Knowing where you are in a process can bring hope and keep you going when things look discouraging.
We all know the feeling of starting a new venture or a new relationship with great expectations. Things go well at first. Maybe this time will really work, we tell ourselves. Then… well, some not-so-great stuff starts to happen and the questions begin: “What did I do wrong? Why are they so difficult? Will I ever find the right person, the right place, the right job?” What if I told you that when the questions and challenges begin, you are (most likely) on the road to healthy, fruitful functioning?
Life is a process. It is not always “upward and onward,” as much as we idealists may want it to be. Relationships and groups and projects go through a series of stages and phases. Each stage has its own order and meaning. When you step onto the balcony (a phrase from Professor Ron Heifetz) you can better observe what’s going on.
One of the concepts in organizational development is known as the Tuckman’s stages of group development. In 1965, Bruce Tuckman, professor of educational psychology at The Ohio State University, published a study [“Developmental sequence in small groups,” Psychological Bulletin. 63 (6): 384–399] that presented the model of group process going through the stages of form, storm, norm and perform. He stated that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for teams to grow, plan their work and work assignments, define problems, find solutions, and deliver results. These stages describe company teams in the workplace, but can easily be applied to other groups and personal relationships.
Form is the stage of introduction. In the workplace, a team forms to pursue a certain task, accomplish a goal, or pursue a new project. People are usually on their best behavior in this stage, and likely focused on their responsibilities and desires. On the personal level, forming is that initial period when you sense some connection and begin to learn and explore what type of relationship this will be.
Storm is the conflict-leading-to-clarification stage. Tuckman wrote, “…participants form opinions about the character and integrity of the other participants and feel compelled to voice these opinions if they find someone shirking responsibility or attempting to dominate. Sometimes participants question the actions or decision of the leader as the expedition grows harder…” It is also a time when the group’s competing values are exposed. There’s a lot going on at this stage which should be addressed if the relationship or group wants to move forward in a healthy, productive, satisfying way. The focus must be on developing trust, clarifying the issues and tension-points, and working through misunderstandings.
Norm is the values-and-process-agreement phase. Norm refers to the “norms” established by the group or the parties in the relationship. They have established clarity in core values, in the division of labor, best practices for conflict management, and other important aspects of the relationship and team so the work can proceed more effectively efficiently, and harmoniously.
Perform is the now-we’re cooking phase. The group has figured out how to work and function together in a mutually satisfying and proficient way. Having learned to manage the relational dynamics they are now able to focus on the project. Understanding each other strengths and weaknesses enables them to maximize their output by using their complimentary skills.
It’s important to realize that this process of form, storm, norm, perform continues at a mirco-level on an on-going basis. So don’t be surprised to find yourself storming and norming again and again as new issues emerge.
What has helped me the most in this model is learning to accept and anticipate the storms. Storms are part of the journey. I see this dynamic throughout the Bible. Adam and Eve in the Garden faced the storm of temptation in Genesis 3, but they didn’t handle it well. They found themselves with a very different norm for life in light of the consequences of their fall from grace. Likewise, Abraham and Sarah faced the storm doubt when they involved Hagar in their anxious plan to provide an heir (Genesis 16). Jesus went through a number of “storm stages” with his disciples as they struggled to understand their calling. In Luke 9:54, we read “When the disciples James and John saw [that the Samaritan villages would not welcome Jesus], they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” They had the wrong idea for managing rejection! Jesus’ disciples also “stormed” over their roles and value in regards to “greatness” (Mark 10:35-45). In the early church, the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) provides a clear example of the “storm” of the basis Gentile inclusion in the Christian community being resolved by clarifying new norms rooted in the gospel of grace.
I see this cycle in relationships, in staff situations, even in my own growth and development. Why does this matter? Because it gives me hope and a framework for progress. When people are aware that they are “storming,” and that this stage is necessary for progress, they learn to lean into the issues with the goal of norming and performing. It helps them to “objectify” the issues, instead of personalizing and internalizing the conflicts.
As I said at the outset, life is a process. Our confidence is that God is in charge. God forms us, guides us through the storms, and reveals the norms that will empower us to perform, living in ways that honor God’s will, our neighbors and others.