How Groups Work
There are a number of theories which inform our understanding of how groups form and work. One of the most influential is that of Bruce Wayne Tuckman (1965) who observed that the development of groups follows a particular sequence of stages – forming, storming, norming and performing. He later added ‘adjourning’ (Tuckman and Jensen 1977).
This is how Tuckman described the stages in the original article:
‘Groups initially concern themselves with orientation accomplished primarily through testing. Such testing serves to identify the boundaries of both interpersonal and task behaviors. Coincident with testing in the interpersonal realm is the establishment of dependency relationships with leaders, other group members, or pre existing standards. It may be said that orientation, testing and dependence constitute the group process of forming.
The second point in the sequence is characterized by conflict and polarization around interpersonal issues, with concomitant emotional responding in the task sphere. These behaviors serve as resistance to group influence and task requirements and may be labeled as storming.
Resistance is overcome in the third stage in which in-group feeling and cohesiveness develop, new standards evolve, and new roles are adopted. In the task realm, intimate, personal opinions are expressed. Thus, we have the stage of norming.
Finally, the group attains the fourth and final stage in which interpersonal structure becomes the tool of task activities. Roles become flexible and functional, and group energy is channeled into the task. Structural issues have been resolved, and structure can now become supportive of task performance. This stage can be labeled as performing.’
(Tuckman 1965 - page 78 in the 2001 reprint)
All groups have or develop a structure and that can be less easy to see in smaller groups. The structure of a group affects and is affected by the differences between the group members, the relationships established, the group task and setting. The structure emerges from the group and this happens more slowly in online groups. Members will adopt roles, including that of leader. Meredith Belbin’s (1993) team role theory, although devised in relation to working teams, can be useful in seeing how group members relate to the group and the task. Belbin identifies the roles which make up an effective team; this framework can help a facilitator to see the value which each group member can bring to the group, particularly when it is not immediately obvious that their contributions are helpful. The essential point of this theory is that an effective team is one which comprises members who occupy different roles. So be tolerant of the ‘plant’ who throws in challenging ideas and of the ‘finisher’ who worries about the detail and can’t seem to see the bigger picture.
Do beware of placing too much emphasis on any one explanation of how a group operates – it comprises individuals who are not always reducible to ‘type’. A group also quickly becomes a living organism; while theory is helpful to us in understanding what is happening, we need to take a broad brush approach to our analysis as there are many different ways of approaching the understanding of a group.