Starting a project with a new team of people can be a daunting prospect. You want to hit the ground running and get stuck into your tasks straight away, but some common pitfalls and setbacks come with bringing together an unfamiliar group and trying to establish a productive way of working.
Many human behaviour experts have studied how teams come together, act and develop as a way to better understand how to make this process as smooth as possible. Models of behaviour have been created in response, and one of the best known is Tuckman's 5 stages of group development.
If you’re in a leadership role then understanding how a new team is likely to interact throughout a project can be incredibly useful when it comes to outlining a plan for success. In this article, we take you through the five stages of group development and explain what you are likely to experience in each one, offering a framework to help you prepare to lead a new project.
The theory of team development that this article will explain came from Bruce Wayne Tuckman, an American psychological researcher who studied group dynamics in his work. In 1965 he proposed a theory of group development that initially covered four key stages, which was later adapted in 1977 with the help of Mary Ann C. Jensen who had reviewed the original paper and identified a missing section.
Tuckman's theory of group development is thought to be particularly popular because all the names of the stages rhyme with one another, which makes them easy to remember. The details of each of these stages and the common characteristics are explained in detail below.
The first stage of development in this team development model is forming. This refers to the initial point where a team is formed and the participants come together to meet for the first time and get acquainted.
Forming is usually characterized by all members of the team being overly polite but reserved as they get to know one another. There will be a lot of uncertainty at this stage, as it is unlikely that roles in the group will have been established and there won’t be a clear plan for progress.
If there is not an identified leader of the group, the lack of clarity at this stage can get drawn out as members struggle to establish a hierarchy amongst themselves. However, if you are the team leader in a new group of employees then you should make an effort to facilitate introductions early on.
This first stage may sound overly negative, but a positive is that often everyone’s enthusiasm levels are very high during forming. The project the team is working on has not yet begun, and everyone usually has high expectations and are excited to come together to create something new and share their ideas.
The end of the forming stage usually comes about when team roles have been decided upon and objectives for the project are made clear. Many teams may decide on a set of rules to make working together easier, or certain models might be chosen to help establish a clear development process.
Storming is the second of Tuckman's stages of group development and is named after the fact that there is usually a dip in enthusiasm and morale at this point.
At this point, the reality of the task at hand is likely to set in, and members of the group may start to feel daunted by the work ahead of them. Members may start to doubt that the work will be completed or feel as though they cannot undertake all of the tasks they previously took responsibility for, as all of the enthusiastic expectations from the start of the project start to dwindle.
Conflict between team members usually happens at this stage of team development, as the initial need to be polite wears off and real personalities start to shine through and clash. Some team members may feel frustrated with the progress that others are making, whereas others may feel daunted by the assertive behaviour of their teammates and become more withdrawn.
Because of this negativity, productivity usually takes a nosedive at the stage of team development. Whether this is because of actual challenges faced by the team, or just because members are spending more time trying to solve problems than actually completing the work, it can cause a significant setback.
Tucker identified that the storming stage is the hardest section of his theory of group development, but also the most important. If a team can successfully navigate their way through the tensions and pitfalls of this stage, they are likely to come through feeling stronger and success is much more likely to be achieved.
To make it through the storming stage, teams need to remember to be adaptive and let go of the high expectations they started with. It can be useful to bring in a mediator if team disagreements get particularly heated or ensure that a team leader is managing the behaviour of the rest of their team, and encourage open communication so that everyone’s feelings are shared, support can be given and expectations can be managed.
After the storming stage has been navigated, the third stage of the team development model is referred to as norming. This is the point at which all members of the team settle into their roles, previous problems and tensions are resolved, and a normal way of working collaboratively is established.
The norming stage is often where a team settles into a rhythm with the work that they’re doing and productivity starts to increase. Once everyone feels comfortable working together and any initial hold-ups have been removed, energy can be devoted to tackling the task at hand and finding the most effective route to success.
Bonding between team members tends to happen at this third stage of Tuckman's teamwork theory, with solid relationships formed and acceptance of one another increasing. If any problems do arise at this stage, the team is more committed to finding productive ways to overcome them without any hostility.
Behaviour at the norming stage is characterised by positive communication, seamless collaboration and an increased willingness to ask for help and offer it to other team members. There may also be more humorous communication amongst the team and a private language of inside jokes and references may be established.
In the performing stage of Tuckman's theory of group development, harmony is achieved in a team and productivity reaches its peak. Every member ‘performs’ at a high standard and demonstrates personal effectiveness, allowing for the project to be completed without any holdups.
There is a high sense of satisfaction amongst team members at the performing stage, as everyone is aware that a high standard of work has been achieved and appreciates that all other members are contributing their best work. Everyone involved also has a strong sense of purpose and feels confident in what is expected of them, allowing for total focus on reaching the end of the project and full commitment to their tasks.
Structure is a key part of the performing stage and is one of the reasons why productivity is so high at this stage. After issues have been identified during storming and optimum ways of working have been established during norming, a clear structure is formed by the performing stage in terms of group roles, communication and internal processes, allowing for total ease of working as a unit.
Whilst the norming stage of team development involves everyone feeling comfortable in their roles and the responsibilities that these include, in the performing stage it is common for roles to become fluid as team members offer each other assistance and complete a range of tasks as the end of the project comes into view. Cooperation happens seamlessly, individual strengths and weaknesses are understood and utilised, and help is given freely.
Problems or conflicts may still occur at this penultimate stage of team development. However, because rapport has been established and there are already strong bonds between members, these are handled more sensitively and efficiently to ensure that the project gets back on track.
Tuckman's final stage of group development is adjourning, so-called because it signifies the end of a project and often a separation of team members. In some cases, a team will stay together and just move on to another project, but this closing stage is still an important part of the model for a group to pass through.
In the adjourning stage, there may be negative feelings towards a team’s time together coming to an end. When strong bonds of trust have been formed through collaborative working, the idea of this work coming to an end can lead to feelings of loss and anxiety, which means that overall morale can start to dip as the end of a project looms closer.
However, it is also common for this stage to include a lot of feelings of satisfaction and pride as the final aspects of a project come together. Team members may switch between having positive and negative emotions about the end of a project and may experience bursts of productivity followed by a slump.
As the project workload dwindles, sometimes members of a team may be moved to start work on different tasks, particularly if they have a specialist role that is in high demand in their workplace. It may be left up to the remaining members to wrap up tasks and produce final reports or supporting documents.
Some team projects may close with a reflective session that involves identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the overall project, as well as looking back on what each member has learnt. If the project was large-scale, there may be an element of celebration involved for meeting a deadline or getting through a significant number of tasks.
The adjourning stage comes to a close with the project ending, deliverables being passed on and the group disbanding.
Tuckman’s theory of group development can be used as a way to understand how humans act and interact in a team setting. This can be useful as it can explain why certain behaviours tend to occur in the same kinds of situations, and can also help to identify when a team has moved to a certain stage and use this to an advantage with the task they are working on.
An advantage of understanding Tuckman's teamwork theory is that it can help us to understand the way that teams evolve, which can be useful when looking at behaviour and identifying its cause. It can also help to anticipate the kinds of problems that teams typically run into at different stages of group development and prepare for these, which makes it easier to avoid delays and setbacks.
An example of the norming stage of team development is when all members of the team noticeably start to interact with each other more easily, with conversation flowing more freely and a stronger rapport established. This is often the point where productivity within a team increases, thanks to the closer connections formed between members.
Understanding the different stages of team development can be useful whether you’re leading a group or are just an active participant. If you understand the peaks and troughs in productivity you are likely to go through and what is causing them, you can better prepare to tackle these low moments and ensure that any setbacks are quickly overcome so progress can continue.
If you’d like to find out more about how understanding models of team working can improve your skills as a leader, we cover this topic and much more in our online ‘An Introduction to Leadership’ course.