“Team dynamics are so predictable”

by Didier Marlier on Friday June 15th, 2012

My colleagues and I are always surprised by how predictable team dynamics can be when real work is done with real teams (and not “just training”). Bruce Tuckman, a US psychologist even modeled it, reinforcing his ability to predict how a team would behave.

The model (stages of group development) is quite old (1965) and widely known. If I chose to bring it back to the surface it is because I am surprised to note how many business leaders are still unaware of it.

Following him, teams repetitively go through predictable cycles when working together:

  • Forming is the early stage of the life of a team. People’s first need when congregating towards a convention, becoming part of a new entity or joining a team is about social acceptance, being part of, in other words inclusion. Am I in or out. People’s initial focus is about being accepted and recognized by other team members. Social short talk, superficial and inoffensive topics emerge. Discussions are friendly, open and may fool even the team’s leader who may assume that it is heading towards high performance… This phase may seem superficial, rightly so but it is fundamental to build the cohesion. Humans need signs of acceptance of their fellow team members. As a team coach or as a leader, getting a conflict averse team out of this stage may be hard work. People have become experts in post rationalization, staying desperately stuck into “pseudo rational arguments” on why they are a great team and getting along well. I remember years ago, at the start of my career, a team that came “highly recommended” by their Board. They were recognized as dysfunctional by the whole organization and had closed down into a “bonding attitude”, rejecting the whole world around them, refusing to enter into a conflict and preferring an ambiance of false harmony. It took its leader and I a long two days before we could do some serious work…
  • If the team successfully goes through that stage, little by little, cracks will appear in the nice and polished varnish of the “Forming”… At first, it sounds disappointing if not seriously anxiety building. Why do these people who seemed to so wonderfully get along now disagree, challenge if not argue with each other? The “Storming stage” does feel uncomfortable, especially to people preferring to avoid conflict. But it is a highly moment of the life of the team. It is about ceasing to be overly polite and “getting real”. Storming may lead a team towards implosion if the leader does not take a strong stand in imposing Value Building Behaviours or at least a code of conduct. But what is absolutely certain is that the team will collapse if it does not go through the Storming. It will cease to exist if it is too focused on being polite with each other and avoiding necessary difficult conversations. Exclusive focus on relations at the expense of results will mean underperformance which will condemn the team to be disbanded. Most of the teams we observe fail to go through that stage because people in them are convinced that conflict is a negative thing which has to be avoided at all price…
  • The “quiet after the storm” is called “Norming stage”. Participants recreate new norms for their team. These are much stronger and deeper than the superficial ones displayed ruing the Forming times. New codes of conduct emerge, feedback becomes part of the “way we behave here”. Holding difficult discussions is something team members become experts at.
  • Performing” can only start after the team successfully went through the three previous phases and is more a result than a stage per se. Although the biggest threat at that point is to drift into contempt and arrogance. Storming always takes courage to shake up the illusion of harmony. And the leader needs to remain aware: her team may always fall back into a Forming/conflict avoidant/superficial mode. Having a team staying in the Performance zone is a daily effort and battle. It is as if the Tucker’s cycle is an endless one.
  • Finally, given the multiplication of project teams, Tuckman later added a fifth stage: “Adjourning”, which is an important stage to lead te team through. It takes place when the team is disbanded. We all know those promises to keep in touch, create an alumni network or a page on the company’s intranet. Very often these just stay stuck at the “good intentions level”… It is important to close down a team, with a celebration if there are achievements to be proud of and a successful like an unsuccessful team will benefit from a solid review & feedback session to ensure that the members leave with a positive feeling.

The reason for sharing this is that we still see so many teams underperforming by lack of knowledge of this highly predictable pattern in the life of teams. We advise great team leaders having being punished by incompetent “coaches” for letting their teams having a go at each other. Team leaders should never feel guilty when their teams go through one of the phases that are described here above. They should know this is absolutely normal.

Another Parisian week ahead. Have a great one all, Didier

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4 Responses to ““Team dynamics are so predictable””

  1. Hello Didier
    I’m from the North of Portugal, Barcelos. I agree with you: teams are so predictable. But, for me, there’s an important issue, we must consider each one work orientation, specially on forming stage. When employees feel that the organization cares for and is helpful to the whole community, they feel that they are performing meaningful work. As Kets de Vries (2001, p. 107) argues, “meaningful activity at work becomes a way to transcend personal concerns; it becomes a way to create a sense of continuity. Leaving behind a legacy through work becomes an affirmation of the person’s sense of self and identity; it can become an important form of narcissistic gratification.” Meaningful work fosters the employees’ self-esteem, hope, health, happiness and sense of personal growth (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003; Kets de Vries, 2001). As Wrzesniewski et al (1997) said, “The major interests and ambitions of Job holders are not expressed through their work” (p. 22). When work is perceived as a Job, people look forward to taking a break, finishing work, the weekend, public holidays, and vacations. On the other hand, people who believe that the most important thing in their life is their Career place importance not only on the money they can possibly earn, but also on their ability to climb to the upper realms of power or make decisions within their organization. Last but not least, a Calling is work that a person feels called to do by a higher power. Work that is a calling feels like it both contributes to humanity and is also in line with an individual’s purpose in life.
    In your opinion it would be possible to coach work orientation on forming stage?

  2. Thank you Victor for joining and such a superb contribution. In short, I agree with your hypothesis. It should be possible to coach work orientation from the forming stage on. M. Seligman when he was the head of A.P.A. declared that there were two causes for people being happy on a sustainable basis: a strong sense of Purpose and the conviction that they may be able to act on their environment. I guess that by using both, a leader would head for the direction you are aiming at. Thank you for your thoughts. Hope we meet someday. Didier

  3. Dear Didier,

    I learned this valuable insight from you back at Nyenrode, and I’ve never forgotten it. While going through a recovery transformation project with a team over the last few years, I even put the model on the board at every quarterly all-team meeting. It became part of the language, which was great.

    Something I would like to point out is that the cycle automatically starts over when something in the environment changes. Someone changes roles. A new person joins the team. The goal posts are moved. I find that as soon as the context is changed significantly, then there will be new storming because people have different expectations on how to manage forward.

    I think it is a measure of the quality of the team dynamic how fast they can get through this and back to a (high) performing place.

    Enjoy Paris!

    Kind regards,
    Chris Parker

    • Thank you for this helpful addition, coming from someone whose experienced it on the terrain Chris. Yes, Tucker would certainly agree with you observation: the cycle is continuous… Thanks and have a great week as well


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