William Cottringer

The human potential movement of the early seventies employed a helpful frame of reference to understand the process of interpersonal group development. This model involves four distinct stages of development: Acquaintanceship, Friendship, Conflict and Union. These same four stages of development are an integral part of organizational development as a whole.

Effective leaders are experts at guiding their organizations completely and gracefully through these four states of organizational development—sometimes over and over again, partly or fully. Below is a discussion of these stages.


A new organization or an older one hiring new employees has all or some of it organization in this first stage of development. This stage is primarily for distribution of information—communicating organizational mission, goals, job descriptions, employee expectations, personnel policies, performance standards, etc.

Communication in this first stage is generally pedagogic to give clear and certain direction to the organization. Activities are mostly supervisory tasks of assigning, monitoring and evaluating work processes. Organizational boundaries are being formed and employees are being told where they are going, with the how being developed in the next stage.


The friendship stage of development is transitional in nature—movement occurs from acquaintanceship to friendliness to friendship within the organization. Formal interaction becomes more informal, communication goes from superficial exchanges to conversation to meaningful feedback and disclosure, and the initial focus on differences shifts to similarities. There is teambuilding which optimizes diversity, focuses on synergy and develops commitment.

It is imperative that leaders nurture the organization in order to develop it fully in this critical stage of development, to prepare for the inevitable next stage. Effective leaders accomplish this important preparation with (a) role modeling—demonstrating their own competency, positive attitude, intrinsic motivation, empathy, self-control, likability, trustworthiness and servant-leadership style, and (b) rapport-building—getting to know employees well and acknowledging them, communicating supportively, minimizing emotional negativity, sharing their humanness, and being available, flexible, accommodating, understanding and forgiving.


Sooner or later, conflicts develop that keep organizations from running smoothly and achieving target goals. Sales can decline, personality clashes can occur between operations and sales staff, there can be an emerging rift between management and line staff, work groups can sabotage each other, communication can breakdown down, organizational values can erode, and the entire business can fail. Conflicts test the quality of Stage 2 development of the organization.
Some signs of organizational conflict are obvious including lack of productivity, poor morale, high turnover, poor communication, employee resistance, income drop and lack of growth. Other signs are more subtle including differences in core values, uncomfortable feelings, unidentified issues, hidden agendas, informal power struggles, wrong assumptions that aren’t being verified, generalized fear and preoccupation with differences between and within work groups and organizational levels.

Conflicts within the organization need to be confronted assertively. These conflicts—as uncomfortable as they may be to deal with—are often the only opportunities for growth into the fourth stage of development. The effective leader is sensitive to conflicts as they occur and applies creative problem-solving and effective communication to bring about appropriate resolution. Sometimes an effective leader may even orchestrate productive conflict to help the organization get unstuck.

Supportive communication is what is usually needed to resolve the conflict that stands between satisfactory organizational productivity and the elite performance of Stage 4; any communication that creates a defensive climate keeps the organization from moving to this next stage. Accordingly, effective leaders avoid any communication that implies superiority, judgment, control, certainty and insensitivity; they maximize equality, understanding, freedom, tentativeness and sensitivity.


A state of union is the ultimate sign of a truly effective organization. The workforce is reasonably content, highly productive and creative; and the organization exceeds its business plan easily and quickly. Success is a reflection of an integrated team working together for the common good. There is complete congruence between what management says, what supervisors hear, what employees do, and what customers sense. The melody is harmonious with everyone singing off the same sheet of music.

Achievement of the union stage of development is certainly not guaranteed tenure, even with the best of efforts. In fact, the principle of entropy—the tendency for the organization to get bored and sabotage its own success—can often take over in even the most effective organizations. Then the leader is challenged to start this organizational development process all over again.

The Johari Window—another tool of the human potential movement—is a useful process to build the wisdom necessary to guide the organization through these four stages of development, quickly, completely, and gracefully—especially the conflict stage. Used with communication that ensures a supportive tone, the Johari Window knowledge processing scheme will help the leader find answers to resolve the conflicts that keep the organization from getting to and functioning within Stage 4: Union.

For example, when the leader approaches a growing conflict between the operations and sales departments with supportive communication—by not assuming he or she already understands the problem and knows the solution and taking the time to ask good questions to get both sides working together for a mutual resolution, the conflict starts to dissolve. On the other hand, when the leader imposes certain, judgmental and controlling solutions to this conflict, employees just take it underground where it is more difficult to deal with.

Here is the Johari Window, with its four knowledge producing quadrants:

Quadrant 1: What we all know

Good questions to ask:

1. Can what we already know be limiting us from doing things more effectively?
2. Can we re-work what we know to get better results?
3. What do we know that we have forgotten or not used enough?

Quadrant 2: What I know but others don’t

Good questions to ask:

1. Am I making any wrong assumptions about what I think others don’t know?
2. What do I know that can most benefit others?
3. How can I best share what I know?

Quadrant 3: What others know but I don’t

Good questions to ask:

1. Am I making any wrong assumptions about what I think they know?
2. What do others know that I need to know?
3. How can I be less defensive about admitting what I don’t know?

Quadrant 4: What None of us knows

Good questions to ask:

1. What is the worst thing that could happen if we try this?
2. What bits of information does everyone know that could all fit together for a new solution?
3. Are we asking the right questions in the right way?

Effective leaders understand these four evolutionary stages of group development and create a supportive tone by asking and answering important questions that can help the organization move from Stage 1 to Stage 4 with synchronicity.

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is President of Puget Sound Security in Belleview, WA., along with being a Sport Psychologist, Business Success Coach, Photographer and Writer. He is author of several business and self-development books, including, You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too (Executive Excellence), The Bow-Wow Secrets (Wisdom Tree), and Do What Matters Most and “P” Point Management (Atlantic Book Publishers). Whatch for Reality Repair Rx which is coming. Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (425) 454-5011 or