Susan G. Bednar, LCSW

Group Development: Forming Your Group

We seem to be seeing a surge in new group development lately.  Many of the groups coming together are activist groups focused on political, civil rights, or social justice agendas.  Other groups bring members together around special interests, or are more supportive in nature.  Whatever the purpose of your group effort, I thought it might be timely to talk about the process of forming a group.

While you may have thought that setting up a new group is a simple process, it might prove a bit more complicated than you thought.  Group development generally involves more than just getting a group of people into the same room.  All groups go through fairly predictable stages, though, so understanding those stages is a good place to start and will help you understand the process as it unfolds.

The popular model of group development stages created by Bruce Tuckman (1965) outlines four stages in the life of a group:  1) forming, 2) storming, 3) norming, and 4) performing.  Some later permutations of this model also include a fifth stage, called alternatively “adjourning” or “mourning.”  I’ll talk about each stage and the challenges that can arise, but first I think it’s important to consider what exactly you hope to accomplish with your group, and to do a little bit of preparation.

Preparation

The first question you’ll need to answer is what it is you hope to accomplish with your group.  What is your purpose?  Do you have a specific project or task that needs to be completed, or a particular goal in mind?  Is it intended to be a loosely organized but supportive group for members sharing a problem or concern, or does it need to be laser focused on getting a job done by deadline?

Secondly, think about who you want to have as members.  If you have a specific task to accomplish, what skills will be required, and who has the needed skills?  If you are hoping to address a social problem, who else might be interested in working with you?  If the group will be more supportive in nature, what is the population you want to bring into the fold?

Also, consider what might be the optimal size for your group.  For most task-oriented groups, 6 – 12 is a workable number.  Smaller groups can be effective as well, however if you have only 3 – 4 members, absences can render your group temporarily ineffective.  Larger groups can also work, however they tend to require more formal organization and leadership, and it may be more difficult to harness individual creativity and foster group cohesion in a larger group.  Larger groups are also more prone to forming unintended subgroups, which can promote conflict, so consider whether you really need or want a large group for your project.  Bigger is not necessarily better.

Once you have an appropriately sized group of the right people devoted to a common cause or purpose, you are ready to begin.  Set up your meeting time and place, and get to work!

Forming

The forming stage is the first stage of group development.  This stage encompasses the first and possibly several early meetings, as group members get to know each other, exchange information and ideas, and make early decisions about how they will proceed.  Usually everyone is on their best behavior at the beginning.  Members are checking each other out, forming opinions about the nature of the group and what their place in it may be, and trying to make a good first impression.  Early group meetings tend to be cordial and to run fairly smoothly.  The important work at this stage consists of forming early relationships, delineating why you are there, and deciding how you will move forward as a group.  While this stage may be pleasant, you don’t want to stay here indefinitely.  If a group stalls here, it may be a signal that members don’t feel comfortable, or that there is conflict brewing that is not coming out into the open.  It may also indicate that members are not strongly attached to the group’s purpose.

Storming

The second stage of group development–storming–involves conflict.  It is at this stage that disagreements and personality conflicts start to appear, and competition for control of certain group functions arises.  If you have done a good job of selecting your group members, their common purpose will help them get past this stage and move on to productive work.  If not, the conflict may be more protracted.  During this stage the group needs to learn how to manage their differences and cooperate towards common goals.  Problems can develop if there is serious disagreement around the group’s purpose, if power struggles go unresolved, or if a single bully or a powerful subgroup sets out to impose their will on others.  It is generally preferable to work through conflicts rather than ignoring or submerging them, as unresolved issues may continue to undermine the group efforts going forward.

Some group members may believe that conflict at this stage indicates something is wrong, but it is a normal stage in group development.  The important thing is that conflicts are resolved constructively.

Norming

The the third stage of group development is called norming.   This is when the group begins to develop their way of doing things.  They settle issues around what is expected of group members, who will do what, how decisions will be made, and how differences will be managed.  The group may develop formal rules, but they certainly will develop informal rules, or procedures that everybody knows are there even though they may not be openly acknowledged.  Groups emerging from this stage are ready to settle down to work, and their members have a pretty good idea what is expected of them.  They have also learned a few things about how to work with each other successfully.  Sometimes unresolved conflicts from the storming stage re-emerge, and the group is temporarily thrust back into storming until they are resolved.

Performing

The performing stage, the fourth stage of group development, is when most of the productive work gets done.  This can be brief in a temporary group formed around specific tasks, or it can go on for a lengthy period of time.  A highly productive group in which there remains agreement around purpose, and in which members are committed to working together towards their mutual goals can perform well for years.  There will be challenges as old members are lost, new ones are brought into the group, and occasional conflicts are resolved.  There may also be new challenges when norms require updating, however a committed group may resolve them and continue to thrive.  It may seem that the group must occasionally revisit an earlier stage, but it then returns to productivity.  The performing stage is the reason we form groups to begin with.  It is important to note, however, that it is only one stage.  It is unrealistic to expect your group to perform optimally without ever going through the other stages.

Adjourning or Mourning

At some point every group comes to an end.  It may be that their goals have been met and their mission accomplished.  It may be that things have changed and the group no longer perceives a need to continue, or that continued performance would depend on making changes that the group members are unwilling to make.  Sometimes the group makes a conscious choice to dissolve.  Other times a group may just fade and become inactive over time.   In some cases, the group may be dissolved involuntarily due to adverse circumstances.  Regardless of how a group reaches its ending point, there may be a certain sense of loss or a period of mourning for group members.  Eventually they will go their separate ways and move on to other projects.  Ideally, efforts will be made to end in a positive manner, and to help group members feel good about what they have accomplished together.

 

Important Note:  This blog is intended for informational and discussion purposes only, and does not substitute for professional care.  Your circumstances may differ from those discussed, and your needs may be different.  If you are experiencing distress you feel unable to resolve on your own, please seek assistance from a qualified professional of your choice.