An Analysis of Bruce W. Tuckman's Theory of the Process of Group Stage Development

Categories: Teamwork

The aspect of groupwork theory that I have chosen to critique is that of Bruce Wayne Tuckman’s theory put forward in his short article ‘Developmental sequence in small groups’ (1965) and amendments (1977). I will first describe what may be understood by the terms group, group work and process. I will then offer an accurate synopsis of Tuckman’s theory of group stage development. Next will be a critical analysis of the theory by relating it to practical examples from my own experiences.

The first group I have made reference to in my examples is that of a group of young offenders selected by the Probationary Service (PS).

This unevenly split mixed sex group of ten offenders from differing ethnic backgrounds was set up to offer a full time personal development programme as a result of their particular needs being identified and accepted by all concerned. It was held once a week for three hours during the evening. The second group I have made reference to in my examples, is that of a group of twenty four adults who were participating in further education at Bradford College (BC).

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This unevenly mixed aged sex group were participating in a full time Youth and Community Development degree.

A difference which may be made between a group and a team is that:

‘Teams are co-operative groups in that they are called into being to perform a task or tasks that cannot be attempted by an individual’. (Douglas, 1983 p.123)

Konopka defines groupwork as a method of social work that is employed in order to:

‘Help individuals to enhance their social functioning through purposeful group experiences, and to cope more effectively with their personal, group or community problems’.

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 (Konopka, 1963 cited in Brown, 1992 p.8)

However, groups may be defined in many ways, in fact providing a fixed definition of a group is highly complex and contestable. But for the purposes of discussing groupwork within the context of this essay it may simplistically be explained as the study and application of the processes and outcomes experienced when a small group comes together. Douglas (2000) states within this definition emphasis should always be put on process. In a group, process:

‘Involves the changing of something into something else. It is dynamic and it usually produces an outcome which is different from what existed at the point at which it was first applied’. (Douglas, 2000 p.86)

In this case changing individuals through generating a situation in which the members can gradually become a successful functioning unit that are related to goal attainments (Gavin, 1974). These changes have been studied by various researchers including Bruce Tuckman who has identified five stages of group development. Brown (1989) writes that Tuckman’s theory offers a linear model of group stage development in that one stage follows the next progressively. The first stage, Forming, is when the group first start. Brown (1989) describes this stage as a time when all we have is a collective of individuals, each of whom are concerned with issues to do with joining and inclusion. At the emotional level, behaviour at this stage is often characterised by:

‘Approach-avoidance movements as new members dip their toes’. (Brown, 1989 p.74)

In order to explore the new situation and surroundings they find themselves in. Feelings of anxiety and uncertainty will be felt by members at this stage. Through significant testing, and trial and error individuals will be able to identify limits on interpersonal behaviour. Coincident with testing at the interpersonal level is the forging of dependency relationships with the leader. Furthermore Brown (1992) states at the task level there may be reluctance by members to accept responsibility for helping to plan the programme and decide on individual and group goals. Hence, there will be a lack of cohesion and difficulty in sharing thoughts feelings and experiences with each other. Similarly Satow and Evans (1979) write that a group in this mode will approach the task with the feeling of what to do. It may be said according to Tuckman (1965) that orientation, testing and dependence constitute the group process of forming.

The second point in the sequence is Storming. According to Tuckman (1965) this period of group stage development is characterised by division and disagreement around various differences. Members will seek to work out individual roles and space. According to Brown (1992) members will also begin to manoeuvre for positions and search for compatible roles within the group. At the same resistance to task requirements will be a feature as a result of anxiety and uncertainty.

In the third stage called Norming resistance is overcome. Baron, Kerr and Miller (1994) describe this stage as a phase where individuals will feel close, trusting, and developed cohesively as a result of members successfully reaching a consensus regarding roles, status and procedures. At the emotional level, individuals may start sharing more of themselves to:

‘Our group’. (Brown, 1992 p.79)

According to Tuckman, (1965) intimate and personal opinions will also be expressed in the task realm with a desire to achieve:

‘Effectively it’s various group goals’. (Baron, Kerr and Miller, 1994 p.14)

The next stage sees the group Performing in which:

‘Interpersonal structure becomes the tool of task activities’. (Tuckman, 1965 reprint 2001 cited in Smith 2001)

The anxiety of previous phases has been overcome and the group has a general feeling of unanimity. According to Brown (1992) this phase will see group members take responsibility, individually and corporately, for the group and task. Group energy will be guided into getting the task done. Equally this stage will see a period of interdependency from the leader.

Finally the group attains the fifth and final stage, Adjourning. This phase involves break up and the emotions associated with separation. In addition:

‘It entails the termination of roles, the completion of tasks and reduction of dependency’. (Forsyth, 1990 cited in Smith, 2001)

In terms of offering a satisfactory critique of Tuckman’s theory I will focus on a number of points. However it is recognized that there are others but the following are a melange of those that I feel are more significant than others. The first is concerning cultural bias. Douglas (2000) points out how the process of group stage development is affected by individuals who bring into the group ideas, beliefs, attitudes, aptitudes and behavioural patterns from past experiences – in fact their whole being. This point is vitally important as many of the dominant theories of group stage development, including Tuckman’s, have been devised within a particular values system and in relation to a limited range of cultures. The problem is how these theories are then presented as a universal picture of group stage development and in doing so fail to recognise that the sense of selfhood varies from culture to culture (Smith 2005). This is illustrated in my PS group where during a particular session ethnic minority individuals had different rules in their culture about group behaviour compared with the dominant culture – in this case self disclosure and the importance of saving face. Second, Brown (1989) also feels that Tuckman’s linear model, in assuming that the processes of group stage development is the same for all groups fails to acknowledge the dependency on, amongst other things:

‘The orientation of the leader in that group’. (Smith, 1978 cited in Brown, 1989 p.82)

This is illustrated in the PS group where as part of introduction and communication exercises, during the forming stage, ‘A’ used a particular ice breaker which meant touching. The norms amongst the ethnic minority individuals especially females did not have touching as a common occurrence. The reaction by these individuals was of extreme anger and offence for assuming that this particular activity represented a consensus of common values and norms. As a consequence, these individuals walked out even though legally they were not allowed to so as they felt they had been excluded. In addition they made it clear as a group that they would not return as long as ‘A’ was present. They felt that ‘A’ may adopt the values and norms of ‘A’s culture in ‘A’s approach on a variety of other different issues involving them.

The third point of critique, by presenting a built up step by step process of group stage development Tuckman implies:

‘A mechanical predictability that is out of keeping with dynamics of change, the extent of the flux over time and the degree of individual variability that seems to be the case’. (Rutter and Rutter, 1992 cited in Smith, 2005)

Here Patton and Giffin’s (1973) have shown that many groups do not follow a sequence of predetermined events, but follow a sequence that is determined by the various elements that constitute the group. An example of this is the BC group which had fluctuated in that it had made progress and then regressed. In the module Interpersonal Groupwork ‘F’ felt that the group needed to go back over some ground that they had already covered in order to consolidate it. This problem had occurred as a result of the group moving to fast to meet the pressures of an academic year, amplified by the numerous interruptions as a result of strikes.

Likewise theorists such as Schutz (1958) and Bale (1965) have shown that group members did not follow this linear model of group stage development but a cyclical model. Bales study showed group members tended to seek a balance between accomplishing the task and building interpersonal relationships in the group. Thus, movement and focus between norming and performing. This is illustrated in the BC group where in the module Interpersonal Communication ‘B’ joined our already existing group of C, D and E’ to take part in delivering our assignment on presentation skills whilst we were at the norming stage. This meant that we were engaged both at the norming stage as well as engaged at the re-forming stage which was necessary as a result of the new member.

The final point of critique is that the actual categories are so clearly segregated from one another that Tuchman’s theory does not recognise that there is some overlap between different stages and to separate them is not that clear cut (Forsyth, 1990). The BC group illustrates this point. In the module Interpersonal Groupwork group conflict was still declining as a result of a task that was given but proceeding concurrently was increasing feelings of cohesion.

In conclusion, I have shown through practical examples of my own experiences and relevant research (Smith 2005) Tuckman’s theory on the process of group stage development, like many development theories, is culturally bias. In addition to this it fails to acknowledge that the process of group stage development also requires an understanding of the contexts in which they occur, for example – locality. Thus, by making the assumption that all groups are the same if fails to acknowledge how the success and failure of the process of group stage development is affected by the processes of smaller units which contribute to the larger effect. Indeed:

‘So complex is the process within groups that I despair of doing more than hinting at it’s multifaceted aspects’. (Rogers, 1980 cited in Lago and Macmillan, 1999 p.189)

Likewise, I have shown that the process of group stage development does not proceed intermittently or sequentially but can overlap, step forward or step back. What can safely be said about Tuckman’s linear model of group stage development, like most models (Sarri and Gallinsky, 1974; Garland, Jones and and Kolodny, 1965; Schutz, 1958) is that there are:

‘Beginning, middles and ends’. (Brown, 1992 p.110)


  1. Baron, R. S., Kerr, N. L. and Miller, N. (1994). Group Process, Group Decision, Group Action. Open University
  2. Brown, A. (1989). Groupwork Community Care Practice Handbook. Second Edition. Wildwood House Limited.
  3. Brown, A. (1992). Groupwork. Third Edition. Ashgate.
  4. Douglas, T. (1989). Groupwork Practice. Routledge.
  5. Douglas, T. (2000). Basic Groupwork. Second Edition. Routledge.
  6. Smith, P. B. (1980). Group Process and Personal Change. Harper Row.
  7. Lago, C. and Macmillan, M. (1999). Experiences in Relatedness: Groupwork and the Person Centred Approach. PCCS
  8. Smith, M. K. (13/3/04). (2005). ‘Bruce W. Tuckman – forming, storming, norming and performing in groups’.
  9. Smith, M. K. (13/3/04). (2005). “Life span development and lifelong learning’.

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An Analysis of Bruce W. Tuckman's Theory of the Process of Group Stage Development. (2021, Sep 24). Retrieved from

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