Each of us takes a little rucksack with assumptions, hopes and fears and fantasies into groups. As we adjust these imagos to the reality of the group as is, more energy is available to doing the real work with the group. In this blog you will learn about the stages of imago development.
My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the Director of Intact Academy and of Agile Business Innovation. We help businesses innovate more quickly than their products to accelerate time to market. We also teach other people to do that too in our accredited coach and consultancy programs. You can find us online at www.intactacademy.com or www.agilebusinessinnovation.com.
Previously, we talked about team development stages and how it’s important to go through all of them. It’s impossible to skip stages because at each stage, they learn a different competency, which will be necessary later on. We talked about development at four different stages. We talked about functional and structural development. Now we’re going to talk about relational development.
The reason I’m so interested in it is because at each level, you get different needs for relational development as well. In the beginning of the group formation, the relationship with the leader is the most important thing. As time goes on, you realize there are other people in the group, you pick out one or two that seem to be allies or are more like you. Later on, your perspective differentiates, you start to give a slot in your imago to everyone in the group to create a fully differentiated relationship with each person in the group. To form those relationships, you go through different imago development stages.
The relational development is linked to the psychodynamic developmental stages. You see that as your relationship develops in the real world, your imago develops as well. Imagine this: you come into every group carrying your little rucksack of memories of group life from your very earliest memories, because you get born into a group, as a human being. You carry that into every group you join and, based on those memories in that little rucksack, you’ve got an expectation of what a group should be like. As you connect to the group as it is, with the people in it as it is, your imago, your transferential picture of what a group should be like diminishes, and the real relationship starts to grow. The idea is that as your real relationship grows, as you accept the group as is, and the people as they are in reality, you diminish your imago of what you’d love to make of them. Once you develop a differentiated real relationship, it’s much easier to work together because you spend less energy on trying to adapt either your imago or trying to change the people to fit your imago.
There are a couple of models you can use to describe relationship formation. One of the most known ones is Tuckman’s Model of Group Development, which we’ve talked about before. We have an author called Petruska Clarkson within transactional analysis who mixes Tuchman with Berne’s imago theory. Adrienne Lee did the same thing, showing what kind of behavior people show at the different relational levels of formation, and what the leadership task is in each step. This helps team coaches to support the leaders to do the right thing within each stage.
On the left hand side Berne’s ideas of the development of imago, and on the right what kind of behavior you see in terms of relational formation. The leader needs to support that relational development, because the more cohesion there is, the more stable the group will be under pressure.
When a group is forming: You still have this picture in your head of what a group should be like. Imagine this, you’re on your own and you have this feeling of anticipation. As soon as you step into that group room, if that’s a Zoom Room, or a real room, the first thing you do is establish a relationship with the leader. Your primary need in every group is to feel safe and to belong. You carry your fantasies in your little rucksack with you. You come in, you don’t really know the other people, you sort of know the leader, you know the task of the group. Because your little rucksack is not checked in reality, there’s a lot of room for fantasy at this stage.
What’s really important at this stage is that the leader makes sure that everyone in the group knows the boundaries of the group. What we mean by that is the leader has to create a group sense by saying, “Listen, this is the goal of this group, these are the tasks, these are my responsibilities, this is what I expect from you. We’re going to work during this time, in this place and using this technology.”. At this stage the leader also manages the external process. Imagine this, the group has come together and suddenly all these people come into the group who don’t belong there. It’s the leader’s task to manage that external boundary. Quite literally, to close the door and to ask people to leave, so that members feel safe enough to check out their fantasies by establishing real contact.
During this formation phase, you see members do a lot of rituals; How do you do? What’s your name? What do you do? During these rituals and pass timing, the members are really busy with checking out the leader and the other members, even though at a surface level, people seem to be doing things that are quite random. At the nonverbal level, people are checking each other out to see; Can I work with you? Who are you really? That’s the forming stage.
In the storming stage: The second step of relational development is storming according to Tuckman. Some groups have the storming quite early on, some groups really take a lot of time. It depends on the cultural context you’re in. It depends on how safe it is. If it feels less safe, people will not be so explicit about their storming. You’ll see people leave the group, or you’ll see people not come on time, or you’ll see people doing a whole lot of stuff except doing the group task as a passive way of storming. Within that storming phase, what you’re seeing is testing behavior. It’s like being in the puberty of a group. People start to test the roles, they start to test the boundaries. They say they’re dissatisfied; they are agitated, they play psychological games with the leader. What they’re hoping for is that the leader will maintain their position because if a leader doesn’t maintain their position, it becomes very unsafe for a group. And the members will retreat into a passive state again.
As a group leader, you should be happy if members are explicitly storming. You’re pretty unhappy if they’re not even implicitly storming. At this stage the task of the leader is to maintain the boundaries because then people can have something to have friction against, and test their relationship and the strength of the group. What’s also important is that the leader teaches emotional intelligence, by explaining what’s happening in the group, by being clear about their role and other people’s roles, by teaching what is expected in the group.
That calms and reassures a group, and it helps them move towards what we call a norming stage. This disagreement about procedures starts with a disagreement with the leader, but what you sometimes see is it also turns into intrigue between the members. You see subgroups begin to form. Here again, the leader is important because at this stage, you have to reconfirm the purpose of the group as a whole and the task of the group as a whole. If you don’t do that, you see the group dissipate into different alliances, and then it’s much harder to create cohesion later on.
Disagreement is okay. Part of teaching emotional intelligence is also teaching people to fight fair. A lot of people have ambivalent feelings about conflict. Most people have not learned to fight fair and to use disagreement to strengthen relationships. It takes skill and leadership to teach people to do that. If you come through that stage well as a group, you go into what Tuckman called norming.
At this stage, people have stormed, they’ve had this friction, and then they come to understand they’re the same in this way and different in other ways, and they agree to negotiate; What do you want? What do I want? Can we find a third way? This is an important stage, because as a member you’re illegible if you conform to what is needed in a group in terms of competencies, but you’re only accepted as a member of the group, once the group sees that you’re also willing to adapt to the group as a whole. The group is bigger than the individual members, so this negotiation is a chance to show your similarities and differences, and to negotiate; What are we going to do as a group to work together? That’s the purpose of this norming stage.
At the norming stage, you see an emerging dialogue about contracts, “No, actually, yes, this is what the group is about and this is how we’re going to make it work.”. This is the stage where you not only create a contract with the leader, but you create a cooperative contract amongst the members. The leadership task at this point is to stimulate this negotiation, to challenge the passivity, but also to teach negotiation skills. A lot of people don’t know how to do that well and it’s up to the leader to set an example and to make what is implicit, explicit. Often, you can see people struggling; Where is it me? Where is it the group? What do I want here? It’s important that the leader leads by example by negotiating as well.
Once the group has established norms and values, it’s about creating a cooperation contract. They’re ready to go to the next stage of working together and creating relationships. Tuckman called that the performing stage. In the previous stage, you see a lot of group process, but in this stage, it has to morph into group activity. People start actively working together to reach goals, they start problem solving to reach the goals. At this point, the leader steps back a bit, because all you must do is lead from behind, catch people at doing things right. Don’t focus on what’s going wrong, because you’ll get more of it, focus on what’s going right and you’ll get more of that. Also, this is the phase where you start to delegate leadership tasks. You cannot delegate leadership responsibility, you’re always ultimately responsible as a leader. However, you can start to delegate leadership tasks at this point.
The last stage in group relational development, Tuckman called it adjourning. At this stage, you are finished with a task, you’re ready to withdraw and say your goodbyes. Teams have life cycles, just like people do. You must accept that a team is born, it grows, and then there’s a time where you say goodbye. It takes skill and heart to be able to say goodbye to a team and to know that the task is done. It’s important to say goodbye before you re-contract for the next task. Most people don’t accept this pain of goodbye. They keep on adding tasks to the team to just keep it going.
At this stage, it’s important for the leader to teach people to celebrate success. A lot of teams don’t do that. A lot of teams just go on and on and on. It’s very important to get those juices flowing and to have the feeling of, “Yes, we did it and we did it together!”. I was watching Roland Garros and the doubles. You see after every point, the partners clap each other’s hands good or bad. If it went well, or if it didn’t go well. They talk to each other. Then they leave that feeling behind and go to the next point. That’s a lot of what the leader has to do as well. They have to teach people to celebrate every success, because all those little successes make up the big success in the end. It gives energy, much more energy than staying stuck in; “Oh, we didn’t complete that.”. The other thing at the end of a group is to teach people to let go so that they can re-contract in that group or continue in the next group.
Throughout this behavior, and throughout these relational steps, what you see is a movement relationally into more intimacy, into more spontaneity, into more awareness, into more ability to be there together with someone else. You don’t have to be best friends, but you do have to be best work partners in a group. It doesn’t mean you have to know each other’s children’s names and dog’s names. It’s nice if you do. In group development there is a movement towards more intimacy and I would call it professional intimacy. For me, professional intimacy means the ability to work together in a cooperative way based on an explicit contract, and to support each other to know that we are going to do together what we can’t do alone. That gives me interdependency on you, and you on me, and on our team.
I wish you good relational development in teams and I hope this has helped you understand what stage of development your team is at.