Currently, I’m receiving more and more requests for support around team collaboration. Market disruptions, staff shortages and the need for high levels of agility are causing restlessness, manifesting feelings of insecurity and leading to dissatisfaction and a lack of motivation.
What’s going on here?
Teams are living systems that react to change of any kind. The departure and arrival of colleagues can rock the boat of a system and require attention. Which makes sense. But is that all there is to it? Certainly not. Changes in the structure of tasks, growing demands from the market when it comes to speed and flexibility as well as personal stress due to geopolitical or pandemic uncertainties can also lead to unrest within a team.
This kind of situation isn’t always given sufficient attention and it certainly isn’t typically dealt with in an appreciative manner. How can we resolve this issue, especially on an interpersonal level?
One helpful model is Tuckman’s team development clock, first described as early as in 1965. The first step of this model demonstrates the need for action and supports the need for being understood, yet also provides possible options for action in a second step.
Tuckman first distinguished between the four stages a team goes through as it develops:
In this initial stage, the team comes together for the first time, the members get to know each other and the team begins to orient itself. You’re probably familiar with this stage from your own experience: When you’re new to a team, you start out by observing the work processes, communication channels and, above all, the relationships between the individual colleagues before you position yourself. And this is also true for an existing team: Your colleagues scan you, too. This phenomenon also occurs when work areas are restructured or when new fields of work emerge.
People typically respond to this sort of situation by first waiting to see how things develop. The group spirit in such situations tends to be described as polite, impersonal, tense and cautious.
This phase can also be described as the stage of “struggle” or “identifying positions.” Turbulence and disputes are typical here. Almost all team members seek to position themselves, claim certain tasks for themselves and actively champion their own interests. Friction can develop, which is “normal” and even important. Unfortunately, these minor conflicts, which are highly necessary, are often downplayed and not addressed, sometimes due to a desire for harmony. However, not taking seriously or not acknowledging these conflicts typically leads to the them intensifying and manifesting the storming stage. The “close-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best” approach simply doesn’t work. Also, my experience has shown that statements like, “We’ve never had that issue before and we never will” and “Everything is running smoothly for us,” usually turn out not to be true. At some point, conflicts will surface and by then, they’ll often appear to be intractable – at least through the team’s own efforts – because they are so entrenched and have been going on for so long.
If the storming phase has been accepted, taken seriously and processed cleanly, the team can enter the so-called “norming” stage. “Norming” describes the organizational stage when the team agrees on common agreements and rules. Goals, tasks and roles within the team are made transparent and distributed fairly. Forms of mutual support, a sense of “us” and team cohesion emerge. Contradictions and competitive thinking diminish and cooperation develops. Individual team members are willing to share their knowledge with everyone.
“Norming” focuses on developing interpersonal etiquette and a new team culture, new behaviors, a culture of giving and receiving constructive feedback as well as of confronting differences in viewpoints, rather than in people. Ideally, this stage is concluded with concrete agreements being reached from within the team, including on how to collaborate and deal with each other in concrete terms.
Don’t let yourself be confused by this. Sometimes the way to greet each other in the morning can even become the subject of an agreement. Initially, this may look like a matter of course for many people, but for teams that have just gone through some major storming, this is an important step on the way to reaching a solution.
The fourth and final stage in the team development process (leaving aside the fact that Tuckman later added the “adjourning” phase) is “performing.” It’s a stage of integration and shared success. Trust within the group continues to build and deepen. The team is now willing to take some risks and has learned to proactively leverage the strengths of all the team members. Role behavior often becomes self-efficiently flexible and situationally adjusted to the prevailing conditions. For the team, holistic success becomes important while the specific performance of individual team members fades more and more into the background. During this stage, the group spirit can be described as brimming with ideas, flexible, open and efficient, and informed by solidarity and mutual help.
At this stage, the team runs like clockwork. There is good communication and mutual support, goals are being achieved, and motivation and commitment are high.
The following is true for all the stages:
- They vary in their duration.
- Pre-existing teams go through all the stages again whenever new team members come on board or individual team members leave.
- Going through the storming stage is important and there should be no attempt to bypass it.
- It’s crucial in teamwork to know which stage your team is currently going through so as to be able to support and steer it well.
- Measures will only bear fruit if they are appropriate to the respective stage.
- Each team goes through the cycle again and again.
- Changes at the structural or organizational level also set off a new forming stage.
- Ideally, the respective stages are acknowledged and accepted so that the ability to take action and find solutions can be retained.
What stage do you think your team is in right now? And what insights are you drawing from this for your action strategy?
I look forward to receiving your feedback—please feel free to ask any questions you may have.
Until then, here’s wishing all the best and exciting insights about your team.
Go for it,
Your crisis manager