Group Life-Cycles

See also: Group Diversity

The nature of any group can change quite dramatically over time. There are a wide range of theories relating to group development. Most of these suggest that groups go through a number of stages that can be considered as a life-cycle.

Perhaps the most influential model of group development is that of Bruce Tuckman, created in 1965. Many academics and practitioners working with groups have adopted versions of this model.

Tuckman’s Model of Group Development

Tuckman’s model contains five stages (see box).

Tuckman's Stages of Group Development

  • Stage One - Group bonding (Forming).
  • Stage Two - Group conflict and fragmentation (Storming).
  • Stage Three - Group maintenance and the development of norms (Norming).
  • Stage Four - Group working and achieving its aims (Performing).
  • Stage Five - Group disbanding (Adjourning, sometimes referred to as Mourning).

Given time, many groups will pass through at least some of the Tuckman’s stages of group development. However, not all groups will go through every stage. This will depend on a number of factors and variables, including how long the group will be together, how the group is structured, the aims and objectives of the group and the style of leadership and behaviour of others within the group.

Groups may also not go through the stages in a strictly cyclical order. They may, for example, start to develop some norms (Stage Three, Norming), then something may trigger a period of conflict again (Stage Two, Storming). It is also possible that groups may never get beyond Storming, especially if the conflict is extreme. They may simply fragment and break up at that point.

However, the model is a very useful one as an outline of the processes that groups need to go through to reach a stage of performing.

Stage One: The Establishment and Formation of the Group (Forming)

At this initial stage, individuals in the group are brought together.

This can be a difficult time for group members, as they begin to explore how to behave within the group. There is a great deal of individual exploration, with members of the group getting to know each other and discovering common interests. For some less outgoing members, this can be a very intimidating experience.

This initial stage in group forming is a perfect time to practise interpersonal skills such as building rapport and questioning. Groups may also use team-building exercises at this stage, although care is needed to ensure that these are actively useful, and do not simply create conflict.

The role of the group leader during this stage is to encourage group members to find common ground and provide direction and guidance.

The group leader must also ensure that a balance is achieved between the more extrovert and the more introvert members of the group. This helps to build group cohesiveness, or a feeling of belonging to the group.

Once group members begin to feel that they know one another and common ground has been established, the aims of the group need to be agreed. Sometimes these may have been set in advance, and if so, the leader has a role in making sure that all members understand the goals. If they have not already been set, the leader must ensure that the members focus on developing group aims and goals. The group ‘norms’ (rules and practices) will also begin to evolve at this stage, although they may also go through several more stages before being finalised.

At this stage, the group is often very dependent on the group leader. If there is a designated leader, they must establish the group’s confidence and respect. If there is no designated leader, one may emerge by common consent, or there may be some competition and conflict as group members vie for leadership.

From this initial stage, the group style is established.

Style refers to whether the group has a positive or optimistic outlook, whether it is supportive or antagonistic, whether it is serious or light-hearted. Once the style of the group is established, the group can be resistant to change at a later stage, therefore it is important that the leader steers the group towards a style that is best suited to meet the aims of the group.

Stage Two: Group Conflict and Fragmentation (Storming)

This stage is characterised by individuals within the group exerting themselves, or being assertive. You may also see the formation of sub-groups, or challenges to the role of the leader.

Conflicts of power may occur, and members may challenge the role and authority of the leader. Individuals test and establish their roles, pushing boundaries to find acceptable positions. This can therefore be a highly turbulent and volatile stage.

As tensions and conflicts between individuals arise, the group may lose sight of its original aims. This in turn may lead to cynicism, lack of enthusiasm and frustration. Some members may withdraw or even leave the group.

The role of the leader at this time is to encourage group members and refocus the group on its aims and the purpose of its existence.

Paradoxically, this is also a time at which group members often become far clearer about the aims of the group—and when any hidden agendas surface. This can create stronger common ground between members, and may result in the creation of sub-groups. Leaders need to manage this process carefully to ensure that sub-groups are supportive to the group’s purpose, and do not undermine developing group cohesiveness.

Crucially, the group needs to make some sort of progress during this stage, to move forward and attain some feeling of success. This will increase group morale and reinforce the desire to belong, or cohesiveness. Sub-groups may be useful for this process, as it can be easier for a smaller group to work together, especially if they already knew each other.

The group leader may therefore need to use coaching skills to encourage group members to work together, and see each other’s strengths as well as weaknesses. Tools like Myers-Briggs Type Indicators, and Belbin’s Team Roles can be useful ways to help group members to increase their understanding of each other.

Stage Three: The Development of Group Norms (Norming)

Surprisingly, after a period of conflict, groups often start to develop greater cohesiveness, mutual trust and a sense of belonging between members.

Handled right—and this may need considerable skill in conflict resolution from the group leader—conflict can clear the air. There is also a sense in which group members simply accept that they have a goal, and have to get on and achieve it, regardless of any interpersonal difficulties.

This stage in group development is, in many senses, a period of negotiation. Group members are carefully working out the group norms together and separately. They are also working out who they are able to work with comfortably, and where relationships are trickier. Many may be putting in a lot of work to improve more difficult relationships.

The roles and responsibilities within the group will become considerably clearer. Members will start to be prepared to volunteer for tasks, drawing on their strengths, and their understanding of others’ skills.

This can and should be a positive and stable time. Members of the group will begin to take on responsibility for the emotional and social well-being of the group as a whole. This activity is called group maintenance. From here on, the group can begin to centre its attention on the aims or tasks of the group, achieving a ‘common purpose’ that will unite the group still further.

There is more about developing group norms in our page on Building Group Cohesiveness.

Stage Four: The Working Stage (Performing)

At this stage, the group will be most concerned with carrying out its aims and serving its purpose.

By now, members will be working well together. They will recognise and use each other’s individual strengths and skills to achieve the group’s wider aims.

The group should also have reached a high degree of cohesion and trust. If this is lacking, group and individual motivation is likely to be lower. It is therefore important for the group leader to recognise this, and take action to build stronger cohesion if necessary.

If the group has developed a clear identity, where each member recognises their own role, the group may become quite independent from the leader.

Other members of the group might take on some of the leadership roles, especially if there are any subgroups working on particular tasks.

See our page: Group and Team Roles for more information.

Stage Five: The Disbanding Stage (Adjourning/Mourning)

Some groups have a limited life span. These include groups which come together during a training course or pressure groups which are drawn together to achieve a specific aim.

If the group’s objectives are met, there may no longer be a reason to continue working together as a group. For many groups, this can be a time of sadness and mourning. Members will often be reluctant to see the group break up.

To help the group through this time, the leader may decide on a defined end date. A clear evaluation of the group’s achievements will allow the group to end on a high note. Formally noting any lessons learned for the future can also be a way to help group members accept the completion of the process.

Symbolic endings such as a party or a meal out are important ways of celebrating and recognising the group’s life. Technology also makes it a lot easier for members of disbanded groups to stay in touch. Email and social media enable professional connections to be strengthened, and friendships developed.