What is a group and how does a group function? Group dynamics and the model according to Bruce Tuckman and Ruth Cohn

Term Paper, 2011

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 What is a group?

2 Group Dynamics – Theme-Centered Interaction

3 Developing Into a Group – Group Phases According to Tuckman
3.1 Forming - The Foundation Phase
3.2 Storming - Conflict over Different Objectives
3.3 Norming - Decision and Compromise
3.4 Performing – The Work Phase

4 Theory in Practice
4.1 Forming
4.2 Storming
4.3 Norming
4.4 Performing
4.5 Re-Forming




In the course of my academic studies, respectively my professional career, I have frequently worked with groups in the field of youth and adult education. Some of the projects, however, were striking in the sense that groups in various contexts would rather function according to a certain “gut feeling” instead of a guiding concept. In the light of this background the nature and functioning of groups as well as attention towards the role of the group leader as a moderator gain topicality for a social-pedagogical practice in the area of social communication.

Therefore, I would like to analyze the functioning of groups and their development processes in the present work. To this end, I would like to ask questions like: What are their guiding principles? Which models describe functions and processes of groups? And in this context: What are the tasks that group leaders encounter?

Since the literature covering the topic of group work and associated models takes on an almost unmanageable dimension, I will narrow my description of the theoretical framework to the model of Theme-Centered Interaction by Ruth Cohn on one hand, for it conveys a specific holistic feel for the inner workings of the group. On the other hand, I rely on the model of group phases by Tuckman, who in my opinion has described the essentials of group development in a model of developmental phases. From my point of view, both models represent in elementary ways the basics and initial tool chest for working with groups in education. Furthermore, it is the objective of this work to complement the theoretical statements with practical descriptions and solutions. With regard to this, I can already look back on numerous experiences in my own group work. In the final part of this report, I would like to introduce cooperation and trust games that can have positive effects on the respective group situations.

1 What is a group?

The social sciences offer a broad variety of definitions for the term ‘group’. In an effort to generalize, it could be postulated that a group consists of a number of persons that over a certain time span and through relatively regular and close relationships engage in a reciprocal interaction with each other (see Metzinger 1999, p. 9). Several characteristics allow for a more detailed description of the group as follows:

Feeling of togetherness (sense of unity), permanence (temporarily or continuously), interaction and communication, group goals, norms and values, and distinct group functions.

Furthermore, groups can be classified according to type and size. Since the herein presented work is focusing on the group setting of a seminar or workshop session, the group definition aligns more with that of a large group; and has to be considered a secondary group – meaning, it is characterized by its orientation towards a goal and purpose; it is deliberately managed and thus it has to be seen as a formal group. It has to be considered an in-group because – although within a limited time - social relationships, familiarity, sense of unity, sympathy and cooperation are unifying elements (see Metzinger 1999, p. 10 ff.).

2 Group Dynamics – Theme-Centered Interaction

Theme-Centered Interaction (TCI) is a method developed by Ruth Cohn starting in the 1950s. For Cohn, the central question giving the impulse for the development of TCI, was how the character-strengthening factors of therapeutic working methods could be put to use for learning and working in non-therapeutic groups and in daily life. TCI always finds fertile ground for an application when a process is supposed to develop that is personal and at the same time refers to other contents and to the environment. Among other things, it is used in outdoor trainings, in psychological counseling and therapy, in the socio-educational context, or in youth and adult education (see Langmaack/Braue-Krickau 2000, p. 88 f.).

TCI considers itself embedded in the traditions of humanistic psychology and sees the human being in a holistic view, characterized by its dimensions head, heart, and hand. This humanistic attitude of TCI particularly translates to the so-called axioms that can be understood as the ethical foundation of the method. They reflect TCI’s conception of the world and of human existence (see Galuske 2001, p.254). And so Ruth Cohn describes three fundamental axioms:

Holistic Nature of the Conception of Man

The human being is a psycho-biological unit, and therefore autonomous and interdependent. Autonomy (self-reliance) grows with the cognizance of interdependence (interconnectedness).

Humanity and Protecting the Creation

All life and its thriving deserves reverence.

Freedom and Responsibility

Free decision-making happens within inner and outer boundaries, which can be expanded (see Cohn 1975, p.120).

The axioms present the cognitive basis of TCIs, playing a fundamental role in how decisions are made that hold up humans themselves and a sustainably viable social, economical, and ecological environment as standards (see Langmaak/Braue-Krickau 2000, p. 94f.).

Cohn managed to translate the holistic perspective of TCI with clear variables for working with groups: “Each group interaction contains three factors that could be described as the apexes of a triangle: 1. the I, the personality; 2. the We, the group; 3. the It, the topic. This triangle is encased in a sphere (globe) representing the environment in which the interactional group is meeting. This environment is defined by time, location, and their historic, social, and teleological circumstances” (Cohn 1975, p. 113 f.).

This concept is visualized with the following schematic:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Source: URL: http://www.missio-aachen.de/angebote-medien/bildungsangebote/asipa/Individuum.asp [accessed on 02-04-2011]

The apexes of the triangle are interrelated. The task of the group management consists in finding a state of dynamic balance for these apexes. The perpetual process should always re-examine what the individual persons need in the moment (I-level), in order for the group (We-level) to become or remain fit to work and learn, and to advance the cause (Topics-level) that motivates them and that they want to implement in their everyday lives (Globe-level).

For the practical use of TCI, two postulates have become increasingly important and should be regarded as rules of communication:

Be your own chairman!

“Listen to your inner voices – your distinct needs, wishes, motivations, and ideas. Use all of your senses - hear, see, smell, and perceive. Use your spirit, your knowledge, your power of judgment, your responsibility, and your brainpower. Weigh decisions carefully. Nobody can make your decisions for you and nobody can cover the costs that arise for you from those decisions. You are the most important person in your world, like I am in mine. We have to be able to articulate clearly and to listen carefully, because this is our only bridge from island to island” (Langmaack 2000, p. 74).

Disruptions have priority!

When working on a topic, it is imperative to treat disruptions occurring in the interaction context with priority, as disruptions are an indication for group-specific but also individual problems. Only if disruptions are perceived and taken seriously as hints of this kind, they can be identified in the group process (see Galuske 2001, p. 258 f.).

3 Developing Into a Group – Group Phases According to Tuckman

How does the group process unfold precisely? In order to answer this question, I refer to a model that seeks to simplify the complexity of group dynamics to the point where tangible recommendations for team development can be derived. The basic concept goes back to Bruce Tuckman and increasingly finds practical application in professional coaching seminars or also outdoor-trainings.

For a linearly devised model to emerge as a dynamic circular model, the process will be as follows according to the enhancement by Eberhard Stahl.

In the first phase, the group focuses on the introduction into the topic and the first contact with group members (forming), the second phase is characterized by conscious and unconscious conflicts and disputes within the group (storming), the third phase can also be called contract phase, as the group determines its own rules and agreements (norming); the fourth phase features the collective result, and the cooperation between individual group members is a focal point here (performing); Tuckman’s model was expanded with a fifth phase, which is a reflection on what was achieved and particularly to see it in the light of re-orientation (re-forming) (see Stahl 2002, p. 49 ff.). It should be noted, however, that the sequence of group phases in no way means automatism, but always is an expression of the dynamic nature of the balance – in an effort to incorporate the idea of TCI. Following is a detailed description of the phases:

3.1 Forming - The Foundation Phase

In this phase, the group members do not know each other yet or they are about to get acquainted. The group is forming without having experienced conflict about the goals at this point. The foundation phase is primarily characterized by uncertainty in interactions with each other. The rules, now already enacted, represent the smallest common denominator. Whilst the group is being established on the inside, this creates the first prerequisite of group evolution - how Stahl chooses to call it (vgl. ebd.).

3.2 Storming - Conflict over Different Objectives

After finding the group’s common denominator, attention is directed towards the differences. “What does he want that I do not? And what do I want that he does not?” These could be the questions that determine the internal debate amongst group members. In this process, different objectives emerge that are not only different but compete against each other in the end. The potential for tensions within the group rises and this is called a now existing conflict structure (vgl. ebd., S. 52).

3.3 Norming - Decision and Compromise

This phase is about a group contract that has to be accepted by everyone. Drawing a conclusion from the preceding conflict structure, the agreement on objectives assures the group’s capability to function in the face of existing differences. Goals that are binding for everyone are selected from a pool of competing goals (vgl. ebd).

3.4 Performing – The Work Phase

On the basis of the established group compromise, the group can now set out to achieve the self-defined goals. The group contract is now subject to a reality test and has to prove successful. Hereby there can be adaptations, since not every unpredictability could be taken into account during norming. The emerging structure reflects the cooperation amongst group members and it is depicting those rules that have been established in the course of the cooperation. As those rules have to stand the test, the group reaches so to speak its highest level of stability (vgl. ebd.).

When the group’s goal is achieved at some given point in time, the group takes a look back along the lines “Where do we stand now, after having achieved and experienced so much?” It is a time of looking at the numbers. In light of the achieved, the group members reorient themselves. Changes and differences have become visible and allow a glimpse at the assessment of the challenges ahead (vgl. ebd., S. 53).

The following overview summarizes the main characteristics of the five phases:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Source: Stahl 2002, p. 54.)

4 Theory in Practice

So much for theory. The following should be about the practical use. In addition to methodical examples from the experiential field of cooperation games, possible problem areas and pitfalls for the individual group phases shall be discussed and possible solutions proposed, respectively. Descriptions of group processes will primarily adhere to the previously used group phases according to Tuckman. The role of the group leader shall hereby be of special interest. Detailed descriptions of the games can be found in the annex.

4.1 Forming

At first, group dynamics is characterized by insecurities and mistrust towards the other group members. In this phase, there is no we-sense yet, which accentuates the importance of a sensitivity exhibited by the group leader making the appropriate balance between closeness and distance possible (see Langmaack/Braune-Krickau 2000, p. 157).

The group leader can further group development here by pursuing clear tasks, rather enabling small successes, and by “living” the rules through personal behavior. Warm-up and ice-breaker games are hereby the most important techniques to get people acquainted.


Warm-up game: „Shock absorber“

Ice-breaker game: „See who is sitting there“

Trust game: „Yurt-circle“

4.2 Storming

During the conflict phase, the need for solving imminent conflicts of objectives grows within the group. At the factual level, opposing positions are discussed, tasks and goals are questioned. At the personal level, subliminal conflicts come to the surface more prominently now. It is the responsibility of the leadership to activate the group’s self-management competency and to provide topics and structures that facilitate confrontation. The most important leadership task is to demonstrate to the group that attacks and aggressions bear constructive elements for development. A crisis within the group is hereby seen as both, a danger and a chance for the group process. Consequently, the group leader should deliberately include conflict topics, touch on underlying conflicts by intervening as the moderator, prove own conflict capability, and make sure that project goals are not lost from sight. The top priority for the group leader is hereby the professional analysis of the conflict, where in particular the TCI model can help (vgl. ebd., S. 158 f.).

The storming phase can occur with any group task that the participants have to solve together.

Various techniques of cooperation games have been established to foster group dynamics:


Cooperation game: „Swimming islands“

4.3 Norming

In this phase, the group has found and defined its guiding norms. At the personal level, a sense of group togetherness is now evolving, a sense of we. Self-regulation tendencies are successfully established and leadership tasks are qualitatively and quantitatively diminishing during this phase. The group can now assume leadership tasks largely independently and the group leader should now delegate as many tasks as possible and step aside. The group leader should only promote the development of clear agreements, intervene in a motivational way, or guide the eye to the larger contexts (vgl. ebd., S. 160).

4.4 Performing

In this phase, the group demonstrates the will and the ability to assume responsibility and it is capable of settling differences in opinion in a fair and open manner. In order to avoid a rigid attitude rationalized by present achievement, the group leader might intermittently introduce new challenges to the group. Group productivity is at its highest during this phase. The group leader should now continue to let the group work using a largely self-determined approach and should again and again encourage adaptation to a changing environment.

Again in this case, cooperation tasks are best suited.


Cooperation game: „Wild Woosey“

4.5 Re-Forming

The final group phase is characterized through the completion of the content work, the transfer of experiences into everyday life, and parting from each other. At this point, common experiences and mutual achievements should be reflected upon one more time. The main task of the group leadership consists in presenting the individual and the group as a whole with the possibility to reflect on the group process, to address issues that need to be tackled, to analyze experiences and transfer them to future situations, and to enable transfer per se.

The reflection technique, however, is entirely dependent on the reflection capability of the group. In adult groups, for example, mutual feedback is feasible using the fishbowl-method. At first, small groups provide feedback for each other then the group is added. There are also excellent reflection methods for youth groups (vgl. ebd., S. 163).


Reflection method: „Pointer“



The present description of the workings of a group can only provide a glimpse into the inherently complex dynamics. The work refers to the specific group process in depth, respectively by using the method of Theme-Centered Interaction, it describes a model that conveys a holistic understanding of group processes. These theoretical lifelines as pedagogical basics do not float in a vacuum. Due to the restrictive format of this work, other important aspects of group dynamics were not included.

However, these aspects should flow into the question of a group’s inherent driving forces, the question on how group-specific goals differentiate, and the question how groups can be categorized structurally between closeness and distance, duration and change respectively. Finally: What are the specific roles that exist within groups and what relevance do they have in terms of group structure?

Working with groups consumes a major part of social-pedagogical practice. A workshop or seminar in the field of education runs through a complex process with many interactions. The efforts how to theoretically classify this and how a group leader would plan and manage this process were described herein. The focus was on two theoretical basic models.

The model of Theme-Centered Interaction is on the one hand perfectly suited to keep an analytical eye on the group and on the other it conveys a specific feel for the inner balance of the group due to the holistic approach and guiding. Secondly, the group phase model by Tuckman shows the growth of the group from a different pragmatic perspective. Both models together are extremely helpful with routine group work.


Various social-pedagogical games are introduced as examples that can positively support the distinct group phases.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


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What is a group and how does a group function? Group dynamics and the model according to Bruce Tuckman and Ruth Cohn
University of Applied Sciences Jena
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what, group, dynamics, bruce, tuckman, ruth, cohn
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Antje Kreher (Author), 2011, What is a group and how does a group function? Group dynamics and the model according to Bruce Tuckman and Ruth Cohn, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/351141


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