Group Development Stages

Like all groups, therapeutic groups change and evolve over time. Knowledge of group development can help the group therapist distinguish if members reflect personal and individual or group developmental issues. Furthermore, knowledge of how members cope in the face of group developmental issues can aid the therapist in formulating specific interventions at those times (Bernard, Burlingame, Flores, Greene et al., 2008).

There are four major assumptions underpinning all models of group development. The first assumption is that groups develop in regular and observable patterns allowing for predictions of future group behaviour.  Understanding the group’s developmental status may inform the therapist about the maturity of the group member’s interaction, while clarifying the path needing to be taken to encourage greater levels of growth and development as a group for members to benefit.

The second assumption asserts that the same developmental features of the group will be evident across all treatment groups that develop in a normative fashion. For example, most models assume that conflict emerges in the second stage of group development so this is to be expected in any group taken when emersed in the second stage of group development. However, while a general assumption, it is also understood that there is variation to this standard norm. For example, conflict may also emerge in the later stages of group development after sufficient safety and trust have been established due to differences of opinion or other as a consequence of any number of mitigating variables (Bernard, Burlingame, Flores, Greene et al., 2008).

The third assumption is that later stages of group development are dependent on the successful negotiation of earlier developmental stages. However, it is also important to note that development in certain groups may not always be graduated, whereby they may not follow a normal progression through proposed stages. The fourth assumption of most models is that over time groups will manifest increased interactional complexity, but may also on occasion revert back to earlier stages of development (Bernard, Burlingame, Flores, Greene et al., 2008).

Group Developmental Stages

The most popular model of group development is from Tuckman (1965). This model suggests that group development occurs in five stages. These stages are titled; forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. Each of these stages are explained in more detail below

Stage 1 – Forming

In the Forming stage, personal relations are characterised by dependence. Group members rely on safe, patterned behaviour and look to the group leader for guidance and direction. Dependency on the group leader or the therapist is high while the group member’s focus will primarily be on issues of dependency and inclusion. The members may also be experiencing anxiety, ambivalence and uncertainty about the group.  This is because group members have a desire for acceptance by the group and a need to know that the group is safe. Group members will set about gathering impressions and data about the similarities and differences among members of the group and start forming preferences for future sub grouping. The common behaviour at this stage of the group seems to be to keep things simple and to avoid controversy. Serious topics and feelings are generally avoided although members may engage in tentative self disclosure and sharing.

The major task at this stage is concerned with orientating members to the tasks and each other. So discussion will often centre around defining the scope of the task, how to approach it, and similar concerns.  The role of the therapist at this stage is to be educative and clarify the group’s purpose and the therapist’s role and to offer guidance for the operation of the group and member participation.  Strategically the leader allows for regulation of interpersonal distance but invites trust while assisting each member to identify personal goals and identify commonalities between each other (Bernard, Burlingame, Flores, Greene et al., 2008).  To grow from this stage to the next, each member must relinquish the comfort of non-threatening topics and instead, risk the possibility of conflict (Bernard, Burlingame, Flores, Greene et al., 2008).

Stage 2 – Storming

The next stage storming is characterised by competition and conflict in the personal relations being developed between group members and the group therapist. As the group members attempt to organise for the task, conflict inevitably result. Individuals have to bend their feelings, ideas, attitudes, and beliefs to suit those of   the group organisation. This requires a process of listening to and understanding differences between members. Because of “fear of exposure” or “fear of failure,” there will usually be an increased desire for structural clarification and commitment. Questions will arise about who is going to be responsible for what, what the rules are, what the reward system is, and what is the criteria for evaluation. These reflect conflicts over leadership, structure, power, and authority. There may be wide swings in members’ behaviour based on emerging issues of competition and hostilities. Because of the discomfort generated during this stage, some members may remain completely silent while others attempt to dominate.

Many theories of group development hold that these types of conflicts and tensions over authority and status are essential for the emergence of genuine cohesion and cooperation. In order to progress to the next stage, group members must move from a “testing and proving” mentality to a problem-solving mentality. The therapist’s role at this stage is to reaffirm the group’s purpose and members’ common goals. Group rules and expectations are reinfused and the therapist encourages group cohesion and interpersonal learning among the members. The therapist elicits the expression of negative affect and assists members to identify and resolve conflict.

Behaviour that is incongruent with the group’s goals is confronted if necessary. The leader should avoid labelling individuals in terms of specific roles or rigidly identifying with members subgroups.  The most important trait in helping groups to move on to the next stage seems to be in each memeber’s ability to listen and understand, accept and respect the multifaceted nature of varying personalities and perspectives within the group (Bernard, Burlingame, Flores, Greene et al., 2008).

Stage 3 – Norming

In Tuckman’s Norming stage, interpersonal relations are characterised by cohesion. This is because group members have reached a consensus of group dynamics and norms that allows for both the commonalities and unique individual qualities of each group member. As such, group members are engaged in active acknowledgment of all members’ contributions, in community building and maintenance of group norms, and in solving any group issues that arise. Members are also more willing to change their preconceived ideas or opinions on the basis of facts presented by other members, and they actively ask questions of one another creating friction and conflict. Leadership is shared, and cliques dissolve. When members begin to know and identify with one another, the level of trust in their personal relationships contributes to the development of group cohesion.

It is during this stage of development (assuming the group gets this far) that people begin to experience a sense of group belonging and a feeling of relief as a result of resolving interpersonal conflicts. The major task of stage three is the information flow between group members. Information flow is where they share feelings and ideas, solicit and give feedback to one another, and explore actions related to the task, all in the context of demonstrated trust between group members. As a consequence, creativity is high. Interactions are characterised by openness and sharing of information on both a personal and task level. Members feel good about being part of an effective group.

At this stage, the group therapist’s interventions aim to maintain a balance between support and confrontation. The primary role is to facilitate the working process around feedback, promoting insight and encouraging problem solving in an ongoing manner. A derailment of the group process during this stage may suggest that the group members are revisiting a previous developmental issue (Bernard, Burlingame, Flores, Greene et al., 2008).

Stage 4 – Performing

The Performing stage is not always reached by all groups. If group members are able to evolve to stage four, their capacity, range, and depth of personal interaction expands to a constructive and vibrant interdependence. In this stage, people can work independently, in subgroups, or as a total unit with equal facility. Their roles and authorities dynamically adjust to the changing needs of the group and individuals at the time. Stage four is marked by interdependence in personal relationships, acceptance of individual differences and problem solving in the realm of task functions. It is at this stage the group should be most productive.

Individual members have become self-assuring, and the need for group approval is in the past. All members feel accepted and an authentic sense of belonging so they do not have to focus time and energy on to these needs anymore. Members are both highly task oriented and highly people oriented. There is unity, group identity is complete, group morale is high, and group loyalty is intense as the group has reached maturity. The task function becomes genuine problem solving, leading toward optimal solutions and optimum group development. There is support for experimentation in solving problems and an emphasis on achievement.

The overall goal is productivity through problem solving and work. At this stage of performing, the group therapist focuses more on letting the group run itself whereby the therapist focuses mainly on facilitating member to member empathy and assist the members to acknowledge and amplify individual differences (Bernard, Burlingame, Flores, Greene et al., 2008).

Stage 5 – Adjourning/ temination

Tuckman’s final stage, adjourning, involves the termination of task behaviours and disengagement from the group relationships. A planned conclusion usually includes recognition of participation and achievements and an opportunity for members to say personal goodbyes. Concluding a group can create some apprehension or a minor crisis.  With ending in sight, the group may experience upheaval, sadness, anxiety and anger. The termination of the group is a regressive movement from giving up control to giving up inclusion in the group. The members may experience the ending of therapy as a profound relationship loss especially if the group has become a significant source of psychological support. Defensive efforts of denial will alternate with periods of productive work.

The most effective interventions at this stage are those that facilitate task termination and the disengagement process. The role of the group therapist at this stage is to assist members to express their feelings about adjourning the group process while also attending to any unfinished business prior to the conclusion of the group. The group therapist may also facilitate a systematic review and evaluation of the group progress and encourage planning for a post group period. The therapist must also facilitate opportunities for group members to express proper goodbyes (Bernard, Burlingame, Flores, Greene et al., 2008).

Some group members may require further follow-up and treatment. This will need to be assessed accordingly. It is important to note that termination will have pathological issues if the group members formed dependant relationships rather than interdependent relationships. Thus, for effective termination to take place, the group therapist needs to ensure from the start that relationships formed are healthy and functionally interdependent rather than excessively dependant.


  • Bernard, H., Burlingame, G., Flores, P., Greene, L. , Joyce, A. et al., (2008). Clinical practice guidelines for group psychotherapy. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 58, 455-542.