The forming–storming–norming–performing model of group development was first proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965. Tuckman said these phases are all necessary and inevitable for a team to grow, tackle problems, find solutions and deliver results. Tuckman's ideas apply beyond teams.
Individuals going through change, whether they chose change or not, also experience the four stages.
We started a new 10-week session at my gym last week, and we have 3-4 new members at the class I attend at 6 am. The first week is all "getting to know you" -- learning the moves, getting into the routine, and dealing with sore muscles. That's forming. By week 2, and I'm speaking from experience, you start wondering what you were thinking. As exciting as week 1 was, week 2 is rough. What was once appealing, turns sour. You are tired; the workout feels harder than it did week 1, and everyone else seems to be getting it faster than you. You miss sugar. Life before the gym was more fun, more carefree -- at least that's what your ego is telling you. If you're going to quit, this is the time. If you can work through the battle, you are more likely to stick through to the end -- maybe even sign up for more. You guessed it: norming & performing.
Tuckman describes the storming phase as the stage of development where the group starts to sort itself out and gain each other's trust. Working styles clash. Struggles for power evolve into conflict. The team moves from pleasantries & politeness to suspicion, fear & anxiety. Team members form opinions about the character of other team members, and feel compelled to voice these opinions if they think someone is shirking responsibility or attempting to dominate.
Some teams move through this phase quickly; if team members are familiar with each other and team roles & rules are clear, they may seem to skip storming altogether. Some teams never make it out of the storming phase. If clashes are allowed to get out of control, storming can be destructive for a team, lowering motivation beyond repair.
Disagreements within the team, when resolved effectively, can make members stronger, more versatile, and able to work more effectively as a team. Tolerance of each team member and their differences should be emphasized, as without tolerance and patience the team will fail. Empathy is also a handy tool for success.
Leadership makes the difference in whether teams manage the storming phase well. Team members need support working through disagreements and dealing with emotions; it's unfair to expect the team leader to handle it all on their own. Most teams are cross-functional, made up of team members who report to leaders outside the team. For the team to be successful, those outside-the-team leaders must be skilled in supporting team members through the storming phase. When direct reports come with complaints, or looking for validation that their character assessment is correct, leaders must be prepared to coach and help them through the conflict.
It can be disastrous for the team when the right kind of support is not available. I've seen new leaders forced out of companies during the storming phase.
A new leader comes into an existing team. At first, everyone gets along. But something changes and conflict starts. The new leader finds himself the target of criticism about his approach or leadership style. Team members say they think he doesn't fit in here, doesn't listen, or that he believes he is smarter than everyone else. Then the performance conversations with the new leader begin. Is he the right guy? Frustrated, the new leader questions his decision to join the company.
If he leaves (or is asked to leave), team members feel justified. If he stays (or is allowed to stay), and the team doesn't get the help they need to move through storming, then people tend to play nice in person and throw darts behind the scenes. The energy drain from the drama impacts results -- and not in a good way.
On the flip side, I've also seen solid, long-term team members leave because of unresolved conflict with a new leader. I was one of those people. I tried everything I could think of to figure it out. I tried talking to my manager and asked for help from her manager. They said the problem was in my head; that I must be mistaken because they hadn't experienced what I did. But the issues persisted. I sought support from people who had worked for her before me. They had struggled, too. Their advice was to bide my time and then find a new role. I resolved to make it work, but felt like I was sacrificing my soul to do it.
What I know now is that a team in storming stays in storming unless led through it. If you can't see or don't acknowledge that storming is happening, you'll stay stuck -- or you'll find ways to get out from underneath it.
The storming phase highlights areas for growth in all team members, leaders included.
When approached as a natural part of team development, the storming phase is an opportunity for all team members and supporting leaders to learn something about themselves. I remember one team leader who was surprised how attached he was to doing something a certain way. When he recognized and admitted it, he was able to explore why. When he informed the team, they were able to better understand his perspective and his feelings, as well as incorporate pieces into the solution. Before that, they saw him as an obstacle -- someone stuck in the past and opposed to change.
With coaching, he went deeper. He reflected on experiences that were similar and found a pattern in his habits of thinking. With new awareness, he was able to name and work on a gap in his own character. Short term, the team was better for it. Long term, he was a better leader.
My experience with my manager was a character building experience for me, too. I didn't appreciate it at the time -- not going to lie. But I see it now.
I should also mention -- grieving is also heightened in the storming phase. The new person at the gym grieves who they were (or who they thought they were) before they started the 10-week process. Whatever the situation that brought them to join the gym, there were aspects of their life before the gym that they loved -- and are now grieving. It's the same with teams. It's common to hear team members talk about the "good old days" or wanting to go back to the old way. There is a nostalgia for the trouble they knew and a wish to escape the difficulty they have now on the team. (It's that whole "devil I know" vs. "devil I don't" debate.) Our egos like us the way we were, and they fight hard to keep us that way.
The trick is not leaving change to chance.
The storming phase demands more from the team leader, as well as all other leaders in the organization. It's great when a team can work out conflicts on their own, especially the kind that happen around the goals of the project. But when criticisms get personal and character comes into question, leaders have to step in.
In any relationship, when one person "wins", then the relationship loses. Or in other words, when I win, "we" lose. When "we" lose, the entire organization can be affected.
Don't just survive the storming phase. Embrace it! You can take advantage of every opportunity for growth and development that storming has to offer. Learn to see the signs. Expect conflict; don't run from it. Practice tolerance & empathy, and assume the best intentions. Help others see their impact from a different perspective without making them wrong or placing blame. Rather than judge a complaint as legitimate or not, seek to understand the situation in context and offer support. Act as coach, leading team members through a problem, rather than trying to fix it for them. Make sure the team leader has support through the storming phase. For cross-functional teams, communicate the expectation that all leaders have a role in moving the team through storming.
Remember: when your team is storming, that's when they need you most. Fall in love with the storm. You and your team will grow -- and your results will follow suit.
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