Managers and team members must learn how to promote a team climate conducive to an effective team.  This article explores the stages of group development, highlighting the critical barriers at each stage. We discuss instances in which collaboration has led to desired or undesired results and how this came about. We also examine the roles that interdependence and autonomy play to shape group identity. The goal is to identify the working variables of teamwork and determine which components are most impactful.



In order for any team to achieve its goals, every element of the team must work in unison towards accomplishing these goals. This collaborative process requires that managers and team members understand the keys to teamwork effectiveness. Engineering is a discipline that is entirely results-oriented and is inherently interdisciplinary. An engineering team must cooperate to meet deadlines. One part of the team may complete its assigned work early, yet the final product is incomplete until every portion has been finalized. For engineering, it is perhaps most apt so say that, “a chain is no stronger than its weakest link.” For this reason, it is crucial for managers to consider compatibility and group dynamics when hiring for a position. The effectiveness of an engineering team relies on the shared responsibility and interpersonal relationships of members.

Team Communication Network

Figure 1

Network displaying the complex communication topology that teams display. Red circles represent individuals in the team while blue lines represent lines of communication.

What is a Team?

The working definition of a team for this article is a group of people brought together for the purpose of achieving a certain goal or completing a project. Teams require cooperation to find success. Within this team network, there are two crucial dimensions: interpersonal relationships and professional relationships. An interpersonal relationship is the aspect of the relationship that does not directly involve the task at hand. These qualities take into account the personalities and personality types of the members involved. Alternately, professional relationships encompass the elements of the relationship that pertain to the completion of the project. For example, two people with specific domain knowledge consulting with each other to address design goals is considered part of the professional relationship. Because every interaction in the workplace combines elements from both the interpersonal and professional relationship, both influence the team network and the development of an effective team requires monitoring both aspects.

Group Developmental Stages

When a team is brought together for the first time, the interpersonal relationships begin forming. After the team is presented with a problem, the team network continues to develop as individuals interact and consult with one another. However, this process of developing relationships is no trivial matter and is at the core of determining the future group dynamic. Laying down the proper foundation during this process can be the difference between a dysfunctional team and one that excels at solving novel problems.

The topic of group developmental stages has been studied in great depth by behavioral scientists to determine the best way to conduct a team. One of the most famous of these theories is “Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development,” proposed by the psychologist Bruce Tuckman in 1965 (Tuckman, 1965). “Tuckman’s Stages” classifies the group developmental process into four distinct stages: forming, storming, norming and performing.

The first stage in this process, termed forming, revolves around the orientation of the group on both an interpersonal and professional level. On the interpersonal level, this entails individuals determining what is considered socially acceptable in the relationships. From these initial encounters, the individuals develop personal boundaries meant to reduce friction between the team. On the professional level, the first step is to come to a consensus on the initial team goals. Furthermore, individuals determine the boundaries and limitations of the task put forth to determine the best means to accomplish the team goals. This stage is also characterized by gauging the dependencies within the group and creating a simple hierarchy, which is crucial to the long-term direction of the group and will be addressed later.

The second stage in Tuckman’s theory is storming. Very simply, storming is the deconstruction of the team order put in place during the forming stage. Conflicts arise, stemming from disagreements from interpersonal relationships, and bleed into the professional relationships. These conflicts might include different perspectives on how the team should approach the task. Once the group dynamics are initially formed, individuals become less careful with their actions around peers and are more likely to cross boundaries.

The norming stage is perhaps the most important stage in the team forming process. In the forming stage, initial boundaries are formed; yet individuals do not understand the deeper motivations of their peers as they are not forced to confront each other. However, during the storming stage, extended conflict pushes the team to come face to face with every individual’s beliefs. If individuals are flexible and willing to compromise, the group will reshape the hierarchy and internal dependencies by reevaluating the approach to solving the task. The stage is driven by in-group cohesion and responsibility to the task and other members. By harnessing the responsibility to the team, the standards and expectations will evolve to optimize team efficiency. However, if individuals are unwilling to compromise, the team will not transition from the storming stage to the norming stage.

Finally, after group conflicts have fully resolved, the performing stage is reached. In this stage, the dynamics of the group are directed towards the tasks presented to the team. After developing an optimal internal structure in the norming stage, the team can efficiently address the task. Up until this point, the amount of work completed will be incremental in comparison. Thus, it is optimal for managers to focus on developing the optimal team structure before fully diving into a project. However, the team must be introduced to the tasks to cultivate the needed professional relationships.

Success requires the norming and performing stages to incorporate the idea of positive interdependence (Schroder and Harvey, 1963). Positive interdependence is the notion that members of the team may simultaneously act autonomously and mutually to achieve the group’s goals. During the norming stage, the team will have redefined the interdependencies of its members so that they may fluidly work independently and in conjunction when needed. Members should be able to specialize in some sense so that the team may play off of their strengths. We need to examine how this positive interdependence develops through the creation of team expectations.

Task Interdependence and Autonomy

The expectations that team members have of each other are formed through positive or negative interactions they have when working together on the task at hand. These expectations and interactions mold a member’s expectations of themselves within the group and can either motivate or discourage their productivity. This concept, termed task interdependence, is at the core of the norming stage. Whereas task dependence refers to when one member is completely reliant on the output of another team, task interdependence is bidirectional (Kiggundu, 1983). Furthermore, task interdependence is divided into initiated and received. Initiated task interdependence is defined as the degree to which work flows out from this job to another. Inversely, received task interdependence is the degree to which work flows in from another job (Kiggundu, 1981). In Thomas’ (1957) study examining task interdependence, he found that workers who experienced initiated task interdependence developed a sense of responsibility due to the nature of the work. These members were incentivized by a perceived feeling of mutual benefit.

Conversely, autonomy is another large factor in increasing workers’ experienced responsibility to the team. Autonomy is defined as the extent that a job provides freedom and independence (Hackman, 1976). Autonomy gives the worker a strong feeling of personal responsibility to the work that is completed individually. Therefore, any success or failure is directly related to the team member.

Although the notion that task interdependence and autonomy both greatly benefit group dynamics may seem contradictory, these elements are highly linked. Kiggundu’s (1983) study further exploring initiated task interdependence found a strong correlation between initiated task interdependence, autonomy and an experienced responsibility to the job at hand. He found that this dimension of experienced responsibility was a highly motivating aspect for job performance. Task interdependence and autonomy are not mutually exclusive, and when balanced, leads to a strong team dynamic. Both interdependence and autonomy are driven by expectations, and these expectations may draw the group closer.

Case Study

In order to understand how knowledge of experienced responsibility and group developmental stages may help in creating more effective teams, we must first examine some examples of teams in action and deconstruct their growth.

This first case study is a good example of how self-directed teams are able to develop without the guidance of a manager and still be successful. It will further show how too much involvement by a manager may also, in certain circumstances, be detrimental. In this study, Wilson (1995) observed and guided an electronics engineering company in its initial efforts at creating self-directed work teams (SDWTs) to increase productivity and innovation. The goal of the SDWT was the design and implementation of a new production process requiring the effective interplay of interdependence and autonomy to design novel processes. The team was given the freedom to interact and grow dynamically over a 12 month period. As this SDWT was the first of its kind at the company, a strong in-group feeling quickly drove the group to the norming stage. At this point the team was evaluated and found to have high social interaction ratings as well as being highly flexible in its capabilities.

Realizing the clear success of the initial SDWT, the company rushed to form new SDWT to increase production. However, these new SDWTs were not given the same autonomy and time to develop as the original. Upon evaluation, these new SDWTs were found to have less team spirit’, relied more on managers to direct their progress and demonstrated less flexibility. The main differences between the initial SDWT and the subsequent followers were that the groups did not retain the same group cohesion and were not given freedom to develop internal networks. As pioneers, the original SDWT stood out as a group with distinct characteristics that separated them from the rest of the company. However the future groups merely represented attempts at duplicating the original success, with no attempt at forming strong bonds between members. Furthermore, as the process was rushed in later attempts, the team members did not have sufficient time to grow solid connections with their peers. It is clear that these later SDWTs were unable to realize Tuckman’s storming stage and still struggled with basic interpersonal conflicts. These teams did not function properly without the perceived group identity.

The second case study serves as an example of how team leaders are able to foster the growth of effective teams. In this study, the authors examine the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to investigate the impact that leadership has on team climate for research and development (R&D) teams (Shoujun, 2013). The R&D teams are studied from the perspective of knowledge innovation as a measure of performance. Participative leadership, in which managers becomes an active part of the innovative process, was found to motivate teams much more than directive leadership, in which team members are simply given tasks. By promoting the sharing of knowledge within a team and creating an atmosphere of trust, leaders formed a team climate conducive to both autonomy and cooperation.

In one instance, the NASA Compton Gamma Ray Observatory program developed a critical issue with its automatic mapping system that would derail the project. To ensure that the project met the set deadline, the director of CGRO explained the situation the team. By highlighting the high risk of failure and likely loss of team honor, the director instilled group cohesion and a responsibility to the project. By cultivating an atmosphere of openness and mutual trust, the team leader directed the team to act more effectively.

Application to Senior Project

We can narrow our scope to analyze the group dynamics of teams in the senior project course. It is evident that the topic of team effectiveness is critical to these projects, with the exception of independent projects. Over the course of a single year, teams must rapidly pass through the first three of Tuckman’s stages to meet critical deadlines. One of the best examples of this is the Orange Team. This team has the added benefit of entering the project with strong interpersonal relationships.

From observation, one notes that each member of the Orange Team plays a distinct critical role in meeting deadlines. Team members are able to balance task interdependence and autonomy by dividing the responsibilities. Although system design is completed by the entire team, each portion of the project is first assigned a primary member to spearhead work in the area. Another member will join the primary to assist in the development and gain domain expertise. This division of tasks allows members to practice autonomy when beneficial, but also relies on interdependence, as the secondary member will help when beneficial. This style of task management increases the group cohesion, as members are constantly interacting and have high experienced responsibility.


For those either looking to lead, join or improve teams, we consider what techniques have proven to be most effective. From looking at the electronics production SDWT, it is clear that the group developmental stages cannot be overlooked or skipped. For managers, this entails creating an open dialogue among the team to allow the group to come together. Team members on the other hand must be careful to not be so set on one’s ideas as to be considered stubborn. From examining all of the above cases, it is clear that defining a clear direction, thus shaping team identity, is crucial to the norming and performing stages of group development. One last further step that team managers should consider is job design; initiated and received task interdependence rely on the specific tasks that managers assign to workers, therefore, if a manager designs two jobs to increase the overall interdependence, then the mutual trust and team responsibility will increase as well.

Cited References

  • Hackman, J.R. and Oldham, G.R. (1976). Motivation through the design of work: test of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance., 16(2), 250-279. 10.1016/0030-5073(76)90016-7
  • Kiggundu, M. N. (1981). Task interdependence and the theory of job design. Academy of Management Review. 6(3), 499. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/257385
  • Kiggundu, M. N. (1983). Task interdependence and job design: Test of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance. 31(2), 145-172. DOI: 10.1016/0030-5073(83)90118-6
  • Schroder, H. M., Harvey, O. J.(1963). Conceptual organization and group structure. In Motivation and social interaction: Cognitive determinants. New York: Ronald. OCLC WorldCat Permalink: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1100602
  • Shoujun, Y., Rui, C., & Runtian, J. (2013). Case study on leadership, team climate and knowledge innovation in R&D teams. Canadian Social Science, 9(5), 114-120. Retrieved from http://www.cscanada.net/index.php/css/article/view/j.css.1923669720130905.2712
  • Thomas, E. (1957). Effects of facilitative role interdependence on group functioning. Human Relations, 10, 347-366.DOI: 10.1177/001872675701000404
  • Tuckman, B. W.(1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399. DOI: 10.1037/h0022100
  • Wilson J.R., Grey-Taylor S.M., (1995). Simultaneous engineering for self-directed work teams implementation: A case study in the electronics industry. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics. 16(4-6). 353-365. DOI: 10.1016/0169-8141(95)00018-C

Additional Sources

  • França A., da Silva F., Felix A., Carneiro D. (2014) Motivation in software engineering industrial practice: A cross-case analysis of two software organizations. Information and Software Technology. 56(1), 79-101. DOI: 10.1016/j.infsof.2013.06.006
  • Taborda, C. G. (2000) Leadership, Teamwork, and Empowerment: Future Management Trends. Cost Engineering 42(10), 41-4. Retrieved from ProQuest ABI/INFORM Complete database.

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