Prerequisites for Better Teams

February 6, 2016

The culture of a team governs its effectiveness. Most teams have a culture that allows adequate performance despite many unfortunate outbreaks of tension and sometimes childish behavior.

It is unfortunate that more teams don’t experience the exhilaration of working in a supportive culture that produces excellent results. The methods of building teams into high performing units are well documented, but most teams do not go through the rigor required to get to that level.

This article blends well known processes with horse sense born of experience that will allow any team to perform better.

In 1965, Bruce Tuckman described four stages that every team goes through. They are Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing.

A critical time for any team is when it is forming. This is when the team is trying to figure out its role and goals. Members are not sure of their status or contribution at this point, and personal bonding is a key element to the eventual success of the team.

It is advisable for the group to go offsite for some initial teambuilding activities. Many leaders avoid this step because often team building activities involve a kind of game atmosphere that does not feel like “work.”

In fact, team building is real work that may be fun at the moment, but it is deadly serious business that can result in millions of dollars of profit if done well or millions of dollars in damage control if not done at all.

During the storming phase, there is some kind of power struggle where members vie for position and influence. It is up to the team leader to help the team move quickly through this awkward time.

Usually the storming stage is short simply because it is painful. People want to get out of the rut of consternation and move on to getting the work done.

It is in the norming phase that the team decides the degree of effectiveness it will ultimately enjoy. If individual and team behaviors are agreed upon with conviction, the team will immediately begin to perform with excellence.

Included in this phase is identifying the individual skills brought to the team by the diversity of talent in the group, the goals of the team, the ground rules of expected behavior, and the consequences of failing to comply with team expectations.

The three most basic things required for any team to become a high performing unit are

1) A common goal,

2) Trust, and

3) Outstanding Leadership.

If these building blocks are in place, all of the rest of the team dynamics (like excellent communication) will sort themselves out.

If any of these elements are missing, the team will sputter and struggle to meet expectations. A key rule fostered by most teams that is most often compromised is to treat each member with respect. There is a kind of disease that sets in most teams where members subtly undermine each other.

People often make jokes in team meetings. Keep your antenna up and you will discover that, for most groups, the majority of jokes are sarcastic digs about other people in the room. Everyone knows they are only jokes, and they laugh, but deep down some damage is done.

Smart groups have a conscious norm that they will enjoy humor in meetings but never make a joke at someone else’s expense. It may seem like a small thing, but over time this practice can really help improve the function of any team.

Team respect is easy to accomplish. The leader just needs to set the expectation and remind people when they slip up. In coaching some groups with a particularly bad habit on this, I have suggested that any time a person makes a joke that is a dig, he or she has to put $5 in a kitty. The money is used later by the group for a party. This small change can actually change the entire culture of a team.

Now that you are sensitized to this issue, just keep track in a few meetings with some hash marks on a piece of paper. You will be astonished how pervasive this problem is and also how certain people are addicted to the practice. Then, solve the problem and begin enjoying the benefits of better teamwork.

I have coached hundreds of teams, and I find that there are patterns that lead to success and other patterns that lead to extreme frustration and failure. There is one condition that rises above all the others when it comes to dysfunctional teams.

When some members of the team believe other members are not pulling their fair share of the load, the team is going to have major problems. Unfortunately, this situation is so common, it is almost universal, yet there is a simple cure that is about 95% successful at preventing this condition or stopping it if it happens.

The cure is to have an agreed upon Charter for the team upfront before behavior problems surface.

During the forming stage of a team, there is an opportunity to document several critical parameters of how the team will operate. These include:

1. A list of the talents and skills each member of the team can contribute
2. A set of solid, measurable performance goals for the team
3. A set of agreed-upon behaviors that the members pledge to follow
4. A statement of the consequences that will occur if a member fails to live up to the behaviors.

When teams take the time at the start to document these four items, the chances of success are much higher than if this step is omitted. The most powerful item is #4, and it is the one that is most often omitted from a charter.

The reason it has power is that when the team is forming, usually all members have good intentions to pull their weight for the good of the team. If they agree that letting the team down by slacking off and having others pick up the slack will result in some unhappy consequence (like being voted off the team, or having no points on an assignment, or having to do extra clean up work, or some other penalty) they are far less likely to practice what is called “social loafing.”

If they are tempted to goof off, then the penalty they have already agreed to is quickly applied, and the bad behavior is immediately extinguished.

Most teams without a good charter end up with the frustration of having one or more people believing they are unfairly doing more than their fair share of the work. When a good charter spells out the expected behaviors and the penalty for non-compliance before the team experiences a problem, it greatly reduces this most common of all team maladies.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of: Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change, The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


A Sixth Stage of Team Development

February 8, 2014

Solving a problemIn 1965, Bruce Tuckman coined the four stages of team development. He called the stages Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing.

Most groups in business or social activities are familiar with these four stages.

The most interesting and challenging stage is Storming.

Teams enter into a time when members challenge each other for numerous reasons. Tuckman described it this way,

” The storming stage is necessary to the growth of the team. It can be contentious, unpleasant and even painful to members of the team who are averse to conflict.”

The skill of the leader is critical for progress to guide a team through the Storming phase and into the Norming phase, when the group rules and policies are established,.

In 1977, Tuckman added a fifth stage he called “Adjourning.” This is where the group completes and documents their activities, and the team breaks up.

It is now 37 years later, and I became curious whether a sixth stage might someday be added to the lexicon. Bruce would now be about 76 years old, if he is still living, so I asked one of my leadership classes to work in groups to think of a potential sixth stage.

One group came up with a “Feedback” stage between Performing and Adjourning. In this stage, the team would document the lessons learned and make them available for future teams.

This practice is similar to the “After Action Review” (AAR) in the military where groups do a debrief after every mission to determine what went well and what could be improved in the future.

The AAR technique has been credited with saving numerous lives by consolidating the learning from missions that did not go as well as hoped.

After much debate, the group felt that the feedback function is really part of the adjourning process, so they did not recommend it as a sixth stage in team development.

Another group felt that a “Trusting” phase ought to be inserted between Norming and Performing. This is an important addition because there is a big leap between establishing the rules for a team and actually performing at a high level.

The team needs to knit into a unit where trust is the foundation of performing up to expectations. It is the time where mutual respect seasons into a bond where people recognize that the rules set up in Norming are not just words, but they actually form the basis for all actions.

In the “Trusting” phase, team members would learn how to walk the talk on stated actions, and they would learn how to call each other out if there were violations.

Another word that could be used here is “Testing.” This is the time when people realize that the good intentions set up in the first three stages are more than nice things to say.

The enduring performance of the team is dependent on everyone in the unit meeting the stated expectations of the group.

I believe a “Trusting” phase is a great addition to the Tuckman five stages of team development.

Without trust, you will have a lot of good intentions but the team will fall short during times of extreme challenge or stress. With trust, the team can withstand the vicissitudes of the real world and still accomplish their mission flawlessly.