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The Stages of Group Development

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

Although many groups are basically static, performing the same types of tasks day in and day out, other groups are more dynamic. In fact, in almost all groups there is at least some change; members come and go, and the goals of the group may change. And even groups that have remained relatively stable for long periods of time may suddenly make dramatic changes; for instance, when they face a crisis, such as a change in task goals or the loss of a leader. Groups may also lose their meaning and identity as they successfully meet the goals they initially set out to accomplish.

One way to understand group development is to consider the potential stages that groups generally go through. One widely used approach here is the model developed by Tuckman and Jensen (1977). As you can see in Figure 10.3, the different stages involve forming, storming, norming and performing, and adjourning.

Figure 10.3 Stages of Group Development 

The forming stage occurs when the members of the group come together and begin their existence as a group. In some cases, when a new group, such as a courtroom jury, forms to accomplish a goal, the formation stage occurs relatively quickly and is appropriately considered the group’s first stage. In other cases, however, the process of group formation occurs continually over a long period of time, such as when factory workers leave their jobs and are replaced by new employees.

The forming stage is important for the new members, as well as for the group itself. During this time, the group and the individual will exchange knowledge about appropriate norms, including any existing group structures, procedures, and routines. Each individual will need to learn about the group and determine how he or she is going to fit in. And the group may be inspecting the individual’s characteristics and appropriateness as a group member. This initial investigation process may end up with the individual rejecting the group or the group rejecting the individual.

If the forming stage can be compared to childhood, there is no doubt that the next stage—storming—can be compared to adolescence. As the group members begin to get to know each other, they may find that they don’t always agree on everything. In the storming stage, members may attempt to make their own views known, expressing their independence and attempting to persuade the group to accept their ideas. Storming may occur as the group first gets started, and it may recur at any point during the group’s development, particularly if the group experiences stress caused by a negative event, such as a setback in progress toward the group goal. In some cases, the conflict may be so strong that the group members decide that the group is not working at all and they disband. In fact, field studies of real working groups have shown that a large percentage of new groups never get past the forming and storming stages before breaking up (Kuypers, Davies, & Hazewinkel, 1986).

Although storming can be harmful to group functioning and thus groups must work to keep it from escalating, some conflict among group members may in fact be helpful. Sometimes the most successful groups are those that have successfully passed through a storming stage, because conflict may increase the productivity of the group, unless the conflict becomes so extreme that the group disbands prematurely (Rispens & Jehn, 2011). Groups that experience no conflict at all may be unproductive because the members are bored, uninvolved, and unmotivated, and because they do not think creatively or openly about the topics of relevance to them (Tjosvold, 1991). In order to progress, the group needs to develop new ideas and approaches, and this requires that the members discuss their different opinions about the decisions that the group needs to make.

Assuming that the storming does not escalate too far, the group will move into the norming stage, which is when the appropriate norms and roles for the group are developed. Once these norms have been developed, they allow the group to enter the performing stage, which is when group members establish a routine and effectively work together. At this stage, the individual group members may report great satisfaction and identification with the group, as well as strong group identity. Groups that have effectively reached this stage have the ability to meet goals and survive challenges. And at this point, the group becomes well-tuned to its task and is able to perform the task efficiently.

In one interesting observational study of the group development process in real groups, Gersick (1988, 1989) observed a number of teams as they worked on different projects. The teams were selected so that they were all working within a specific time frame, but the time frame itself varied dramatically—from eight to 25 meetings held over periods ranging from 11 days to six months. Despite this variability, Gersick found that each of the teams followed a very similar pattern of norming and then performing. In each case, the team established well-defined norms regarding its method of attacking its task in its very first meeting. And each team stayed with this approach, with very little deviation, during the first half of the time it had been allotted. However, midway through the time it had been given to complete the project (and regardless of whether that was after four meetings or after 12), the group suddenly had a meeting in which it decided to change its approach. Then, each of the groups used this new method of performing the task during the rest of its allotted time. It was as if an alarm clock went off at the halfway point, which led each group to rethink its approach.

Most groups eventually come to the adjourning stage, where group members prepare for the group to end. In some cases, this is because the task for which the group was formed has been completed, whereas in other cases it occurs because the group members have developed new interests outside the group. In any case, because people who have worked in a group have likely developed a strong identification with the group and the other group members, the adjournment phase is frequently stressful, and participants may resist the breakup. Faced with these situations, individuals frequently plan to get together again in the future, exchanging addresses and phone numbers, even though they may well know that it is unlikely they will actually do so. Sometimes it is useful for the group to work ahead of time to prepare members for the breakup.

Keep in mind that this model represents only a general account of the phases of group development, beginning with forming and ending with adjourning, and will not apply equally well to all groups . For instance, the stages are not necessarily sequential: some groups may cycle back and forth between earlier and later stages in response to the situations they face. Also, not all groups will necessarily pass through all stages. Nevertheless, the model has been useful in describing the evolution of a wide range of groups (Johnson & Johnson, 2012).

Key Takeaways

  • Social groups form the foundation of human society—without groups, there would be no human culture. Working together in groups, however, may lead to a variety of negative outcomes as well.
  • Similarity, communication, interdependence, and group structure are variables that make a collection of individuals seem more like a group—the perception of group entitativity.
  • Most groups that we belong to provide us with a positive social identity—the part of the self-concept that results from our membership in social groups.
  • The more we feel that our identities are tied to the our group memberships, the less likely we are to leave the groups we belong to.
  • One way to understand group development is to consider the potential stages that groups generally go through. The normal stages are forming, storming, norming and performing, and adjourning.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Compare some of the social groups that you belong to that you feel have high and low levels of entitativity. How do these groups differ in terms of their perceived similarity, communication, interdependence, and structure?
  2. Describe a situation where you experienced role stress. What were the causes of that stress and how did it affect your performance in that role?
  3. Think about a group that you belong to now, which is very important to you. Identify one prescriptive and one proscriptive norm for this group. How do you think that these norms help the group to function effectively? What do you think would happen if a group member violated those norms?
  4. Consider groups that provide a particularly strong social identity for their members. Why do you think social identity is so strong in these groups, and how do you think that the experience of identity influence the group members’ behavior?
  5. Think about a group that you have been a member of for a long time. Which of Tuckman and Jensen’s stages do you think that the group is currently in? Overall, how well do you think that their stage model helps to explain how this group has developed over time?


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