From Forming to Performing: How Tuckman’s 5 Stages of Team Development Can Help You Build a Stellar Team
In 1965 psychologist Bruce Tuckman's theory described how teams move through several stages in their development, known as forming, storming, norming, and performing.
In this article, we’ll explain what each stage involves and how you, as a leader, can best support your team through each of these phases.
Is your team struggling to work together? Are they holding back, clashing or underperforming? Can they ask each other for help? Do the same enthusiastic voices speak up in meetings? Are people able to be authentic with each other or do they seem disengaged? Have new starters changed the dynamics or have recent leavers affected team confidence?
If you're experiencing any of these challenges, you may be wondering how can you help your team collaborate, work together better and become a more successful and high performing team.
Tuckman's theory (sometimes known as Tuckman’s Ladder) is something that we refer to all the time, it shows that as your team develops, it moves through four stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing. By working through these stages - which may not happen in a linear way - your team members will be able to build more effective relationships and become better able to collaborate with each other. As an added benefit, your leadership style will become more collaborative too.
Despite having been around for over fifty years, Tuckman’s theory of team formation is still a solid and relevant explanation of team development and behaviour.
The simple truth is, building successful teams is hard - things change all the time, and people and their feelings are not always straightforward. As a leader, you may find yourself in that position for different reasons, not necessarily because you’re skilled at managing or building teams.
So leading a team is an important skill to master. Tuckman’s model can help you gain an understanding of how individuals naturally come together in a team. It helps you figure out their motivations and inhibitions, and also the challenges that you, as a leader, need to help them overcome.
The Stages of Tuckman’s Theory of Team Development
When you see Tuckman’s model drawn out as a graph, it’s often shown as beginning with a downwards curve. The scale of that first drop is an indication of how much ‘storming’ (often the most important stage in the process) needs to be done before your team can truly become high-performing.
It’s important to reiterate that Tuckman’s stages don’t necessarily follow a linear process. Team dynamics are in constant flux and can shift, for example, when a new person joins or leaves. Regardless of the stage, good leadership and facilitation can make or break the success of Tuckman's model.
So let’s take a closer look at the four phases: forming, storming, norming, and performing, and the critical role you play as a leader in each section.
Forming is the first stage of building your team. It's the bringing together of a brand new group, where members have usually had very little interaction with each other beforehand.
This is a stage of your team's development where identity, roles and boundaries are established. People may want to get stuck in but are not totally sure of what they're meant to be doing, They may have mixed emotions (for example, team members may feel excited, anxious, cautious or curious) and have high expectations.
They'll be feeling out the other members of the team, and want to be seen in the best light possible. They make every effort to appear competent - even if, in reality, they’re not entirely confident about who they are in the group, or how they're supposed to be. They'll be looking to you as leader for guidance, and alongside the more experienced people in the team, you can help by modelling good behaviour such as listening and being honest. Where the team meets for the first time can have an effect on how this stage progresses too (Changing your physical environment disrupts patterns and stimulates different thinking - hence why meeting outdoors around a campfire can be transformational for teams.)
The key functions of this stage are (as the title suggests) the forming of the team, as well as clarifying roles and your position as a leader. The challenges lie in the fact that things are all still very new, and many members of the team may feel hesitant and are operating on assumptions about one another - it can take months before they really feel comfortable with each other.
There’s also a risk that a false consensus may develop, which could cause issues in the later stages.
In this second stage, you are all getting used to each other, so people may be less reserved, including being more direct and saying what they really think!
However some of the group may do the opposite - keeping what they think or feel bottled up, and trying their best to remain 'polite' with each other. Both behaviours may occur because people are not ready or don't know how to express how they feel in a more authentic and confident way. A lot depends on the mix of personalities in the team, how safe they feel and whether they trust each other or not.
The storming stage is where interpersonal issues may rear their head, leading to conflict within the group. Some team members may feel competitive, want more control, or feel that their skills are going to waste on the tasks they’ve been assigned within the project. People might clash and find it hard to see differences of opinion as anything other than personal attacks.
This phase is a challenging one, but also a necessary one. It’s centred around resistance to the current formation of the team and the developing, shifting structure and ways of doing things, and needs to be handled carefully to avoid disconnect within the group.
Within this stage, conflict itself can take different forms. Some team members may become openly hostile, while others may seethe silently. Power plays, blaming and scapegoating, and the team splitting off into ‘cliques’ are all common issues. The politeness of the forming stage is well and truly over, and reality is setting in.
Moving to the third stage, the team starts to find their rhythm. Members begin to understand their role, the work and each other. People become more comfortable, and any disputes about structure, hierarchy and ways of doing things start to lessen as you all settle into your roles - whether willingly or as the result of compromise!
Team members have figured out how to best work with one another more effectively, and have found and accepted ways to behave, and you can work together to develop team processes. Conflicts are resolved, and people understand that differences of opinion are useful, and a new respect for each other develops as individual strengths are recognised and you can get past differences. The team comes together on a common goal and make progress on a project.
People make friends and start socialising outside of work and it’s a good time for morale and collaboration. However, whilst you've figured out how to work together, now you have to get on and do it.
In the performing stage, morale is high - the team is happy and performing tasks efficiently. There’s a clear vision, a deeper understanding of goals, and a focus on achieving them! The team can make decisions and solve problems.
Lessons learned from the previous stages mean that you can now handle relapses into the storming phase well. Remember, this model is not always linear!
Conflict will still exist within the team, but it will be healthier and more productive instead of damaging. Speaking of productivity, this too should be increasing - inter-team friendships and alliances in the group will deepen, and the roles within the team become more fluid as the members work more cohesively and collaboratively.
One thing to beware of during this phase is pseudo performance - the idea of ‘working hard, but hardly working’. The team may appear productive, but measurements and KPIs need to be put in place to make sure the end goal is still in sight, and still being prioritised.
Adjourning: The Additional Stage
The Adjourning phase was added by Tuckman to his model in 1977 and is classed as the ‘final’ stage of team development. This is what happens when the team wraps things up - when a project ends, someone leaves, or there’s a restructure. It’s also the stage for celebrating successes and for recognising team members for their contributions to the group.
The main goals of this stage are to achieve closure and to end on a positive note. Team members need time to reflect on their individual participation and growth, and it’s absolutely critical here that, as a manager and leader, you recognise and praise the efforts made by both individual team members and the group as a whole. People may feel sad or insecure about what comes next - what could you do to help them?
How School of the Wild can help your team
At School of the Wild, our mission is to help organisations work with nature to transform their teams and inspire a more regenerative relationship with the world and each other. Our methods can help your team transition through each of the stages of Tuckman’s model, in particular overcoming conflict-based interpersonal challenges during the critical storming phase.
With venues in Sussex and South London, we make it easy to escape into the wild. We mix fun activities with team development around the campfire, creating space for meaningful conversations that build relationships, promote positive culture change, and help you build, develop and transform your team.
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Author & Curator
Nigel Berman is the founder of School of the Wild.