Group Evolution

The normal stages in group development

One of the articles in Strategies For Cultural Change (IC#9)
Originally published in Spring 1985 on page 23
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

Being part of a growing group is much more fun when you know what to expect.

Bruce Dearborn has entrepreneured several small businesses and is now the coordinator for the Earthbank Association. He lives in Clinton, Washington.

PROCESSES IN GROUPS have been observed for years and while each group has its unique aspects, most groups move (at least part way) through a fairly predictable pattern of behaviors. The full progression consists of:

  • A "getting to know you" phase involving social interaction and personal sharing – interaction that is polite and which involves small degrees of risk.
  • A "why are we here?" phase during which the group collectively sorts out what the purpose of the group will be. In order to get clear on that purpose, the whole group must move through some portion, at least, of everyone’s "agenda" (the conscious and public reasons they are in the group). Likewise, portions of people’s "hidden agendas" (the often unconscious, or at least not admitted, emotional needs that the person hopes the group can meet) will begin to reveal themselves. Depending on the amount of charge people have around their need to have their agenda be also the group’s agenda, there will be some risk-taking which will move people on to the next level of –
  • A "bid for power" phase where members of the group may vie with one another for control or influence over the group’s direction. The power struggles may be obvious, or they may simply be evident in body posture, voice quality, levels of abstraction used in communication, or such things as interruption during speaking. It is during this phase that the group decides how it will function, how decisions will be made, what the roles of leadership will be, and what the expectations are for participating members.
  • A "development" phase characterized by increased cooperation and productivity. The group members have gotten to know each other, they know why they are here, the competitiveness for power and authority has diminished, and people are gaining experience in working with one another. They will begin to identify with each other, respond more openly and positively to each other’s feedback, and will have a strong sense of group identity. If this phase is successfully established, it may lead to yet another level of –
  • A "synergy" phase characterized by a deep sense of teamwork, of easy yet powerful cooperation, and by feelings of closeness, elation, and genuine mutual caring.

Of course, not all groups get to synergy, and even those that do may go through a lot of stumbling along the way. What can be done to make the progression through these phases smoother? The essential keys are, be aware and take it easy:

Take time as a group to observe your own process and educate yourselves about group process. Much of the anxiety in group development comes from simply not knowing what to expect. For example, the progression from the pleasant "getting to know you" phase to the more challenging "bid for power" phase may seem to indicate that your group is "falling apart," while in fact these are necessary, healthy parts of building the cohesion of the group.

Keep a balance between "task" and "process." It is normal for some group members to be more concerned about "getting the job done" while others are more concerned with "how we relate to each other." In fact, every group must deal with both of these. By acknowledging and taking time for both, you can turn the group’s diversity of interests into an asset, instead of a focus of struggle.

Be focused but not impatient; don’t try to suppress stages. Having a "map" of the group’s journey does not eliminate the need to actually travel through each phase. It just makes the journey less bewildering. Phases that are either rushed or skipped usually pop up later, often at times when they have more far-reaching consequences than if they were dealt with fully at the proper time.

Don’t be surprised by membership turnover as the group moves from one phase to another. Turnover is not necessarily a sign of failure, for the needs of each member aren’t always the same as the needs of the group as it goes through its full evolution. Don’t hobble the group’s development by assuming that your caring for each other as persons requires that the group must either "work for everybody" or fall apart.

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