Stages of Team Development – 
Influential Teamwork Theories

The stages of team development help explain the needs of a team throughout its lifecycle. This article provides an excellent summary for busy people.

Tuckman’s model of the five stages of team development is one of the most influential teamwork theories. Understanding it is therefore one of the fundamental team building basics for team leaders.

At each stage, a team has different needs and questions. These must be addressed if the group is to become a high performing team. An effective team leader will structure team building initiatives according to the stages of team development.

The following article about the stages of team development is provided courtesy of Excellerate, a New Zealand-based training and development company.

To find out more, see the Excellerate listing in our team building directory.

The Storm before the Team Performs. The Life Cycle of Teams

by Sharon Feltham, Excellerate

The Storm before the Team Performs

  • Groups go through stages before they perform well 
  • Conflict is part of the group formation process

The most influential model of the team developmental process is that of Bruce W. Tuckman (1965). He gave us a way to interpret and make sense of the various stages groups pass through on their way to becoming an effective team.

Tuckman described this journey as five distinct stages of team development: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.

At first glance the model suggests that teams will move through each of these stages in a predictable sequence however, in reality teams progress through these stages and remain at the different stages for varying lengths of time. Some teams can become stuck in a particular stage and fail to progress while others can regress to an earlier stage of team development.

The Five Stages of Team Development

Forming: Stage 1 of the Stages of Team Development

What does it look like? Team members are reserved and polite, putting on their best behaviour to create a good first impression. Conflict is avoided at all costs because of the need to be accepted into the group. There may be a sense of excitement and opportunity, but also cautiousness and uncertainty about the future. Team members reflect not only on the tasks at hand, but also about each other. Initial ground rules are established as the team begins to discover how to work together.

The Challenge The Team Dynamics The Questions
Creating a purpose and managing team membership Exploring why we are together?
Testing to identify the boundaries of both interpersonal and task behaviours
Assessing other team members and the commitment
Evaluating potential risks and rewards
Establishing relationships with leaders and other team members
What are we supposed to do together?
Do I want to get involved in this?
Is everyone committed to this?
How can I contribute?
What will you expect of me?
What are the pros and cons to being on this team?
Who are these people?
Will we get along?
What will you contribute?
Can I trust you?

Storming: Stage 2 of the Stages of Team Development

What does it look like? Differences in opinion are more common and are expressed more openly. Conflicts emerge around interpersonal issues and task needs. Power struggles may emerge as leadership is challenged and factions begin to form. Team members compete for positions, challenge goals, the group influence and resist task requirements. Note: Many groups commonly stall at this stage.

The Challenge The Team Dynamics The Questions
Managing expectations and roles Challenging the team’s purpose
Splintering into subgroups
Struggling for power and control
Resisting tasks and authority
Avoiding dealing with underlying tension and hidden agendas
Why are we doing this?
What’s the point?
Why are we doing it this way?
Why don't we do it that way?

Norming: Stage 3 of the Stages of Team Development

What does it look like? A sense of renewed optimism as the team begins to feel a sense of team identity. It experiences increased cooperation as roles and responsibilities become clearer and agreement on norms and expectations for behavior are reached.

The Challenge The Team Dynamics The Questions
Managing relationships and task efforts Implementing the team’s performance expectations
Re-establishing specific roles and operating procedures
Defining rules for problem solving
Clarifying processes for resolving team conflicts
Building team culture
Who does what and when?
How often will we meet?
How do we resolve problems?
How do we make decisions?
How do we handle conflicts?
What makes our team special?

Performing: Stage 4 of the Stages of Team Development

What does it look like? Reaching this stage is largely dependent upon the successful transition through the previous stages. The team knows clearly what it is doing and why. Relationships are strong and while disagreements may occur they are resolved quickly and positively. Roles become flexible and functional, and group energy is channelled into the task. There is maximum work accomplishment, interdependence, personal insight and constructive self-change.

The Challenge The Team Dynamics The Questions
Managing task completion, evaluating results, striving for improvement Alignment. Each person has an integral role in the team’s work
Accomplishment. People and the team as a whole are meeting and exceeding role and task expectations
Cohesion. Feeling like a “team”
Commitment. To each other, the team and to accomplishing the team’s goals.
Loyalty and trust
How can we improve this?
Is there a better way?
What more can we do?
How can I help?

A team at the Performing Stage can either:

  1. Return to the forming stage as group membership, leadership and the team’s purpose changes,
  2. Decline into “dorming” stage as the group becomes complacent or
  3. Adjourn as the group successfully reaches its goal, completes its work and disbands.

The Stage of Phantom Performance: Dorming

What does it look like? (This stage is not included in Tuckman’s original work it was identified by later writers). Once the performing stage is reached, there is a risk that the team will neglect the task of maintaining commitment. This neglect will see the team slide gradually into the cosy dosey stage of Dorming. In this stage the team becomes complacent, satisfied by past achievements they are content to leave challenges to “someone else”.

The Challenge The Team Dynamics The Questions
Avoiding this stage by maintaining the commitment and focus of the team Complacency. The team goes into cruise mode. A cosy togetherness ensues.
Preservation: Self-preservation is the dominant issue. The team may be attempting to extend the life of the group
Mediocrity: Lackluster performance eventually leading to a decline in the quality and quantity of task activity
Routine: Comfortable routines are established and enforced i.e. don’t rock the boat

Have you followed the appropriate channels?

Why should we change?..
We’ve always done it this way
We’re doing OK as we are
When’s lunch?

Adjourning: Stage 5 of the Stages of Team Development

What does it look like? Adjourning is typically related to the end of a project team however, its also relevant when the purpose and structure of team changes substantially due to sale, merger or a restructuring process. This stage can be particularly stressful where the dissolution of the team is unplanned. This stage involves the disbandment of the team, termination of roles and the completion of tasks. This stage is also referred to as 'mourning' given the sense of loss experienced by some team members.

The Challenge The Team Dynamics The Questions
Managing the completion of tasks. Assisting the team let go of the
group structure and move on.
Conflicting emotions (sadness, anger, gratitude, happiness)
Uncertainty about how to end and their future
Grieving Feelings of dislocation and loss
Team members deal with this stage in
different ways:
Avoiding tasks, Arguing over minor details or past arguments resurface,
Denying: pretending the team will continue, Pollyanna: focusing only on the positive experiences
Acknowledging: facing the good, the bad and the ugly, letting go and saying goodbye
What will I do now?
What will it be like now?

Shall I stay (with the company) or shall I go?

Reference: Bruce W. Tuckman, “Development Sequence in Small Groups”, 
Psychological Bulletin. 1965. In 1977 Tuckman (in collaboration with Mary Ann Jensen) updated the model to include the fifth stage – adjourning

Thanks to Excellerate for providing this article about the stages of team development. You can find out more about this New Zealand-based company in our team building directory - Excellerate listing. 

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