As leaders, we’ve all heard the legends of these rare teams that get labeled as “high performing.” The organizational unicorns that are able to handle incredibly complex issues, move to action in impossibly short timeframes, and innovate as naturally as breathing. Rather than getting bogged down in bureaucracy and relational tension, they deftly navigate problems and politics to bring about real change. If you’ve ever experienced a team like that, you know the incredible potential that often lies dormant.
The reasons for this untapped potential are numerous, so I’ll focus on just one:
Most teams never learn how to grow up.
Developmentally speaking, many are still children. Adolescents, at best.
We get stuck and don’t even know it.
Our attention is so laser focused on the outcomes and what the team is supposed to be doing that we often don’t pay attention to how we’re working together.
Teams don’t naturally stumble into a place of high performance. There are particular stages of development that they need to intentionally move through. Leaders need to understand these stages as well as the key tasks and work to be done at each stage.
We’re often so focused on the outcomes and what the team is supposed to be doing that we don’t pay attention to how we’re working together.
The Four Stages of Team Development
One of the better known models for understanding how a team develops was created in 1965 by psychologist Bruce Tuckman. These are the four stages of team development he came up with:
When a new team forms, individuals will be unsure of the team’s purpose, how they fit in, and whether they’ll work well with one another. They may be anxious, curious, or excited to get going. However they feel, they’ll be relying heavily on the team leader for direction.
Leadership tasks for this stage:
- Create clarity. The orientation plan here is critical because members are coming in with all sorts of questions: What’s the purpose here? Did we really need to form a team? Who’s around the table and why should I trust them? What are the expectations on me? What are the roles that exist, and which ones are we all playing?
- Build connections. Social anxiety is real for many people as they enter new group environments. Focus on creating a sense of belonging and strengthening relationships. This can start as easily as implementing a check-in question at the beginning of each meeting. The leader can set the pace by displaying vulnerability and transparency.
- Empower members. The team will look to the leader to make most of the decisions at this stage. Build decision-making capacity into the team by providing the information, support, and resources they need to make the calls. Clarify which decision rights belong to certain roles and which ones need team input through something like a consent-based process.
- Foster interdependence. Members will still act a bit like lone rangers at first. It takes time to rely on each other and figure out how you can help each other move forward. Create systems that make coordination easy, such as online collaboration tools and shared folders that give everyone access to the team’s information.
In the second stage, people start to push against the established boundaries. Conflict or friction can arise between team members as their true characters – and their preferred ways of working – surface and clash with other people’s.
Team members may challenge the leader’s authority or management style, or even the team’s mission. Left unchecked, this can lead to face-to-face confrontations or simmering tensions.
Also, if roles and responsibilities aren’t yet clear, individuals might begin to feel overwhelmed by their workload or frustrated at a lack of progress.
Leadership tasks for this stage:
- Focus on psychological safety. As Google discovered in its study, “Project Aristotle,” safety for interpersonal risk taking is the cornerstone characteristic of all high-performing teams. If people don’t feel safe to have open dialogue over the issues, you’ll start seeing coalitions form in the background that will slowly divide the team. Pay careful attention to dynamics like equal talk time and how you frame failure.
- Talk about the elephants. Again, teams need to increase the amount of open conversations they have with each other. Resist the urge to opt for one-on-one discussions over an issue that affects the whole team. The goal is to increase transparency, which means having as many conversations “in public” as possible.
- Practice healthy ways to give feedback to each other. Focus on behaviour instead of character, assume positive intent, deliver when emotionally calm, and take a posture of humility and curiosity rather than judgement.
- Learn healthy conflict resolution. If you let tensions fester, they’ll show up in passive aggressive and resistant ways (or worse). If you can’t process the negativity that will inevitably come up, you’ll be stuck in the early of stages of development indefinitely.
If people don’t feel safe to have open dialogue over the issues, you’ll start seeing coalitions form in the background that will slowly divide the team.
In this third stage, people start to resolve their differences, appreciate one another’s strengths, and rebuild respect for you as a leader. Due to the strengthened bonds and increased trust that is created by successfully weathering the storm together, team members will feel more comfortable asking for help and offering constructive feedback. They’ll share a stronger commitment to the team’s goals and begin to gain more traction on accomplishing their purpose.
Leadership tasks to be done:
- Clarify group norms together. In many ways, the team has reconfigured itself, and it’s important to name this new reality. What does acceptable behaviour in this team look like? What’s not okay? A simple way to identify this is to draw a circle on a whiteboard and ask the group to name acceptable behaviours inside the circle and unacceptable behaviours outside of the circle.
- Revisit the topic of purpose and identity for the group. Members will have a new sense of ownership over the group at this point and a greater understanding of why you exist and who you are becoming. Make space for this conversation. Belonging will increase as your identity seeps deeper into the fabric of your shared work.
- Adjust roles as needed. As members have a greater sense of the team’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as how they fit, open the door for roles to be changed, added, or deleted.
This is where your team gets into that coveted state of “flow” and starts performing at its full potential. Members are fully committed and you’re consistently crushing your goals. Communication has become much easier as everyone intuitively understands who needs to know what. Roles have become more fluid and leadership is far more shared than at any previous point. This is a fun place to be.
Leadership tasks to be done:
- Start running! You’ve been crawling and walking as a team up to this point. But now you can run. Don’t be afraid to challenge the team and expand your vision of what’s possible. This is a good time to revisit strategy and goals.
- Eliminate unnecessary structures and policies. The team has much higher levels of trust here and coordination happens more informally and consistently. Previous meeting rhythms and policies that were helpful in the earlier stages will just create frustrating hurdles at this point.
- Focus on learning and innovation. The danger at this stage is the team can become complacent. They’re in the flow and may have a hard time shaking it up. Encourage and introduce new ideas and opportunities, and get outside perspectives and feedback regularly to keep everyone on their toes.
- Shift leadership style. While a more task-focused, even authoritarian style may have been helpful in the early stages, by now power should be freely distributed among members. Those who retain leadership positions will be more helpful in the roles of guide and coach.
The progression through the four stages resets every time a new member is added. High turnover can be the enemy of healthy team development.
As you know, not every team makes it to the performing stage. Most fluctuate back and forth between forming and storming, due to hurdles like unresolved conflict and high turnover.
If you have trouble retaining team members, you’ll get caught in a cycle of underdevelopment that is hard to dig out of. What we often forget is that the progression through the four stages resets every time a new member is added. High turnover can be the enemy of healthy team development if you don’t know how to navigate the stages quickly and effectively.
On the other hand, if you can master this process, you’ll dramatically increase workplace engagement and start retaining your best people.
Great team players want to work on great teams.
If you’re reading this and you know in your gut that your team is stuck, don’t beat yourself up. You’re not alone. Growing up is hard! Start by introducing the concept of the four stages with your team and have a conversation to self-assess where you think you might be. Admitting where you are is the first step.
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