Jack Gibb's Theory of Trust Formation and Group Development

Jack Gibb's Theory of Trust Formation and Group Development
Have you ever wondered what makes some groups more effective than others, or why
some groups seem to have fun and work productively? Do you attribute this to the
charismatic personality of the "leader", the membership configuration ("they get all the
good guys"), or to the skill of the group members themselves? Learning about groups is
like learning the game of tennis: while watching a game of tennis, those who know
nothing of the game can be baffled by the experience. It is difficult to assess the skills of
the players; nuance is lost on us; scoring is incomprehensible. But as we learn the game,
we see strategies unfold before us; we begin to appreciate the game as we know what to
look for. The workings of groups may sometimes seem as confusing as tennis is to the
uninitiated. Although we spend hours in meeting and on committees, we often lack the
tools to understand how groups work. We use random techniques to try to keep spirit
alive and make good decisions all at the same time, and we make guesses at what
distinguishes an effective from an ineffective team. Once we understand how groups
work, we can begin to predict trouble spots and to recommend strategies that may help
groups work together more effectively. Group development theories give us models with
which to examine predictable stages of behavior within groups. There are developmental
stages that all groups go through in sequential and cyclical ways, and specific concerns
that groups have at each of these stages. There are also specific things that each member
can do to help other members get through these concerns.
Jack Gibb's Theory of Group Development offers a sound paradigm for examining how
groups work together. His premise is quite simple: as trust increases, defensive and
unproductive behavior decreases. The greater the degree of trust, the easier it is for
people to shed roles and give up postures that inhibit the flow of vital information. As
trust increases, people are freer to offer opinion, critique, and praise. Ironically, few work
groups ever address the issue of trust in any direct way, and are condemned to hours of
frustrating and non-productive meetings.
Groups basically embody two lives: the life of the group itself, and the life of each
individual within it. On a group level the concerns revolve around issues of membership,
decision-making, productivity, and organization. The questions the group is concerned
with are: Who will belong? What does it cost to belong? (membership) How do we make
decisions? Who has the power to make decisions in this group? (decision-making) What
can we do together? (productivity) How will we structure ourselves to accomplish our
goal? (organization)
Behind these four groups concerns are four concerns that each individual in the group
must work with: With the issue of acceptance come the questions: Will I belong? Can I
be myself? Who am I here? Individuals' concerns with data-flow are found in questions
like: Will I be heard? What are your concerns? Will you hear my concerns? Also on an
individual level are concerns of goal formation: What do I want to accomplish? Where
are we going? Do I want to go? The fourth concern the individual is concerned with is
control: Who is in control? Will I have some control? How can I exert some control?
How do we take these group concerns and individual concerns and use them productively
to form an effectively working group or team? This theory suggests that if we spend an
adequate amount of time determining who we are, what we are going to do, and where
we are going, we will take relatively less time to do it than if we hadn't taken the time to
look at these issues and concerns.
What does this mean for work in groups? Let's look at each group and individual concern
and the forces operating in relation to them. Each individual and group concern surfaces,
or predominates during a particular time in a group's life. This "surfacing" appears to be
consistent from one group to another. From this consistency of behavior Gibb has
identified four levels, or stages, of group development, and some suggestions as to how
to make each level more productive. At each level there are two opposing forces
operating within each individual.
The Acceptance/Membership Level
At this level acceptance is the issue operating within each individual of the group;
membership is the general concern of the group. Individuals come to groups with many
needs. High among them is the need to feel included. People enter groups concerned
about how they will fit in, if they will like the other people, if they are in the right room,
and wondering if this group will be as good or as bad as the last one.
In the acceptance stage we are often torn between wanting to risk, being a member, and
needing protection. People handle this need for acceptance (as well as the attendant need
to protect themselves from harm) in different ways. Some will sit silently waiting to be
invited into the discussion. Others may make random attempts to join in the discussion -a joke here, a pithy comment there -- while others may become leaders. If we have a
public image we want to defend, we may give advice, want to control the group, avoid
conflict at any price, and flatter or attempt to change others. All of these strategies are
ways of attempting to meet the personal need for inclusion. They are ways by which we
protect ourselves and look for acceptance; to act other than with these protective
behaviors involves a risk and requires being vulnerable. Sometimes these strategies work;
usually they do not.
If two people enter a new group and engage in a healthy debate regarding the topic of the
day, they may feel accepted and assume that all others feel as they do. They are wrong.
Those who sit back or find their comments overrun by these self-proclaimed leaders may
feel alienated, and look longingly for the nearest exit.
Even groups which appear to be the most polite may attempt to resolve the acceptance
challenge in ways that are less effective than they might be. Members of polite groups
might spend a significant amount of time simply introducing themselves to each other.
On the surface, it might appear that introductions are a good idea. However, we must ask- introductions to what end? For what reason is it important that we know these other
people? Once we understand the answer to this question, we can begin to address real
acceptance issues.
Acceptance lays the foundation for effective teamwork. Groups will function more
effectively if members intentionally consider the following: Why am I here? Can I trust
this group enough to be myself? Do I want to be part of this group? How can I fit in?
What is the purpose of this group? What are our expectations regarding the work of this
group? Sadly, introductions seldom address these issues, and so groups miss an early
opportunity to build firm foundations for subsequent work.
Teams that have not resolved acceptance issues can look as if they operate effectively.
They make decisions. They take action. They write agenda and take minutes. But they
lack trust. This lack of trust translates into low commitment to the decisions made by the
team and to an unwillingness for individuals to say things that threaten their tenuous
membership in the team. In an immature, or poorly functioning, group many members are
quiet, there may be much flattering of other members, most behaviors reflect a desire to
avoid conflict at any price, decision-making is usually erratic, and decisions made at this
stage do not usually have group commitment. These behaviors are all related to the
unresolved issue of acceptance, and can result in fear and mistrust.
If the following behaviors are noticed in a group, acceptance issues may not be resolved:
 people leave the team
 meetings start late
 there is bickering and nit-picking
 people are constantly avoiding disagreements
 arguments go on and on or have little to do with the task
 there is much apathy
By comparison, group members in a mature or well-functioning group have energy,
arrive on time, show concern for others, and are excited about the sharing of ideas.
Membership (the group concern) is a matter of fear reduction and trust formation: when
an individual's defensive energy goes down, more energy is made available to do group
work. The acceptance issues must to be resolved before a group can effectively work at a
higher level of effectiveness. No matter what task is given to a group, on an individual
level, members will always be concerned with fitting in.
The waxing and waning of trust must be examined throughout the group's life. We gain
acceptance at varying paces and can feel included or excluded in a variety of
circumstances. For example: if someone bitterly attacks my pet project, I may feel that
they are attacking me. If I notice that two people seem to be hitting it off, I may feel
rejected because they don't invite me to join them. However mundane, silly, or significant
the reason, when trust begins to falter it will have a profound impact on the group's
ability to function productively.
The Data-Flow/Decision-Making Level
Once acceptance/membership issues have been at least partially resolved for most group
members, the group can move to data-flow/decision-making. Data-flow concerns of
individuals result from group issues around decision-making; decisions cannot be made
well if there is no information flowing. In this stage the group begins to examine data or
information regarding the reason they are together, and to answer questions around
decision-making: How are decisions made? Who has the power to make decisions here?
What do we need to know to make good decisions? What skills, interests and resources
do group members bring?
The individual concern is about being heard: Will I be heard? Will you hear my
concerns? Will my ideas be heard in the group? What are you ideas/concerns? How much
power do I have to influence decisions? The two opposing forces operating within the
individual here are: 1) being open and disclosing about ideas (which we can do only if we
trust), or 2) staying hidden, closed and defensive because we feel we are not safe. As
members become open and begin disclosing things about themselves and their ideas
(behaviors in a well-functioning group), data starts to flow freely. People share what they
know or think they know. Group members listen to each other and challenge each other
where appropriate. Conflicting views and approaches are encouraged.
Groups often fall short of the ideal of freely exchanging data. They become closed and
defensive and what results is excessive politeness, cautious behaviors, and closed
demeanors. Often they attempt to do the work of data-flow while surreptitiously trying to
resolve acceptance issues. If I can get them to buy my idea, then I'll be a real member of
the team. Working two agenda -- the spoken discussion of the problem at hand and the
unspoken need to feel part of the group -- creates power struggles, less-than-candid
feedback, and agreements that lack the commitment of the members. I'll agree to
anything, just let me get out of here.
When the group has addressed acceptance issues adequately, the following may
encourage open communication and data-flow:
 critiquing and praising thoughts and ideas openly and candidly. Individual
contributors must be given the respect of responses to their ideas. If you like what
someone says, say so; if you don't, say so.
 encouraging all members to contribute. (The task and maintenance functions are
particularly helpful in this stage of a team's work: see Growing Edge theory on
functional leadership).
 determining how the group will make decisions and then adhering to that way of
operating. For instance, if it agrees to make decisions by consensus, it must guard
against allowing decisions to pass that fail to have real consensus.
When data-flow/decision-making concerns are not being met, these symptoms may be
 meetings take far more time than necessary
 the group uses inconsistent methods of gathering information or making decisions
 decisions are not clear
 discussions are confusing or difficult to follow
The Goal-Formation/Productivity Level
When a group is able to begin making collaborative decisions, there is a shift from
primarily individual motivation to a more group-related motivation. This stage is marked
by productivity, i.e. accomplishing assigned tasks (see discussion of tasks in Growing
Edge's "Functional Leadership" theory handout). Not only can the team make decisions,
it can act on them.
On an individual level the concerns involve questions like: What do I want to
accomplish? Where are we going and do I want to go? Is what I want in opposition to
what others want? On the group level these questions translate into: What can we do
together? What's best for this group?
A mature and well-functioning team makes a series of decisions after lengthy and healthy
debate. Commitment to these decisions is high since all points of view were discussed.
Individuals, then, are willing to support the decisions. As the team begins to act on the
decisions, commitment to follow through is high. Team members express satisfaction
with "our decisions" so assignments, deadlines and procedures are clearly determined,
and the enactment of decisions proceeds smoothly.
In order to reach this point of productivity, it is necessary that group members check out
assumptions, be willing to assess themselves, and be committed to a meaningful purpose
with a group.
When the question: "What are we going to do together?" is resolved, members feel a high
commitment to the group, a spirit of togetherness, and the group can move from
productively on to the issue of control. If this question is not answered, there is
competition, hostility, apathy and confusion. If goal-formation/productivity issues are not
being met, there will be symptoms such as a lack of commitment to work on decisions,
and people watching out for their own interests only rather than including the interests of
the group. Groups often fail to enact decisions when commitment to them is low. When
the group makes a decision, but fails to assign responsibility to anyone, or sets deadlines
or criteria for completion, it's as if they made a decision just to get the decision over with.
Clearly, problems in productivity occur because data-flow failed.
During the goal-formation/productivity stage, groups must examine the following:
Are the decisions truly team decisions?
Is commitment to these decisions high?
Have we assigned responsibility to someone for carrying out decisions?
Have we established clear criteria for successful completion of the work?
Have we determined a structure or guidelines for operating?
A team that is operating effectively in this stage strives to set goals and assign tasks based
on the needs and wishes of team members. Although the group may accept decisions
assigned from above, e.g. a directive from the central office, members will find ways to
make the decision their own. Members well reshape and personalize directives in order to
gain maximum commitment from other team members.
The Control/Organization Level
Groups that have not resolved the issues of control and organization exhibit constant
power struggles and conflicts over how things well be done; there may be self-
proclaimed "leaders". In some groups there may be excessive dependence on the leader
(designated or self-proclaimed), i.e. some group members well not work on assigned
tasks unless the leader suggest a procedure or way of operating. There may also be
counterdependence, as other group members will do the opposite of what the leader
suggests, or do nothing at all. Dependent and counterdependent behaviors may both be
seem in the same group.
In a mature or well-functioning group the control/organization level is marked by
interdependence: the leadership may be shared (again see "Functional Leadership" theory
handout); members perform their tasks individually or in small groups as needed; and the
structure may change to meet the needs of the task or of the members.
Individual issues of control derive from a group concern about organization: How will we
accomplish our goal? It is at this stage that a group is successful in exploring a variety of
ways of working. While working in subgroups or delegating to individuals may have
been approached with suspicion earlier, it is now embraced as a practical and quick way
or working. Delegation of responsibility when people are still struggling with acceptance
issues creates a threat. When a group is working well in this stage, it is likely that it will
look for the best person to do the job, rather than struggling with power issues.
The opposing forces within the individual are those of being interdependent vs.
dependent/counterdependent. The individual is concerned with how much control he or
she may have, while on the group level the questions revolve around how the group will
organize to reach the goal that has been established. If the first three stages have been
resolved satisfactorily, issues of procedures, functions, and power will be solved.
Interdependence -- I have gifts, you have gifts, and we can offer them to each other -becomes a reality. If not resolved, there will be dependence and/or counterdependence
exhibited by various members.
How Effective Groups Operate
Though Jack Gibb speaks of levels, or stages, of development it is important to see them
in a cyclical manner, not in a purely linear sense. Each concern is present to some extent
all the time. Individuals may not always be at the same "level". What makes a group
appear to be at one stage rather than another, is the predominance of behaviors seen at a
particular time. If most members are acting politely and cautiously, the group is still
needing to work on acceptance issues, even though one or two members may be ready to
exchange ideas and challenge one another because they already feel accepted.
Mature groups will predominantly show an atmosphere of trust; people will be
spontaneous; feedback will be given spontaneously; ideas "spring up"; people have fun;
creativity abounds; no one person is "in control" -- people step in and out of leadership
roles as necessary to get the job done.
However, all these good things do not happen automatically and at one time. Groups will
function differently at different times: at one time being quite productive, and in the next
meeting accomplishing nothing an having much conflict. A group will not always
function at its highest level, but is continually moving toward its potential.
Each time you meet, the group is a new group and the acceptance issue will be raised for
all; the degree depends on what has happened in the previous meeting and what happened
to each individual since the last group meeting. Every time the group is challenged in
some way, the stages need to be worked through again. The degree to which each group
resolves a concern determines the degree to which later concerns will be resolved. And
the more completely the issues are resolved around earlier, simpler issues, the more
completely the group will be able to resolve more complicated issues as the life of the
group becomes more involved and complex.
Gibb says that if the first concern (acceptance) is met -- meaning time and energy have
been spent in building a solid base of trust -- the other concerns will be resolved more
Using Gibb as a Diagnostic Tool
Gibb's theory can be used as a diagnostic tool if a group gets into trouble; you can stop at
any time to see where you are, where you've been, and where you're going; and, if
necessary, to take steps to resolve concerns.
If a group is having trouble deciding on procedures to accomplish its goal, the unfinished
business will be in the earlier stage of goal formation: Is there a group commitment to the
Goal Formation
If there is a problem in setting goals for the group, data-flow has not been adequate. The
group may not know how decisions are made, or what others are thinking. If there is
competition or apathy, group members might want to check out their assumptions and
their own commitment to the group.
If there is a problem with decisions not being made, or information not being shared, the
source is a question of acceptance and membership; one or more members do not feel
sufficiently accepted to hear data from other members or to contribute effectively. Only
when data flows freely will effective, collaborative decisions be made. When members
are open and disclosing, spontaneity and process feedback result.
An individual can help a group reach its potential by:
risking when first entering a group
modeling trust and openness
being accepting/open to what others want
not always having to be right
being interdependent (releasing control)
Think of the four stages as an automobile's four-speed transmission. First gear represents
acceptance/membership, second is data-flow/decision-making, and so forth. Just as we
should begin in first gear for a smooth start in a car, so we should begin the work of a
group in the first stage. No one would ever expect to shift up to fourth and stay in that
speed forever, nor should we expect to reach control/organization and imagine that we
could then forget concerns such as membership or data-flow. Conditions change. Healthy
groups shift between gears as needed. A new member joins the team and the team shifts
down to first explain goals, roles, and responsibilities to assist the new member with
acceptance issues. When problems occur -- downshift. When a car begins to falter
ascending a hill, the driver automatically downshifts to regain power. A team faced with
a new challenge, finds that it is overwhelmed by the complexity of task and downshifts to
data-flow to sort out information and begin making effective decisions. This is the
Gibbmobile approach to group diagnosis.
This article is based on Jack R. Gibb, "Climate for Trust Formation." T-Group Theory
and Laboratory Method. Wiley. New York. 1964. pp 279-309. Written by Sue
Brockelbank and Rick Maurer.
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