Teams move through predictable stages of team development, but how quickly and easily they progress depends on how well the needs of the team are being met during each stage. Teams don’t always move smoothly, and sometimes they can get stuck.
Understanding the stages of team development helps you determine where to focus your leadership efforts.
A (Very) Brief History of the Study of Teams
The study of small groups began in the 1950’s when Kurt Lewin coined the term group dynamics. The first popular theory of group development was described by Will Schutz in 1958 where he observed that groups go through three stages in their journey to high performances: Inclusion, Control, and Openness.
In 1965, Bruce Tuckman reviewed the then current literature and research and identified four stages of group development: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. (He later identified a 5th stage for groups that terminate).
In 1980, Roy LaCoursiere analyzed the current research and identified four stages of team development that were similar to Tuckman’s. In 2010 Tuckman reviewed current models and reconfirmed his model.
A (Useful) Model of Stages of Team Development
“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” – George E. P. Box
Models are simply a way of organizing information in order to see patterns. A model of team development cannot accurately depict the journey of all teams. However, it does provide a useful framework to make sense of what is occurring and to determine what actions are most likely to help your team.
These four stages correspond with the research, however the titles reflect the issues the team needs to address, rather than the stage’s attributes such as forming, storming, etc. Teams might move quickly through these stages, but there is no evidence that a team has ever started off as a high performance team.
Stage 1: Setting the Foundation
When teams first form, there is a lack of shared understanding of the purpose, what a great job looks like, and how they will work together to accomplish their objectives. A few people might be clear, but most people are trying to figure out how things work, how they will fit in and what contribution they will be able to make. Because team members are mostly focused on themselves and their role, we say there is a “me-orientation.”
Before jumping into the work, teams need to first lay the foundation by clarifying the team’s purpose and how they will accomplish the work. They need clarify goals, roles, how they will make decisions, share information, approach the work, and other issues needed to charter their team described in Set Up Your Team for Success.
If team members don’t understand the importance of laying the foundation, or if they are impatient with process, or if they are too eager to begin, they will jump into the work prematurely. Ultimately they will need to clarify all these things.
Often, because there is no conflict, teams at this stage think they are a high performance team. That is, until they hit Stage 2.
Stage 2: Addressing What’s Under the Table
As work gets underway and more complex, a discrepancy between initial hopes and the current reality arises. Often unexpressed and under the table, there is a growing sense of impatience and frustration. This dissatisfaction might be directed toward the work, toward the leader, or toward other team members.
This is an important stage. It is where collectively the team re-calibrates to develop a realistic, shared vision of what they will accomplish and how they will work together to achieve it. It is where individuals develop the team member skills they need to work together effectively. By engaging in and successfully resolving conflict, the team members develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for each other and a foundation of trust is formed. It’s like the irritating grain on sand in the oyster that creates the pearl.
Denying and avoiding dealing with the issues lengthens this stage. Some teams get stuck at this stage and never move on.
Stage 3: Rocking the Boat
Successfully resolving conflict creates a sense of group cohesion and a collective mindset – that we’re all in this boat together. There is a sense of team identity and a shift to a “we-orientation.”
But the newly formed trust is fragile, and sometimes team members will avoid conflict because they don’t want to rock the boat.
One of the biggest dangers for the team during this stage is getting into group think, where the desire for harmony causes people to withhold opinions that are different from the majority. The term group think was coined by Irving Janis where he looked at the Bay of Pigs fiasco and how the pressures for consensus in the Kennedy administration caused experts to withhold their judgment.
The fact is that the act of avoiding conflict and withholding differing opinions will actually send your team right back to Stage 2.
Stage 4: Achieving New Heights
At this point, the team has learned to work together, appreciating and utilizing the talents of each team member, and flexibly adapting to circumstances to achieve its goals. Leadership can arise from anywhere depending on what’s needed.
But this is not necessarily a final landing point, and the model is not as linear as it might seem. A Stage 4 team can easily slide back to Stage 2.
The biggest danger for a Stage 4 team lies in resting on its laurels and getting bored or sloppy. To maintain high performance, the team needs access to necessary resources, recognition of team success, and opportunities for new challenges.
One of the best explanations I’ve seen of how the stages flow from one to the next. I’m going to share this with my team. I’m interested in what stage everyone thinks we’re in.
Excellent idea to have this discussion with your team. Often the team leader thinks the team is a stage ahead of where others on the team think they are. Also, by having this discussion with your team, you can then discuss together what you need to do to move to the next stage. You’ll get better ideas and more investment in making them work.
Great names for each of the stages. It really helps you understand what the team needs to do during that stage.
So glad to hear your found it helpful. Thanks for letting me know John
Jesse…thanks for this perspective on team development. Another approach might be to reframe each stage in the the context of leader or team member responsibility.
Indeed, that is the next step – to look at the specific behaviors needed for each stage. You might appreciate this post that describes what team members can do during each stage: What Team Members Can (and should) Do to Help Their Team Become High Performing
Hi, Jesse – Love your work! I see your model as really quite fluid. Thanks for reminding us it is a working model.
I believe it is natural and necessary to revisit earlier stages when new initiatives or changes occur in a team or group. This growth phenomenon helps build courage as well as interpersonal relationship strength.
Recently I overheard a team reassuring themselves about how, of course, they were revisiting an earlier stage given a new challenge they were facing. It brought them great relief to know this was a natural process and that it was not that they were deficient in some way as a team. Talking about this among themselves seemed to be helping them pull together to grow even stronger to reach new and greater heights.
You raise an important point. The key to team cohesion and high performance lies in the team’s ability to talk among themselves about their team functioning and assume responsibility for their development and performance. This important shift from leader dependence signals the entrance to stage 3. Thanks for sharing your insights Cindy!
Well done. Similar to erecting a strong and lasting building, the foundation is critical. I’ve found that three exercises help the team understand each other, communicate better and appreciate each other. I use a combination of Myers-Briggs, Strength Finder and a values exercise that I developed for this aspect of team building.
These kinds of exercises that help team members understand and appreciate their similarities and differences are especially helpful during Stage 2. You remind of something one of my mentors, Don Carew, used to say: “Take care of the beginning and the end will take care of itself.”
One word Jesse. Brilliant!
Thank you, Dan. That means a lot!
Love addressing what is under the table. That is the one piece that is often missing. The trick is for whomever is the identified “team head” to be good at naive listening. Otherwise, an outside facilitator might be required
Love your term “naive listening” – setting judgments aside and focusing on understanding. Stage 2 is hardest for the team leader when the dissatisfaction is focused on the leader (rather than on the work or on other team members), and naive listening is especially required in that case.
Thanks for the article Jesse; very good indeed! A leader needs to be very purposeful in moving a team through these stages. Developing skills and commitments to accountability, communication, resolving conflict and building trust are critical components of “how” a team will work together to achieve is vision or purpose.
Thanks for your thoughts Brian. Appreciate your calling out the importance of a team leader’s “purposeful focus on how the team works together.”
Great handling of this topic Jesse,
Many time the development stages seem to be a topic for professionals only. The importance, IMHO, of this aspect in Team Behaviour is that it helps both (1) to understand/explain the behaviour of a team as related to its stage and (2) to have an idea of what could be considered as reaching the next developmental stage.
It seems to be important to consider the relations vis-a-vis authority – from more dependency of the team members on their leader/manager, in the two first stages to more interdependency among the team members in the following stages.
You remind me that another advantage to looking at the team from the perspective of stages of group development is that it moves the issues out of the realm of interpersonal dynamics and allows team members to focus on the issues without judgment.
Also appreciate your pointing out the important shift that must occur from dependence on the team leader/manager. A team leader that continues to exert authority on a stage 3 or 4 team will push the team back into stage 2. Thanks for sharing your insights, Yoram!