Five stages of group development

As a leader, from what stage do you communicate with your team? What is the impact on them?

Steffan Surdek
February 13, 2015
Five stages development

A few years ago, I discovered the book Tribal Leadership thanks to an old colleague. Penned by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright, the book explains the five stages of development that groups go through. Here’s a quick and easy breakdown of the stages.

What is a tribe?

The book refers to tribes, which are groups that form naturally and include between 20 to 150 people.

In the context of an organization, a tribe can be anything from a small business to the department of a large company, where you can typically find many different tribes acting together.

The five stages

When I give talks on this subject at conferences, I always start by saying that this presentation can give you nice labels to stick on people. While it is possible for this article to have the same effect, I invite you to hold your judgement and avoid doing that.

Also, I like to present the stages on an individual basis rather than on a group basis. Personally, I believe that a group often ends up being at the same stage as the majority of the members that comprise it. To make a group evolve, you have to work with the people; that is the main reason that brings me to introduce the subject in this way.

It is also important to note that someone may not always be at a well-defined stage, which is another good reason not to label them ahead of time. Someone may be a completely different person at work than they are at home.

To offer a more global perspective of the stages, I will also showcase their dark side and their healthy side.

Stage 1: “Life sucks”

In tribes that are at stage 1, language will revolve around the theme that life is hard. They will talk about isolation, violence and hostility, and there will also be a feeling that the world is against them. The stereotype is that this stage applies mainly to street gangs, prisoners or even to homeless people. However, around 2% of American workplaces are at this stage.

Dark side: Feeling of hopelessness and violence deriving from it.

Healthy side: Hopelessness can sometimes generate a lot of creativity, and that creativity can be useful.

Stage 2: “My life sucks”

In tribes at stage 2, language revolves more obviously around the theme of your OWN life being hard. People at this stage are aware that other people may potentially have a more interesting life than they do. About 25% of tribes in the workplace are found at this stage.

The language used is all about “me”, “myself” and “I”. Skepticism and victimization are rampant. People complain to each other about their managers’ actions.

Have you ever gone into a meeting pumped with a great idea, to then be welcomed by a team that looks totally disengaged and uninterested? Congratulations, you have just interacted with a stage 2 group!

Dark side: Disinterested and disengaged tribe members.

Healthy side: Skepticism can be a very positive thing if it is in reasonable doses and brought in a constructive way.

Stage 3: “I am great”

In tribes leaning towards stage 3, a lot of the language will revolve around the idea of “I am great…” with the implication that “… and YOU are not”. There are 49% of workplace tribes that are at this stage.

This is the stage of individualism and culture of the hero. It is very challenging to have a team with many of its members at stage 3. Here too, the language will feature a lot of “me”, “myself” and “I”, but this time, the popular complaints will go something like this:

  • Others are not competent enough or not good enough.
  • I have to do everything for it to be done well.
  • I don’t have enough time or enough help.

Dark side: Win at all costs mentality, regardless of the impact on people around them.

Healthy side: People at this stage are high performers and are able to achieve a lot of things.

Stage 4: “We are great”

In tribes at stage 4, the language will approach the theme of “WE are great…” with the implication being this time “… and THEY are not”.

This is the stage of common vision, shared values, collaboration and collective results. Unlike other models where you have to be at the very top, teams at stage 4 actually perform very well. Their language mostly focuses on the notion of “we”, on common values and co-creation.

Dark side: Artificial harmony associated with the fear of conflict or fear of expressing an opinion that is contrary to the one held by the group.

Healthy side: The group emphasizes collective results and shared values.

Stage 5: “Life is great”

In stage 5 tribes, the language reflects the theme that life is great. “Competition” does not come from another group. Teams try to make innovation happen without any competition or any pressure to go down in history. Only 2% of workplace tribes are at this stage.

For example, a while ago, if you had asked the animators over at Pixar to name their competition, they would have said “hair”, because they thought that their character’s hair wasn’t realistic enough in their movies. You will notice that a more obvious choice could have been to name another animation studio, such as DreamWorks.

Healthy side: Incredible innovation.

Dark side: What can be done with that innovation (the creators of the first atomic bomb are a good example).

Moving from one stage to the next

In order for an entire team to change its centre of gravity, all members must go to the next level, meaning they have to move up a stage.

Typically, a tribe does not understand the language of the tribes that are more than one stage above it. For example, if we use the term “team”, here is the understanding that can emerge:

  • Stage 2: Team = What is it?
  • Stage 3: Team = Me and the people I drag behind me.
  • Stage 4: Team = The people with whom I get collective results.

When moving from one stage to another, a bit of integration is necessary. For example, to go from stage 2 (“My life sucks”) to stage 3 (“I am great”), we have to learn what we are good at and be able to do these things by ourselves on a regular basis.

When you go from the third stage to the fourth stage, you don’t magically lose your ability to achieve great things. Rather, we learn to achieve them in the service of something greater than ourselves.


In this post, I presented the five stages of a tribe’s evolution according to the model depicted in the Tribal Leadership book. The idea was to give you an overview. If you would like to know more, let me know and I will write other articles to go deeper into the subject.

Have a look at your teams and assess what stage they are at. If you work in a small business, what is the predominant stage?

As a leader, from what stage do you communicate with your team? What is the impact on them?

This post was originally published in French on the blog of the LIME business community.