Every group goes through a series of stages in order to evolve. And while there are plenty of examples we could pull from our own experiences, here's one more: the Tuckman model of group development.
Leading a team is not a piece of cake - if you think otherwise, you're terribly wrong. When people just start working together, they are strangers who awkwardly try to find their place and struggle to get any work done. It's often stressful and uncomfortable.
Teams are social units, and like in any relationship, team members experience periods of adaptation, friction, and flourishing. This is why Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development stand out among other theories of team building - this model just reflects the natural way teams form. The value of this theory is its simplicity and logic, so it can be very useful for leaders.
The five stages of group development are a group-forming model that describes the phases a team of people working together goes through. This model, also called the Tuckman ladder, was developed by psychologist Bruce Tuckman in his 1965 essay “Developmental sequence in small groups”. It shows how individuals form a high-performing team, focused on a specific goal. Each of the stages covers the challenges a group faces in the course of its maturation.
Obviously, it is a leader’s responsibility to ensure team building goes smoothly. So if leaders understand the dynamics of change that happens throughout the project, they will be able to support their teams the best way possible, creating the right conditions for the group members to work well. Tuckman’s model describes team dynamics perfectly.
So let’s explain Tuckman’s five stages of group development in detail:
The characteristic feature of the forming stage is team orientation. In the first stage of group development, people get to know each other. It resembles the first day at a new job when you are unsure how to interact with your colleagues and, for this reason, behave with caution. Anxious with uncertainty, you are super polite and afraid of making the wrong move, as it could lead to unexpected consequences.
At the same time, you are excited – because it’s always exciting to do something new.
Real work rarely gets done at the forming stage, but it’s not a problem. At this point, the focus is not on results but rather on building relationships with one another and finding a shared purpose.
There are certain things that happen at the forming stage:
The most important task of a leader at the forming stage is to make a team out of separate individuals, creating a sense of camaraderie. Not knowing each other, people tend to work alone, and that might put future teamwork at risk.
The storming stage is characterized by competition and conflict. People already understand the tasks, as well as their own role in a team. This is a stage when dominant members of the group start to emerge. And while they feel confident, some other team members may want to stay in their comfort zone, preferring not to be confrontational or even express their thoughts.
Nevertheless, conflicts will arise. Typically, people have different expectations about work, and that will inevitably lead to conflicts and disputes, once they find out what it’s really like to work in a particular group.
Looking for colleagues who share their views, people may also form subgroups, developed around specific opinions or team members. This is also an indicator that team does not function as a whole yet.
The worst thing that can happen at the storming stage is conflict avoidance. Pretending that an issue doesn’t exist does not solve it – it just lets the problem get bigger. A clash of opinions is natural in the work environment, but these clashes should not be ignored, or it will backfire.
So what happens at the storming stage?
This is a stage of unity and cooperation. Team players have already got used to each other’s styles and willingly cooperate, feeling comfortable in their groups. Conflicts are easier to handle, as people exchange feedback and ask for help.
By this stage, teams have developed a sense of shared purpose – and this means that their productivity increases.
However, if the tasks teams work on are too difficult, this stage can turn back into the storming one. This can happen when team players do not communicate problems well, or ignore them.
This way, the norming stage is characterized by the following features:
At the norming stage, a team leader, official or unofficial, steps back and gives individuals more autonomy, not giving the role up completely, of course.
Having become mature and well-organized, teams reach the performing stage. Now they are focused on their goals. They’re fully accustomed to each other’s workflow and respect their colleagues.
Strong team cohesion lets people work at their full potential, not getting distracted by technical issues and interpersonal conflicts. Pursuing the same goal and being able to solve problems by themselves, without the leader’s help, teams demonstrate high performance. They know how to use resources efficiently, take risks, and adapt to change - in other words, they demonstrate team resilience.
So, the characteristics of the performing stage are:
We should also point out that not all teams reach this stage of group development. Unable to accept differences between team members or address issues, some teams fail to work productively.
At the adjourning stage, the team gets a sense of closure. Work is almost over – projects have been completed, goals have been achieved, and people start to move to other projects. Since they have got used to each other, it may be hard for them to leave the group. This is why the adjourning stage is also called “mourning” – because people mourn the fact they have to move on.
Usually, the adjourning stage of group development happens in short-term projects, as they are naturally expected to end. However, permanent groups that work on long-term projects can also experience it, because of organizational restructuring or some external factors.
There are several signs that can help you understand your team has got into the adjourning stage:
The adjourning stage is not fully melancholic though. It is also a great time to reflect on your past mistakes and celebrate achievements.
Wanting to become a healthy team? Steal some tips and recommendations from our recent ebook:
If you are in charge of a team, you're responsible for making it easier for your people to go through the stages of group development. Since every stage presents different challenges, let’s analyze the techniques as applicable to each of them:
The task of a leader at the forming stage is to make sure everyone is moving in the same direction. To get everyone on the same page, you need to do the following:
Leaders have to help team members resolve conflicts that inevitably arise at this stage. This way, they need to create a judgment-free workplace where people will be able to talk openly and participate in problem-solving:
As people get more and more comfortable with one another, a leader must ensure this feeling of unity gets deeper and doesn't disappear altogether. So what can be done?
Now, when your team works as one mechanism, you must encourage them to continue working in this mode till the end. It’s very important to remember that a team is formed by individuals, each of which contributes to the ultimate group success:
As a leader, you will have to reinforce a feeling of accomplishment. There is a chance the people on your team will work together in the future, so it’s important to leave on a positive note:
Tuckman was not the only author who described a team development model. There are other theories, like Lencioni’s model of team dysfunction, Hackman’s model of great performance, the GRPI model by Rubin, Plovnick, and Fry, or the T7 model of team effectiveness by Lombardo and Eichinger.
Like Tuckman’s model, these theories aim to enhance team performance. However, Tuckman’s seems to be more coherent and comprehensive, as it describes the process of team formation as a whole, while other theories focus on its specific aspects.
There are also other advantages of this system:
Teams, let alone high-performing ones, do not form overnight. Leaders who have a good understanding of Tuckman’s stages of group development can make this process smoother, helping their people move up the team development ladder naturally – in a life cycle, where there is beginning, growth, and end. So treat mistakes as steps to success, accept the necessity of conflict, and your team will do their work in a healthy way.
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