Team development according to Bruce Tuckman

By Sjoerd Hogenbirk

These are the four stages of team development according to the renowned model by Bruce Tuckman (1936-2016). The model provides insight into the stages a team goes through to become a high-performing unit.

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Professional team coaches still utilize Tuckman's model to assist existing teams in further improvement. But what if you're not a professional team coach and still want to make progress with your team? In this blog, I'll briefly explain the model, provide a nuanced perspective on the importance of models, and offer practical tools for guiding your team towards better performance – whether you're a leader, scrum master, or consultant.

Bruce Tuckman's stages in team development

Forming (Orientation phase) is the stage in which team members get to know each other and don't yet form a cohesive team. In this stage, it's crucial to establish legitimacy, set clear goals, and clarify roles and responsibilities. During Storming (Conflict phase), everyone knows each other and colleagues dare to express their opinions during discussions and decision-making. In Norming (Collaboration phase), critical evaluation is given to each individual's contribution to shared goals. And with Performing (Autonomous phase), a team works independently and can reflect on its own actions. 

These are the main characteristics of the different stages of team development according to Bruce Tuckman. The question, of course, is: how do you know for certain which stage your team is in? And what are the steps to move towards the next phase of team development? At Highberg, we've translated Tuckman's team development model (along with other models like Patrick Lencioni's 5 frustrations of good teamwork) into concrete points of development for teams. Thus, pinpointing your team's exact phase becomes less critical.

Towards improved team performance in 4 steps

We've categorized the developmental points distilled from well-known models into 4 sequential steps. I'll explain why this is important later in the blog. These developmental points include both prerequisites (such as safety) and skills (decision-making). They encompass not only 'soft' developmental points (e.g., giving and receiving feedback) related to the social interaction among team members but also 'hard' developmental points (e.g., setting goals) that provide structure and direction. Together, they create the best context for performance.

Step 1 - Create the Right Environment for Your Team

A fertile environment means feeling safe and having trust in each other, along with experiencing team cohesion. This involves knowing your fellow team members to some extent and feeling that everyone contributes equally. Additionally, it's important to maintain an ongoing dialogue to ensure everyone is aligned with the right activities and content with the way things are progressing. This step is more about comfort and belief within the team. It's crucial to connect this underlying sentiment to the work's content – which leads us to the next step.

Step 2 – Ensure All Team Members Understand the Purpose

This step mainly revolves around the substance of collaboration and can run in parallel with step 1. Ensure everyone comprehends each individual's contribution to the team (roles and responsibilities). Collaboratively outline the team's goals and its purpose within the organization.

Step 3 – Develop the Right Team Skills Together

Effective collaboration requires a number of specific team skills. Develop these skills to enable the team to truly collaborate (rather than just having the intention to do so). In sequence, the following skills require attention: result-oriented work, communication, giving and receiving feedback, decision-making, and conflict resolution.

Step 4 - Ensure the Team Receives Adequate Support

This support should come from (higher) management in the form of attention, information, and resources. Absence of this support is detrimental to the team's energy and can thus have both positive and negative impacts on the three preceding steps that the team has diligently worked on.

The significance of sequence

As mentioned earlier in the blog, I stressed the importance of sequentially following the steps. Why is that crucial? Let's say a team wants to work on providing feedback and undergoes training in feedback techniques. Once back in the workplace, feedback isn't given and no noticeable change occurs. Chances are that psychological safety is lacking. This team should have started by focusing on safety before diving into giving and receiving feedback. Moreover, they need a shared understanding of the areas for feedback and how this contributes to their goal. This means the team must be capable of 'goal setting' and 'making performance commitments.'

Staunchly adhering to a specific model isn't all that important. However, these well-known models share certain elements that require attention in a particular sequence. Is your organization facing challenges in leadership and team development? Or are you undergoing a transition, such as towards self-organization and Agile work, requiring guidance? Feel free to get in touch with me or one of my colleagues at Highberg. I'd be delighted to assist you further!

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