Group Formation

Why do groups form and how do groups develop? In this entry, different perspectives on group development  are  examined.  There  are  a  number  of reasons  that  people  join  groups.  William  Schutz theorized humans seek out groups in an effort to fulfill  one  or  more  of  the  following  fundamental needs:  (1)  need  for  inclusion—desire  for  affiliation,  belonging,  and  acceptance;  (2)  need  for affection—desire  for  intimacy;  and  (3)  need  for control—desire  for  power  and  opportunities  to dominate  others.  Once  a  group  is  formed,  there are different perspectives on how groups develop.

Group Development Perspectives

Group development involves the evolution of structure,  cohesion,  and  maturity  of  a  group  over  the course of time. Group dynamics scholars have proposed  over  a  hundred  theories  to  explain  group development.  Holly  Arrow,  Marshall  S.  Poole, Kelly  B.  Henry,  Susan  Wheelan,  and  Richard Moreland  reviewed  the  literature  and  classified the theories into five general categories: (1) linear (sequential stage) perspective, (2) cyclical (repeating cycles)  perspective,  (3)  robust  equilibrium  model, (4) punctuated equilibrium model, and (5) adaptive response. The following is an overview of the five  perspectives  with  an  emphasis  on  the  linear and cyclical  perspectives, which have  received  the greatest attention in the group dynamics literature.

Linear (Sequential) Perspective

In the mid-1960s, Bruce Tuckman reviewed the literature on group development and proposed that groups  progress  through  four  stages  of  development. The four stages include: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Tuckman in collaboration  with  Mary  Jensen  later  added  a  fifth  stage, adjourning.  In  the  first  stage,  forming,  group members  become  familiar  with  each  other  and identify  the  group’s  task.  This  stage  is  similar  to an  orientation  phase  as  the  primary  focus  of  the group  members  is  on  inclusion  and  dependency. Storming  is  characterized  by  tension  and  conflict among members and with the group’s leader. Issues of power and authority are focal points as members  exert  their  preferences  for  the  group’s approach  to  a  task  and  question,  or  even  resist, decisions of the leader. During norming, the group members  come  together  to  reach  a  consensus  on the  group’s  goals  and  objectives,  and  the  group’s norms, the accepted standards for behavior within the group. The norming stage is also characterized as a period of cooperation, clarification of individual member roles within the group, and development of group cohesion. In performing, the group becomes more stable as group members display a clear understanding and acceptance of their roles. The  focus  of  group  members  is  on  the  successful  achievement  of  the  group’s  task  rather  than conflict  among  members  and  the  leader.  Finally, adjourning is highlighted by a termination of roles or  duties,  reduction  of  dependency,  and  breakup of  the  group.  Collectively,  this  linear  perspective has two defining characteristics: (1) the five stages are sequential, and (2) the duration of each stage is variable.

Cyclical (Repeating Cycles) Perspective

One of the defining features of the linear perspective on group development is that groups move through a sequence of stages that begin with formation and end  with  termination  (forming,  storming,  norming, performing, adjourning). In contrast, the cyclical  perspective  proposes  that  group  development occurs through a repeating cycle of five stages. In the  first  stage,  discontent,  group  members  do  not yet feel a part of the group or consider the group as part of their identity. An example would be during tryouts for a sport team when new players are vying for a spot on the team. The second stage of group  identification  occurs  when  individuals  display commitment to the group and identify group members  from  nongroup  members.  The  third stage,  group  productivity,  occurs  when  members strive  to  contribute  toward  team  goals.  The  successful attainment of goals often leads to the next stage,  individuation,  in  which  members  seek  out recognition  for  their  personal  contributions.  This may be in the form of an athlete seeking out validation from the coach, fellow teammates, or others for performance. As the group moves through the  individuation  stage,  the  group  progresses  to the final stage, decay, where the members become less interested and put less energy toward achieving goals  of  the  group.  This  often  leads  the  group  to cycle back to the first stage of discontent beginning the cyclical process again. The group may experience a number of cycles while together.

An analogy to differentiate the cyclical perspective from the linear perspective is a sport team progressing through various segments over the course of  a  season  (preseason,  regular  season,  playoffs). For  example,  during  the  preseason,  a  basketball team may display signs of decay, the final stage of the cyclical perspective, for example, lack of interest toward the team’s goals, and cycle back to the initial  stage  of  discontent.  However,  the  start  of the regular season may reinvigorate the group and push the group to the stage of group identification as  members  have  renewed  interest  and  seek  out their roles for the team to be successful. Conversely, a linear perspective would not describe the team as cycling back to early stages in group development during the preseason. Rather, a linear perspective would  view  the  team  as  progressing  sequentially over the season (forming and storming during the preseason,  norming  and  performing  during  the regular season).

Additional Perspectives on Group Development

Three  alternative  group  development  perspectives  identified  by  Arrow  and  colleagues  include the  robust  equilibrium  model,  punctuated  equilibrium model, and adaptive response. The robust equilibrium perspective is characterized by group development (e.g., delineation of norms and roles) during  the  early  time  periods  of  the  group’s  formation. Then the structure of the group becomes relatively  stable  over  time.  The  punctuated  equilibrium  model  is  a  variation  of  the  robust  equilibrium  perspective  where  group  development is  perceived  to  consist  of  stable  periods  that  are interrupted by sudden bouts of instability. During bouts of instability, the group is restructured and may  involve  a  turnover  in  group  members  or

reassignment of roles within the group. The final perspective,  adaptive  response,  rejects  the  notion that  all  groups  move  through  a  similar  progression of stages. The adaptive response perspective proposes that groups develop in their own unique manner  based  upon  the  stressors  and  challenges each  group  needs  to  overcome.  As  such,  each group’s  pattern  of  development  is  idiosyncratic and  a  response  to  environmental  constraints  and opportunities.

Integrated Model of Group Development

Susan  Wheelan  examined  the  group  development   literature   and   developed   an   Integrated Model  of  Group  Development  that  built  upon Tuckman’s  linear  model  of  group  development and  the  early  work  of  Wilfred  Bion.  Similar  to Tuckman’s model, there is a linear progression of stages. Conversely, Wheelan’s perspective emphasized  that  groups  achieve  maturity  as  the  group members work together rather than simply going through stages of activity. Group development in early stages in the model is associated with dependency,  counter dependency,  and  trust  while  the later,  more  mature  stages  are  where  productivity is a focus.

To  reflect  the  characteristics  of  each  stage  in the  Integrated  Model  of  Group  Development, Wheelan  relabeled  the  stages  beginning  with  the first  stage—dependency  and  inclusion.  Similar  to Tuckman’s  model,  the  stage  is  characterized  by the  member’s  concerns  for  inclusion  and  dependency  on  the  group’s  leader  for  direction.  Within the  second  stage,  counter dependency  and  fight, there is conflict among the group members about the group’s goals and procedures. If the group can work through the conflict with open communication, the group can foster commitment and trust, and progress to the third stage, trust and structure. The structural component of the third stage reflects the negotiation of roles and conformity to norms (acceptable  procedures)  within  the  group.  This stage also highlights the establishment of positive work  relationships.  The  final  or  work  stage  is  a period of enhanced productivity and effectiveness, whereby  previous  deleterious  issues  within  the group have been resolved and the focus of group members’ energy is on the tasks and achievement of group goals. An emphasis of Wheelan’s model is the link between the productivity of the group and the different stages, whereby lower productivity is evident  during  Stage  1  and  higher  productivity  is evident during Stage 4.

Group Development Assessment

Several   attempts   have   been   undertaken   to assess  group  development.  Susan  Wheelan  and Anthony Verdi developed the Group Development Observation   System   (GDOS).   This   approach involves transcribing, coding, and analyzing the patterns  of  communication  of  group  members  based upon  seven  group-development  categories  (dependency,  counter dependency,  fight,  flight,  pairing, counterpairing,  and  work).  GDOS  has  been  used to examine the patterns of communication between sexes,  whereby  researchers  have  compared  samesex (homogeneous) and mixed-sex (heterogeneous) groups  during  progressive  phases  of  group  life.  In this work, no significant differences were found to exist  between  same-sex  groups.  However,  mixedsex groups differed from same-sex groups but this was  attributed  to  a  larger  group  size  rather  than sex composition. In sum, sex composition does not appear to influence group developmental patterns.

Susan Wheelan and Judith Hochberger used the integrated  model  of  group  development  to  create the  Group  Development  Questionnaire  (GDQ). The  GDQ  includes  four  scales  that  correspond to the four stages of Wheelan’s integrated model. The items in each scale are designed to assess the characteristic  behaviors  of  groups  in  each  stage (e.g., Stage 1 scale assesses dependency and inclusion). Calculating group mean scores for the four scales can be used to determine each group’s stage of  development,  productivity,  and  effectiveness. Higher  group  mean  scores  on  the  higher  stages are  indicative  of  greater  productivity  and  group effectiveness.

Wheelan  has  conducted  group  development research  with  the  GDQ  in  a  number  of  settings, such  as  work  and  schools.  One  study  in  elementary  schools  found  greater  staff  group  development  (e.g.,  when  teachers  displayed  more  trust and  cooperation)  to  be  positively  associated  with student learning and performance. More recently, Wheelan used the measure to examine the relationship between group size, development, and productivity  in  over  300  work  groups.  Results  revealed that  group  size  is  an  important  factor  in  group development  and  productivity.  Smaller  groups  of three  to  eight  members  were  found  to  be  significantly more productive and more developmentally advanced  and  with  higher  mean  scores  in  more mature stages on GDQ than larger groups of nine or  more  members.  Groups  consisting  of  three  to four  members  were  found  to  be  most  productive and developmentally advanced.

Empirical Evidence in Sport and Exercise

Although  there  has  been  an  abundance  of  work on group development in organizational and work settings,  research  on  group  formation  and  development  in  sport  and  exercise  is  relatively  limited in scope. The vast majority of research in this area has focused on the relationship between managerial  and  team  member  turnover  and  team  effectiveness.  In  general,  longitudinal  examinations  of team success after a managerial change in a number of professional and intercollegiate sports, such as baseball, basketball, and hockey, have revealed higher  managerial  turnover  to  be  associated  with lower  team  effectiveness  (e.g.,  poorer  win–loss, league  standing)  or  only  short-term  improvement in team performance, that is, no long-term effects beyond the season.

Similar to managerial turnover, research on the relationship  between  athlete  turnover  and  team effectiveness has revealed that higher athlete turnover  is  associated  with  lower  team  effectiveness (e.g., poorer win–loss, league standing) in a number  of  professional  sports  (baseball,  basketball, football).  Nevertheless,  contradictory  evidence also  exists,  with  one  review  of  professional  icehockey teams, from 1950 to 1966, revealing that both  coach  and  athlete  turnover  were  unrelated to  team  performance.  Indeed,  some  coaches  and researchers  have  suggested  that  turnover  is  not always problematic as too little turnover can lead to complacency and diminished motivation among team members. The ideal time and level of player turnover  with  regard  to  team  success  has  been  a related  area  of  study  and  found  to  vary  by  sport and position. Given that player turnover can happen  for  a  variety  of  reasons—injury,  retirement, trade—and  can  potentially  impact  the  group’s development and team effectiveness, it is likely to be a topic of future research interest.


Social  scientists  have  highlighted  the  importance of  groups  for  individuals.  While  group  development  has  been  a  topic  of  considerable  interest  in organizational  settings,  this  topic  has  received much less attention in sport and exercise settings. A fruitful line of research would involve examining the influence of group development on group effectiveness,  such  as  team  morale  and  performance, and on individual members’ satisfaction or adherence. in exercise and sport settings.


  1. Arrow, H., Poole, M. S, Henry, K. B., Wheelan, S., & Moreland, R. (2004). Time, change, and development: The temporal perspective on groups. Small Group Research, 35, 73–105.
  2. Carron, A. V., & Eys, M. A. (2012). Group dynamics in sport (4th ed.). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
  3. Forsyth, D. R. (2010). Group dynamics (5th ed.).Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
  4. McTeer, W., White, P. G., & Persad, S. (1995). Manager/ coach mid-season replacement and team performance in professional team sport. Journal of Sport Behavior, 18, 58–68.
  5. Tuckman, B. W., & Jensen, M. A. C. (1977). Stages in small group development revisited. Group and Organizational Studies, 2, 419–427.
  6. Verdi, A. F., & Wheelan, S. A. (1992). Developmental patterns in same-sex and mixed-sex groups. Small Group Research, 23(3), 356–378.
  7. Wheelan, S. A. (2009). Group size, group development, and group productivity. Small Group Research, 40(2), 247–262.
  8. Wheelan, S. A., & Hochberger, J. M. (1996). Validation studies of the group development questionnaire. Small Group Research, 27, 143–170.
  9. Wheelan, S. A., & Kesselring, J. (2005). Link between faculty group development and elementary student performance on standardized tests. The Journal of Education Research, 98(6), 323–330.


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