“Wow, this suddenly got a lot more real,” one student said when we waded into the water to launch our craft. It was a sunny day with a hint of autumn chill in the air, and the water was really cold.

In Small Group Dynamics, we were exploring the stages of group development. We built an improvised raft and paddled it across a small inlet on Little Hosmer Pond. Wait, was that necessary? Okay, not strictly essential, but it gave us about an hour’s worth of focused group endeavor to reflect on afterwards. Many people among Sterling’s faculty and student body are familiar with Tuckman’s model of group development (forming, storming, norming, performing).

This model, which is widely accepted in the study of small group dynamics, proposes that groups tend to develop over time through four general stages; in each of these stages, we are likely to see a particular constellation of issues, concerns, and behaviors.  Groups do not necessarily move through these phases in a strictly linear fashion, and may cycle back around to earlier stages, sometimes evolving in a spiral fashion.

“Forming” is a phase groups experience when they first come together, and sometimes again when significant changes have occurred in membership, goals, or other aspects of the group composition.  In forming, we see people getting acquainted, engaging in small talk, establishing the parameters of what the group is about, and finding some common ground.

Some groups may go through “storming” at some point after forming, and this is where tensions emerge within the group. Conflict may surface over how to achieve a goal; personalities may clash; disagreements will be expressed. The challenge in storming is to manage tension and conflict productively, not to avoid tension or simply hope it goes away. Good listening skills, clarity in communication, negotiation skills, and civility all go a long way toward helping a group move successfully through storming and keep on track.

At some point along the way, groups establish norms; while this is referred to as the “norming” phase, norming is actually happening throughout the life of a group. Every group establishes norms, either spoken or unspoken, starting right out of the gate. A norm is an implicit or explicit rule for how a group operates. The big question is do the norms serve the goals of the group, or do they get in the way? For example, an unspoken norm of sarcasm can set a tone that is not conducive to sharing ideas or speaking up, and as a result a group may founder and be unable to achieve its goal. A norm of listening carefully to everyone may help a group work through tensions successfully. A norm of bringing and sharing food within the group may create a pleasant, relaxed, social atmosphere. Norms are value-neutral: they can either promote or obstruct the goals and satisfaction of group members. If group members are alert to what norms are evolving in a group, and can intentionally create norms that support the goals and well-being of the group, norming will be a positive process for the group.

“Performing” refers to the phase of a group’s life in which the group is able to effectively achieve goals in a way that is satisfactory to group members. A group that is performing is able to constructively manage disagreements and tensions, include group members, and do what it set out to do in a reasonably efficient manner.

As an addendum to this simplified version of Tuckman’s stages, I also like to add “adjourning,” the phase in which the life of a group is ending. When attention is paid to this phase, the ending process is cleaner and more satisfying, and members leave mentally and emotionally ready to move on.

Denise Mitten’s critique of the Tuckman model, though not as well known as the model itself, proposes that “storming” is not actually a requirement for positive group development, but that healthy differentiation is. In our small group there was a lot of listening, discussion of ideas, feedback, questioning, and then testing.

Little HosmerThe quality of the work we did really mattered! When we reflected back on the experience, we sorted through what we remembered of the decision-making, the different ideas, the problem solving and knot tying, and we analyzed how the themes of group development wove through the experience. We wrapped up the day by looking at how groups need to address task and social dimensions at each stage of development, and how the life of a group doesn’t progress in a strictly linear, compartmentalized fashion, but instead weaves an array of themes into a complex fabric–one that gets easier to understand and work with the more we delve into group dynamics!

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