Revisiting a classic perspective on the lifecycle of teams

Adapt your team dynamics to boost performance
Thursday, December 1, 2022

Team dynamics have changed over the past few decades. So many of us exercise the freedom to pick from the best practices we know and pull them together to create the perfect formula to fuel our teams’ strategy. And yet, in doing so, it’s prevalent that we leave things a bit more complicated than when we started.

In times like these, it would be beneficial to go back and revisit past lessons that help us find our center once again. So, in this article, let’s look at the five stages of team development introduced by Bruce Tuckman.

As an educational psychologist, Tuckman’s work has primarily been about how teams develop from the beginning of a project to its completion. The theory that he offered had already been shared since 1965, and yet the lessons that we can pick up from it seem to claim relevance even in these modern times.

1. Forming

At the beginning of a project, team dynamics may struggle in many ways—even when the team members have been selected with the utmost scrutiny. There will always be some uncertainty about the team’s purpose and how each member figures in the mix.

You shouldn’t be surprised if you sense doubts, fears, and other anxieties. People will try to figure each other out, which broadly characterizes the earlier engagements of team members as social—with everyone being more interested in getting to know each other first.

It is too much to expect progress at this stage of the cycle. Consider that whatever progress the team comes up with at this point will likely be riddled with mistakes and oversights. However, such circumstances are to be expected when a group is newly forming. The main agenda at this stage should be laying the ground rules and discussing the plan. You can expect the team to define many of the basics here, as nearly everything is new.

 2. Storming

A team eventually reaches some level of comfort wherein peers are more cognizant of each other’s roles and responsibilities. Eventually, they reach the storming stage, which is often viewed as the most challenging of the five stages.

As you start your project, you will have to deal with any number of established boundaries, and people will eventually push against them. Naturally, this is what happens when you start mixing things up. Since this is likely the first time your team members will interact, their true colors will come out on the level of each individual. You will see conflicts develop as the friction continues, with many personalities clashing with each other. You might even discover the early working of factions and team politics.

As the leader, you may even find that some of your subordinates might challenge your authority in this stage, especially when they feel overwhelmed with their responsibilities and frustrated with the absence of progress. At some point, people will feel the need for confrontation and call each other out. This stage is tricky because you should know how to take action as a leader.

It’s the leader’s job to account for all contrasting views and find a compromise between team members. It’s within your interest to listen to every team member equally and create a common ground that should help you move the team forward.

3. Norming

If you can get over the hump of storming, you need to realize that you have already made a significant improvement as a team. In the norming stage, the group enjoys familiarity among its members. They know each other’s talents and tolerance levels, making it easier for standard practices and methods to take shape.

This stage warns that any semblance of unity and cohesion may be temporary. If another conflict arises, you might see your team regressing to the storing stage again. To avoid this, ensure that you solidify their roles and responsibilities. Whatever conflicts there are must be resolved without delay.

If you do things right in this stage, you’ll see that your team becomes more committed to the overall goal and would be willing to compromise to move the project forward. Each team member will see their strengths and weaknesses and see where they can complement each other. The ego takes the back seat as favorable team dynamics become a priority.

4. Performing

There will come a time when you will feel that your team has become more mature. For example, in the performing stage, one of the most prominent signs you might observe is that they can address conflicts without their leader’s intervention.

Typically, new issues that arise won’t be as threatening any longer. They become part of “just another normal day of work” and waste no time solving the problem. In addition, because the processes here are more structured, there will be more success in moving forward with team dynamics accomplishing goals, and handling roadblocks.

Because of this relative ease and fluidity, you may play around with individual roles among members by adding more responsibilities or having them work with other members they work with less frequently. At this stage, you have the luxury of letting them take turns leading team meetings so that their leadership skills will develop further.

5. Adjourning

As you adjourn, the workload diminishes because goals are being met. The project will eventually end, and at this stage, you can finally say that the team as you knew it no longer exists. 

As you wrap up the project, you should ensure that all the proper documentation is in place. Typically, some members may move on from here to other projects. This is the time that you’ll have a better idea of the following projects where individuals should be subsequently deployed.

A great way to conclude the project is for your team to hold a short event. Let the dream team enjoy each other’s company one last time and mend strained relationships if there are any. Here is where you congratulate everybody, recall the positive team dynamics and thank them for a well-done job.

Parker Lee

Parker Lee is the managing partner of Territory, a design consultancy, who has developed and led teams in transformation, design thinking, and business development for decades. Co-author of The Art of Opportunity, he has created and facilitated dozens of design and visual thinking engagements.

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