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Group Development: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing

Professionals gathered around a conference tableWhen a team is forming, it proceeds through predictable growth stages. In 1965, Bruce Tuckman, a well-known American Psychologist and researcher, proposed a theory of group dynamics that described the distinct phases of development: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Team members exhibit characteristic behaviors in each stage, and each phase has unique highs and lows, as individuals assume their roles and come to a greater understanding of themselves and each other. A leader’s strong communication skills can help a team develop.

Stage one: forming

The first stage encompasses the transition from a group of individuals to a functioning team. During this time, members build confidence and trust in each other as well as their leader. In this period of instability, you may initially notice:
  • Frequent complaining about the organization
  • Inability to focus discussions on relevant tasks
  • Silence in meetings
  • Little or no interaction between members
As a leader, it is important to help the team get to know each other and work through this phase in a positive way. The following communication tips can help build rapport:
  • Always provide clear direction and purpose.
  • If this is a new team, schedule a kickoff meeting to explain the goals.
  • Define roles and responsibilities.
  • Involve everyone in developing the project plan.
  • Decide on when you will have project status meetings.
  • Rotate the role of scribe to document decisions and avoid misunderstandings (this can be simplebullet-point notes from meetings and discussions).
When someone is added or leaves a team, the group’s behaviors can also “re-form” or revert back to this primary phase. In order to re-form, bring everyone together to clarify shared goals, review processes, and discuss areas for improvement. People should be encouraged to voice frustrations and make suggestions. Although some re-forming is inevitable over time and can be positive for a team, if a group is in a constant state of turnover, it may never emerge from the forming stage.

Stage two: storming

People often begin to panic when they realize what is expected and the amount of work ahead of them. As co-workers adjust, you may notice:
  • Arguments
  • Complaints about management and/or the viability of the project
  • Questions about the knowledge or skill of individual team members
  • Defensiveness among colleagues
If a group is in a constant state of turnover, it may never emerge from the forming stage.
During this difficult period, the leader must act as negotiator, cheerleader, and psychologist. A skillful leader will identify power struggles and resolve them early on. For instance, a new salesperson may be ridiculed in a staff meeting for offering a suggestion that challenges the status quo. Or, when working with a hospital administrator, an IT person might face resistance to installing new software because the administrator was not involved in the decision-making process. Many of the communications tools used before are useful in this phase as well.
  • Make sure everyone understands how decisions are made, and once again, involve people in the process.
  • Look for opportunities to help others understand and appreciate the differences in each other.
  • Encourage people to take on responsibility.
  • Be sensitive to non-verbal communication—what is not said is as important as what is articulated.
  • Publicly celebrate individual strengths and work together to minimize weaknesses.
As in the first stage, documenting decisions and agreements is key to avoiding the confusion and tension caused by misunderstandings. Listen carefully to frustrations and recommendations from individuals and from the group as a whole. This is an emotionally charged time in a team’s evolution, so you may need to read between the lines to get an understanding of how the project is progressing.

Stage three: norming

After the storm, members become used to working together. Conflicts are less pronounced as individuals work respectfully and productively, accomplishing shared goals. The team is cooperatively establishing ground rules for working together as a well-oiled machine. At this point, the leader needs to continue to find opportunities to encourage and recognize individual and communal achievements. Communication methods might include:
  • Formal one-on-one meetings
  • Informal time together (after work)
  • Intentional team building exercises (possibly off-site)
  • Meetings that acknowledge milestones
When a project is running smoothly, it is tempting to fall into a routine. However, maintaining a sense of forward progress and positive development is an essential element of norming.

Stage four: performing

As a group matures, it will smoothly accomplish a significant amount of work. Everyone is participating and collaborating in an effective unit and independently working through interpersonal problems and challenges.

At this point, communication among team members or with leadership often appears effortless. This ease is based on the concerted and consistent communication groundwork laid in earlier stages. Established processes allow the team to work together toward common goals. The leader should continue to monitor performance, communicate project milestones, and celebrate successes.


An established team experiences the same developmental issues as temporary project teams. When membership changes, leaders often don’t recognize the impact on a previously high-performing group until it becomes dysfunctional. The loss of a valued member or the arrival of someone new can have an immediate effect, and a sophisticated team may revert to stage one behavior when it was previously performing at a much higher level.

However, when a group has been performing successfully, it is easier to absorb changes and bounce back quickly. With a solid base of shared work experience, everyone involved already knows the feeling of operating efficiently and effectively. Solid teams also typically exhibit high morale, and while a change may cause a temporarily setback, a leader can quickly guide the group through the earlier periods of development and return it to high performance levels.


Susan HolmenSusan Holmen is an information technology project manager with LarsonAllen. or 612-376-4719


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