What is the Tuckman theory? (Plus the benefits of using it)
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Social development theories can help organisations improve the productivity of their teams. The Tuckman theory is one of these theories that helps organisations understand how groups may function together. Learning about the Tuckman theory may help you decide if you want to use it to inform group work with your team. In this article, we discuss what the Tuckman theory is, describe the five stages and list some benefits of using it.
What is the Tuckman theory?
The Tuckman theory is a social development theory that was developed by Edward L. Tuckman in 1965. It explains how groups of people progress through a series of stages, from forming to performing. Organizations use this theory of group development to help guide them through the process of group development and change. Groups that use the Tuckman theory of group development follow guidelines that allow for a smooth transition from one stage to the next.
What are the five stages of the Tuckman theory?
Tuckman's five stages of group development each represent a different process that goes into reaching the group's goals. The five stages are:
In the forming stage, the group is just getting to know one another. Usually, there's a group leader present who, in the first few group meetings, manages most of the agenda. Often, group members are overly polite and positive during the forming stage of group development. It's usually easy to tell when you're in the forming stage of group development, as it's the very first step in the progression. Some characteristics of this stage include:
introduction of team members and their hobbies, interests and skills
polite, quiet team members
reliance on the group leader
focus on establishing roles, responsibilities and goals
development of a project timeline
For some groups, the forming stage lasts for just the first meeting, while for others the forming stage may linger for a couple of meetings.
The storming stage of group development is often contentious. In this phase, group members become comfortable enough to voice concerns, which might lead to conflict and in-fighting within the group. Group members might attempt to establish powerful positions and unseat the group leader. Signs your group has moved from forming to storming include:
Conflicts arise during meetings or work sessions.
The team questions the authority of the leader or supervisor.
Team members work to establish what their roles and responsibilities are within the project.
The team functions more as individual members than as a cohesive unit.
It's important to remember that conflict within a team is both healthy and normal. Most teams can move past the storming stage and become well-functioning and productive.
In the norming stage of group development, the team has effectively resolved most, if not all, conflicts and can productively work on the project or towards the end goal. The team members know each other well at this stage and feel comfortable working together or seeking input from one another. Signs your team has reached the norming stage of group development include:
Conflicts are much less frequent, and if they do arise, it's easy to solve them.
All team members understand their specific roles and responsibilities.
The team leader helps delegate work and answers any questions from the team.
The team might socialise together outside of a professional setting.
The norming phase can last for an extended period of time or the team can pass through it quickly and go to the next stage.
The performing stage of group development is where you usually spend the majority of your time. In the performing stage, productivity and efficiency are extremely high. Group members are not only comfortable with one another, but they're also comfortable with their work and expectations. You'll know you're in the performing stage of group development when:
The leader rarely intervenes but instead helps facilitate only when needed.
Team members work autonomously on tasks.
The project is nearing completion.
Any conflict is usually constructive and related directly to the project rather than personal disagreements.
Often, teams complete their projects during the performing stage of group development. In an ideal scenario, the team spends the majority of their time in the performing stage as it's thought to be the most productive and leads to goal achievement.
Related: 9 essential team leader skills
5. Adjourning or mourning
In Tuckman's original paper, the performing stage was the final step in the group development process. However, in 1977 he, along with his colleague Mary Ann Jensen, identified the fifth stage of development called either adjourning or mourning. In this stage, the team separates after the conclusion of their work together. Signs you've reached this stage include:
sadness at the project's ending
uncertainty about the future
a sense of loss over the separation of the team
Adjourning or mourning is momentary and usually only lasts a short time. Once you're able to focus on a new work project or begin work with a new team, the adjourning or mourning often passes quickly.
Benefits of the Tuckman theory
Here is a list of benefits of the Tuckman theory, with a description of each:
Easier tracking progress through stages
The Tuckman theory helps groups progress through the five stages of group development. It allows for a smooth transition from one stage to the next by actively guiding the process with guidelines that provide structure, boundaries and milestones. This is beneficial to both teams and organisations as it prevents teams from being stalled at certain stages, putting them at risk of being stuck in an undesirable group state or losing momentum. There are several benefits to establishing phases of group development with clear boundaries, deadlines and milestones:
Versatility: By establishing phases of group development with clear boundaries, you're able to have different groups working on different projects at any given time. This helps an organisation scale quickly by dividing tasks among various groups based on skill sets and strengths.
Group consistency: Having phases of group development with clear deadlines and milestones helps you stay consistent with the group norms throughout the different stages of group development. If your team is working on a project with an end date of 2nd April, for example, it's important for everyone to work together towards that goal.
Incremental improvement: Setting deadlines and summits in each phase of group development provides opportunities for your team to reflect on their progress in each phase and determine how to improve in each stage. Having a clear structure to keep your team on track provides them with checkpoints and opportunities to reflect on the project as a whole rather than just working towards the next milestone.
Higher performance and efficiency
The Tuckman theory can help you improve the productivity and efficiency of your team, as it may clearly identify the stage that each group member or team is in at any given time. This helps you know when to guide or intervene during storming stages and when to let the group progress through the phases at their own pace. This gives your team the ability to understand their roles within the group and develop personal relationships with other group members.
As the Tuckman theory progresses, the relationships between group members may change gradually. These changes in relationships are key to increasing the productivity and efficiency of your team as they help them not only collaborate but also socialise and bond.
Increased predictability of a group's behaviour
The Tuckman theory provides a standard scale for measuring how a team performs throughout its development. Using this scale allows you to compare an organisation's teams with others that have benefited from using the same system and predict how they may behave in the future. You can do this by looking at how far a team has progressed through the stages.
If a team is working well and progressing through the stages, there may be little or no differences in their behaviour compared to another group that's working through the same process. If their progress slows down or they remain in a stage for an extended period of time, you may expect to see differences in their behaviour.
Easier tracking of changes in relationships
The Tuckman theory can help you determine how to best work with your team based on their stage of development. Through each stage in this process, there may be changes in relationships, with the most dramatic changes in relationships occurring between the forming and storming phases. These changes are crucial to allow team members to bond, communicate and collaborate effectively.
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