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.