A Classic Model of Team Development

In the days and weeks ahead, I'll be offering some new research-based insights on group dynamics and team development, but let's begin by reviewing a model that's truly become a classic with great heuristic value and simplicity.



Trust and quality-of-relationship among group members are two consequential variables – they make a practical difference.[1] So, there are good reasons to focus on team development, i.e., the ways in which a group becomes a team. And this requires that we notice the patterns of interaction and the underlying dynamics that may help or hinder cohesion and skillful collaboration. 

We can focus on instrumental task skills, interpersonal communications skills, and leadership skills. All three factors contribute to team effectiveness. The first addresses technical excellence in execution, the second enables coordination but also is the means for connecting, bonding, and becoming one. And the leadership factor prompts thoughtful reflection, alignment, perspective-taking, and inclusion. 

A team is a group of individuals who’ve become self-aware and “self-possessed” enough subordinate and align their capabilities to some greater purpose and good. It’s a group that has forged ways of relating that enable them work through differences, to repair strains or ruptures than can occur in the “heat of battle.” It’s a body of people that has cultivated its own collective, group-as-a-whole identity.[2]

It would be easier if these dynamics were obvious. Alas, human beings are too complex for that. We must learn from careful, observation-based theory construction – what is it that happens as individuals join as a group and strive to function as a team? Fortunately, a great deal of this work has been done. And what we notice is a rather predictable pattern, which includes “growth pains.”[3]

Among the established models of team development, the Tuckman Model[4] remains the most familiar, intuitive, and popular in group dynamics and team development circles. It characterizes the journey of a group becoming a team in a four-stage sequence: forming, storming, norming, and performing. It applies to senior leadership teams and to work group or project teams in the workplace.[5]

Here are stages briefly described:


The first stage of the model represents a search for clarity of purpose, roles, goals, and ground rules. We might regard it as seeking to answer the question, “What is our purpose, and how do I/we fit in and play a role in this group?” At this point, individuals show more dependence upon the leader and deference to her/his authority. They’re exploring boundaries, sharpening their task focus, and defining roles. They are getting acquainted: exploring relationships; experimenting with a wider range of behaviors; speaking with assertiveness; expressing points of view, perhaps staking out a distinct presence in the group. 


The second stage, storming, is a period of intragroup conflict. Dependence and deference are replaced with assertions of independence and autonomy. The initial basis of unity (task) is tested, differences are expressed with greater energy. Individuals may jockey for position and find themselves in competition or opposition with peers. Defenses and insecurities are aroused, and tensions and potential coalitions may arise, threatening unity and collaboration. It’s challenging for the leader. Surfacing issues, framing them, and fostering patterns of interaction that work through issues without suppressing dissent. 


In the third stage, they achieve greater cohesion. Members know and accept each other’s idiosyncrasies. They express opinions more freely and constructively, which helps disarm defenses. They’re learning that acute episodes of conflict can be resolved, and they have the skills to do so – feelings of confidence and efficacy grow. Roles and norms are clearer. Their commitment to shared goals and resilience in dealing with setbacks is stronger. They’ve cultivated group practices and ways to work together. They give balanced attention to cognitive (head) and affective (heart) themes to insure genuine alignment.


In the final stage, the group develops what Tuckman called ‘functional role relatedness’, which implies a capacity for well-coordinated, interdependent action. They begin to function socially, emotionally, and cognitively as a ‘problem-solving instrument’. There is a noticeable ease that emerges among members as they demonstrate the ability to adapt and play roles that enhance task activities. Structure supports task discipline. Roles become more flexible and a greater share of group energy is channeled into task performance (versus coping with dysfunction). They’ve gained a performance advantage.


[1] For example, Drescher et al (2014) found support for positive changes in trust mediating the relationship between positive changes in shared leadership and positive changes in performance. Also see Zhu & Lee (2017).

[2] This collective identity is constituted through the enduring patterns of interaction that develop (norms), and they derive from less conscious ways of being and acting as a system, ways that can help or hinder (see Rutan, 2007).

[3] See Rutan et al (2007) for a comprehensive review of the dynamics of group interaction and development.

[4] See Bonebright (2010) for a good summary of the Tuckman Model and its continuing popularity since being introduced in 1965.

References Cited

Bonebright, D.A. (2010). “40 years of Storming: A Historical Review of Tuckman's Model of Small Group Development,” Human Resource Development International, 13, (1), 111-120.

Drescher, M. A., Korsgaard, M. A., Welpe, I. M., Picot, A., & Wigand, R. T. (2014). The dynamics of shared leadership: Building trust and enhancing performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(5), 771-783.

Rutan, J. S., Stone, W. N., & Shay, J. J. (2007). Psychodynamic group psychotherapy., 4th ed. New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

Zhu, X., & Lee, K. S. (2017). Global virtual team performance, shared leadership, and trust: Proposing a conceptual framework. The Business & Management Review, 8(4), 31-38.