So, you've hired new employees or put together a well-rounded team to work on a particular project. Now what? Groups do not automatically become a team just because you desire it. Rather, they have to go through a bedding-in phase where they resolve interpersonal conflicts and figure out the best ways to work together. This process is common to all teams.

What Happens When You Start a Group?

Entering a new group is rather like an identity crisis because you're never quite sure what your role is or how you're going to fit in. How the group will work, communicate, allocate tasks, share ideas, hold people accountable, handle the plurality of viewpoints, make decisions and address conflict are all unknown at this point. It's inevitable that each group member will bring his own personality and past experiences to the table, and each will have his own ideas about how the group should work.

This means that there's a lot of groundwork to be done, especially at the beginning of a group. People need to develop a base level of group cohesion and build mutual trust before they can focus on the team's goals. They need to allocate responsibilities, open channels of communication and temper some of the dominating voices that may override the rest of the group. Ultimately, the group needs to find ways to be productive together so the group can achieve more than the members would on their own.

This process of group development happens naturally, although some groups are more successful than others in learning how to function effectively together. Many researchers believe that all groups go through exactly the same group processes and intergroup relations when growing to the point where it can deliver quality results.

The Four Stages of Group Work Process

In 1965, the American psychologist Bruce Tuckman created a four-phase model to describe how groups navigate the team-building process and resolve conflicts constructively. This model is known as Tuckman's stages or more often by the names of its four distinct phases: forming, storming, norming and performing.

In 1977, Tuckman added a fifth and final stage: adjourning. The adjourning stage occurs when the team is dissolved, and group members move on to other work in different teams.

Stage One: Forming

The forming stage covers the first days or week in the office or on a new work team. The group members are getting to know each other and are learning to orient themselves to the group. Each person has her own ideas and expectations for the team and may remain distant as she sizes up the others and the project at hand. There will be some early discussion about the project's goals and objectives and about each other. Some members may contribute more than others at this stage.

Generally, everyone wants to be liked and accepted by the other group members. People play nicely with each other in the forming stage and try to make a good first impression.

However, they do not yet know each other well enough to focus on productive work. They likely will need strong guidance from a group leader to define the project and provide clear direction regarding the team roles and responsibilities. Without this early guidance, the team may never get off the ground.

Stage Two: Storming

In stage two, the first storms arise. The group members know each other better, and sympathies and personality clashes have emerged. People start competing for team roles, for status and for their ideas to be accepted. You start to see a pecking order emerge as certain members jostle for the top spots on the team.

For the group members who do not tolerate conflict, this is a difficult stage to go through. Nonetheless, it is inevitable. While a good team leader can help the team learn to resolve conflicts quickly and fearlessly, the members must do a lot of the work on their own. Some people must learn to be more assertive, while others must learn to hold back and listen more. This stage will come to an end when the team becomes more accepting of its individual members and starts transitioning toward some effective decision making.

Sadly, some teams never make it past the storming stage. This may be because the team composition is wrong, with too many similar or conflicting personalities that cause the team to be continually engaged in conflict.

Stage Three: Norming

As the team moves into the norming stage, a group identity emerges. The team has developed a clear set of roles and responsibilities, open lines of communication and its own rules for coexistence. Conflicts may still pop up from time to time, but the group has figured out a way to handle them purposefully.

To outsiders, the group will finally look like a team. The members are noticeably respectful of each other and are focused on a common objective rather than pursuing their own self-interests. The team leader may start to take a back seat at this point, stepping in only when the team gets stuck.

Stage Four: Performing

With the groundwork laid and the wrinkles ironed out, the team can now function at a very high level. The group is productive and efficient, and the team members support and rely on each other to achieve the group's objectives in the best way possible. Business leaders want their teams to operate in the performing stage for as long as possible.

Not every team makes it to this stage. Some will stop at stage three, functioning reasonably well but not performing as highly as it could be. A stage-four team is special because it is highly motivated to get the job done. It no longer needs any external assistance with problem solving or managing personal relationships.

The difficulty is keeping a performing team in this state of perfect balance. If a team member leaves and a new person joins or if any other change throws a wrench in the works, then the team could easily slip back into one of the earlier stages: forming or storming. It's best to leave a performing team as untouched as possible for as long as possible to get the best out of the group.

Stage Five: Adjourning

In the context of group process and practice, adjourning occurs when the project ends and the team is dissolved. The members may meet for a final celebration to mark the success of the project. They may share lessons learned and best practices for future use. Ultimately, though, the team members will be moving on to different teams and projects. They're looking for closure before they all go their separate ways.

For teams that reached the performing stage, it's likely that the team members will stay in touch with each other and may even seek out opportunities to work together in the future. A performing team is a very close-knit group. The focus shifts to the individual experience at this stage since team members may be feeling sad or even despondent as the group breaks up. Adjourning is sometimes known as the mourning phase because individuals feel a deep bereavement once the experience is over.