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Volume 23, Issue 3;   January 18, 2023: Tuckman's Model and Joint Leadership Teams

Tuckman's Model and Joint Leadership Teams


Tuckman's model of the stages of group development, applied to Joint Leadership Teams, reveals characteristics of these teams that signal performance levels less than we hope for. Knowing what to avoid when we designate these teams is therefore useful.
Tuckman's stages of group development

Tuckman's stages of group development. Time spent in stages other than Performing is likely to defer accomplishing the team's mission. That's why any factors that draw leadership team members' attention away from the mission or team development can be very costly indeed. Image (cc) Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license by DovileMi, courtesy Wikimedia.

As defined in a previous post, a joint leadership team (JLT) forms when an organization decides "…to delegate jointly to more than one person primary responsibility for a business unit, task force, or project." Arrangements of this form can work well in some contexts. And an important question arises: "In what circumstances is the Joint Leadership Team approach risky?" Tuckman's model of small group development points the way to some answers. [Tuckman 1977]

A brief review of Tuckman's model

One of the most frequently cited models of small group development, due to Bruce Tuckman, is often referred to as the "forming-storming-norming-performing model," later elaborated with a fifth stage, "adjourning." According to this model, small groups develop along a trajectory that proceeds through five stages.

In the forming stage, members orient themselves to each other. They test each other and establish leadership and domains of leadership. In the storming stage, members engage in conflict. The group polarizes. Emotions can run high, with some resisting the group's influence. In the norming stage, members begin to identify with the group. They define standards of behavior and roles for members to play. In the performing stage, the group focuses on performing its mission. Interpersonal relationships serve as assets supporting achievement of the group's mission. Finally, in the adjourning stage, the group dissolves. Relationships are redefined in whatever contexts displace the group context.

Although Tuckman's model is usually regarded as a succession of ordered stages, this view is not universally held. Some hold that cycles are possible. [Smith 2005.1] [Bales 1955] Personally, I've witnessed arbitrary "hops" from one stage to another, in response to external stimuli and in some cases, for no apparent reason. For purposes of the present discussion, I assume that small groups can move from one stage to another, at least in response to external factors.

With this sketch in mind, let's examine how Tuckman's model might apply to joint leadership teams.

Applying Tuckman's model

To illustrate the insights Tuckman's model provides, let's consider a set of formation scenarios for JLTs.

Zero-baggage joint leadership team
Perhaps When filling out the roster of the Joint
Leadership Team, focus on an
appropriate balance of needed
expertise and organizational politics,
rather than one or the other
the simplest JLT formation scenario produces what we might call a "Zero Baggage" JLT. A Zero Baggage JLT is one whose members have never worked with one another. No two them are much more familiar with each other than would be passing acquaintances. They are all peers; they have roughly equal tenure in the organization; and the business units from which they each hail aren't participants in political rivalry or conflict.
It's reasonable to suppose that such a scenario is one with a group development trajectory that's most likely to match those most often studied to explore Tuckman's model.
Retargeted joint leadership team
In some instances, a JLT from one effort might be re-assigned, in toto, to another effort. This can happen, for example, when a project team completes development of one product and is then assigned to develop the next upgrade of that same product.
One might expect a smooth transition for the JLT because it's reassigned from one effort to the next intact and whole. And, in some cases, smooth transitions do occur. But recall that one of the tasks of Tuckman's Forming stage is sorting out leaders and leadership domains. If the new task differs from the previous task in ways that affect the definitions of leadership domains, the JLT is at risk of returning to the Forming stage. If that happens, the JLT might need to revisit other stages as well.
The second visits to some of the stages might be less strenuous for a retargeted JLT than were the first visits to those same stages, but some effort is likely required. Prudence demands that we anticipate some need to invest in small team development even when JLTs are retargeted in toto from one effort to another.
Mixed-rank joint leadership teams
A mixed-rank JLT is one whose members have an assortment of organizational ranks. If even one member has superior (or inferior) rank, the JLT is a mixed-rank team. A mixed-rank JLT therefore has two (possibly conflicting) ways to sort out its leadership roles. The first is to sort by organizational rank. The second is to sort by level of expertise relative to the team's mission.
When these two sort orders conflict, they provide energy for the Storming stage of team development. Moreover, the conflicting sort orders can provide ongoing necessity to return to Storming even after the team has moved to Performing. The effects of these phenomena on leadership performance have no analog for teams led by single individuals.
Mixed-loyalty joint leadership teams
One of the team's most important assets is the JLT's loyalty to the team mission, especially when it takes the form of passion or dedication. If the members of the JLT have other loyalties, and if those loyalties prevail from time to time, the JLT can experience extended periods of Storming. Moreover, alternative loyalties can interfere with the performance of the JLT even after the Storming period(s).
An example of these other loyalties is loyalty to the "donor organization" — the organization from which the JLT team member hails, and to which he or she will return after the team accomplishes its mission or after the JLT is replaced by a single individual. JLT members' regarding their "home" organizations as taking priority over the team and its mission can be an ongoing source of difficulty for the JLT.
Emphasis on representing organizations rather than bodies of knowledge
Some JLTs are designed mainly to provide fair representation of different organizational power centers, rather than necessary representation of relevant subject matter disciplines. Absence of essential expertise from the JLT creates a void or weakness that delays the initiation of the Norming stage, during which the team works out roles for members to play. Unable to find natural fits for some leadership roles, the Storming stage persists for longer than it would have if the expertise voids had been filled.
When filling out the roster of the JLT, focus on an appropriate balance of needed expertise and organizational politics, rather than one or the other.

Last words

To generate more of these scenarios, especially those that could lead to depressed performance of the JLT, search for combinations of mission and JLT composition that are prone to produce conflicts or voids in necessary competencies. Even better, examine JLTs you know from this same perspective. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Some Consequences of Blaming  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Tuckman 1977]
Bruce W. Tuckman and Mary Ann C. Jensen. "Stages of small-group development revisited," Group and organization studies 2:4 (1977), pp. 419-427. Available here. Retrieved 22 November 2022. Back
[Smith 2005.1]
M. K. Smith. "Bruce W. Tuckman - forming, storming, norming and performing in groups," in The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education, infed.org, Available here. Retrieved 15 December 2022. Back
[Bales 1955]
Robert F. Bales. "The equilibrium problem in Small Groups," in Small Groups: Studies In Social Interaction, A.P. Hare, Edgar F. Borgatta and Robert F. Bales, eds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955, pp. 424-456. Available here. Retrieved 15 December 2022. Back

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