With the holidays and family gatherings a recent yet clear memory (some with a sense of joy only because they are over!), let’s make sense of group development. By understanding factors that impact family group gatherings, we can apply concepts to business groups and project teams – and increase the performance of them.

When our physiological/biological needs are met, and our safety needs are met, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – next on the list of our human needs includes “Belongingness.” We possess an innate need and desire to belong. Family connectedness provides a sense of belong to a group. Family connectedness provides a sense of belong to a group.

Generally, we think of “joining” a group as an optional choice. Yet sometimes, as in the case of family, belonging to that group is forced; you don’t possess a choice regarding the family you are related to. And with that fact, the stakes of how the family group functions are high. We know we are connected to these people and the family group (in some capacity!) forever.

While work groups are also oftentimes seen as forced, the longevity of the group’s connection is certainly not a lifetime. And there are numerous choices involved in getting and remaining connected to a business work group. However, learning from family groups that are forever connected may help us get our work groups to function more efficiently and promote effectiveness and boost performance.

At a recent extended family gathering of mine, the stages of group development jumped to life as various family groups and individuals gathered together for a holiday event.

Generally, the 1965 work of Tuckman is referenced as the stages of group development are considered. These four stages – which do not always progress in a linear fashion – are: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning/Transforming.

Generally, group output and performance far surpasses that of an individual. So examining and learning from how groups develop is valuable! Whether you are a member or a leader of a group or team (in your personal interests or at work), learning about the stages of group development may help you discover how to help groups improve their performance.

As we look at each stage of Group Development, it is important to remember that each stage is important. Each one of these stages, when the group progresses through each one, has a better shot at getting to an effective “Performing” stage.

Forming: This is the polite stage of group members coming together. Generally, people are tentative and may feel unsure about the appropriate behaviors for this new group – or about coming together again in a group that has had a lengthy hiatus. Sometimes awkward silences and conversations appear in the group’s Forming Stage.

Storming: Contrary to popular belief, the chaos and tension involved in the Storming Stage of a group’s development is exceedingly valuable. As people try to find their place, role, and status in the group, a natural “push-shove” essence may sometimes be sensed. Individual members are concerned about expressing their opinions and positions regarding issues related to the group. It is not unusual for sarcasm to replace the politeness experienced in the Forming Stage. Cliques within the group may also begin to form. While many of these relational behaviors appear negative, if the group by-passes the Storming Stage in an effort to “keep peace,” the group may actually thwart its development of moving toward the desired “Performing Stage.” In a very real sense, the group will either “Pay now, or pay later” when it comes to working through members’ issues of their place, role, or status in the group.

Norming: This is the stage where the group establishes norms of behavior, communication, accountability, consequences, timeliness, etc. Group members begin to know what the expectations are – whether these norms come to be known by individuals formally and in an overt fashion or not. However, many times a group develops its norms informally over the course of time. This Norming Stage may also begin during the Forming Stage as people desire to know what is acceptable behavior for the group. The Norming Stage may also include overtly addressing norms that may be too rigid or lax. Similarly, discussions on how to deal with members who do not comply to the group’s norms may occur.

Performing: This stage characterizes the group working at its best. It is functioning in a focused manner, working together toward completing its task(s) and fulfilling the purpose of the group. Generally, all individuals are encouraged to participate. Yet when and if needed, group members may willingly pick up the slack of loafing members (loafing for a variety of warranted and false issues). What matters to the bulk of the group is that the “team” achieves its goal. So the skills, abilities, and knowledge of members unite to overcome obstacles in order to successfully fulfill the group’s purpose. During this phase of group development, members are exceptionally creative problem solvers. This stage characterizes members sharing information freely and jointly working together as they make progress towards the group’s desired destination.

Adjourning: The adjourning stage of a group’s development is about closure. The season of this group working together toward its common purpose has come to an end. While we hope this is a time to celebrate because the group accomplished what it set out to do, and it built enjoyable relationships along the way, this is not always the case! Sometimes if a group has had an exceptionally challenging time working together (for many reasons), the fact that the group is breaking up may feel like the only cause for celebration. Regardless, the time of Adjourning hopefully includes reflecting, assigning meaning from the process of the experience, and learning. This stage includes the individual decisions related to which relationships with individual members they will sever (or let go by the wayside), and which they will choose to maintain. Often the Adjourning Stage includes some sort or termination rituals; these may include certificates of completion, a group meal, or a formal group debrief meeting.

Transforming: This is a unique stage of a group’s development. It signals a change in its membership; individuals may leave while others enter the group. Either one of these elements changes the group’s dynamics, creating a natural flow back to the first stage of Forming. The Transforming Stage may also come about from a change in the group’s formal purpose. Or while a group maintains all of its members and it transitions to a new, focused project or endeavor, the shift in its needs for knowledge, skills, and expertise cause the group to transform. When a group works through the Transforming Stage, typically there are transition rituals involved; these may include a celebratory social event, awards related to the completed project or to exiting members, a formal debrief and learning meeting, or even individual nicknames being given.

Family and Work Groups

One of the issues that may make family group gatherings exceptionally challenging, can be if there is a lack of purpose or known “task” that the group is working toward. There may be a missing vision of what the family group is about and what its vision and goal is – long term OR for a specific gathering. Can you recall a time when one of your extended family groups gathered for a crisis or funeral? Most likely, the group came together and got it done – whatever “it” was. The group came together with a clear purpose and perhaps moved more quickly to the Performing Stage.

The vision of a business work group is often much clearer than a group of extended family members thrust together for a few days at a holiday gathering! So in a work group of varying personalities, backgrounds, strengths, and skills, exceptional performance may be achieved as the group works through the Stages of Group Development because they are united on what they are after; the desired state of working together is known. When the purpose of the work group is identified clearly and early, odds increase that the work group will more quickly to the Performing Stage and get it done – whatever “it” is.

Applying Our Learning About the Stages of Group Development

Being aware of the Stages of Group Development helps us in our business groups. We now know and are reminded that intense feelings in a group and group dynamics are normal. We know that each member is silently wondering, “What’s in this for me? What’s my role?” Because of this knowledge, we may be able to encourage our group to gain clarity about its purpose during the Forming Stage.

It is normal for a group to go through an uncomfortably chaotic time in the Storming stage as people exert their wills and members try to figure out where they “fit” in the group. We know that if a work group by-passes the Storming Stage, it will face the relational issues that come from working with people; where there are people, there are problems to work through! Because of this knowledge, we may be a bit more patient in allowing the group to evolve through the Storming Stage in a healthy manner.

With our knowledge of the Norming Stage of group development, we can consciously choose to encourage group norms far above mediocrity. We can also gently assert the importance of openly discussing desired behavior and communication expectations. And we may also be able to discuss how the group thinks it will be best to deal with individual accountability on completing what is agreed to as a group.

As groups we belong to move into the rhythm of working together effectively and we are getting done what we set out to do as a team, we can also use this knowledge of the stages of group development to help our team. We may be able to help our group or team sustain its highest levels of performance if we revisit the purpose of the group and re-focus members on the group’s vision of accomplishing what it set out to do.

When a group formally Adjourns, we may bring depth to the experience (whether it was exceptional or miserable) by helping the group focus on the learning and “Ah’ha’s” from the group’s time together. As the group prepares to dissolve, we know that members seek some sort of closure to the experience. And everyone appreciates being valued and recognized for something favorable they contributed. How can we encourage those types of verbal affirmations in the group?

Because we know that the Transforming Stage of a group’s development involves the retention of some members, when we are one of them there are things we can do to help the group improve. As you reflect (individually and as a team) on the group’s work together, help the group consider how to best move forward and improve its performance by asking, “What should we KEEP doing? What should we START doing? What should we STOP doing?”

Which of these strategies above resonate with you most as you consider your involvement in a recent or current group? How will you use it/them to improve your contributions as a member of a group?