Over 50 years ago Bruce Tuckman described four stages of team development - forming, storming, norming and performing. This week we explore whether these stages still apply, and the implications for leading in an increasingly complex world.
Welcome to episode fifteen of the Leadership Today podcast. Each week we provide practical advice to address some of today’s biggest leadership challenges.
Now if you ask a leader to describe the stages of development a team goes through, they will most likely say the now famous words - forming, storming, norming, performing. It was over 50 years ago that Bruce Tuckman originally described these four stages in small group formation. He later worked with Mary Jensen to add a fifth stage - adjourning (which unfortunately doesn’t rhyme quite so well with the other four stages when forced through an Australian accent - and a big shout out to our many international listeners who have spent the last 14 episodes trying to work out what accent I have - there’s your answer). But does this model still apply today? And what’s the relevance for the way we lead?
First, let’s do a quick overview and reminder of the five stages:
Forming - a team first comes together, they orient themselves to the task, establish relationships, test boundaries around ground rules and behaviours - at this point people are usually positive, polite if not a little unsure.
Storming - a lack of clarity around roles and ways of operating means this stage is marked by interpersonal conflict, lack of unity, polarised views - at this point people often actively or passively resist forming into a team - in fact the team may even fall apart at this point.
Norming - achieve greater cohesion as roles, norms and ways of operating are established - people seek to maintain the group and find effective ways to work together.
Performing - Tuckman saw the group at this point as having effectively “solved” interpersonal problems and become a “problem-solving instrument” - roles are flexible and functional, structure is clear and fixed, with shared commitment and effort towards the task.
Adjourning - winding up the team - may be some sadness as people need to let go of the role they’ve had and go their separate ways.
So where did these stages come from? Tuckman’s work was based on a literature review process rather than direct research. He wanted to bring together various ways of thinking about how teams develop and become productive. The studies he looked at were based on therapy groups, training groups, and laboratory experiments. Through this process, he was able to identify common themes - thus the initial four stages.
It is a theoretical model that has proved helpful in practice, and has mostly held up under research scrutiny. The framework has been widely applied and proved to be highly effective in encouraging further exploration of team performance.
However, there has been some more recent disagreement around the storming stage and where it fits, or even if it is a distinct stage at all. Even Tuckman’s original paper highlighted mixed evidence around the storming stage, with some researchers combining elements of storming with both the forming and norming stages.
Not surprisingly, a common question from leaders is “Can’t we just skip the storming stage altogether?” The answer is maybe in the short term, but not forever. In fact some researchers have conceptualised storming as the management of conflict and difference that occurs across the life of the team, and I think that’s a more helpful way to think about it.
Whether storming is a discrete stage or something that rears its head occasionally, the storm is never far away. And the storm is not necessarily generated within the team. There’s greater awareness now that any team is constantly being barraged with opportunities and threats as part of a larger complex system. No team works in isolation - it’s constantly being tilted, nudged, and pushed off balance.
I served as part of a very effective leadership team in a professional services firm as we sailed directly into the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Each of us had weathered recessions and downturns before - we had each seen the market move up and down - but the speed and scale of the GFC impact was still difficult. The GFC was a complex environment in which to operate, where we couldn’t fully shield the team and business. The ways of working we established became strained, and we needed to work hard at revising our norms and maintaining our relationships. We were able to do that successfully by changing the way we worked in terms of task, people and process. If we had just focused on our team and ignored the environment around us, we would have failed. It’s a good example of how we had to step back into that storming stage to then create some norms and agreed ways of operating to help us to move forward.
So here are some practical ideas for you as a leader:
Don’t just focus on the task - make sure as a team leader you place equal attention on the people and the process. A very powerful question to start with and return to is ‘How can we best work together?’
Negotiate through difference - conflict, if well managed, is your friend. But conflict management needs willing and skilled individuals, along with effective team processes.
Be attuned to your surroundings - keep a weathered eye on the horizon for opportunities and threats. Build a network outside the team that can help feed in information, advice and support.
Influence beyond the team - shape the world around you. Be proactive, not just reactive within the broader system in which you operate.
I hope these ideas help you to improve the effectiveness of the teams you lead and are a part of. Next week I’ll be expanding on this idea of operating in uncertainty, drawing on lessons from the operating theatre. See you then.
Tuckman, B. Developmental Sequence in Small Groups. Psychological Bulletin 1965, Vol. 63, No. 6, 384-399
Tuckman, B. and Jensen, M. (1977). Stages of Small-Group Development Revisited. Group & Organization Management, 2(4), pp.419-427.
Denise A. Bonebright 40 years of storming: a historical review of Tuckman’s model of small group development
Human Resource Development International Vol. 13, No. 1, February 2010, 111–120