Small groups are an important part of organisational life. We deploy them to tackle short-term problems and as regular work units. Outside of work, we encounter them in many contexts. It was Bruce Tuckman whose research gave us the clearest and most useful model of how they develop.
Here’s a video from our Project Management in Under 5 video series, which answers the question, What is the the Tuckman Model of Group Development?
‘How do teams develop?’ was the question Bruce Tuckman answered in the early 1960s. Reviewing a wide range of group dynamics research, he identified a sequence of discrete stages that described the findings of most of the studies.
When a group first comes together, members are keen to get on with the task at hand, yet have little idea what is expected of them. In building relationships, they start with the superficial dialogue familiar to anyone who has arrived in a room full of unfamiliar people. Tuckman referred to this as the forming stage. As a leader, however, your priority at this early stage is to focus the team on some tasks that they can start to make progress on. So set simple tasks that do not need deep co-operation. This way, people can feel useful quickly. But at the same time, they don’t need strong relationships to be effective.
People being people, we need to assert ourselves, find our allies and make a niche for ourselves. The second stage that Tuckman identified is called storming. Here, the group turns inward, focusing on relationship building. Conflicts arise because, like hens in the farmyard, we each seek our place in the pecking order. This is a more social stage, so your role as a leader shifts. Now, you need also to mediate tricky relationships, and help the less assertive team members feel secure. You may also find challenges to your own leadership. Tuckman suggested that, in this stage, more dominant team members will want to assert their own ideas. So, as leader, you must stay confident and calmly assertive.
Following this intensely social phase, we withdraw into task-focused activities. We hunker down and get on with the work. The group is now more cohesive, focusing on creating procedures, fulfilling defined roles and making progress. This is the norming stage. Here, team members have a clear idea of the roles you have assigned them, and what they need to do. So the team is productive and you need to focus far less on guiding activities. Instead, give your attention to building up strong working relationships among colleagues.
As the quality and depth of relationships build, so the group reaches its final stage, performing. Group members support each other in their tasks and show greater behavioural flexibility. The group now feels like a team, with individuals stepping into leadership roles as their capabilities and interests dictate. This means that you need to do very little to lead. Tckman suggests that he day-to-day leadership role is one of makig sure your team has the resources it needs to get on with its job.
Two decades later, in 1977, Tuckman collaborated with Mary Ann Jensen on an update. They reviewed further research studies, published in the interim. As well as endorsing his earlier model, their analysis suggested they should add a fifth stage… ‘for which the perfect rhyme could not be found’ – said Tuckman.
They called this stage adjourning, although many people who use the model (as I do) prefer the term ‘mourning’. As the group separates, there is a palpable sense of loss. The joy of working successfully with colleagues we value is important to us and we mourn its loss. Like ‘real’ mourning, leaders should make time for their team to reflect on the transition and celebrate the past.
These days, as teams reach maturity, they rarely adjourn at the end of their project. More often, the team gets tasked with a new role. Some members may move on and new people may join the team.
It is essentially the same team, yet it is different: it has changed. I hypothesise a new phase: Transforming. And because people have left, new people have joined, or the team has a new role, it is unlikely to easily stay in the Performing stage.
Perhaps a new person joins and everyone else get their heads down. They get on with their work, while they try to figure out how to incorporate Mr or Ms New into their team. This can feel a little like Norming.
Perhaps the new person has a significant role. Maybe they are even a new team leader. People may compete with each other to influence them. Or maybe, someone important leaves and two or three members of the team compete for to fill their place. These can feel a little like Storming.
Maybe there is a big change in staffing. Or perhaps the role of the team shifts, to focus on some completely new project. As a result, most team members will feel uncertain about what their leader expects of them’ who their new colleagues are, and how to relate to them. These things can feel a lot like Forming.
So, be aware that when a change happens in your team, it is likely to transform into something new. Try to observe the type and extent of the change, and adapt your leadership style accordingly. You need to accommodate the new dynamic, because if you continue to manage your team as if it were still in the Performing stage, you will delay the team’s return to true performing status.
Without a doubt, Tuckman’s model is popular. He himself has said that this success probably owes a lot to his catchy labels for the stages. It is not, however, based on primary research. Tuckman used a thorough literature search to build his model. And some have criticised it for its linear nature and its discrete stages. Despite this, it accords well with people’s experience and you will find applications of the Tuckman model in a number of related formulations.
As a trainer, I use the model to help explain group evolution for participants and in interpreting what happens among the groups with whom I work. As a Project Manager, I have found the Tuckman model scores very highly in both its ability to explain what I’ve observed and predict what will happen. It is on my short list of absolutely crucial models from Social Psychology, for every Project Manager to be aware of.The Tuckman Model is a crucial Social Psychology idea for every Project Manager to know. #PM Click To Tweet
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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