Cog's Ladder

Understanding and Accelerating Group Formation

Cog's Ladder - Understanding and Accelerating Group Formation

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Get your team pulling in the same direction.

Imagine the scenario: you've been put in charge of an important project, and its success hinges on your ability to coordinate the efforts of a large and talented group.

But, at the outset, people are only interacting tentatively, and they don't seem focused on the job. Fast forward a little, and certain personalities are beginning to clash.

Will the team ever reach a stage where everyone is working together effectively enough to deliver the project? Right now, things aren't looking too promising.

Managing a new group and its relationships can seem difficult, chaotic or doomed to end in disappointment. But there's a pattern to the chaos, and understanding that pattern can help you to get the best from your people.

What Is Cog's Ladder?

More than 30 years ago, a Procter and Gamble manager named George O. Charrier noticed how successful teamwork arose from groups progressing through five predictable and identifiable stages – the "rungs" of Cog's Ladder. He wrote about them in an influential academic paper.

Charrier's theory has stood the test of time and is still used by team leaders from sports coaches to corporate managers, and even the U.S. naval and air force academies, to aid the understanding of group development.

The greatest value in Cog's Ladder is that it helps you to understand that your new, apparently dysfunctional team won't always behave like that. It also gives you a way to anticipate and manage the changes that your team will go through as it develops.

In this article, we'll examine this progression, and explore how you can support and guide your team as it climbs Cog's Ladder.


No one seems to know for certain how Cog's Ladder got its name. However, Mind Tools Club member "WildWin" pointed out that you get COG by reversing George O. Charrier's initials!

Climbing Cog's Ladder

You can see the five rungs of Cog's Ladder in figure 1, below.

Figure 1: Cog's Ladder

The Lean cycle


Groups climb the ladder at their own pace, and only as far as their members are willing to grow. Some will stay on one rung for years, while others can climb up and down the ladder. Teams that reach the Esprit Phase and stay there are the most effective ones.


Remember to monitor your team's progress on the ladder. The initial stages are often the shortest, so put checkpoints in your diary for re-evaluating its growth.

Stage 1: The Polite Phase

When a group first meets, its members are in the Polite Phase of group formation and very little team identity exists, if any. People simply introduce themselves and get acquainted, and try to gain the approval of their peers.

Relationships at this early stage are reserved and tentative. Group members communicate self-effacingly, and often start statements with phrases like "I think" or "In my view," to appear polite, and to avoid controversy and conflict.

People tend to reveal little information about themselves, preferring to find out what they can about other members of the group, and to work out how everyone "fits in."

To help your group to negotiate this stage, organize one or two meetings with icebreakers, to help participants to build rapport with one another. Steer conversations toward future tasks, and shift people's focus toward collaborative working. As you do so, keep an eye on body language and tactfully make individuals aware of any issues that appear to prevent them from gelling.

Stage 2: The "Why are we here?" Phase

On the next rung, group members search for a clear idea of what they're expected to achieve. So, be sure to explain their objectives clearly and concisely.

At this point, people become less concerned about gaining approval and less guarded in their communication. They are prepared to take more risks, and start to reveal their own agendas.

Individuals are drawn to certain aspects of the project, and members with similar interests form cliques that grow and merge as they influence those around them. Team identity is still weak, but structure starts to form and people begin to feel that they belong.

Direction from you will help your group to move on to the next stage. The more clearly you can communicate the project's purpose, your expectations, and any deadlines, the faster your team will coalesce around them. One good way to do this is to create a team charter.

Stage 3: The Power Phase

The group dynamic is at its most challenging now, as members compete for influence, prestige and power.

Things can get heated as people and personalities clash and, if you're an inexperienced manager, you may fear that your group is collapsing into anarchy. In reality, the Power Phase is a normal stage of development that groups pass through in order to establish a hierarchy.

Here, team members lose their need for group approval, and their hidden agendas become common knowledge. Individuals and cliques argue about how they'll achieve the group's aims, listening declines, criticism increases, and creativity wanes, keeping team identity and spirit weak.

Some members relish this stage, whereas others withdraw, so different roles emerge:

  • Dominators exert influence so as to control the group.
  • Aggressors diminish other members' status.
  • Followers accept other people's attempts to influence them.
  • Harmonizers try to balance individuals' needs with group needs.
  • Compromisers make concessions and deals for the common good.
  • Gatekeepers get everyone heard.

The most competitive and self-confident remain in the struggle, pushing aggressively and rising to the top, while others sit back or quietly take sides.

For your group to progress from this phase, you need to do all you can to encourage team harmony. You can do this by managing conflict and with mediation. Also, you can help your colleagues to understand one another by promoting active listening, trust, acceptance, flexibility, and – particularly – humility.

These actions can help the group to survive this turbulent period, and to move on to the next phase: cooperation.


Discussions in the Power Phase tend to be energetic and passionate, but they rarely produce great solutions, so avoid committing to decisions made during this time.

Stage 4: The Cooperation Phase

By now, individuals accept their positions within the group, and shift their focus away from personal agendas. They accept that all viewpoints are worth listening to and they're willing to compromise. And, as momentum builds, team spirit starts to replace competition and cliques, so people work with greater creativity, vigor and trust towards their mutual goals. Team identity becomes important, and the group treats any conflict that arises as a collective problem.

To move beyond the Cooperation Phase your team needs unanimity and empathy, so allow time for the group to "bed in" its new ways of working. Organizing a social event, and encouraging appropriate self-disclosure, are effective ways to foster a sense of unity.

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Encourage creative thinking, too. People will be more receptive than before to new ideas, so look for ways in which they can achieve some early wins.


Avoid adding new members to the group during this or the next phase. Original members will view entrants as outsiders, and new members can inadvertently damage team camaraderie. The whole group may regress, temporarily, to an earlier phase.

Stage 5: The Esprit Phase

If you've successfully ushered your group through the previous four phases, it will reach its creative and productive zenith in this, the final Esprit Phase. ("Esprit" is French for "spirit.")

Cliques have disappeared, a strong collective identity is established, and members no longer worry about obtaining group approval – they know that they're respected. High morale, informality, and a strong sense of comradeship are on show, and the group is strongly committed to its cause.

Discussions are lively, friendly and efficient because members are so trusting and empathic that they speak in a kind of shorthand. They deal appropriately with any conflicts that arise, and their personal agendas are visible – celebrated, even – but individuals concentrate on achieving group goals. Their competitive energy no longer focuses on getting ahead within the group, but on gaining advantage over the team's external competitors.

"Esprit" teams largely run themselves, so you can ease back and use a lighter touch. However, esprit can ebb and flow, so it's important to guard against complacency, by setting new challenges, and by evaluating team effectiveness.


Cog's Ladder is similar to Bruce Tuckman's Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing theory.

Key Points

Cog's Ladder is a framework for making sense of how groups tend to behave as they develop. Understanding it helps you to anticipate and to support the five identifiable stages that they can go through.

The five stages are:

  • The Polite Phase, when groups meet and start to get acquainted.
  • The "Why are we here?" Phase, in which colleagues try to identify their collective reason for being.
  • The Power Phase, where groups establish a hierarchy.
  • The Cooperation Phase, when groups start to work more effectively towards their goals.
  • The Esprit Phase, in which groups reach their creative and productive peak.

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