How Leaders Lead in Each Stage of Group Development

Published: Mar 27, 2020

By: Donna J. Dennis, Ph.D., with Deborah Dennis Meola

As leaders guide their groups through various stages of development, they need to understand the most effective style for each stage and match that style to the stage.

Stage One Leaders

In stage one of group development, members need leaders who are clear about goals and deliverables and who assign roles and responsibilities to each person in the group. Leaders are more directive than participative, and decision making is controlled by the leader.

The leader is central. He or she directs the action and decision making because the individuals in the group are not capable of doing either one themselves. In a business setting, it might be described as the “training” stage for a new group. Group members need the leader to direct them because they do not yet know the ins and outs of the work or the corporate culture. Their experience is not at a stage where they can participate at the same level as the leader in making decisions or assigning tasks. The leader should encourage questions at this stage of development because that will help the individual or group progress to the next level more quickly. The leader monitors and gives feedback with the goal of moving the group to stage two of development.

Stage Two Leaders

This stage is often similar to adolescence in human development, where group members want more independence than they had in stage one, but they may not be quite ready. Roles and decision making, power, status, and communications structures are clarified in this stage. Efforts to redistribute power begin to occur as well. These are all necessary for development to occur.

The leader’s role in this stage is critical. If the leader avoids the direct reports or engages in debate without resolutions that work for everyone, the group will remain in stage two. If an individual is critical of the leader’s decision, and the leader does not address these comments in a constructive way, the leader misses the chance to move the group on to stage three.

Organizations that get stuck in stage two are terrible places to work, with lots of unresolved conflicts and “gotcha” behaviors. Individuals stuck in stage two find ways to avoid helping one another even at the cost of customer service or profitability goals.

Stage Three Leaders

In stage three, leaders are participative with teams in accomplishing tasks. Since managers cannot perform every task, delegation and power sharing is necessary and indicative of an effective leadership style. Goals and roles are clear, so the leader’s role is less prominent. While the leader is still necessary for coordination, that coordination function is now shared among members and the leader.

By this time, members facilitate meetings or portions of meetings. They give reports about subgroup meetings and about tasks that have been accomplished between meetings. Whether working individually or as a group, the members are involved in the decision making and conflict resolution as well as looking for new business opportunities, negotiation, buffering conflicts, and image management within the larger organization.

In short, members assume many of the functions performed solely by the leader in stages one and two. The leader operates in more egalitarian ways as all members of the team share responsibility.

Stage Four Leaders

Leaders now think about delegation as a development tool, not just as a way to get work off their desk. Leaders continue to act as consultants, as needed. In general, however, they participate along with members to achieve objectives and team success. They continue to monitor team processes, especially for signs of regression, and they continue to build relationships with stakeholders outside of their immediate group and get resources the team needs to do its work.

Things should run smoothly; when conflict occurs, the group resolves it quickly. Team members have taken on responsibilities and are actively pursuing group goal achievement. Leaders find a key challenge in this stage is to keep employees motivated and engaged.


Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from Preparing for Leadership: What It Takes to Take the Lead by Donna J. Dennis, Ph.D., with Deborah Dennis Meola. Copyright 2009, American Management Association.

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About the Author(s)

Donna J. Dennis, Ph.D., with Deborah Dennis Meola Donna J. Dennis, Ph.D., is a leadership development professional and author, with Deborah Dennis Meola, of the book Preparing for Leadership: What It Takes to Take the Lead.