There is little doubt that great teamwork delivers better results than a group of competent individuals working independently

There is little doubt that great teamwork delivers better results than a group of competent individuals working independently. But what is it that makes a great team and how does a team leader go about developing a great team?

This issue was addressed several decades ago by Bruce Tuckman with his four stages of team development – forming, storming, norming and performing.

When a team first comes together they are at the forming stage where members are unsure of their role in the team, cannot yet trust the abilities of other team members and therefore, productivity is low. As familiarity grows and team members start to jostle for position in the team, particularly in relation to roles and responsibilities, tension grows, co-operation is low and so too is productivity – this is the storming stage. As team members settle into regular patterns of working with clear roles and responsibilities (the norming stage), their productivity improves alongside increased co-operation and steady working relationships. And this is as far as most teams get to – a steady, co-operative working environment with decent productivity.

The fourth stage occurs when the team reaches the high performing stage where team members actively support and challenge each other to deliver outstanding results. Mutual trust is very high, relationships are very mature, processes are slick and co-operation is absolute. As a result, productivity is exceptional.

The harsh reality is that few teams ever truly reach the high performing stage. Consider for a moment how many times in your career you have been part of a genuinely high performing team that consistently delivered exceptional results. For most people this is a situation they might find themselves in maybe three or four times in their whole career. Some might never experience it. As for leading a high performing team, the averages are even lower.

What then does it take to lead or become a high performing team?

There are of course several factors, including the condition that the team must stay together long enough. In my book, Brilliant Leader, I explore many of the inputs required by a leader to build, develop and lead high performing teams. But perhaps the most compelling factor lies in the stages of the team’s development and in particular, the storming stage.

The storming stage is uncomfortable. There is high tension among team members, passive or active conflict and low levels of trust. The tendency for most team leaders is to manage the team through the storming stage. This usually involves dealing with issues reactively and focusing on individual performance to ensure that everyone is doing their bit. Worse still, many leaders will highlight the weak links within the team and deliver negative feedback in order to encourage improvement. Additionally, they might manage conflicts as they arise or try to avoid dealing with them at all – the ostrich approach.

What many leaders fail to understand is that storming is actually a golden opportunity that enables the rapid progress towards a high performing team. The tension that is created provides energy that, if it can be harnessed properly, provides the momentum for the team to progress to the high performing state. No pain, no gain!

When the team enters the storming phase the leader needs to draw all the conflicts out in the open and challenge the team to resolve these conflicts based on what each member brings to the team both in terms of strengths and weaknesses. The leader should not avoid these conflicts but rather, they need to be embraced and facilitated. And they should try to take the team through this phase rapidly. This of course, can be easier said than done.

Quite often taking teams rapidly through the storming stage is the focus of our team building events. We design exercises that draw out the conflicts in an open and safe environment. Our expert facilitators are then able to guide the group through these conflicts to help them appreciate each other, co-operate more and play to each others’ strengths while supporting each other in their areas of weakness. And of course, team members have a shared experience to use as a reference point.

In our four day leadership workshop, Brilliant Leadership, delegates are actually taken through the four stages each day. So on the second day we create an environment that makes them storm. We take people out of their comfort zone and put them in situations where conflict is inevitable. We create tension among the group. But then we guide them through the process of using conflict and tension to create trust and co-operation. By the time we get to the end of the workshop, delegates are operating as a high performing team and we help them highlight the key aspects of what they have experienced in order to help them apply a similar methodology with their own teams upon their return to work.

Some people might call it high risk learning. Perhaps it should come with a health warning, ‘don’t try this at home folks’. Certainly, it requires top quality workshop facilitation to handle the environment we create. But there is no doubt that the learning is both extreme and powerful.

Whether it is via a team building event, our Brilliant Leadership workshop or by facilitating a live team, storming in the workplace, the message remains the same – the storming stage of team development is a powerful and necessary transition towards a high performing team.

No pain, no gain!

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