Group Development

Group development refers to the process by which members of newly formed work teams learn about their teammates, establish their roles and responsibilities, and acquire the task work and teamwork capabilities required to coordinate their effort to perform effectively as a team. Work group development pertains to the team as a whole (i.e., all members are new to the team), distinguishing this process from group socialization, which refers to the assimilation of new members into an existing team with an ongoing history. The amount of time it takes for a team to develop is variable and, although precise time frames are not established, the process is presumed to take longer when the team task entails greater complexity, interdependence, and coordination and less time when there is less demand for the integration of team members’ knowledge, skill, and effort. The process is important because team development is assumed to be a necessary, but insufficient, precondition for team effectiveness. That is, work groups and teams cannot achieve goals and meet performance expectations until essential task work and teamwork skills have developed. However, other contingencies that influence team performance have to be resolved before teams can perform effectively; such factors are the focus of team effectiveness models and research. Finally, although team training and leadership interventions have the potential to enhance team development, it is a process that generally unfolds naturally without intentional intervention. Thus the potential for improving team development (and team effectiveness) in many organizations is high.

Group Development Theories, Models, and Approaches

Time is central in all models of group development. How this temporal process has been treated, however, distinguishes different conceptual approaches: stage, punctuated equilibrium, and integrated models, and more recent systems-oriented approaches.

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Stage Models

Until relatively recently, most theories of group development were based on descriptions of the stages groups passed through as the developmental process unfolded. Although there are many such stage models, their basic characteristics are captured very well by B. W. Tuckman’s (1965) widely cited model of group development. He reviewed the group literature— defined by therapy, T-group, natural, and laboratory group studies—and proposed that groups go through the developmental stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing.

As team members are first brought together during the formation stage, they cautiously begin to explore the group and attempt to establish some social structure. This stage is characterized by feelings of excitement, anticipation, and optimism; pride in being chosen for the project; initial, tentative attachment to the group; and some fear and anxiety about what lies ahead. Members attempt to define the nature of the group task and to establish how they will accomplish it. They try to determine acceptable group behavior and deal with group problems. Discussions are often characterized by abstract, lofty concepts and issues, but members may also express impatience with the failure of the group to be more task focused.

As team members begin to realize that defining the task is more difficult than expected, they move to the difficult storming stage. They focus inward and become testy, impatient, and blameful over the lack of progress. Members argue about what actions the group should take. There is defensiveness, competition, disunity, and jealousy. Different factions may form as conflict within the group progresses. Members may experience mood swings as they wonder about the project’s potential for success.

As the group is finally able to reconcile competing loyalties and responsibilities, it begins to firmly establish ground rules, roles, and status. During this norm-ing stage, members reduce emotional conflict and become more cooperative. There is more friendliness, personal confiding, and harmony. Members express criticism constructively and attempt to avoid conflict. They develop a sense of group cohesion and common goals.

As these normative expectations take hold, the group moves to the performing stage. Members have more insight into personal and group processes and a better understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They are able to prevent group problems or work through them when they arise. Members become closely attached to the team and satisfied with its progress as they more toward their common goal.

This stage model of group development is a classic and representative of many other similar such models.

It provides a rich description of the social interaction process group members experience as they struggle to resolve task uncertainty, interpersonal ambiguity, and conflict as they create a social structure to guide their interactions. However, this and similar stage models are not specific to work group development, where the organizational setting and task requirements are more salient and important. Thus most stage models tend to heavily emphasize group development centered on social interaction, with far less attention to development around task-driven interactions that are important to coordination in work teams.

Punctuated Equilibrium Model

Other descriptive research on team development has produced a notable variation to the stages and underlying process of group development addressed by stage models. In two studies, C. J. Gersick (1988, 1989) examined eight student groups and eight organizational project teams as they worked to accomplish a group objective. The project teams possessed a single project objective and a finite life span (i.e., project deadline), but the length of the deadline varied across groups. Findings from her qualitative analysis indicated that the project groups established an immediate pattern of activity toward their objective, with little apparent progress, that persisted until a transition point about halfway to the project deadline. At that point, the groups dropped old agendas, adopted new perspectives, and made major progress toward the completion of their project. This transition was characterized as a punctuated equilibrium, a discontinuous shift and realignment, that significantly altered the pattern of group activity. This finding points to the importance of external factors (i.e., temporal entrainment to the project deadline) as well as internal factors to group development and activity.

Integrated Models

Although some scholars view stage models and the punctuated equilibrium model as contradictory, others view them as distinctive yet complementary. For example, one study examined 25 student project groups and concluded that the models are largely complementary. Key factors distinguishing the approaches were the content that was used for coding group activities and the unit of time for observations.

Content that addressed group processes and structure and more microtiming tended to support the linear developmental process inherent in the stage approach, whereas content that addressed the group’s approach to their task and more macrotiming supported the punctuated equilibrium approach. These findings suggest that both perspectives have value for describing the process of group development.

Other researchers have also taken an integrative perspective, asserting that work teams need to develop and combine task work and teamwork skills across nine stages of development that combine both stages and a punctuated transition. In phase one, teams proceeded through four stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing and then made a transition to phase two that yielded improved task work and teamwork. Although data evaluating this model were based on a small number of teams, the researchers found that better performing teams exhibited more effective teamwork behaviors including team spirit, cooperation, coordination, and adaptability; developed better role clarity; and evidenced more consensuses about teamwork over time. Thus the research provided support for a developmental process that increasingly integrated both task work and teamwork skills over time, with that integration important to team effectiveness.

System-Oriented Approaches

More recent theory on team development and performance has adopted an organizational systems perspective. Teams are embedded in an open, yet bounded, organizational system composed of multiple levels: individual team members, the team, and an embedding organizational context. This broader system sets top-down contextual constraints on team functioning. Simultaneously, team development, performance, and effectiveness are complex bottom-up phenomena that emerge over time from what individual team members think, feel, and do, and how they interact with other team members. Theories of team development that are emerging from this more recent perspective are sensitive to critical conceptual issues of task interdependence (i.e., task-driven demands for interaction and coordination), temporal dynamics (i.e., different temporal processes—linear and cyclical or episodic—exert different influences on team development and performance), and multilevel influences (i.e., team development and performance are influenced by what individuals think, feel, and do; the social structure that members enact to guide the group, and higher-level organizational factors).

One example of representative work within this perspective is a model of team compilation that integrates team development and performance; team performance at any given point in time is viewed as a consequence of a continuous developmental process. Temporal dynamics are both linear and cyclical, representing developmental processes and task episodes, respectively. Team capabilities improve with linear time prompting transition to more advanced skill acquisition. Within a phase, task episodes provide opportunities for learning. Team compilation is viewed as an emergent multilevel phenomenon such that knowledge, skills, and performance outcomes compile successively upward across levels from an individual self-focus to dyadic exchanges to a dynamic and adaptive team network. Relative to the other approaches to group development, this emerging theory is more process oriented and sensitive to temporal characteristics and the interconnectedness of teams in the organizational system. Because this perspective is relatively recent, research is sparse; but preliminary findings are encouraging.


Perspectives on work group and team development have progressed from descriptive stages and punctuated transitions; to integrated approaches that combine these complementary processes; to more recent system-oriented approaches that view team development (and performance) as complex phenomena that are embedded in the organizational system with influences from multiple levels, strongly influenced by the workflow interdependence of team tasks, and emerge dynamically and adaptively over time as teams continuously acquire expertise. As teams increasingly become the basic organizing structure of work, understanding and improving the processes will assume greater importance. Given that developing integrated task work and teamwork skills is a precondition for team effectiveness, it is remarkable that many organizations do relatively little in the way of intervening to improve team development; for the most part, teams are assembled and left on their own. However, team training and team leadership are key leverage points for enhancing the developmental process by intervening before or as teams are formed (team training) and as they proceed through the developmental process in the work setting (team leadership and coaching).


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