B. W. Tuckman was the creator of the Team Development Wheel, which identified four stages of development for any group or team. The first stage is called forming when the team is first pulled together to do the work it’s been assigned. A forming team is on its best behavior; communication is polite but tentative and trust is on a wait-and-see basis. A team often stays in forming based on how frequently it meets. For example a team that meets once a month for an hour or two can stay in forming forever. Conversely, a team that meets daily or weekly will move out of forming very quickly. It’s also important to remember that every time the team changes membership or function, it returns to the forming stage – even if temporarily.
Interestingly, as the team moves ahead, it hits a rough stage called storming. If we look at the team, we think things are falling apart because the team is no longer getting along like they used to, but rather disagreeing on both petty and important issues. Cliques are forming within the team, as members jockey for control. Team members begin to question the usefulness of other members, as well as their allegiance to the leader. As pressure mounts to deliver on results, the team seems embroiled in conflict and confusion. Here’s the ironic point: what seems to be a team falling apart and getting worse is actually a team getting stronger. See, in the beginning (forming) they weren’t a real team at all, just a faux team going through the motions. As each member begins to share his or her perspective and unique contribution, a collision of experiences and preferences occurs. As conflicts emerge, the team struggles, not only with the conflict but with how to resolve the conflict. At this point in a traditional structure, the designated leader would ride in and straighten everything and everybody out. On a team, leadership is shared and no one person has the power to control the whole team. While we might see storming behavior as regressing, it’s actually progressing: team members are sharing their opinions, disagreeing and caring about outcomes.
The trouble with storming is that some teams and groups go into storming and can never figure out how to get out of storming. As tensions mount and coalitions form, attendance starts to drop and participation waivers. Meetings are boring because people don’t want to speak up and get attacked for their opinions and suggestions. The team loses commitment to its common goal and approach because it certainly doesn’t feel like a team anymore. Members often demonstrate rude and inconsiderate behavior toward each other and then collect and store their resentments (collecting stamps) or share them in triangles (triangling) with others.
It is exceedingly difficult to address storming issues when a team is in the storming stage. Therefore, one of the keys to addressing storming is to do it in forming when everyone is getting along. Let me share with you the example of a production team on an assembly line a number of years ago who followed an effective process.
1. In forming, the team developed its team charter which outlined the goals, approach to achieving the goals, the roles and responsibilities of members, the authority level of the team, and what was considered negotiable and non-negotiable.
2. They received training on How Teams Work and Meeting Skills to build the team’s understanding of the difference between a high-performance team and a dysfunctional one and how teams develop over time. During this stage, the team identified its Help/Hinder list or ground rules for acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. A process observer role was implemented as the individual on the team (rotated among members) who would provide feedback after team meetings about how the team functioned. From the first meeting, the team was receiving feedback from a peer about the good things members were doing and those behaviors that needed to change.
3. Next the team received training in Conflict Resolution Skills to equip members to accept conflict as healthy, recognize the phases in conflict, their own conflict resolution styles and learn how to express disagreement in a constructive manner utilizing the RISC/PAUSE approach. During the training, the team began to draft its Conflict Resolution protocol, spelling out how each member should address conflict when it occurs. Most teams accept and support the premise that an individual should go directly to another individual if he or she has a conflict. Step two is often to go one-on-one again or two-on-one, with the second person simply validating that an attempt was made. The third step is most commonly to address the conflict as a team.
All of this training and charter development was completed while the team was in its forming stage. Quite frankly, members often expressed frustration saying, “We get along great, why do we need all this stuff?” Truthfully, none of this is needed particularly in the forming stage, but it is desperately needed when the team goes into the storming stage.
Sure enough, it didn’t take long for the production team to hit the storming stage. It began when Debbie was rotated into the team leader role and started to get bossy. Immediately the team split with some trying to support Debbie in her transition while others forcefully resented her approach and started to undermine her leadership by ‘triangling’ with people within and outside the team. It didn’t take long for a team member to approach the manager saying, “You need to do something about Debbie because she’s got everybody on the team upset. It isn’t working with her in that role.” Thanks to all the work done in the forming stage, the manager was able to say, “Have you or anyone on the team spoken with Debbie one-on-one (the first conflict step in their protocol)?” Without that protocol in place, the team member would have expected the manager to fix the problem and the manager would have expected the team to fix the problem – but with no spelled out, agreed-upon approach. Interestingly, Debbie didn’t get better after the first one-on-one and not even on the two-on-one that was actually done several times. She didn’t even improve after the team-on-one because she had no real desire to be a team player. Without the protocols, she could have kept her team in storming for a long time with no way out.
Moving from storming to norming requires the team to make an active choice to be a team. Usually teams flip-flop back and forth from storming to norming as they wrestle with their commitment to teaming. A team that knows how to manage storming effectively will make that transition far quicker than one that struggles every time it returns to storming. Besides when the team is reconfigured and goes back to forming (the first stage), all the old storming stuff is now “under the table and not talked about openly with new members” while the new storming issues are starting to emerge. Quite a mess!
All teams need to progress through storming as part of their normal development cycle. Those who are prepared for it and have worked through their agreements in advance will find storming to be an important growth point. Those who arrive in storming unprepared will typically get stuck and struggle. As managers and coaches, we have the opportunity to prepare our teams for this stage and even coach them through it, with two important points of emphasis. As a coach, express to the team your belief that storming is a normal and important step in teaming and that they will emerge from storming stronger and more committed than ever before. But also, hold team members accountable for following the rules and protocols they set up in the beginning and agreed to by consensus of the team.
If you have a team “storming” story, we’d love to hear it.
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