Stages of Team Formation

From being a collection of strangers to becoming a united group with common goals

Forming a team takes time, and members often go through recognisable stages of change, from being a collection of strangers to becoming a united group with common goals. Bruce Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing model describes these stages. When you understand it, you can help your team become more effective far more quickly. You can learn more about the Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing stages from the Mind Tools website at: http://www.mindtools.com.

Forming  

In the Forming stage, most team members are positive and polite. Some are anxious as they haven’t fully understood what work the team will do; others are simply excited about the task ahead. As a leader, you play a dominant role at this point because team members’ roles and responsibilities are not clear. This stage can last for as long as it takes the team to learn to work together. During this stage, you need to get to know your team and encourage them to get to know each other and you, of course. To aid this process, you could hold a team meeting where you ask everybody to bring an item to the meeting that best describes who they are. You can then ask them to explain why they believe the object they have brought represents them. When I used this icebreaker, I have seen people bring in every kind of object, including a brick, an onion, a bottle of their favourite wine, a book and a tea towel, to name but a few. For example, with the onion, they said it was because they had lots of layers, and when you strip off one layer, you find something new about them underneath. With the brick, they said it symbolised the fact that they like to be safe and secure. The brick was their foundation, and if you built a relationship with them based on strong foundations, you would build trust simultaneously. Any icebreaker is good for a team that is in the forming stage because it helps people relax whilst simultaneously pushing them outside their comfort zone. The good thing about this particular exercise is that it encourages a team to ask questions and engage with each other on a personal level. It also helps the team build trust in each other as they have to share something about themselves to take part. As they began to feel more comfortable stripping off a layer of their social veneer, they became more responsive to each other and their leader.  

Whenever you have a new person join the team, you will temporarily go back into the Forming stage as everyone gets to know the new team member. However, you can quickly move through this stage using the ice breakers. Other exercises I find useful at this stage of forming a team include quizzes and a team night out. One challenge I like to set for the team is ‘getting to know you’. I ask the team who can find out the most interesting fact about the new person. This encourages everyone to get to know their new team member on a deeper level. To make it a bit more fun, you could give a small prize to the person who discovers the most interesting piece of information.  

Storming  

The next stage in the team development process is Storming. This is when individuals start to push the boundaries established in the Forming stage. This is a dangerous time, and it is the point at which most teams fail. Storming often begins when there is conflict between team members due to their natural working styles. People work in different ways for all sorts of reasons, but if differing working styles cause issues, the team may become frustrated and angry. Storming can happen in other situations, too. For example, individuals may challenge the leader’s authority or jockey for position amongst themselves as their roles become more defined. If the leader hasn’t clearly set out how the team will work, the team could experience a range of emotions, from being overwhelmed by their workload to being uncomfortable with the approach the leader is taking. Some team members may also question the value of the team’s goal and so may resist taking on tasks. As a result, the team members who stick with the task they have been given may experience stress, particularly as they don’t have the support of established processes or strong working relationships with their colleagues. It is important that you allow the team to express their true thoughts and feelings during this stage. The role of the leader is not to judge the individuals in the team but to seek to understand why they feel the way they do and make them aware of the impact their behaviour has on the rest of the team. Conflict can be good for progress in knitting the team together to some extent, but it is important that, as the leader, you notice when conflict is tipping over into team disintegration. When conflict begins, you will notice that individuals start to voice their opinions – and they often don’t hold back on what they are feeling. This can come across as negative, disruptive and rude. This is probably because the values and beliefs of some team members are being brought into question by others. When this happens, it’s important that you remember how you feel when someone does not appear to respect your values and beliefs; otherwise, you may be tempted to gloss over the situation.  

Take a moment to capture the thoughts that go through your head when this happens to you.  

How do you behave in these circumstances?  

How do you feel if someone does not seem to be listening to you?  

Make a note of what you feel and how you have behaved in similar circumstances. Next, note how your team appears to be feeling and behaving. Highlight the key words you write in your reflective journal because there’s a strong chance that your own values and beliefs are also being challenged. If you notice that your team is in the Storming phase, I strongly recommend you get to the root cause of the disruption and do not ignore the situation and think it will just sort itself out. From my experience, it doesn’t just go away; it gets worse. Some leaders avoid any kind of conflict because they struggle to have difficult conversations with team members about their behaviour. But if you want to change the culture and atmosphere of your team, you may need to have some challenging, uncomfortable and difficult conversations. This is a situation where a coach or mentor can support you. They can discuss what the conversation would look like, feel like and sound like, so you are as prepared as possible for it. Your coach will also be there to help you celebrate success when the team comes out the other side of this difficult phase.  

Norming  

Gradually, conflicts get resolved, and the team moves into the Norming stage. This is when people start to resolve their differences, appreciate their colleagues’ strengths and respect your authority as a leader. Now that your team members know each other better, they may begin to socialise together, ask one another for help and provide constructive feedback for each other. At this point, individual members begin to develop a stronger commitment to the team goal, and the leader starts to see good progress towards achieving it. There is often a prolonged overlap between storming and norming. As new tasks come up, the team may lapse into storming behaviour again, so there can be a period of overlap between the two stages. During the Norming stage, observe your team and draw your own conclusions about which stage they are in. Ask yourself who in your team is exhibiting the behavioural indicators of Norming.  

1. Who in your team is achieving the majority of their key performance indicators?  

2. Who regularly supports others in the team? How do they do this?  

3. How do you recognise the achievements and contributions made by your high-performing team members?  

It’s important at this stage that you recognise all the successes of the team as well as the challenges they face. I normally review this during each individual’s monthly one-to-one meeting. I ask them to come prepared with a list of all their successes from the previous month and notes about the challenges they face in the month ahead. I then get them to write down all the possible opportunities they have to achieve their goals, no matter how weird and wonderful they may be. I then ask them to pick up to three commitments that we can document as their desired action points for the coming month. I also ask them to think about and consider how these actions will support their development. I then ask where they are in the comfort zone in relation to their actions. It is important that they are stretched, but not stretched so much that they go into panic mode because it all feels too much.  

Performing  

You will know your team has reached the Performing stage when their hard work leads, without friction, to the achievement of the team goal. You will also notice that the structures and processes you set up as the leader support the achievement of goals, too. It will feel easy for individuals to feel part of the team, and people who leave or join won’t disrupt performance. During this stage, the team will be achieving and exceeding the majority of their key performance indicators. As a leader, it is important that you delegate as much of your work as possible so you can concentrate on the personal development of your team. Remember, delegation is not an opportunity to dump work on others; it’s an opportunity to develop your team, so they grow as individuals as well as part of the team. At this point, the team will have a development plan, and each person will be able to articulate how their goals fit with the team’s and organisation’s goals as a whole. When you get to this point, your team should be actively seeking promotion and new opportunities to learn. The discussions you have with them should be predominantly about their development and making sure they have the skills, knowledge, attitudes and habits to step into a new role. As a leader, you should be encouraging them to keep written notes about where they have made positive contributions to the team’s success. There is a process for doing this called CAR.  

1. Circumstances – What were the circumstances surrounding the achievement?  

2. Action – What action did you take to achieve the success?  

3. Results – What results did you experience?  

If you can get your team into the habit of keeping written notes of how they have contributed to the team’s successes, it will help them progress in the future. They can use their notes to remind them of what they have achieved and use them as evidence of their ability and skill when applying for promotions and other opportunities for advancement.  

Adjourning  

Many teams reach this stage eventually. This is especially true for project teams that are only set up for a limited period of time and to achieve a specific goal. Team members who like routine or who have developed close working relationships with particular colleagues may find this stage difficult, especially if their future looks uncertain as a result. As a leader, it’s important that you celebrate the team’s achievements as part of the adjourning process to help manage the change. When people leave your team, make them feel special. Organise a night out to celebrate all their achievements, thank them for their contribution and make sure you give them a card to mark the event. It’s the simple things that matter in life and a thank you and some appreciation go a long way. As a leader, think about what you would want others to do to recognise your contribution to the team. How would you feel if your departure went unnoticed? Think, then act accordingly. Keep an eye on team members who go into their shell after the departure of a colleague; they may be struggling to come to terms with losing a close associate or friend. Don’t ignore this. Think about what you did during the Storming stage of the team’s development. You may need to take similar action at this point and have a difficult conversation with someone about how their feelings about the departure of a trusted colleague are affecting the team.  

Managing the stages  

As a leader, you should be aiming to help your team perform well as a unit as quickly as possible. To achieve this, you will need to change your approach to the team at each stage.  

1. Use the descriptions to identify the stage of development your team is in.  

2. Consider what you need to do at each point to move the team towards the performing stage. 

 3. Schedule regular reviews, so you know how your team is progressing and adjust your behaviour and leadership approach accordingly.  

Of course, theory is one thing, but reality can often be different.  

To help, I’ve got a FREE 4 Stages of Team development Exercise and worksheet, which you can access at https://www.accendocoaching.co.uk/resources  

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