Tuckman's Stages of Group Development

Although Bruce W. Tuckman (1938- ) is best known for his article 'Developmental sequence in small groups,' published in 1965, his areas of expertise are educational research and educational psychology. Nevertheless, of all the models of group development that have been proposed, Tuckman's forming-storming-norming-performing is the one referenced most often.

The initial four-stage model came out of Tuckman's first job after grad school at the Naval Medical Research Institute, Bethesda MD. He and a small group of social psychologists studied small group behavior as applicable to U.S. Navy small-crew vessels and stations. The model didn't derive from original research, but rather from a review of 50 articles, many of them psychoanalytic studies of therapy and T-groups. While searching for a developmental sequence that would fit most groups in these studies, Tuckman initially called the four stages: 1) orientation-testing-dependence; 2) conflict; 3) group cohesion; and 4) functional role-relatedness. Since these labels didn't exactly role off the tongue, Tuckman renamed the stages forming, storming, norming, and performing. These four stages have been group development mainstays for over 50 years now, the memorable rhyme scheme no doubt helping to promote their popularity. Here's how he initially described them:

Forming—Groups initially concern themselves with orientation accomplished primarily through testing. Such testing serves to identify the boundaries of both interpersonal and task behaviors. Coincident with testing in the interpersonal realm is the establishment of dependency relationships with leaders, other group members, or pre‑existing standards.
Storming—The second point in the sequence is characterized by conflict and polarization around interpersonal issues, with concomitant emotional responding in the task sphere. These behaviors serve as resistance to group influence and task requirements.
Norming—Resistance is overcome in the third stage in which in-group feeling and cohesiveness develop, new standards evolve, and new roles are adopted. In the task realm, intimate, personal opinions are expressed.
Performing—The interpersonal structure becomes the tool of task activities. Roles become flexible and functional, and group energy is channeled into the task. Structural issues have been resolved, and structure can now become supportive of task performance.

A fifth stage

In 1977 Tuckman and Mary Ann Jensen proposed an update to the popular model, again based on a literature review. They reported that 23 newer articles "tended to support the existence of the four stages" but also suggested a fifth stage. Tuckman and Jensen called this stage adjourning. Adjourning basically involves dissolution, that is, terminating roles, completing tasks, and reducing dependency. Others have called this stage mourning, since former group members often experience loss—especially when a group is dissolved suddenly or with little planning.

How valid and useful is the Tuckman model?

Though Tuckman's four-stage model has found its way into many textbooks, not every social psychologist embraces it. For one thing, Tuckman's model suffers the same criticisms as any stage-theory or lifespan model: By trying to paint a universal picture, it over-generalizes. Groups aren't so straightforward. As with all human processes, every group deviates from any stage theory. What's more, there's usually overlap between stages. Not only are the lines fuzzy, but the stages are nonlinear. Group members are always balancing the needs to accomplish tasks and build relationships, and the focus between the two constantly shifts. In other words, in real life group development is more like a spiral than a series of clear-cut steps.

The other major criticism takes aim at the model's catchy labels. The concern is that facilitators and trainers too often project these labels onto groups where the stages don't exist or aren't helpful. But then, this is less a question of the four-stages' validity, than an example of how slogans and models encourage intellectual laziness and misapplication.

All things considered, we've found Tuckman's model to sometimes be a helpful starting point for small groups. There does seem to be a generally predictable developmental process for certain kinds of small groups, and when people have some appreciation of this process, groups seem to gel a little sooner.