Groups tend to go through their own developmental stages. Bruce Tuckman (1938-2016) captured these in the catchy formula Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing. Later, he and his co-worker Mary Jensen added Adjourning as a fifth stage to the model. The model describes the life cycle of a group from the initial formation to the end of its mission.
During the initial phase of a group, members seek to get a feel for one another and for what the group will be like. There may be a mixture of nervousness and excitement. Group members will generally be careful and polite, avoid conflict, and put their best foot forward. There may be efforts to impress the group leader or others in the group. The leader will want to set the group up for a positive start by providing a non-threatening atmosphere that promotes trust and genuine self-expression. Depending on the purpose of the group the leader may also orient the group members towards the shared mission, outline his/her values and expectations, and give them a first taste of his or her leadership style.
The initial phase of the group cycle also involves the process of gauging competencies, assigning roles, and understanding tasks. Group members will test the leader and the group by sharing their views, making proposals, and assessing how they are received. The leader, in turn, will test members by assigning tasks and assessing group members’ attitude and efficacy.
The second phase is marked by increasing efforts by group members to stake out territory, negotiate rules, and try to influence the goals and processes of the group. Some members may go through a period of disillusionment. The initial openness towards one another may give way to distrust and cautiousness. Members start forming opinions about each other and might challenge one another. They may form factions and question the leadership. Group members may also doubt themselves and their ability to make a meaningful contribution to the group and its mission.
At this point, it is important for the group leader to meet disillusioned and disgruntled group members with a combination of confidence and patience. The leader needs to uphold the essential objectives while allowing group members to seek and find their places in the group. Individual members or the group as a whole may need training, mentoring, and mediation to resolve conflicts, overcome obstacles, and build confidence. Unless disagreements are resolved, groups can get stuck in this stage and either fail to meet their goals or continue to excessively drain energy from their members.
At some point, group members find their places in the group and resolve their differences. The third stage is marked by an increasingly effective process of negotiating roles and procedures. Group members come to know and appreciate one another and to form a clearer shared view of how the group should function. They learn to communicate with one another and agree on more flexible rules. Critique is no longer experienced as threatening and divergent perspectives are valued. Seeing first successes in achieving the group’s objectives helps solidify the growing sense of confidence of the group.
During this stage, the focus of leadership can shift from group building to fine-tuning and the actual mission of the group. The leader can also work on task delegation and mentoring team members for leadership roles.
At this stage the group is in its prime. Group members fulfill their roles confidently. The group has developed routines to deal with most common problems and disagreements. Members of the group are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and have developed their specialized functions within the group which they perform with a high degree of autonomy. There is a sense of interdependence and an esprit de corps, which allows for decisions to be made without much direct involvement from leaders. Overall, team members experience a sense of satisfaction with the way the group is functioning.
The role of leadership is to continue to resource group members, to identify problems and new challenges, and to help the group adjust. Typical maintenance tasks involve the recruitment of new team members and the preparation of cyclical transitions in leadership. Periodically, mature teams may go through a time of readjustment which involves processes of re-norming or perhaps even some storming. However, well-adjusted groups can remain in the performing stage for a long time.
Most groups eventually come to a point when they lose their raison d’être. They may have either fulfilled their objectives, or perhaps their objectives no longer exist. Sometimes, a group has also lost its ability to do what it is supposed to do. At other times, the end of a group is unwanted. It may be due to changes in circumstances, funding, or the departure of key members or leaders.
Adjourning can be a time of satisfaction with the accomplishments of the group. Oftentimes, there is also a profound sense of grief mixed in. The loss of fellow group members or of the project itself can cause a deep sense of loss. Team members may react to the upcoming end of their group by doubling down on their efforts to fulfill the team’s mission. They may also react by withdrawing from the task.
Leadership can support this final stage of a group’s lifecycle by facilitating an open conversation about the ending of the group as well as an evaluation of the outcomes the team achieved. Openly confronting and even celebrating the end of the group can go a long way in helping members accept the grief process it involves. On the other hand, it can be very tempting to delay the impending end of a group by artificially keeping it alive through attempts to reform, restructure, or reorient. Sometimes, this will de-facto create a new group with the clout of an established name or heritage. In other cases, it will just delay the inevitable process of change to new expressions by propping up structures that have become ineffective.
Think about group endings you experienced in your own life. Were they happy endings after a fulfilled mission? What happened to your relationships with other group members? Have you experienced painful endings full of conflict that left you confused and resentful? Do you believe that conflict can sometimes be an indispensable tool God uses to bring about a separation in order to bring about his purposes?