Teams are an important part of organizational 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 to develop a group of individuals into a high-performing team.
In this article, you’ll get:
Here’s a video from our Project Management in Under 5 video series, which answers the question, What is the Tuckman Model of Group Development?
‘How do teams develop?’
This was a question that Bruce Tuckman answered in the early 1960s. Reviewing a wide range of group dynamics research, he identified a sequence of four discrete stages that described the findings of most of the studies.
I’ll come back to the Adjourning stage (illustrated below) later.
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, your priority at this early stage is to focus the team on some tasks that they can start to make progress on. So set them 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. It is while they carry out those tasks that they can start to get to know one another… and get the measure of their colleagues.
Human beings often need to assert themselves. We need to find our allies and make a niche for ourselves. The second stage that Tuckman identified is called storming.
In the Storming Stage, the group turns inward, focusing on relationship-building. Conflicts arise because, like hens in the farmyard, we each want to find our place in the pecking order.
Storming is a more social stage, so your role as a leader shifts. Now, you need also to mediate the tricky issues of emerging relationships and help your 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 the team leader, you need to stay confident and calmly assertive.
Following the intensely social storming phase, we withdraw into task-focused activities. We hunker down and get on with the work. The group is now more cohesive and is 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 their activities. Instead, give your attention to building up strong working relationships among colleagues. Get people together to collaborate and use your knowledge of individuals’ experience and expertise to connect people to others who can help them.
As the quality and depth of relationships build, the group will start to reach its final stage, performing. In the performing stage, group members support each other in their tasks and show greater behavioral flexibility.
The group now feels like a team
Now you will start to see individuals stepping into leadership roles as their capabilities and interests dictate. Team members will collaborate with one another, without you needing to intervene. And they will mostly be able to resolve their own conflicts. Indeed, you will also see evidence that team members are willing to take care of one another.
This means that you need to do very little to lead. A light touch is all you need. Tuckman suggests that the day-to-day leadership role is one of making sure your team:
Yes, we are talking about a leadership style known as ‘Servant Leadership’:
And, if you are interested in Servant Leadership and want more, we have a full-length feature article:
Two decades later, in 1977, Tuckman collaborated with Mary Ann Jensen on an update to his work. They reviewed further research studies, published in the time since Tuckman’s original work. 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 prefer (as I do) the term ‘mourning’. Not only is it a better rhyme, but it also encapsulates the essential emotional nature of the stage.
As the team 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 have often observed a new phase: Transforming. And because people have left, new people have joined, or the team has a new role, it is unlikely that the team will find it easy to stay in the Performing stage.
Perhaps a new person joins and everyone else gets 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 team members compete 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.
Is your team getting tired and jaded at the end of a long year? Are they getting bored and stale?
I have come across a number of managers and trainers who have identified another stage beyond performing: yawning. This recognizes that, after a period of continuous high performance, a team can become stale.
I think of this as more of a teaching aid than an extension of the Tuckman model. But it does highlight the need for the team leader to keep the team fresh and challenged. If you are to maintain high performance, you need to make sure each person has the chance to grow, develop, and learn new skills. At the same time, do not neglect the relationship dimension: how can you give them opportunities to build new connections in their professional lives?
So, if you notice that your team has slipped down from its familiar high-performance levels, this may explain what is happening.
A question I am often asked is this:
‘Mike, I’m not complaining, but my team storm.
We all got on with it and moved quickly from Forming to Norming and even Performing.
Does the model really work?’
When the pressure for a new team to achieve quick results is lifted, the internal pressures will emerge and, albeit out of sequence, the team will storm.
A model like Tuckman’s can predict or explain, and Tuckman’s does both. But it is the nature of a model to simplify. So, by definition, a model must sometimes be wrong! The better the model is, the less often it is wrong.
But neither this observation nor my assertion that ‘a team will storm’ explains why a team sometimes doesn’t storm at the ‘right’ time. Nor does it explain why some teams do not storm at all (if that happens) – yes, my assertion could be wrong too.
My answer lies inthe concept of ‘Swift Trust’.
The concept of Swift Trust was first articulated by Debra Meyerson, Karl Weick, and Roderick Kramer. It was the subject of a chapter in the 1996 multi-disciplinary review book, Trust in Organizations, edited by Kramer and Tom Tyler.
Sometimes teams come together in a short time, and need to work together effectively without having the time it normally takes to build trust.
Happily, however, in some circumstances, a team can build trust quickly. This is swift trust and, I suggest, it is what delays and even stops the Storming phase. There are six conditions for forming swift trust:
Swift Trust can emerge when group members are willing to suspend their doubts and concerns about their colleagues and just get on with a shared task. They need to focus on their goals, their roles, and the time constraints they are under.
Project leaders can help foster Swift Trust in seven ways:
Your team doesn’t have to storm. But if you do want to avoid it, you have to build trust: swiftly. However, the chances are that, once things settle into a routine, the usual petty complaints people have with one another will start to emerge. And, as a result, the team will start to storm. Stay calm, and deal with it!
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 criticized 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:
It is on my short list of absolutely crucial models from Social Psychology, for every Project Manager to be aware of. Do check out our article, Top 12 Psychologists a Project Manager Should Know About.The Tuckman Model is a crucial Social Psychology idea for every Project Manager to know. #PM Click To Tweet
Our sister YouTube channel, Management Courses, has a whole (FREE) course on teams. The easiest place to view the course (or just pick and choose from nearly 50 videos) is on the Management Courses website. The course is divided into 7 sections:
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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What is the Tuckman Model of Group Development? | Video
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