Tapping Into the Tuckman Model to Understand Team Dynamics

by: Amy Simmons

When leading a team for the first time—whether as a new leader yourself or while adapting to an environment—you probably encountered the challenge of getting your team on the same page, or even building one from scratch. Understanding the typical stages teams go through when forming or readjusting after a change in leadership can be helpful in situations like those. For insight, we can turn to the late Bruce Tuckman, a renowned organizational behaviorist. In 1965, he published a team development model that remains highly relevant today. It consists of four stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing.

Forming: At the beginning, teams are highly dependent on the leader for insight and guidance about where to go. The roles individuals will play and the responsibilities they’ll take on aren’t yet clear. Trust isn’t there yet, leading members of the team to test the knowledge and abilities of the system and its leader.

Storming: During the next stage, team members struggle as they work to find their position within the group. They may challenge each other and the leader. However, while those uncertainties remain, the purpose is becoming clearer. And that’s good, because it is purpose that will help the team persist and progress toward a common goal.

Norming: In the norming stage, the team finds consensus. Roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, and agreement is reached more easily. Members also begin to understand their individual and collective working styles. They have built a framework of respect for the leader and for each other, and as a result of this progress, everyone is better equipped to take ownership over specific tasks.

Performing: In stage four, the team has hit its stride. The leader can step back and let the team operate, making collective decisions based on established criteria. Members can resolve any conflicts that arise amongst themselves, and make appropriate changes to systems and processes as necessary. While the leader still delegates tasks and projects, the team doesn’t need help accomplishing them.

In the 1970s, Tuckman added a fifth stage: Adjourning. This is just what it sounds like. At some point, the team completes its tasks and members move on. The goal here is to recognize when the end has arrived, the discomfort it may bring, and the opportunity to move on to new challenges.

Recognizing when the time to adjourn has come can be very difficult. Many of us are trained to keep the trains moving on time, but we haven’t learned when it’s time to stop—or how to effectively facilitate an ending.

Further, it’s debatable as to whether adjourning is the last stage or the first, in that the way things end predicts how a new era will begin. That makes this stage extremely important, as—regardless of whether it marks the end or beginning—individuals and teams alike can take advantage of the circumstances at hand if they know what to look for. Often, it’s adjourning—the end of a particular event, experience, or relationship—that launches one into liminal space, a period of discontinuity that creates an openness to change.

That proved to true for one client of ours, a hospital system working to evaluate its palliative care program. The administration had seen the program strictly as a way to manage endings, as families experienced it at the end of a patient’s life. But we recognized that a family’s encounter with the palliative care program could actually mark the beginning of their relationship with the institution.

If they had a positive experience with the staff and facility during one of the most difficult times in their lives, they were more likely to return when expecting a baby; seeking pediatric care for their children; or when they were in need of treatment for an emergency, like a broken bone. When the hospital system recognized that the palliative care program could be an entry point for patients, they were able to harness the opportunity to cultivate new relationships—to the benefit of the institution as a whole and those it served.

Our book, Unleashed: Harnessing the Power of Liminal Space, from ForbesBooks, serves as another route to explore this concept, laying out what we’ve learned about the power of pattern-breaking experiences for individuals, teams, and organizations. Read more about it here.