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Stages of team development

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An understanding of group dynamics can help you lead your team through its stages of development.

Change is an ongoing feature of most non profit organisations. As new projects and areas of work develop, new teams form and disband, and new people come and go. Teams may be constantly changing. As they do so they will go through different stages of development. An understanding of group dynamics can help you lead your team through from early stages of forming to be coming a high performing team.

Teams don’t just function smoothly from the beginning. They take time to form and tend to go through certain stages before becoming well established. 

To understand team stages it helps to know about group dynamics or the way groups typically behave. The following is based on the classic FIRO (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation) theory first developed by William Schutz in 1958.

Group dynamics

Group dynamics are the unseen forces that influence the way a team relates and behaves. Each person in a group brings individual needs that they want the group to meet. Particular dynamics occur as individuals try to satisfy these needs in the group. The way a team acts can therefore be seen as the interplay of one or more members’ needs.

Most of this happens unconsciously, so people are not aware of the underlying needs governing their own or the team’s behaviour. However we can influence the way a team behaves if we recognise the needs motivating individuals.

Individual and team goals are often working in tandem. But sometimes they can be at cross-purposes, generating hidden agendas. Sometimes individuals are aware that they have a hidden agenda. Often they are not consciously aware but their behaviour shows that all is not well.

Much individual behaviour in groups is unconsciously motivated by a desire to meet these needs. Groups tend to follow a pattern as each need dominates at a particular time. This takes them from one stage to another as they pursue different needs. There are steps a team leader or facilitator can take to help teams through group stages.

Team stages

Stage 1: Inclusion

This is the desire to connect and associate with other people. Early on in a group, individuals want to interact and build relationships. They need to become familiar with each other as there are, as yet, no close ties. There can be a lot of restlessness, tension and mobility as individuals try to find mutual interests, allies, and possibilities.

The key question for each member is where and how do I fit into this team? Each person may experience ambivalence and go one of two ways. They might approach and get involved. Or they might avoid involvement because of perceived demands or frustrations.

Once this stage of inclusion or ‘forming’ has been satisfactorily resolved the question of control predominates.

Stage 2: Control

This concerns power, authority, status, influence and decision-making. The key question is how much influence can I exercise in this group and how much personal autonomy do I have to give up to be part of this group?

As the team develops people assume or are given roles and functions. Some of these will be seen as high or low status. Cliques form and alliances are made as people jockey for status and power. Out of this, the group develops a social structure.

The discomfort of creating and adjusting to this new structure shows in certain behaviours. These can include hostility, scapegoating, withdrawal, sub-grouping, power struggles, and deviating from group norms. ‘Deviating’ could be, for example, absence, lateness, silence, refusal to compromise, blaming, excluding, monopolising.

At this time members often compete with the formal authority vested in the Team Leader. They may test how much control the leader has, and how much the group has. They may test boundaries to find out what is or is not permissible in the group.  They may test how far the team leader can be depended on, maintain control and be trusted.

This can feel extremely uncomfortable for the person in question!  It’s made easier when understood as a phase of team development and nothing personal. However many people find conflict in teams difficult and need support at this time.

Out of this chaos or ‘storming’ comes a sense of order. As the team settles into this a new phase of ‘affection’ will begin.

Stage 3: Affection

Whereas ‘Inclusion’ is about the decision to belong or not, the ‘affection’ phase is about building emotional ties and deciding on the degree of closeness within the team. This is referred to as ‘intimacy’ or ‘norming’ in other models.

There is a sense of identity and pulling together. Participation and involvement increase. Team members are more sensitive to each other. Interpersonal relationships stabilise and a more trusting and supportive environment develops. This leads to more genuine interactions.

Once the team has resolved inclusion, control and affection issues it can go on to perform well (the ‘performing’ stage). Getting on with the task takes over from interpersonal dynamics.

‘Real life’ team development

Of course, in real life team development isn’t a one-off linear process and no two teams are the same. Team development spirals through inclusion, control and affection stages over time. Teams can swing back and forth through stages as members come and go, or other changes take place.

Helping teams through stages

The Team Leader can initiate processes to help the team through stages of development. This can help the group to settle into high performance and successful team relations more quickly. Facilitating team development can be hard to do from the inside if you’re involved. Sometimes it’s useful to engage a facilitator to help with this.


Page last edited May 30, 2018

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