I’ve always found Tuckman’s model of group development (form, storm, norm and perform) useful in understanding group dynamics. As with any individual, group or cultural awareness, if you are unaware you are more likely to be swept along in predictable and counter-productive reactions; if you are aware you can be more intentional and effective.
I was surprised by a colleague, if I understood them correctly, who asserts that you can skip “forming” by establishing productive norms from the beginning, and especially so if you are a group that is already familiar with each other through other work experiences. I’ve been pondering both points and I think there is truth to them as long as they are not held in some sort of extreme. That is, of course if you have all worked together in other ways, the process will be sped, and of course it is wise to begin establishing productive norms from the beginning. I highly recommend the later; the former is more a matter of circumstance.
Nonetheless the behaviors Tuckman noted during forming are still likely: an imbalance of focus on the leader to understand the goals, norms, and roles that they are establishing (or failing to establish), and the likelihood of some caution or passivity in the beginning. People want to know how to effectively fit in. A wise leader goes for clarity on goals, norms, and roles from the beginning, and leads in such a way as to quickly establish inclusion in the group and more balanced engagement. Wise group members also actively encourage the same.
In my mind, successful forming does not eliminate the forming dynamics…rather, it addresses them. I believe doing so is sound advice and holds true even in a group with high past familiarity.
My colleague and I agree, on the other hand, that Tuckman’s second stage is easily misunderstood. “Storming” sounds like open and dysfunctional conflict, and if understood that way is certainly something to avoid. Tuckman, however (as far as I can tell), meant that following the initial focus on and hope for clarity and inclusion, differences start to surface. This could be out of frustration with the perceived initial shortcomings of the leader and the group, or out of effective invitation by the leader and group members. Either way, storming is simply the inevitable surfacing of differences.
Norming in Tuckman’s model emerges from storming and is focused on you handle those differences. Do you co-create a group dynamic where people actively seek out contrasting perspectives, explore them, and then make decisions? Or does the group (almost certainly with no or low awareness) c0-create a norm of either fight (oppositional debate with a winner and a loser) or flight (people keeping their differences to themselves…or being very indirect)?
Finally (in the original model) the level of performing emerges from the norms established to handle differences (storming). Dysfunctional norms (a prevalence of fight and flight behavior) impede performance. Functional norms increase performance.
Understood as a developmental model of managing conflict in groups, Tuckman’s stages are both practical, and as far as I can tell, universal.
Tuckman eventually added adjourning, and I think it is also worth paying attention to. Even during regular weekly/daily meetings people may become more conflict avoidant and/or mentally “check out” towards the end of a meeting (or group). The leader must be intentional (starting with themselves…they may be checking out!) if they want people to “check back in.” Otherwise, if that part of the meeting really doesn’t matter, best to just end the meeting!
If you enjoyed this article and would like a more in depth on how to establish effective norms through group process, be sure to read this earlier post: Navigating Tuckman’s Stages: Leading Your Group from Forming to High Performing