Lifecycle of a team

The lifecycle of a team

Over my time in leadership positions I have often reflected on Tuckman’s 1965 model of team development. At times when perhaps I have been frustrated because of conflict within the team, or lack of productivity, or indeed when I have been particularly proud of my team for achieving a new goal, I have found it at the very least interesting to reflect on why this may be the case, and then chart where I feel my team sits within the lifecycle of the team. So I thought I would share the model with you, particularly if you are new to a leadership role, or have been transferred to a new team and are noticing some strange dynamics within your new team.

This model exists in four main parts, each representing a stage in the life cycle. The first stage is called the forming stage. This stage describes, most often, a team that has newly been formed and weather relationships between team members are still very new. It can also, however, apply to existing teams that have been given a new leader. The characteristics are the same because they seem to be founded on the relationships that team members are trying to show themselves off in the best possible light, to their leader and to their colleagues in the team. 

The forming stage is characterised by a general sense of excitement and perhaps some nervousness about what lies ahead. In many cases the overall mood of the team is one of positivity and hope with members of the team seeking to have their voices heard amongst the rest of the team. There is often a dependence on the leader for guidance because everything is new and the focus is very much on the human interactions rather than the processes that underpin the team’s structures. 
The key skill that you, as a leader, should exercise in this stage of the development is observation and listening. Really hear what the team is about and start to form your opinions of how the dynamic will progress.

The next stage is the storming stage. In this stage the team starts to seem more fragmented in a sense. Personality differences may come to the fore more often and disagreements may arise over the interpretation of the team’s mission and vision. Collaborative decision making becomes more challenging and as the leader you are more likely to be challenged by members of the team. I have often found it comforting to know that this is ‘normal’! 
The upside is that the team’s purpose starts to gain more clarity even though there may still be uncertainties in the mix.
The key skill that you will, as a leader, need to exercise in this stage is diplomacy and the ability to negotiate the choppy waters of conflict, making sure you achieve this through a calming compromising approach.

The next stage in our life cycle is the norming stage. This is where you will notice your team start to find their groove. They have learned how to work with each other a bit better and have started to understand the various social nuances that may exist within the team, and in general have become more forgiving of each other. This allows them to focus more on their roles and start to achieve greater strides towards the team’s goals. 
The different roles and responsibilities are better understood as well and the structures and processes that underpin the performance are more effective in maintaining focus on the direction that the team is taking. In fact the team often starts to pay attention to the processes and modify them to suit their specific needs. This is a good thing because they start to take ownership over the terms that the work happens and therefore are more likely to buy into the vision and mission.
Generally the mood starts to become far more positive and informal team events may start to happen, for example meeting for a drink after work or joining a sports club together. 
As a leader you can start to sit back, observe and support whilst the team gels and starts to move towards being high functioning.

The final stage in the life cycle is the performing stage. This is where leadership really can take an observational and supportive role. As your team starts to become high performing they become far more independent of their leader, which allows them to become more strategically aware and self-directing in their roles. In my experience, professional development starts to become a reflective practice during this stage, emanating from the team itself and further improving effectiveness. Interpersonal relationships are based on mutual respect and there tends to be a high level of psychological safety within the team, and this becomes the expected norm.
The leader’s role in this is to continue seeking new opportunities for the team to take on, new challenges that can really extend that horizon of possibility.

There are, of course, a multitude of variables that will affect how long a team will take to move through one phase into another. Some of these factors may include:
Size of the team
Mobility of team members; in other words, how much turnover there is within the team
Relative experience of the team members themselves.

Good leaders are able to exercise their skills and powers of observation to work with their teams to minimise the times, especially in the forming and storming phases. 

As I mentioned earlier, this life cycle is a useful reflection point for leaders. It is not a recipe for progress but perhaps simply a way to try and determine your team’s needs at a particular time. But as the leader it is worth being strategic about how to move your team through the stages as quickly as possible. Whilst some of the movement will take time inevitably, as a leader it is your role to minimise the negative aspects associated with the various stages, whilst celebrating the wins along the way – always WITH your team.


So here are some key takeaways from this session:
All teams tend to vary their dynamics depending on how long they have been together as a team.
What makes a team is the interaction between team members.
Listen, observe and act on what your team needs and adjust your leadership style to suit where you believe your team is at. You will certainly reap the rewards of these subtle skills as you grow into your leadership position within your team.

Point of Reflection

Is your team a high functioning, ‘Performing’ team? If it is then what do you think makes it so but if not what elements of Tuckman’s model will be your focus area?

Personal Development Activity

Strategy Activity (1 hour)

In this module it is suggested that the leader be strategic in moving his/her team through the earlier stages of team development. In your leadership journal:

  1. Identify which phase your team currently sits in by matching their ‘behaviours’ to the characteristics of each phase. 
  2. Identify how long you feel they have been in this phase and from here try to understand what has made them stay in this phase.
  3. Write down three things you can do as a leader, based on the suggested leadership responses provided in the module, that you can commit to doing to help the team move to the next phase. 

If your team is already in the ‘Performing’ stage, identify a key opportunity you can provide or facilitate that will help maintain the enthusiasm and motivation that is making them a high performing team.

If you do not yet lead a team, complete points 1 & 2 and then write down some hypothetical points that you would be able to do to help progress your team. 

Bring your findings to the PLC for discussion with other colleagues.