Welcome back to the Effective Leadership course! Today’s topic is about the importance of knowing the stages of team development in leading high-performance teams, an attempt to identify the steps that a group goes through, from its formation, conflicts until its dissolution. 

The Tuckman model was created in 1965 by Bruce Tuckman and it was conceived in order to help project leaders on leading high-performance teams. He reviewed over 50 previous researches of theories on teamwork and synthesized it in 5 steps. What he found is that the intensity and trust of relationships between people changed the performance of the team.

The five stages are: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.

Understanding Tuckman’s 5 stages of team development model will help you, as a leader, to identify signs that you are entering a specific stage, so that you can provide your team with the necessary tools and support.

Understanding the stages of team development.

I will explain here all the steps and stages of team development and then I will describe them with greater precision and what should be done in each one. Cool?

The first stage is Formation. In this step, your team is getting to know each other, they tend to be more reluctant about expressing themselves. Members are assimilating what is accepted in the group and what is not. People are getting to know each other, exploring new things and understanding how to fit in.

The second stage is Storming. It’s at this point that the least amount of work will be done: members begin to feel how their dependence on each other undermines their performance, since the group is not yet cohesive and intertwined. Hence the conflict, the hallmark of this stage and what makes leading high-performance teams so difficult.

When teams start to work better.

The third step of the Stages of Team Development is Norming, when the team begins to establish formal and better structured work rules. By the end of the Storming phase, people on the team realize that they need to work towards a greater team cohesion, so the dependence still exists, but it starts to become more obvious and with clearer ideas and processes of how to work together.

The fourth and penultimate stage is the Performing stage, when the team already knows how to work with each other. The tendency to delegate tasks in a conscious way gets smaller, when compared to the previous stages, and team members work in a more fluid way. At this stage, new ideas and process improvements predominate.

The fifth and final stage is Adjourning, finishing the project and splitting up the team. At this point, there may be feedback, final learnings and next steps. 

Before we get into how to accelerate a team’s maturation process, I wanted to comment on the benefits of acting as a team. I will define some terms that will also help us in the next lesson, when we talk about the manager’s challenges in leading high-performance teams.

Let’s draw the big picture here:

It will be important to have some concepts as to which skills that make up a team are based on. Does focusing on team development really increase the organization’s results, its effectiveness?

Let’s take a look at the first term, effictiveness. Efficacy is a person’s ability or competence to perform a certain task and produce a specific expected result. When expanded to the team level, it becomes group effectiveness, which is the group’s ability to accomplish this task. The team’s effectiveness is greater than the sum of individual efficacies, according to Bandura.

Albert Bandura is a Canadian psychologist, professor of social psychology at Stanford University and has produced several studies on the subject. He also studied the concept of agency and the individual’s ability to act. He connected these studies to talk about the team’s effectiveness.

Teams are composed of interdependence.

There is also a concept called psychological security. “Condition in which the individual feels included, with security to learn, comfortable to contribute and to challenge the status quo, without fear of feeling ashamed, marginalized or punished in any way”. This is an excerpt from a Dr. Timothy Clark’s article, PhD in social sciences and author of the book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety.

In the last decade, this concept of psychological security began to call attention for its ability to predict team effectiveness, an essential concept for those who want to lead teams to high performance.

This conversation about team learning has existed since 1968, at least, with Chris Argyris, one of the greatest management thinkers. For you to have an idea, he created the field of knowledge called Organizational Development, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and was named Thought Leader by Deloitte. For him, organizational learning comes from companies that learn from their members.

This learning happens when teams gain and share skills, knowledge and information about their work through interaction between their members. More on this theory in the book “Groups at Work“. This learning process also occurs through experimentation, communication and reflection & coding. These three elements are interdependent and cannot be replaced, according to the study by Cristina Gibson and Freek Vermeulen, from the University of California, Irvine and the London Business School.

Can you spot the pattern here? Working on the interaction between members and this interdependent learning process is what causes teams to be more effective.

This was a quick overview of the literature. Okay, let’s go to practice.

How to speed up the process of the stages of team development?

This course on Effective Leadership focuses on your role as a leader in high-performance teams in the first months. While it may take months before you get your team to reach the third stage, it’s extremely important that you understand each one.

It’s also vital to say that this structure is not linear or easily identifiable. People may have different views on the stage the team is currently at. In addition, it’s worth mentioning that when members leave the team, the team as a whole recedes in the process – especially because the new member will go through all the stages, new rules will have to be set into place and the like.

Now let’s get into how you can better understand and work at each stage of the team building stages.

The first moments of your team: its formation.

In the first stage of team development, the team members are getting to know each other. Here, there is a lot of respect, excitement, cordiality and tolerating situations you would normally not accept. Yes, at this early stage, few people tend to disagree immediately when they realize that someone is doing something they think is wrong or out of their taste. There is a strong sense of dependence and tiptoeing. Spoiler: and this is exactly what leads to the next stage, where there are conflicts.

There’s a lot of building up that will eventually lead to animosity in the group. People are seeking social approval and tend not to want to take on the role of pointing out what’s wrong. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for the team members to expect the leader to assume this role of “correcting” others – even if the members don’t express their disapproval to the leader.

Your role as a leader is to create the best environment of mutual respect, to accelerate this process of getting to know each other and trust building. It will be crucial for you to go through the Storming stage with as little pain as possible if you can collect feedback from each other about how the team is doing and what could be done to avoid problems up front.

Team building sessions and getting-to-know-each-other moments can be great activities for this beginning. In addition, allowing open spaces for everyone to talk about their work preferences, how they prefer to work with others and more private spaces for individual feedback. Remember: each person here wants to present the most polished and diplomatic version of themselves. Everyone knows the power of first impressions.

Conflicts start to arise: how to get through the storm.

After some time in the initial phase, members will stop putting up with others’ mannerisms that they find irritating or lack of some characteristics that they consider important, such as punctuality, cordiality, politeness, agility, etc. And that can be exacerbated if it’s a time of high pressure, such as a tight deadline, many mistakes happening, and so on.

This is a unique moment in the stages of team development: there’s a defensive posture and even a strong sense of negative competition. Members can even try to avoid direct conflict with those they consider to be antagonists and start creating dramatic triangles, a situation in which people are vilified. We even have a lesson dedicated to this concept. It happens a lot that relationships, that once were fruitful, to be broken by this period of conflict.

Just to give a quick example: these conflicts are more common in two situations.

1) Among those who work together, especially when the quality of one person’s delivery influences the other’s ability to act. This is because, probably, the person who receives the task’s output was silent during the formation phase, until when they can’t hold it no more.

2) Between leader and direct report, as the leader usually has the role of giving feedback. If you are responsible for ensuring quality control and you miss it once, twice, three times. The fourth time will be very difficult to correct, as the person already assimilated what’s acceptable. Thus, giving feedback now is going to be hard.

And I get it. It’s super uncomfortable to give feedback in the first encounter, but it’s necessary. Do not miss this opportunity. In my complete course, there are four lessons with four different ways of feedback.

How to get out of the conflict and go to the norming phase.

The secret for you to get into the conflict stage quickly and go to the Norming stage is to raise issues as they happen. This may seem strange to outsiders, but I think it’s the practice that best makes people who work together become a real team.

Everyone needs to have the freedom and agency to raise tensions. What does that mean? If there’s a point that is not in agreement, people need to know that they can go against it (freedom) and feel comfortable doing so (agency).

You, in charge of leading high-performance teams, create this type of environment by asking questions at the beginning to incite debate, by stimulating when someone brings up an uncomfortable situation, and, of course, by promoting dialogue between the parties.

In the first teams that I was a member of, we received a lot of training on the subject. It was talked about all the time. In my first serious team, if I may say so, we had a lot of discussions and it was incredible. We went through very difficult moments, but there was a very, very strong sense of cohesion.

Don’t be afraid to give feedback, it will speed up the process a lot. And when I say speed up, it doesn’t mean going faster than the right time, but actually not making the conflict last longer than it should. The conflicts will come, research shows that every team goes through moments of conflict. The more you avoid it, the worse the situation will be. Who hasn’t been in relationships in which confrontation was avoided, and the situation was getting more and more uncomfortable?

The last stage of team development: from norming to performance.

When you get into the conflict stage, now you have to start to say what’s bothering you, why it bothers you and you, as a team, start creating rules. Each person will have to give in one area or another. There’s no other way.

Finally, in the stage Norming, the team begins to create a sense of cohesion and unity: the members discuss more openly the factors under which they work better or worse, what their conditions are and there’s greater transparency. It is important to note that a united team does not mean a team without conflict. On the contrary, the number of tensions increases – only they are much smoother.

There is no longer so much pain and struggle. The people on the team can communicate their dissatisfactions in a much more candid and open way without being so defensive. Here, people understand each other’s values, respect them and know how to work with them. Some of the papers even point out that openness on a personal level and discussion of personal problems were found in various groups.

In the Performing stage, the team members work in sync that the existence of interdependent tasks no longer inhibits processes and projects from advancing – which is something that in other stages still exists. There’s a need to stop to discuss the issue and to oil the machine.

Your role as a manager in leading high-performance teams.

Here is what happens: Your role in leading high-performance teams is not to mediate all conflicts. Don’t take on that role.. You must create an environment in which people feel comfortable bringing tension directly to those involved and always keep an eye on the dynamics that are being created in your team, in order to move the process forward.

The last step is the Adjourning, the team closure moment. In this stage, we do the final feedback round and ensure that there are as few loose ends as possible.

I don’t know if there is a minimum duration for each step, but also take your time to enjoy the whole process. All phases are essential for the team to mature, both personally and professionally. You don’t want to skip straight to the Performing stage. That honeymoon stage at the beginning is quite magical, right?

Cool? As we say in my hometown: better than that, just twice that.

The article’s treasure:

In the end of each article, I will write a final recap for you to memorize the main takeaways.

This is what I presented in this article:

We got to know the stages of team development: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning.

The Forming stage is the honeymoon, the beginning of the team. Here, members are getting to know each other and they avoid conflict as much as possible. The role of the leader should be to encourage the building of a sense of team and plant the seed of an environment of trust.

In the second stage, Storming, people’s differences begin to emerge. Little work is done and conflict is inevitable. Your role, as a leader, is to ensure that these confrontations are being resolved in a healthy and productive way, moving towards resolution.

Norming is the stage where rules are created and defined. The team begins to enter into a consensus movement on how to work in sync.

Thus, we reach the stage of Performing or High Performance, when the team is cohesive and works seamlessly. There’s the peak of productivity and results generation

In the next lesson, on The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, the topic will be why teams go wrong, what are the most common causes and how to keep an eye on it!

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