Team Life Cycles

By Jeff Schrade, Education Services Division Director, Arizona

Much like any relationship, teams experience phases of growth and development. Bruce Tuckman, currently professor emeritus of educational psychology at the Ohio State University, studied group and team dynamics for the US Navy in the 1960s to improve training for small crews of naval vessels and isolated stations.  Through research and observation, he discovered a developmental sequence of team formation.  The four “Tuckman’s stages” include (1) orientation/testing/dependence, (2) conflict, (3) group cohesion and (4) functional role-relatedness.  He soon coined the terms “forming,” “storming,” “norming,” and “performing” and with them established an influential framework for understanding the life cycle of teams.  Judicial branch educators can use this framework to better understand their own teams, as well as to educate judges and court managers about the essential practice of building teams.

Stage 1 – Forming
In the “forming” stage, members are usually positive and polite. Some members feel anxiety about risks; others are excited about potential. A leader is challenged during the forming stage to articulate the goals and objectives of the team, to assign roles and to facilitate introductions and relationships among team members.  This stage may pass as quickly as one initial meeting, so a team leader must make the most of it.

Stage 2 – Storming
Although a leader may do a great job of articulating roles among the team, the team must bring that vision to life through the “storming” phase.  This stage typically gives rise to conflict as team members jockey for position, define their roles through interaction, and establish dependency relationships with the leader and team members. It’s difficult for everyone to be on the same page, because the page is still being written. Although the team structure is in place, processes and relationships are not yet solidified.  In addition to friction among the team members, members may also question the authority of the leader or the worthiness of the team goal.  Trustworthiness, communication and conflict management are essential skills for leader and member alike at this stage.

Stage 3 – Norming
Stages are often fluid, and storming and norming behavior often overlap.  The team may lapse back to the storming stage as new tasks come up.  Gradually through relationship building and trust, the team establishes a hierarchy around both the formal and informal leaders of the group.  More firmly established relationships give rise to team members socializing together and providing each other a comfortable space to help and provide constructive feedback. The team often develops a stronger commitment to the goal and is able to more visibly demonstrate progress towards the goal.

Stage 4 – Performing
At the performing stage the team is able to leverage established structures and processes to operate towards the goal.  A firmly-established team culture supporting performance emerges despite individual members joining or dropping from the team.  At this stage a leader can, and should, delegate much of the work and concentrate on maintaining the relationships, culture and processes that are crucial to performance. Team members are strategically aware and are often able to resolve small disagreements without the intervention of the leader because they understand and are invested in the team’s culture, values and mission.

A final “adjourning” stage has also been suggested, as the team reaches its goal and is able to celebrate shared success.  Although often an afterthought, this stage has relevance to judicial branch educators who often reach a defined “finish line” when conducting an educational program or conference.  While you may not disband your team after each program, it is nevertheless important to take a step back before moving on to the next program and celebrate both your operational success and the successful transformation of your team through the team lifecycle.

For more on the topic:
Tuckman, Bruce W. (1965) “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups,”  Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399. The article was reprinted in Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal ‑ Number 3, Spring 2001

Egolf, D.  Forming Storming Norming Performing: Successful Communication in Groups and Teams (Second Edition) ISBN: 9781462093946. iUniverse: 2007.

The Ohio State University Walter E. Dennis Learning Center.

Jeff Schrade is the Education Services Division Director for the Arizona Supreme Court Administrative Office of the Courts. In this senior level position Jeff provides leadership on statewide judicial branch education initiatives and innovations that have made Arizona one of the leaders among states in judicial education. Jeff directs the work of 25 employees, oversees a $3 million budget and operates two free-standing training facilities. The education services division is responsible for the development and delivery of relevant, timely and quality educational programs for the Arizona Judicial Branch, reaching about 10,000 judges, probation officers and other judicial staff. Prior to joining the court in 2009, Jeff worked for more than a decade in the non-profit sector.  Most recently, he served in a variety of positions with the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services & Education, the charitable arm of the State Bar of Arizona.  Jeff also served as Senior Director for Kids Voting Arizona, reaching more than 450,000 Arizona students with civic education during the 2008 election cycle. Prior to his years at the Foundation, Jeff worked with the Children’s Action Alliance and the United Way of Greater Tucson.