Tuckman: Stages of Team Development

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 17th January 2018

Given that Tuckman’s model of Stages of Team Development was defined more than half a century ago, before the internet, mobile technologies, remote working, and even before widespread ownership of the motor car, we should probably begin by considering whether the model is still valid.

The creation of Tuckman’s model

Tuckman - Stages of Team Development

It’s worth noting that, when Bruce Tuckman defined his model in 1965, it was published in a psychology journal and entitled ‘Developmental sequence in small groups’. Tuckman was a social psychologist working with the US Navy. His original paper was the result of an analysis of fifty articles created by other psychologists talking about the ways small groups interacted and grew. Some of those articles were themselves written in the 1940s. The focus was predominantly on project or task-based groups that were formed and then disbanded once their work was complete. Any leader wishing to learn something from this model, therefore, would be wise to recognise its context and limitations.

“A tiny drop in the evolutionary ocean”

Much of the model is primarily based on an observation of the way human beings tend to interact. While the many changes in workplaces and society over recent decades have had far-reaching impacts, they have had little impact on the natural behaviour of the human being. As Desmond Morris rather brilliantly observed in his book ‘The Naked Ape’ (written at around the same time as Tuckman’s theory – and published in the same year as The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds… which may or may not be significant…), the human being still reacts in many primal ways as just another animal. So, to that extent at least, the 50 years since Tuckman’s paper is just a tiny drop in the evolutionary ocean and therefore very little is likely to have changed fundamentally about the way, and reasons why, people interact.

Tuckman’s stages

Understanding that the theory is really a reflection of natural human behaviour is a key step on the road to being effective as a leader. People are just human beings, not job titles, not very different at any level of hierarchy and not likely to behave in radically un-human ways. So, we can reasonably assume that much of what Tuckman said remains fundamentally true and that any team you might join, lead or interact with will exhibit most or all the characteristics described by him as Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.

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The original stages of team development

His sequence has, in truth, been dramatically simplified in subsequent years to create the four memorable terms by which it is known today. If I use his original titles and approach, some interesting differences can be observed:

Stage 1: Group structure: testing and dependence

Stage 2: Group structure: intragroup conflict

Stage 3: Group structure: development of group cohesion

Stage 4: Group structure: functional role-relatedness

While these do, to an extent, mirror the four terms used in the typical version, they also differ in some interesting ways. Tuckman’s Stage 1 includes quite a few aspects that could be seen to be as much about storming as they are about forming. His final stage is much more complex and sophisticated – and more far-reaching – than its modern title suggests. It was developed when he focused on groups that were formed for the short-term purposes of therapy or training. In both those cases, the role of the leader of such a group has considerable power over the group’s activities and members. Earlier work by French & Raven (1959) showed how leaders can find their power in a range of sources, from reward to expertise – both of which are typically present in therapy and training situations.

How to use Tuckman’s model

The thought process for a leader looking to form or take on a team should encompass an understanding of Tuckman’s theory. Teams will still tend to pass through this evolutionary sequence over time, but don’t think of the four stages as discrete and clearly differentiated: Tuckman certainly didn’t. The lines between the stages are blurred and form much more of a ‘continuum’ than a set of rungs on a ladder. The teams will progress through them at different speeds and not all members will stay at the same place or move along the continuum in alignment – life isn’t that simple.

Your job as the leader is to steer them along this continuum by establishing a vision, sharing information, ensuring lines of communication, building rapport with and between members of the team, coaching and guiding everyone to successful achievement of defined goals.

Alternative models to consider

Consider the work of Belbin on team roles, French & Raven on sources of power and Tannenbaum & Schmidt on the stages of delegation in conjunction with Tuckman’s sequence and you may have the beginnings of a good understanding of how to lead a team.

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