The four phases of team development – forming, storming, norming and performing are familiar to most of us. The model has been around for far longer than we might imagine – since 1965 in fact! That doesn’t mean that it’s well understood of course.
There are some significant leadership issues at each stage of a team’s journey but there is a danger that in our multi-tasking, always-connected world, these are overlooked. It felt time to look at the model again.
Forming. This is clearly the first step. The team needs to form and what is important here are boundaries and a sense of identity: who is in the team and why the team exists. This might sound obvious but a sense of belonging is crucial. This is not the place for the leader to be too task-focused or overtly anxious about outcomes, although it has been shown that a reasonable amount of structure and a clear set of ground rules are helpful. People don’t arrive in teams as blank canvasses either. They have expectations and pre-conceptions. Working on relationships at this point is important – perhaps even more important than the team’s goal.
Storming. This does not, necessarily imply falling out – despite the dramatic title. It does involve exploration and often challenge though, and this is importantly about the fundamental relationship between the leader and the other team members. A seasoned team leader should expect and welcome this. This is no place for a leader to lack confidence and try and suppress dissent. A bit of conflict is healthy and people’s feedback is important. Again, this is not the time to crack the task whip: doing so runs the risk of creating a sub-optimal team in which conflicts are not talked about but issues simmer under the surface.
Norming. This is the stage where the team starts to really perform. Some commentators call this an operative phase. A leader needs a bit of flexibility here and should be able to allow team members the time and space to build confidence in their abilities and roles. The focus should now shift to outcomes and there needs to be explicit recognition of achievement. There’s also an important distinction between norms and rules. A rigid mindset displayed by the leader can destroy creativity and suppress discretionary effort. On the other hand this is also the point where the leader can make a stand for something personally. It has been shown that where there is a place to talk about one’s own leadership values, this is when it lands best.
Performing. The last phase for a leader is more about letting go than anything. All being well, this is the point where the team is working well. It might now be more about stepping back and letting people get on with the tasks in hand. There still need to be boundaries but it’s possible that here the leadership slot could be vacated so that someone else can have a go. A relaxed and confident leadership style is particularly welcomed at this stage and here, more than anywhere, is time to have some fun!