will not, so it’s best to be patient and present during this stage.
During this stage, the team has resolved most of its conflicts and grown closer. There is agreement on a common goal and group members have, for the most part, rallied around leadership. Individual members have a better understanding of each other’s roles, responsibilities, and strengths, and while most decisions are made on a consensus basis, there is more delegation of smaller decisions during this stage. This newfound unity often extends outside of the workplace as members begin to socialize in off-hours. While this stage results in a distinct uptick in performance and productivity, it’s important for managers to note that changes in priorities or goals, or introduction of new parameters for the team can result in slipping back into the Storming stage, though potentially for a shorter period of time.
At this point in group development, the team is motivated and strategically aware—they understand the “why” behind their work and agree on the means of achieving their goals. Members of the team are competent and knowledgeable, and the group is largely autonomous with little supervision from leadership. It’s at this point that leadership’s focus is on personal development for individual team members to further advance their skills and competencies. While dissent still occurs, it now is constructive in nature and results in little disruption to the group. The team is now making swift and solid progress towards attaining their goals.
The four stages above were those originally laid out by Tuckman in the mid-1960s. However, in 1977 Tuckman joined with Mary Ann Jensen in identifying a fifth and final stage, Adjourning. This marks the inevitable dissolution of a team upon reaching its goals. Sometimes this stage is referred to as Mourning, as a high performing team’s disbanding can understandably be seen as bittersweet.
Hopefully, the stages of group development will provide greater insight into the inevitable stages you will encounter when a new team comes together. Through understanding and patience, leaders can effectively navigate and reduce the time spent in the earlier stages, guiding a team toward Performing more quickly.
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