Think with me about the best experience you've ever had working together with a group of people to achieve a shared goal. How was the journey to those peak moments of success? Hardly smooth, right? And why is that? Why is it so hard for a group of people to get on the same page in order to make something special happen?
In his 1965 seminal article on group formation, Developmental Sequence in Small Groups, educational psychologist Bruce Tuckman proposed that small groups of up to 30 individuals will naturally proceed through a sequence he termed Tuckman's stages of group development - also colloquially known as Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning. He identified the characteristics of groups in each stage and also what attributes would lead a group to progress to the next stage in the sequence, or potentially regress. What he didn't propose as this was a study of behavioral psychology was the role of the leader in influencing this process.
Before we get to that, however - let's refresh ourselves on the defining characteristics of the first four stages - forming to performing.
Forming: Groups in this stage are highly task-oriented and manifest behaviors such as lack of clarity with roles, responsibilities, and hierarchy; low process adherence; testing system limits; and disagreeing on team aims.
Storming: Once emotions in relation to the pressures of the task begin to boil over, the stage of storming begins. This stage is characterized by low commitment to decisions, power struggles among team members, forming of smaller cliques of like-minded group members, and continued lack of certainty as to the proper ways of working of the team.
Norming: Once emotions calm down, interpersonal conflicts ultimately give way to some semblance of order and out of this order, certain norms emerge. Agreement and consensus become easier to achieve among the team. Roles and responsibilities are clear and accepted. Big decisions are made by group agreement and smaller decisions may be delegated to individuals or small teams within the group. Commitment and unity is strong as the team regularly engages in fun and social activities. The team discusses and develops its processes and working style and demonstrates the ability to express criticism constructively.
Performing: Unfortunately, norming is not enough to deliver sustainable, repeatable performance. High performance happens when solid norms evolve into effective synergy. Performing teams are therefore more strategically aware and know clearly what they are doing, and why. They possess a shared vision and values, and can stand on their own feet with no interference or participation from the leader. They focus on overachieving versus their goals. They have insights into personal and group processes, and a better understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Performing teams can resolve disagreements positively and make necessary changes to process and structure. Performing team members look out for each other.
So let's return back to the role of the leader in navigating through this process. It is my strong belief that it is not only possible for a leader to influence and accelerate this process but it's also essential! It all starts with leaders recognizing that this is a natural process that happens with the majority of groups, recognizing the symptoms of each stage, and taking targeted prevention or interventions to move the group between stages.
I'm so passionate about this subject that I dedicated my first leadership book Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams to the topic. The book is launching mid-year, but in the intervening months, we will begin to discuss here the best tools I've discovered to assist in moving groups from forming to performing. It's my sincere hope that if you are in a leadership capacity, these tools and resources will get you to your goals much faster than every before leading to more productive and engaged teams. And if you are on a team that is not yet high-performing, you can diagnose the source of the issue and work with your leader to improve the dynamic.
What do you think about the stages of group formation? Have you observed or participated in teams in these stages? What stage is your current team in and what are you doing to move things forward? Let us know in the comments below. If you liked this article, please give it a like or a share with your network!
Omar L. Harris is Associate Vice-President and Country Manager for Allergan PLC in Brazil. He is the author of the upcoming leadership book, Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams being published by TPC Books in June 2019. Please follow him on instagram, twitter, and/or his website for more information and engagement.