What's Tony Thinking

Group Dynamics


I don’t know who came up with it, but there’s a useful rule of thumb about groups. Groups will go through three stages as they develop: forming, storming, norming.

Forming is coming together, getting acquainted, initial enthusiasm. Everyone on good behavior. As the pre-school ditty put it, “The more we get together . . . together . . . together; the happier we’ll be.”

Usually that’s not the case, at least if the “forming — storming — norming” formula is correct. There will be some kind of test, upset, challenge, breakdown. A disagreement over group purpose or format. Tension within the ranks, maybe an emergence of factions or an attempt to take over the group.

But then, if the group is going to make it and thrive, the next move will be from “storming” to “norming.” Someone will provide leadership by saying, “Okay, what’s going on here?” Maybe another will suggest that the group needs to re-visit its purpose. And, how will life together proceed, i.e., according to what norms?

I was reminded of this forming/ storming/ norming pattern as we began a new week at our cabin with two of our grandchildren, both boys, one seven and the other eight.

The seven-year-old’s family had been here for a week, then headed home leaving him for an additional week with his cousin and grandparents. The eight-year-old took his first solo plane trip, Seattle to Walla Walla, where Grandma met him at the gate and drove him over the mountains and through the woods to Grandpa’s house.

In the forming stage everything was high-energy, jolly and a little wild. Other adults and children were out of the picture. It was the four of us.

But the storming came soon enough. Not just between the cousins. But the grandparents butted heads, huffed and snorted.

Then came “norming.” Grandma took the lead, “Okay, here we are, what are the rules of the road for our week ahead?” She asked each of the boys in turn what they wanted to do during their special week at the cabin. Fishing? One, yes; one no. Miniature golf? Again, a house divided. But horseback riding and archery were among the consensus choices, as was a new Harry Potter themed Lego set.

But deciding on activities was only part of it. There would be some ground rules, which were set by the G’s and discussed by all. We will say “please” when we ask for something and “thank you” when we get it. We will speak when spoken to. As in, when Grandpa or Grandma ask you a question, you respond.

Several years ago I enjoyed reading Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman. She’s an American journalist living, and raising a family, in Paris. Her book was about what she was learning from the French about child-raising.

One thing she liked about the French norms was the expectation that all children would greet any adult they encountered, whether on the street, in a store or at school. Even if was just a “Bonjour,” they would acknowledge that person, as they were also acknowledged. In the U.S. this basic bit of manners has often, and regrettably, fallen by the wayside.

We discussed a few other norms. Then Grandma and Grandad spent a little more time, penciling in the consensus activities for the days of the week and figuring out who would take the lead.

Forming/ storming/ norming. Off and running.

The formula may be applied elsewhere. The Democrats are about to have another of their “debates.” We’ll miss the live action. No TV here — part of the backwood’s charm.

But it occurs to me that the forming/ storming/ norming schema could be applied to the on-going Democratic party process.

Forming was different candidates testing the waters, then some — well, many — announcing their candidacy. Happy days are here again. Great enthusiasm, all smiles and resolve at this stage.

Now, the Dem’s are into phase two, “storming.” Attack the front runner. Make a bid to stand out from the pack. Gang-up on this one. Trade charges, accusations.

The convention and selection of candidate and ticket would be the norming.

The question that emerges from applying this to the political process is will the Democrats, and specifically the chosen candidate, emerge from the “storming” phase stronger or weaker? Will the storming get too harsh and hurtful for the eventual candidate to recover? Seemed that was part of what happened to Hillary in ’16. Took too many hits. Will the storming phase go on so long that the Party will be known more for its fissures than its united front?

A general observation — as a society we seem far better these days at “storming,” than “norming.” To be sure, the “storming” phase is important. It punctures illusions and complacency. It tests purpose. But a group can’t only storm. It has to get on to establishing norms.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are interesting. Trump creates constant storms and is allergic to civilized norms. But within the Republican ranks no storming is allowed. Trump brooks no opposition, “disloyalty” as he would have it. Will this lack of healthy storming prove a problem for the GOP?

The “norming” — that which we Americans aren’t so good at these days — requires some compromise, some acceptance of not getting your way all the time, some being grown-ups. Are the Republican norms simply a cult-of-personality strait-jacket? Can the Dem’s get to norming in time? We’ll see.

In the meantime, we’re off to a good week at the cabin.

Categories: Uncategorized