Stages of group development

  • Models of group development
  • Forming
  • Norming
  • Storming
  • Performing
  • Adjourning

Many outdoor situations involve bringing together a group of people with a common purpose, who often have very little common understanding of how that purpose might be achieved. Some groups rapidly evolve into a position of common understanding, with little upheaval. Others, perhaps because of the short length of the activity, never feel a need to do so. Some groups do so with a number of recognisable steps along the way. This chapter is about those steps - what they are, and when they may occur. An understanding of the stages of group development, and how they may eventuate in a group you are part of, will help you to understand what may otherwise seem to be quite strange and easily misinterpreted situations.

Models of group development

There are many models which attempt to explain the details of group development. The one presented here is by Tuckman (1965), which in certain circumstances can give an understandable explanation of what may otherwise be bewildering behaviour. But this model, it must be said, is not always relevant, particularly on short trips or where the group members know each other well. Tuckman’s model describes five stages, to which he applied catchy labels: forming, norming, storming, performing and adjourning. The popularity of his model may well have something to do with these labels.

Forming

This is where the people who will form the group meet and begin to establish their assessment of what is likely to happen, and how they each might fit in. ‘Will I fit in?’ ‘What are we going to do?’ ‘Can I cope?’ ‘Will I look silly, foolish or incompetent?’ At these times, many will look to the leader to establish appropriate rules, assist with introductions, and help members feel safe while encouraging initiative. From the leader’s position, this is possibly the most important time. If negotiated successfully and confidently, together with thorough planning (which means little goes wrong on the trip), there will be few other difficult leadership actions required. At this stage, a high profile and encouraging style is generally appropriate, but with a firm eye to ensure any inappropriate behaviour is identified and outlawed before it has a chance to become a problem.

The next two stages, called norming and storming, frequently occur in the same time frame. Arguably they are both facets of the group working through the rules which will govern their behaviour and the pecking order within the group.

Norming

The major element of this phase is the establishment of acceptable standards of behaviour within the group (i.e. group norms). Rules of behaviour will usually and desirably be worked out by consensus—often in a non-verbal manner. The leader is still needed for guidance and clarification, but the group is not so dependent and can solve some of its own problems. The leader should monitor the way the group is working and encourage contributions. Other themes of this phase include establishing individual roles and reaching basic agreement on the goal or purpose of the group.

Storming

This is the stage when groups often go through a more searching, demanding and aggressive phase. There are situations where temporarily established norms, including that of the leader, may be challenged. Individuals may question the legitimacy of everything in the group: who is a member, competency of individuals, appropriate behaviour, the task to be tackled, leadership authority, etc. Some individuals may resist any form of control imposed by the group.

As a leader, you should understand that this stage is typical in the functioning of an unfamiliar group established to tackle an apparently challenging goal. When confronted by these situations leaders often do well by showing understanding and flexibility, but at the same time, strength and confidence.

The storming stage resolves when sufficient members believe that the benefit of belonging to the group outweighs the restrictions on personal freedom from group membership. If the trip is short, or many members know each other, this stage may be muted or nonexistent. However, in other circumstances where groups are brought together apparently forever (such as in mergers of schools or sporting clubs) the storming stage may not occur until later, but may then be both prolonged and quite violent.

The storming and norming phases are not usually distinct and sequential. Some groups may move back and forth between the two and some groups may never move beyond these phases. Skilful leadership can be needed to move the group into the performing phase. This will include careful cultivation of a culture of respect for each individual and a belief in the capacities of the total group.

Performing

In the performing phase the group puts all its energy into achieving its goals. The group should be capable of achieving more than the sum of the individuals in it. The leader will mainly be involved as a peer and resource person and only occasionally as someone with a significantly different role to other members. It is useful to attend to the balance between individual, group and task needs (see Chapter 45) and to encourage the resources of the group. A well-functioning group should spend the majority of its time in this phase, provided that the group stays together for at least several days. It is rare for a group to reach the performing stage in a weekend.

It is sometimes necessary for groups to regress, particularly when a new member joins the group or the role of the group changes.

Adjourning (mourning)

Finally, there comes a time when the group must disband (or adjourn). There may be a feeling of impending loss, but the main preoccupation will be with reminiscing and evaluating. Group members start to separate and focus on issues outside the experience, although frequently plans are made for reunions. The leader’s main responsibility is to help the group face the task and the social or emotional issues involved in its disbanding.

Summary

The overall pattern of group development outlined by this model gives valuable insights to a group leader. The characteristic behaviour patterns of the first three phases (caution, exploration and aggression) can be understood and handled sympathetically. During these early stages, interesting and stimulating activities can be planned to give each member of the group the opportunity to make a constructive contribution and to appreciate the contributions of others. These activities should help the group move quickly through the early stages of development and into the more productive performing phase.

This model works well where there are high stakes such as a long period together, where there is something to prove or where the level of challenge is high. It seems to be less important when the trip is short, the group members know each other well, or for other reasons there is less at stake. In these circumstances, often the stages blur, with an important forming, some norming, little storming, and a level of performing as demanded by the circumstances.

Reference

Tuckman B. W. 1965. Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin 63(6), 384–399.