Friction during Team formation
“I like them; however, I absolutely disagree with their approach”.
About four months had gone by since my team was formed, and things were looking remarkably upbeat. Well, at least, it looked like that. Then, one day, an engineer stopped by and said: “You know, I like x; however, I absolutely disagree with their approach”.
All teams start as a loose collection of diverse individuals coming together for a common purpose. However, an assembly of strangers is not a team – great leaders mould such eclectic groups into cohesive high-performing teams. Teams don’t just become high performing – leaders cultivate high performing teams.
I had to delicately handle the quagmire between both engineers on my team by listening carefully, providing a broader perspective and eventually establishing ownership. I heaved a big sigh of relief when my team outgrew the tension.
Several months later, as the new hires joined my team, new tensions started to bubble to the surface again. Eventually, things came to a head between two reports trying to solve a tricky problem.
These two instances made me feel a sense of deja vu; what are the chances of lightning striking in the same spot twice?
- The tension between new and old team members
- Both events happened several weeks after team formation
The unlikelihood of a coincidence led to my discovery of Tuckman’s 5 stages of group development theory. Tuckman provides an excellent framework for describing the evolution from a group of strangers into a cohesive team. I have found the model very useful in recognizing feelings at each stage, understanding why conflicts and certain behaviours emerge and accelerating team collaboration.
Tuckman 5 stages of group development
Bruce Tuckman, an educational psychologist, identified five stages that most high performing teams evolve through in his 1965 paper.
|Stage||Characteristics||Tips and Tactics|
|Forming||Lots of oversight|
|Get involved in the process |
Help with ramping up
Clarify expectations and processes
|Find quick wins|
Coach and Mediate
Start delegating duties
Commitment to goals
|Re-emphasize charter and mission|
Aim for full team autonomy
|Performing||Full team autonomy:|
|Adopt a long-term strategic view|
Determining what’s next
The 5 stages
- Forming (The calm before the storm): The team has just been formed, and team members have the same menagerie of emotions: excitement, anxiety, and passion. Everyone is eager to know their colleagues, discover shared interests and help out. Do you remember the euphoria on your first day? Try scaling that feeling to an entire team. This is the honeymoon phase since new members suppress emotions, dodge tricky questions and avoid conflicts.
- Common themes at this stage include uncertainty, low trust and low productivity. There is a need for leadership/authority/expertise figures.
- Some form of anxiety/impostor syndrome might emerge as members seek to clarify job expectations and performance evaluations. Expect a wide variety of questions as they try to figure out the domain, team and charter.
- Natural leaders might emerge at this stage; these are folks who quickly assume responsibility for setting a direction.
- Tips and Tactics: The highest leverage activity establishes a clear vision, structure, and mission for the team, so they have a mental framework to use as a lattice to place their experiences. Facilitate introductions, clarify the team’s charter and explain how each person’s role contributes to the big picture.
- Transitional Trigger: Team members must step out of their comfort zones to enter the next phase. Encourage exploration and be willing to risk conflict or discomfort.
- Storming (Stormy seas!): This is the most challenging phase as individuals start to assert their personalities, preferences and work styles. These revelations spark conflicts when they collide with unvoiced expectations and assumed norms – remember the stories I shared earlier. The storming phase is challenging due to the tension arising from complex emotions while adjusting to team norms. Dysfunctional teams remain perpetually stuck in the storming phase since no one ever seems to agree on anything.
- Disagreements of all sorts emerge; around priorities, problem-solving approaches, communication styles, etc. Some folks might challenge the vision, mission and even the authority of the leadership.
- Leadership tactics
- Leaders expend a lot of energy on aligning the team, defusing tense conditions and clarifying charters. At this stage, the team also needs some wins to stimulate collaborative momentum. Furthermore, encourage everyone to share their thoughts, listen to differing viewpoints and aspire for optimal outcomes.
- Get the team to deliver a joint win on anything – this provides a catalyst to collaborate towards a problem rather than point fingers.
- Some of these growing pains occur when expectations do not match reality. Do not try to explain away the issues – acknowledge them and seek joint resolution of challenges.
- Transitional Trigger: The team must learn to accept diverse perspectives, respect individual differences and collaborate on conflict resolution.
- Norming (The calm after the storm): At this stage, the team starts to jell and emerge from the stormy darkness of the tunnel of conflict. Team wins from the storming phase earn grudging respect for differing perspectives; furthermore, there is an implicit appreciation for discovered strengths. The group begins accepting others for who they are, and deeper cooperation emerges; for example, while team members might not be interested in a nerd’s passion for esoteric gadgets, they sincerely appreciate his technical wizardry. Familiarity via social bonds also accelerates the resolution of interpersonal conflict, thereby quickening team cohesion. There is some consensus on the leaders, goals and norms.
- The team is more efficient as less energy is spent on unproductive outcomes (e.g. resolving unnecessary conflicts).
- Folks are more comfortable giving one another feedback (both positive and constructive) and can resolve their differences amicably.
- The team’s ethos starts to form at this stage (inside jokes, anecdotes, and shared experiences emerge).
- The team’s productivity starts to rise as they bond towards a goal.
- Leadership tactics: Watch out – the team can still slide back into norming if the cohesion is tenuous. Prevent flare-ups from triggering schisms.
- Start delegating some more to the team.
- Consider assigning big hairy audacious goals to the team to foster a joint effort towards the goal.
- Transitional trigger: Repeated wins and deliveries of tough projects.
- Performing (Plain sailing): High performing status unlocked. There is team-wide consensus on various topics: goals, priorities and workstreams. In addition, individual preferences and stylistic approaches have been forged into synergistic collaborations – the team focuses on achieving the optimal outcomes together. Disputes are resolved whenever they arise.
- Characteristics: At this stage, the whole is greater than the sum of parts; strengths and weaknesses are acknowledged and balanced for the greater good. Mutual trust lubricates any collaborative friction and improves accountability. Team norms, processes, and practices are well established at this phase, and the team can cruise into execution without running into stumbling blockers.
- Leadership tactics: Since the team is now running at full speed with little supervision. This is the time to start thinking of long horizons and strategic big bets.
- Transitional triggers: External influences e.g. re-organizations, attrition, hiring, business reasons can move a team from the performing stage. The trigger can also be the successful completion of a project.
- Adjourning: At the end of the project, the team is split up, re-organized or moved to other areas. “Twenty children cannot play together for twenty years. — Yoruba proverb”. I experienced this when a project I was working on got shut down, the team disbanded over several months, and it was a long slow drawn-out journey to full recovery.
- There might be some morale impact as the team wistfully remembers the good times.
- Attrition due to new additions/departures from the team.
- Anxiety about the future clashes with nostalgic reflections on past achievements.
- Productivity drops as folks question the importance of doing anything.
- Leadership tactics: boost confidence, set the vision and help the team members see the next big thing. Also, ensure that the relationships are maintained.
- Transitional triggers: Done :).
Handling transitions across phases
The beauty of Tuckman’s model lies in its versatility and usefulness for handling tough transitions – I have been through each phase multiple times. Think of all the teams/projects you have worked on; can you picture the various stages you went through with this model?
While building a new team, some friction is inevitable. Stay the course instead of worrying too much about things going wrong. As the team bonds and connections get made, the ambivalence will peter out.
Ideally, your reports trust you enough to open up and share their concerns (otherwise, they will grumble and mumble to others – peers, spouses, friends etc.).
When an issue emerges, listen carefully and follow up to get the complete picture – never decide on a contentious topic without listening to all sides to build an impartial view. After that, you can choose multiple options depending on the severity of the dispute:
- Let both parties express themselves. From experience, bottled-up frustration trigger volcanic eruptions of anger.
- Encourage the reporter to have a frank respectful discussion with the reported.
- Create a safe environment for all parties to meet and discuss with an independent arbitrator.
Note, you want to start exploring solutions if friction continues for longer than six months. Continuous acrimonious clashes between engineers can lead to irreparable fractures.
Teams jell after individual and stylistic differences have emerged and are acknowledged and respected.
As a leader, you have to develop strong team bonds and institute shared values to establish a high performing team.
Set clear expectations and have team members embody the desired norms.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can teams regress?
I have seen teams regress from the high performing phase to the storming stage because of unresolved conflict: the acrimonious dispute between team members meant they refused to work together.
Also, at times, all it takes is a reorg or the influx of new hires to backslide to the norming stage.
Keep this in mind and constantly adjust your leadership style to match the team’s phase.
Is the storming phase avoidable?
Even though reports exist in literature, I think it is doubtful that teams can skip the storming phase (stage 2). Humans, being naturally sceptical, require time to nurture trusting relationships – it takes time, lots of it.
We all have opinions on what should be done, how it should be done and where it should be done. Conflicts arise when our ideas clash with others’ viewpoints.
On new teams, it is improbable that people have bonded well enough to understand how to resolve differences amicably. Thus, minor clashes can trigger conflagrations.
How do I minimize conflict going from stage 2 to stage 3
As a leader, you need to facilitate a diverse respectful environment – wherein people listen carefully to one another and value their differences. You might need to tell outspoken folks to listen more and nudge quiet team members to speak up some more.
Your team will exit the storming phase when members respect one another and can work together.