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Friday, 8 October 2010

Weathering stormy teams

Once upon a time, perhaps when you were a lot younger(!), did you join a new team and expect it to be 'plain sailing' only to discover that meetings sometimes got unpleasantly aggressive or argumentative?

It's probably happened to all of us - I mean both the optimism and the contact with reality. Joining or forming a team (or group or committee) that has a job to do isn't easy.

The classic view of this is that newly formed teams go through a process of forming, storming, norming, performing. Here's my executive summary.

Team members look for clarity of purpose and direction, looking to the appointed leader for these things if there is one. Members seek to get to know one another.

A power struggle develops as people jockey for influence and seek to get to grips with how to achieve results. People push against boundaries; factions can form; relationships are strained; people can become disillusioned.

The team starts to come through the period of trial, relationships are strengthened, and the team starts to agree on ways of doing things. A lighter style of leadership is needed, but the leader still needs to encourage the development of good relationships.

With relationships formed, working processes in place, and a healthy clarity of purpose, the team grows to handle difficulties in a united way and to deliver results. Sigh with relief!

Why do I write about this now? Firstly, most people are in teams of some sort. When we are embroiled in the day to day challenges we can lose sight of the big picture - which is about the process of building the team as well as delivering results. It is about relationships as well as tasks. We can helpfully 'step back' to encourage ourselves that even if 'storming' is happening our team is probably developing as it should. We can remind ourselves that we can use our strengths to help it to grow and thrive.

Much talk about teams, such as this forming, storming, norming, performing, seems to imagine that the membership of teams stays constant. However new people join, and the process of helping them to join and get involved is often not handled well. The new recruit goes through their personal process of forming, storming, norming, and performing.

You've probably noticed that new joiners seem to want to change things. This individual 'storming' may be partly about the newcomer having the wisdom of the stranger, and seeing important things that the rest of the team have stopped noticing. However it is often more about the newcomer wanting to take their place, and to see that they are valued and recognised by being able to influence. All too often this healthy behaviour is seen by the team as a whole, or its leader, as excessive challenge and the newcomer becomes a 'newleaver.'

There are other lenses through which to look at a team's progress, too. The perception that a challenge is taking place, and that it is excessive, may also have to do with the personalities of the group (I think in the way in which Myers Briggs or Insights® Discovery describe personality) or to do with wildly different attitudes to conflict.

Simply, some people believe and behave as if disagreement should be buried because it causes damage, whereas other people believe that disagreement is best brought to the surface immediately. A 'middle way' is not the right answer to all problems in life: sometimes it is good to have a range of approaches. However with attidudes to conflict an awareness of one's preferences and the ability to choose together to adopt a 'middle way' is really helpful. This understanding is relevant to my mediation work as well as team development.


If you are in a stormy team, step back. Look for encouraging signs that the team is developing, and ask yourself how you can contribute constructively. If this is difficult, one of our coaches can help you and your team to step back to celebrate what is going well and see what can be improved.

Coaching is always great for stepping back from issues to see them objectively and recognise fresh perspectives and ways of doing things. How would that be helpful for you?

I'd be delighted to hear your stories and examples to do with teams. Add your comments!

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