How to Build and Support a High Functioning Team

We all know that teamwork makes the dream work. But how does this actually happen? There are many different team building theories out there, and in this article, we take a look at one of the most famous: Bruce Tuckman’s Team Development Model.

What Are the 5 Stages of Team Development?

First developed in 1965, an American psychology professor named Tuckman suggested that teams grow through clearly defined stages. Starting with a group of diverse individuals when they first meet, there are 5 stages of development to turn them into a highly cohesive, task-focused team. These 5 stages are:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing
  5. Adjourning

Each aptly named stage plays a critical part in building a highly functioning team. And it’s a nice touch that they rhyme too – anything to help you remember, right? Sadly, the last one isn’t a perfect rhyme – that’s because the model originally had 4 stages. Tuckman added ‘Adjourning’ as the 5th stage sometime later.

Here’s a little sneak preview:

Team development stages graphic

Source: MSPs

Let’s take a closer look.

Stage 1: Forming

The first stage of team development is when everyone comes together for the first time – a bit like on a first date or first day in a new job. Everyone is on their best behavior, excited to be sharing in the new project and to get to know each other during the kickoff meeting.

At this stage, the team essentially consists of a collection of individuals who are thinking about the project and the role each might play. Since they don’t know each other yet, it’s up to the team leader to provide guidance and direction. This is the time to

As the group gets to know each other, important connections are formed that bond the team together both functionally and emotionally. Maybe you suddenly realize that there’s an awesome spread of skills in the room that will make the project an exciting venture. Perhaps you’re already bonding over Netflix dramas or the latest wearable tech

Stage 1 focuses on the people more than the project, so it won’t be productive yet. For that, you need to move past the small talk and be ready to engage.

Stage 2: Storming

The storming stage marks the end of the honeymoon. A missed deadline, a stupid mistake, the seemingly never-ending workload – the reality of the situation hits home that not everyone is perfect and that not everything always goes according to plan.

Being in a team is like being in a relationship when you start arguing over silly things that suddenly feel like THE most annoying thing in the world. You know, the coffee cup that’s never washed up, the laundry that’s always draped over the radiator, the food fads or lack of table manners…

In Stage 2, discord is inevitable. There will be personality clashes and polarization of opinions. Discontent in the team can range from private frustrations to full-on confrontations. You might disagree over how to complete a particular task, or pull people up for not pulling their weight, or even question the authority of the team leader.

Team leadership skills are vital at this stage. “Authentic, credible leadership has never been needed more than today. Inspiring leaders produce remarkable results and incredible teams. They motivate and retain talent and rise to the needs of the organization. They have a communication style that is not only engaging but infectious. They create vision but with clarity that teams buy in to easily. They engage and encourage in equal measure,” says leadership specialists iManage Performance.

It is critical for team leaders to recognize the signs of conflict in the team and to deal with them effectively. Without positive conflict resolution strategies, a team can get stuck in the storming stage, which can lead to the destruction of productivity, the project and ultimately the team itself.

Stage 3: Norming

When the team can solve problems and overcome obstacles, members begin to notice and appreciate each other’s strengths. And why it may not all be plain sailing from now on, the road to success definitely has fewer potholes to get around now. This is the stage of team norms.

Getting to this stage takes a healthy dose of observing, identifying and tweaking things that are not working. Of course, you may still think the marketing guy’s taste in music is terrible but you also appreciate his knowledge of social media campaigns and value his digital SEO skills.

With team dynamics now more aligned and harmonious, everyone is starting to contribute and the team is working as a cohesive unit. This is the time where previously agreed systems for communication, project management, and reward recognition come into their own.

But it’s also the time when teams should be moving past mere systems and processes and reap the rewards of their underlying emotional connections as human beings. Team leaders have an important role to play to ensure positive emotional intelligence is promoted within their team. Trust, understanding, and support are built by a thousand everyday actions that can range from a quick chat in the kitchen to group huddles, and from formal team meetings to Friday evening drinks.

Stage 4: Performing

If your team has reached this stage, it is performing at peak productivity. Team members are confident and motivated, and familiar enough with the project and the rest of the team that they can operate with minimal supervision. The structures and processes that have been put in place are working well. It’s full steam ahead towards the final goal.

Team leaders should now concentrate on developing team members further, empowering each individual to be the most productive and innovative as possible. Finally, don’t forget that great teamwork should be validated and openly celebrated. So make sure you book a team outing or engage in these great team building activities!

Stage 5: Adjourning

This 5th stage was added by Tuckman in 1977 to represent the dismantling process when a project is complete and the team disbands. It is also known as the ‘mourning’ phase because members have grown fond of each other over the course of the project and now experience a sense of loss. Team members who thrive on routine and/or who have developed close bonds with their colleagues may find this stage particularly difficult.

For team leaders, there is now an opportunity to use a wide range of change management and leadership skills to deal with conflicting emotions – happiness and pride in a job well done, sadness at the process coming to an end, and maybe even anger if the project was terminated prematurely.

Many teams will reach this stage eventually, especially project teams that were only ever meant as a temporary structure to achieve a specific goal. But permanent teams may also be disbanded through organizational restructuring.

Tools and Strategies to Support Teamwork

Understanding how teamwork is cultivated and supporting its development is one of the key skills business managers and entrepreneurs need to have. Just because you bring a group of people together doesn’t mean they will make a high performing team. Hoping for commercial success, whether on a project or company-wide basis, won’t miraculously make it happen.

Team leaders have a huge impact on team development and performance, and understanding Tuckman’s 5-stage development model can really increase your chances of reaching project goals.

Here are some strategies you can work on right away:

  • Set a clear purpose and mission, and revisit and tweak as necessary
  • Establish ground rules and make sure they are adhered to
  • Step back and let other members act as leaders or facilitators, where possible
  • Don’t avoid conflict; learn how to resolve it and move on
  • Develop team listening skills in an open, non-judgmental environment
  • Give constructive feedback to improve the group process


Psychologists and other scientists have been looking for the holy grail of what makes a team successful for many years, and Tuckman was the first to come up with a formal theory that is still widely used in business. Fast forward to the present day and there are now many different models and approaches to determining the key criteria needed for teamwork effectiveness, as well as countless teamworking tools and tech that Tuckman couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams.

What hasn’t changed, though, is the need to identify, understand and guide team behavior so that processes and productivity can be maximized for the best possible outcome.

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