This week I want to talk about group development even further using a text for outdoor leadership entitled The Backcountry Classroom, by Jack Drury, Bruce Bonney, Dene Berman, and Mark Wagstaff. This is a helpful supplement to teaching leadership as it applies specifically to outdoor leaders.
Group development can be laid out into clear stages, beginning with forming, where the group meets, and ending with transforming, when the group completes its goals and comes to a resolution at the end of their experience (Drury, Bonney, Berman, & Wagstaff, 2005). As an outdoor leader, it is important to be aware of where a group lies within the stages so that the leader can facilitate the members through the stages. If groups are able to make it through all of the stages, they’ll be able to reach the final two steps, arguable the most important in outdoor experiences, because these stages are characterized by group members feeling a sense of leadership as the leader steps back, the group is able to achieve a kind of flow, members feel sufficient in their roles, and finally the group is able to celebrate and reflect on their personal achievements, which can feel like an incredible accomplishment in the outdoors (Drury et. al, 2005).
Here’s a look at some examples I’ve noticed in my experience leading groups in the outdoors and how as a leader I behaved to facilitate healthy group development and progress through Tuckman’s (1965) model of group development, labeled by stage here:
Forming: At the beginning of an outdoor experience, whether it’s a day trip or a week long journey, the participants of our trips have to gather for the first time. This usually looks like a collective of awkward strangers seeking direction as they look to understand the purpose of their group (Drury et. al, 2005). In my experience, it is helpful as the leader to present information to calm the anxiety of the participants while being sure that all information is shared equally. This serves to create structure within the group, and set an inclusive tone for all members (Drury et. al, 2005).
Storming: It might seem surprising that storming or conflict happens so early in group development, but this stage is important for members to find their roles early, and is often simply a result of roles within members conflicting (Drury et. al, 2005). As a leader during this stage it’s important to allow the group to sort their conflicts out mostly independently, support all members equally, and invite the members to communicate with each other (Drury et. al, 2005). It is vital for this stage to happen so the group can move on to more productive stages, so becoming authoritarian as a leader is not facilitating the conflict. Here’s an example of storming that I’ve witnessed as an outdoor leader: a group of 3 participants had begun to canoe together, but were having issues really getting anywhere and getting there straight. This seemed to be due to a lack of understanding where they best served the canoe, since they’d just randomly chosen positions. I noticed some serious frustration between individuals and recommended that the participants talk about changing up positions while considering who might be the best performers in the front, back, and middle of the canoe. This led to some disagreement and trials as they chose new positions, but ultimately the participants were able to move on to the next stages.
Norming and Performing: I combine these two stages because they are similar in what the group achieves; performing is just the ultimate peak of achievement. Norming involves the group members settling into their roles and performing means that group members are able to implement their group roles effectively and achieve goals (Drury et. al, 2005). As a leader, it is important to again step back but also affirm members and support them as they work without your help to achieve goals.
Transforming: This stage also exhibits some awkwardness, as group members reach a resolution and look forward with the knowledge that this group won’t exist again in the same context (Drury et. al, 2005). As a leader, some strategies for allowing participants to leave with growth from their experience is facilitating open communication about what the experience was like for people. This could potentially be the most fun stage of group development! It can often look like sharing fun stories and jokes from the experience, and can go as deep as sharing personal triumphs from members. This stage helps members figure out what they’ll take away from their membership in this team (Drury et. al, 2005).
It’s important in an outdoor context to be aware as a leader of where your group is in these stages of group development. As a leader, it can be challenging to be conscious of this model at all times, but I’d argue that in my experience, once you reflect on the experience, it’s easy and interesting to be able to pick out examples of when your group was in each stage.