Teamwork Theory: Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development
Probably the most famous teamwork theory is Bruce Tuckman’s “team stages model”.
First developed in 1965, Tuckman’s model is widely known as a basis for effective team building. Yet how many people really know how to use it?
Below we explain Tuckman’s model and offer some fresh insights on how to take it further.
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Tuckman’s model is significant because it recognizes the fact that groups do not start off fully-formed and functioning. He suggests that teams grow through clearly defined stages, from their creation as groups of individuals, to cohesive, task-focused teams.
Our e-guide: Build a Better Team, has been specifically designed to help you understand and use a team stages model. It contains a tool for each stage to help you build a high-performing team – as quickly as possible.
Tuckman’s Teamwork Theory
Tuckman describes working with a team of social psychologists, on behalf of the U.S. navy. The team studied small group behaviour, from several perspectives. In doing so, Tuckman reviewed 50 articles on group development and noticed that there were two features common to these small groups: the interpersonal or group structure, and the task activity. From this he identified that groups evolved into teams via four common stages.
Firstly an orientation, testing phase which often led to a period characterized by a degree of conflict. This then generally resolved itself, leading to a more socially cohesive phase. Finally, groups settled to a functional phase, during which they focused on role-relatedness. To summarize these four phases, Tuckman coined the oft-quoted terms: “forming”, “storming”, “norming” and “performing”.
Tuckman’s teamwork theory is best illustrated on a graph which shows the link between group relationships (the horizontal axis) and task focus (the vertical axis). The optimal or “performing” position is reached when relationships have developed within the group and it has started delivering with a clear focus on the task.
However, Tuckman’s ideas clearly indicate that it takes time to reach the “performing” stage, and it’s normal for these teams to go through ups and downs as they develop relationships. Particularly in the early period, which is perhaps why Tuckman called it the “storming” phase!
The 4 Phases of Tuckman’s Teamwork Theory
The initial stage of team development during which individuals have not yet gelled together. Everybody is busy finding their place in the team, sizing each other up, and asking themselves why they are here! Find out more in our articles: Team Building Techniques and Teamwork Tips. The first offers advice on starting a new team while the second will help you take over an existing team (perhaps a far more common situation).
People begin to see themselves as part of a team. However at this stage they may challenge each other, and the team leader, about such things as what the team is doing, and how things should be done. As the stage title suggests, conflict and confrontation typify this stage, as differences surface. This may result in some loss of performance or focus on the task, as the diagram illustrates.
This is the phase where team members start to come together, developing processes, establishing ground rules, clarifying who does what, and how things will be done. This phase is characterized by a growing sense of “togetherness”. Find out more about both the Storming and Norming phases in our article: Team Building Concepts.
This is the final stage where increased focus on both the task, and on team relationships, combine to provide synergy. Performance is delivered through people working effectively together. We have written two articles to further develop this stage. Team Building in the Workplace will help you build a performing team. Characteristics of Effective Teamwork will help you and your team sustain that performance.
The value of Tuckman’s model is that it helps us understand that teams evolve. It also helps us to consider how they may encounter different problems at different stages of their development.
One limitation of the model may be that it makes team building appear too linear and sequential. Although it’s a useful analytical tool, we must remember that some teams may “loop” around in their development.
For example, not all teams evolve smoothly through Tuckman’s stages but may yo-yo between norming and storming until they either begin to function, or are disbanded! Regardless of limitations, all well-conceived models can be useful in helping us to understand and better manage our circumstances.
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Tuckman’s famous phases are part of a teamwork theory based on stages of team development. His theory may have gained popularity partly due to the catchy labels for each of his stages.
However, it also provides a useful and simple way to think about how we humans interact in team situations. Firstly by illustrating that it’s normal for teams go through stages as they develop. Secondly, by highlighting the need to manage different aspects of team behaviour at each stage of that development. The beauty and usefulness of Tuckman’s model is perhaps in its simplicity.
Team development theories such, as Tuckman’s group development stages, recognise that teams develop through different stages, from forming through to performing.
Whilst these theories give a useful understanding of different team requirements at different times, there are a number of questions that aren’t particularly well answered by the models. For example:
- How should you lead at the different stages of a team’s development?
- How do you identify when you are progressing through a stage?
- How does the team develop in the organisational setting?
- How is it affected by other outside influences?
The theory of group stages alone doesn’t answer these questions. To do so, and thus to build a more robust teamwork concept, ideas about team leadership and outside factors need to be introduced. We’ve done just this in our STAR team performance model. You can see how this model applies to group stages in: Stages of Team Development.
This is the first of ten articles in our teamwork series. But for some practical tips on using teamwork theory, look at our great-value guides (below), or at our Team Building Exercises for all team stages.
Team Building Exercises and Team Stages
The exercises in this guide are grouped according to our team stages model. Remember, each team is unique and needs to be led through several developmental stages. These include:
Creating a new team or taking over an existing team
- Exercise 1: Being a TEAM together
- Exercise 2: True or false
- Exercise 3: Who does what in a team?
- Exercise 4: Getting the mix right
- Exercise 5: Doing something for the first time
- Exercise 6: Two years from now
Developing a team
- Exercise 7: A clearer vision
- Exercise 8: Mad, sad or glad
- Exercise 9: Seeing the bigger picture
- Exercise 10: Positive feedback
- Exercise 11: Conflicting views
Performing and achieving results with a team
- Exercise 12: Did you notice?
- Exercise 13: Limiting beliefs
Sustaining team performance
- Exercise 14: Scarce resources
- Exercise 15: Keeping going