Cog’s Ladder is a model used to represent the formation and behaviour of groups, developed by Proctor and Gamble manager George Charrier, in 1972. The author noted how groups interacted, from their initial meeting all the way to becoming a high performing team, and what pattern to expect throughout this process. His conclusion was that there are five stages of group progression, the polite phase, the “why are we here” phase, the power phase, the cooperation phase and the spirit de corps phase. Teams will naturally progress through these phases but should also be guided by their leader, in order to reach the final, most productive stage as soon as possible.
The model can be used by a team leader to direct the efforts of a large group, helping to avoid the group wasting resources and time. Groups have a tendency to lead to nervous interactions, personality clashes and distractive behaviour, however, the model does not eliminate these actions, it allows the group to pass through the stages and reach the final stage. Understanding this natural progression, whilst maintaining drive to reach the final stage, is the key skill of any leader. Below we have gone into more detail for each phase.
Stage one: The Polite Phase
Initially, team members will be nervous and reserved, unwilling to divulge too much information about themselves. This is a natural reaction as individuals attempt to gain other members’ approval, whilst also judging their characters. Knowing first impressions count, most individuals will play it safe by reaming quiet, trying to work out where they fit into the group. This stage is usually dominated by introductions and acquaintances.
Stage Two: The “Why are we here?” Stage
Once introductions have been completed, the team moves on to establishing a clear idea of why they have been called together. Attention moves away from the individuals themselves and towards the team’s objectives, usually led by the moderator. Individual responsibilities are delegated and cliques may start to form as individuals reveal similar interests and skills. Communication becomes more natural as barriers diminish and, although little work is still being done, the group starts to become more effective.
Stage Three: The Power Phase
In this stage of the process individuals compete for influence and power as the group starts to develop a natural hierarchy. It is generally the most confident and competitive individuals that rise to the top in this scenario. The struggle to get there can become heated, however this is an important development stage for the team. This means, while controlling conflict levels, the moderator should allow this stage to take place naturally. Individuals will outline their views for how they believe the projects should be undertaken, while more reserved figures may choose who to side with. Very rarely are results produced at this stage, but it is important for developing the make-up of the team.
Stage Four: The Cooperation Phase
Once the team hierarchy has been established, the group can start to work towards the overall objectives. Momentum starts to build as individuals complete their own tasks and progress is made. It is important at this stage that despite the natural leaders starting to take charge, all members should still be contributing to the output and direction of the team. The author notes that adding new members at this point should be avoided as team spirit has started to develop and the team should be wary of anything that could disrupt this.
Stage Five: The Espirit de Corps Phase
By this stage, the team is performing well, individuals have had appropriate tasks delegated to them, communication is strong and work is being efficiently completed. The team is fully settled and this means no energy is wasted on internal concerns. Productivity is at its highest point and the important thing now is to maintain this stage for as long as possible.
The model is very similar to Bruce Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing model. All stages are natural, however it is the job of the leader to move the group through each stage as quick as possible in order to reach stage five. There are various tools you can use to help the group move through these stages swiftly. For instance, an ‘ice breaker exercise’ may be useful to help individuals in the first stage. As a leader you should act as a facilitator throughout the task, solving any conflicts and directing the team towards the final stage.
Charrier, G. O. (1972). Cog’s ladder: A model of group growth. SAM Advanced Management Journal (00360805), 37(1), 30.