Tuckman Team development model and Leadership

Narinder Sharma

In my previous article, I wrote about team dynamics and dysfunctions, taking that discussion further, I will explore stages of team development. And suggestions for leaders on how to build a highly efficient, high-performing, happy team.

“Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success.”

Henry Ford

According to Psychologist Bruce Tuckman, a team typically progresses through various stages in their overall performance. In 1965, he described the phases of team development as forming, storming, norming, and performing. He later added the final stage of adjourning, also known as mourning. Since then, Tuckman’s model has remained relevant both in the context of the program and project management – whether Waterfall or Agile.

Team building, like many parts of project management, goes through the following stages of team formation and development:

  • Forming – People are brought together as a team/group.
  • Storming – Group/Team disagreements surface as they start to work together.
  • Norming – The team start to build good working relationships and start to trust each other.
  • Performing – The team builds on trust, becomes more efficient, and starts to work together effectively, and the team is highly productive at this stage.
  • Adjourning/Mourning – project closure thus team is disbanded slowly
5 Stages of Team Development
Tuckman’s five stages of team development

As the people come together as they form a team/group, they interact with each other, and throughout the project team may cycle through stages – storming norming and performing several times. It is also true when changes happen to the team – new member(s) is added to the side, or existing team members leave the cohort. The team now must adjust to this change – realign to new roles, responsibilities, competition, and relationships within the new team structure.

To be and remain most efficient and productive – the team must reach the performing stage of team development. However, this is often never achieved, and the team destabilises and reverts to a lower stage to various factors that include leadership.

Team Development Model
Team Development Model

In the forming phase, the team typically starts with a collection of people as a group/bunch to work on the same project. The team then progresses to the storming phase – where they start to compete and challenge each other. Then comes norming phase – when the team learns how to work together and get stuff done. And thereafter, finally, the team may attain or reach the performing phase – when the trust is at its peak, and they act as one.

If you look closely at the diagram, you will notice that a team typically starts with a collection of people or just a group rather than a team. And sometimes, while they’re defining their role and responsibilities, there’s a bit of conflict that the team can go through. And it’s very natural as it happens with every team, with every organization.

During the next phase – storming, a pseudo team is somewhat in place. This is when cracks start to appear, and conflicts are fuelled. Within this storming phase, we start to notice communication gaps and disagreements about how things should be done.

There’s more confusion, more uncertainty. Many times, projects that are under tighter deadlines can exacerbate this storming behaviour.

However, it’s not a bad thing, and it’s not something we should be afraid of. On the contrary, managers, project managers, or scrum masters should embrace the fact that teams are going through this storming phase.

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

Babe Ruth

Now, once the team get beyond the storming phase, they get into norming. The pseudo team now transform into a potential team as they start to norm together. Norming is a great way of dealing with storming. Teams start to adapt and align on different levels/values. They start to be respectful of each other’s differences and, at the same time, embrace each other’s qualities in the sense that we can work together as a team respectfully and still be able to deliver on our objectives.

Therefore, norming aspect is really powerful because it starts to establish norms within the team – this could be at the team, project, program or even organizational level.  All these – this happens on a different scale, as we know, our teams are a subset, a microcosm, of the culture of our larger organizations.

And then (potentially) a team become a real team during the performing phase. Best teams in the world can perform, and the highest performing teams, whether or not it’s in sports, or within IT, or any project, for that matter, the teams that really can perform are the ones that really have established excellent communication methods, they understand the different cultures, they understand the dynamics, and they’re working together to achieve a common objective in a way that teams that don’t have those norms and values really understood do.

Performing teams are autonomous, empowered, self-managing and self-policing. They require just to be pointed in the right direction and given the right recognition and application for their dedication and high performance.

Unfortunately, many project teams never reach this stage because the organisation makes too many changes to the team, which in turn sends the team back into the storming and norming phases again.

And the fifth & final stage is adjourning or mourning. When a project or a program ends, that team adjourns. When this happens, members return to their roots, to their other teams or different organizations or formed again in another activity.

Team Development & Leadership?

It seems very neat to define the stages of team formation and development; however, each team is different, and the team development model may not be as linear as it appears. Several factors come into play like – past experiences, previous working relationships etc. And interestingly, at times, teams do not progress through the stages as a whole unit.

One of the things that the model can offer leaders, so the teams can be higher performance is a level of awareness of the fact that teams go through these various stages. Without that model, leaders and managers may not really understand why a team is storming. They may not even appreciate the fact that this is storming.

Leaders first seek to understand team competence and commitment level to adjust their leadership style and behaviour. Consider this following situational leadership grid and notice different leadership styles at different team development phases/stages.

Team Stage Leadership Style Team Member Behaviour Leader Behaviour
Forming Directing Low competence High commitment High directive Low supportive
Storming Coaching Low/Some competence Low commitment High directive High supportive
Norming Supporting Moderate/High competence Variable commitment Low directive High supportive
Performing Delegating High competence High commitment Low directive Low supportive

Leaders with the correct level of awareness and the right choice of tools can generate awareness, ability, and help & support in a large organization to minimize the storming behaviour and get the team to perform at a very high level.