7.2 Small Group Development

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the process of group development.
  • Discuss the characteristics of each stage of group development.

Small groups have to start somewhere. Even established groups change as members come and go, tasks are started and completed, and relationships change. In this section, you will learn about the stages of group development: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977). As with most models of communication phenomena, the order of stages is discussed separately, and they are only sometimes experienced linearly. Additionally, some groups experience only some of the five stages: some may experience multiple stages or experience more than one stage at a time.


During the forming stage, group members begin to reduce the uncertainty associated with new relationships or tasks through initial interactions that lay the foundation for later group dynamics (Upwork Staff, 2021). Groups return to the forming stage as group members come and go over the lifespan of a group. However, there may not be as much uncertainty when one or two new people join a group as when a group first forms; groups spend some time in the forming stage every time group membership changes.

Given that interpersonal bonds are likely yet to be formed and people are unfamiliar with the purpose of the group or task at hand, there are high levels of uncertainty. Early stages of role negotiation begin, and members start to determine goals for the group and establish rules and norms. Group cohesion also begins to form during this stage. Group cohesion refers to members’ commitment to the purpose of the group and the degree of attraction among individuals within the group (Hargie, 2011). The cohesion that begins in this stage sets the group on a trajectory influenced by group members’ feelings about one another and their purpose or task. Groups with voluntary membership may exhibit high optimism about what the group can accomplish. Although optimism can be motivating, unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment, making it essential for group members to balance optimism with realism. Groups with assigned or mandatory membership may include members resenting the group or its goals. These members can start the group on a hostile trajectory that will lessen or make group cohesiveness difficult.

Many factors influence how the forming stage of group development plays out. Interpersonal relationships, members’ experience, determining the information required to complete the tasks and the resources available to the group contribute to creating the culture of a group (Far & Miller, 2003). Group members’ diverse skill sets and access to resources can also influence the early stages of role differentiation. In terms of size, the bonding that begins in the forming stage becomes problematic when the number of people within the group prevents every person from having a one-on-one connection with every other group member.

When people outside the group decide the goal or purpose of the group, there may be less uncertainty related to the task dimensions of the group. Additionally, decisions about what roles people will play, including group leaders and other decisions about the workings of the group, may come from outside, which reduces some of the uncertainty inherent in the forming stage. Relational tension can also be diminished when group members have preexisting relationships or familiarity with each other. Although decreased uncertainty may be beneficial at this stage, too much-imposed structure from outside can create resentment or a feeling of powerlessness among group members. So a manageable amount of uncertainty is suitable for group cohesion and productivity.


During the storming stage of group development, conflict emerges as people begin to perform their various roles, have their ideas heard, and negotiate where they fit in the group’s structure. The uncertainty present in the forming stage begins to give way as people occupy specific roles and a group’s purpose, rules, and norms become clearer. Conflict develops when some group members are not satisfied with the role they or others are playing or the decisions regarding the purpose or procedures of the group. For example, if a leader begins to emerge or is assigned during the forming stage, some members may feel the leader is imposing their will on other group members. As you will learn in the section on group leadership, leaders should expect some resentment from others who want to be the leader, have interpersonal conflicts with the leader, or have general issues with being led.

Although storming and conflict have negative connotations, conflict can be positive and productive. Just as storms can replenish water supplies and grow crops, storming can lead to group growth. While conflict is inevitable and should be experienced by every group, a group that gets stuck at the storming stage will likely have little success completing its task or achieving its purpose. Influences from outside the group can also affect conflict in the storming stage. Interpersonal conflicts that predate the formation of the group may distract the group from the more productive idea- or task-oriented conflict that can be healthy for the group and increase the quality of ideas, decision-making, and output.


Image of a dark storm with lightning.
Figure 7.2.1. Although you may have negative connotations of storming and conflict, group conflict in this stage is necessary and productive.


During the norming stage of group development, the practices and expectations of the group are solidified, which leads to more stability, productivity, and cohesion within the group. Group norms are behaviours that become routine but are not explicitly taught or stated. In short, group norms help set the tone for what group members should do and how they should behave (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). Many implicit norms are derived from social norms that people follow daily. Norms within the group about politeness, lateness, and communication patterns are typically similar to those in other contexts. Sometimes a norm must be challenged because it is not working for the group, which could lead them back to the storming stage. Other times, group members challenge norms for no good reason, which can lead to punishment for the group member or create conflict within the group.

At this stage, there is a growing consensus among group members about the roles each person will play, the way group interactions will typically play out, and the direction of the group. Leaders that began to emerge generally have gained the support of other group members, and group identity begins to solidify. The group may now be recognizable by those outside as slogans, branding, or patterns of interaction become associated with the group. This stage of group development is vital for the smooth operation of the group. Norms bring a sense of predictability and stability that can allow a group to move on to the performing stage of group development. Norms can also bring conformity pressures that can be positive or negative. People generally feel pressure to conform out of a drive to avoid being abnormal, a natural part of our social interaction (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). Too much stress can make people feel isolated and create an adverse group climate. You will learn more about pressure as a group dynamic later.

Explicit rules may also guide group interaction. Rules are explicitly stated guidelines for members and may refer to expected performance levels, output, attitudes, or dress codes. Rules may be communicated through verbal instructions, employee handbooks, membership policies, or codes of conduct (Hargie, 2011). Groups can even use procedures such as Robert’s Rules of Order to manage the flow of conversation and decision-making procedures. Group members can contest or subvert group rules just as they can norms. Violations of group rules, however, typically result in more explicit punishments than violations of norms.


During the performing stage of group development, group members work relatively smoothly toward completing a task or achieving a purpose (Upwork Staff, 2021). Although interactions in the performing stage are task focused, the relational aspects of group interaction provide underlying support for the group members. Socialization outside official group time can serve as a relief from the group’s task. During task-related interactions, group members ideally develop a synergy from pooling skills, ideas, experiences, and resources. Synergy is positive because it can lead group members to exceed their expectations and perform better than they could individually. Problems in the group’s performance can lead the group back to the previous stages of group development. Changes in membership, member roles, or norms can necessitate revisiting aspects of the forming, storming, or norming stages. One way to continue to build group cohesion during the performing stage is to set short-term attainable group goals. Accomplishing something small can boost group morale, cohesion, and productivity.


The adjourning stage of group development occurs when a group dissolves because it has completed its purpose or goal, membership is declining, and support for the group no longer exists, or it is dissolved because of some other internal or external cause (Upwork Staff, 2021). Some groups may live on indefinitely and not experience the adjourning stage. Other groups may experience so much conflict in the storming stage that they skip norming and performing and dissolve before completing their task. For groups with high social cohesion, adjourning may be a challenging emotional experience. However, group members may continue interpersonal relationships even after the group dissolves. In reality, many bonds, even very close ones, fade after the group disbands. This does not mean the relationship was not genuine; interpersonal relationships often form because of proximity and shared task interaction. Friendships become difficult once that force is gone, and many fade away. For groups that had negative experiences, the adjourning stage may be welcomed.

There must be some guided and purposeful reflection to make the most out of the adjourning stage (Upwork Staff, 2021). Many groups celebrate their accomplishments with a party or ceremony. Even groups with negative experiences or who failed to achieve their purpose can still learn something through reflection in the adjourning stage that may benefit future group interactions. Often, group members leave a group experience with new or more developed skills that can be usefully applied in future group or individual contexts. Relational rather than task-focused groups can increase members’ interpersonal, listening, or empathetic skills, expand cultural knowledge, and introduce new perspectives.

Key Takeaways

Small groups have to start somewhere, but their development course varies after forming based on many factors. Some groups go through each stage of development progressively and linearly, while others may get stuck in a stage, skip a stage, or experience a stage multiple times.

The five stages of group development include forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.

    1. During forming, group members engage in socially polite exchanges to help reduce uncertainty and gain familiarity with new members. Even though their early interactions may seem unproductive, they lay the groundwork for cohesion and other group dynamics that will play out more prominently in later stages.
    2. During the storming stage, conflict emerges as group members begin to perform their various roles, have their ideas heard, and negotiate where they fit in the group’s structure. Conflict is inevitable and essential as a part of group development and can be productive if appropriately managed.
    3. During the norming stage, the group’s practices and expectations (norms and rules) are solidified, which leads to more stability, productivity, and cohesion.
    4. During the performing stage, group members work relatively smoothly toward completing a task or achieving their purpose, ideally capitalizing on the synergy that comes from the diverse experiences group members bring to the decision-making process.
    5. During the adjourning stage, a group dissolves because its purpose has been met. After all, membership has declined, the group has lost support, or due to some other internal or external cause.


  1. Recall a previous or current small group to which you belong(ed). Trace the group’s development using the five stages discussed in this section. Did you experience all the stages? In what order? Did you stay in some stages more than others?
  2. During the norming stage of group development, interaction patterns and group expectations solidify. Recall a current or former group. What were some of the norms for the group? What were some rules? How did you become aware of each?
  3. Many people need to consider the adjourning stage’s importance. What is the best way to complete the adjourning stage for a successful and cohesive group? What about a group that could have been more cohesive and cohesive?


Ellis, D. G., & Fisher, A. B. (1994). Small group decision making: Communication and the group process (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill.

Far, J. M., & Miller, J. A. (2003). The small groups norms-challenging model: Social norms interventions with targeted high-risk groups. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counsellors, and clinicians (pp. 111–132). Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice (5th ed.). Routledge.

Upwork Staff. (2021, April 28). The five stages of team development (including examples)https://www.upwork.com/resources/stages-of-team-development

Tuckman, B. W., & Jensen, M. A. C. (1977). Stages of small-group development revisited. Group and Organizational Studies, 2(4), 419–427. https://doi.org/10.1177/105960117700200404

Image Attributions

Figure 7.2.1. Lightning Storm by Benjamen Benson. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:

University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. (2013). Communication in the real world [Adapted]. https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/

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Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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