Solving Team Dysfunction: How to Move Your Team From “Storming” to “Performing”

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As a team leader, how can you move your team from storming to performing? In this article we look at three strategies.

Regardless of how long you’ve been a manager or leader, managing people is likely the most difficult part of your job. A survey of over 1,400 executives and employees showed that 97 percent of respondents thought that lack of collaboration or ineffective communication were reasons for workplace failures.

In today’s workplace, where collaboration and synergy are increasingly valued, it is crucial that a leader has the ability to effectively manage a team of different personalities. Learning to deal with team dynamics is one of the key leadership skills. How can you improve your leadership so that you can get your team to perform well?

One tool that can help you better understand team dynamics is the model of team development by Bruce Tuckman. In this model, Tuckman posits that each newly-formed team goes through five stages as they build rapport and learn how to work together.   

The five stages of team development

This model of team dynamics theorizes that all new teams go through this process before they are able to function effectively as a unit.

The first stage is called “forming.” In this stage, individuals are assembled to form a unit that must work together in order to achieve their goals. As they’re all new to working together, everyone’s on their best behavior, and everything seems great.

The next stage is “storming,” which happens once this new team begins to spend more time working together. As they get to know each other, difficulties and conflicts arise as they negotiate their different contributions to the team, get used to each others’ personalities and see how others react to pressure, stress and tough situations.

Norming” is the third stage of team development where things taper out. The team has survived the storm and are now familiar with each others’ strengths and weaknesses, working styles and are comfortable working together. They have developed trust and have learned to communicate well with each other. In this stage, they are making progress towards achieving their goals.

The team will then reach the “performing” phase. In this stage, the team is able to perform effectively together, thanks to the norms of behavior that they have agreed upon. They’re like an efficient production line; everyone knows their individual role, how they contribute to the greater goals and are aligned in the same direction. Everyone is producing high-quality work that pushes team performance upwards.

While Tuckman’s theory initially included only four stages, he later added a fifth stage which he termed “adjourning.” This stage marks the breakup of the team once they have completed the project or achieved their goals.

Looking at the five stages, ‘storming’ is easily the most challenging, both for the leader and team members. It is often characterized by feelings of uncertainty from team members, conflicts and disagreements, and disruptions to the process or project due to obstacles. This phase can be chaotic, emotionally uncomfortable and unproductive.

The worrying thing is that it seems like many teams never leave the “storming” stage! According to a study by the University of Phoenix, 68 percent of those who have worked in teams have been part of a dysfunctional team.

How to move your team from “storming” to “performing”

While ‘”storming” is unavoidable in any team, as a leader, you can equip yourself with the skills to make this phase less turbulent for all. Here are 3 tips to move your team from ‘storming’ to ‘performing.

1. Talk to your team about the team development model

A great tip to manage the “storming” phase is to accept that it is part of the team development process. There’s no way to bypass it so the best thing you can do is to prepare yourself and your team for it.

One way to do this is to address the upcoming “storm” while you’re still in the first stage of “forming.”. While in the “forming” stage, team dynamics are typically positive and polite. As a leader, you can take advantage of this to pre-frame the team development process so that everyone knows what to expect.

If the team knows that they will inevitably encounter a period of conflict and disagreements, they will be more mentally equipped to deal with the “storming.” They will be more inclined to view conflict not necessarily as a negative force, but as a way to negotiate agreement between different opinions. They will be more driven to resolve the conflicts because they know that resolution will move the team forward towards their goals.

Knowing the process gives your team a context for understanding the dynamics and behaviors within the team. It allows them to be objective, instead of taking disagreements between team members personally. So, talk to your team and let them know what to expect as you continue to grow together as a unit.

2. Clarify team goals and individual roles and responsibilities

One common reason for conflicts in the “storming” phase is confusion and lack of clarity, especially over roles and responsibilities. While teams usually delegate job scopes and set expectations during the “forming” stage, it is crucial to clarify the team’s overall goals and individual roles and responsibilities during the tumultuous “storming” stage.

As disagreements arise due to differing working styles, personality clashes or clashing opinions and values, reminding everyone of the raison d’être of the team can be a method of realigning the team back to the path of progress. Reiterating everyone’s specific role and responsibility serves to highlight how each team member is contributing and that everyone’s work is needed to achieve success.

Clarifying team goals and everyone’s roles and responsibilities within the team provides a framework to manage conflict because it allows people to see the big picture as well as how their piece of the puzzle adds to the whole. This clarity gives them incentive to move on to the “norming” stage.

3. Speak to your team members one-on-one

The ‘storming’ phase is when every leader’s coaching skills come to the forefront. This period of turmoil and conflict requires your active participation as a leader to guide your team through the storm. As the team seemingly ‘falls apart’, it is crucial that you remain engaged with each individual.

One-on-one check-ins can be helpful as a way for you to build a connection with each person. Your staff is more likely to share their personal insights in a private setting, and their comments can give you an inside view of the root causes of the disagreements plaguing the team.  You’ll also be able to address their concerns and provide them with the support they need.

With the insight gained from the one-on-one conversations, you’ll be better equipped to facilitate the ’storming’ stage, in the event that it grows to be too destructive or if the team is not showing any signs of resolving the conflicts on their own.

It’s important to remember that “storming” is a necessary and healthy part of team development. Your role as team leader should be to help facilitate the process and mediate, if necessary. Stay positive, as the team will move past this difficult stage once they’ve worked through the conflicts.

For most teams, “storming” can be an empowering and strengthening experience as each team member asserts his/her opinions, ideas and expertise with the ultimate goal of creating high-quality work.

Michael Henman

Michael is the owner of Venture Team Building. He has over 10 years experience as a trainer, facilitator and manager in Canada, Japan, and Southeast Asia. He is passionate about entrepreneurship, personal development, and creating great teams.

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