“Do you think that running more Google Ads is really the best strategy? In 2022? Come off it!”
Jonathan shut down and stared at the desk, hoping that she wouldn’t challenge him further.
Have you ever been in a team meeting that involved conflict like this? If your answer is yes, congratulations: your team is perfectly normal! We can’t eliminate conflict, but it doesn’t need to be uncomfortable or toxic. It’s how you deal with it as a team that really matters for your success.
In our work with organizations, we’ve seen teams deal with conflict in all sorts of ways –– from healthy to dysfunctional to downright toxic. When teams are willing to talk about what they’re experiencing, that’s when they can use conflict in a healthy way to evolve into a high-performing unit.
Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development
One of the tools that can be helpful to teams is Bruce Tuckman’s model for group development. He introduced the idea that there are four phases of team development:
All four stages are necessary steps on the journey to becoming a high-performing team. In other words, you don’t get to have a great team without weathering some storms on the way!
The Forming stage is a bit like the honeymoon phase of a relationship. Employees are often excited to work on a new team, and the learning curve that comes with a fresh role can be energizing and motivating. Everywhere you look, you can get to know interesting new colleagues! As team members familiarize themselves with the team’s mission, there’s a sense of new possibilities on the horizon. It’s too early to be annoyed by the different personalities of teammates.
That’s where reality sets in…
Storming might begin with small disappointments, like noticing that the colleague you thought was approachable is actually less friendly than you thought. From there, it can move to misunderstandings about work that was delegated, miscommunications about asking for help, or differences of opinion about the mission of the team. I want to stress that storms like these are completely normal. They even happen on high-performing teams. The different personalities of team members create frustration and conflict.
Some teams never get past the storm. The ones who do, move onto the next phase…
Once each of the members on your team understands their role in the broader mission of the organization, that’s typically when you enter the Norming phase. The testing and pivoting in the Storming stage leads to forming agreements on procedures and roles, outlining standard operations, and getting buy-in from individuals on the team on how things are generally done. There’s tolerance of the different personalities, and so the frustration diminishes.
This sets the foundation for the next stage…
The final stage of team development is Performing, which is when the whole team is gelling as a unit to solve problems together. Note, however, that even the highest-performing teams can end up Storming again. But they have the toolset to address the conflict while it’s a brief shower, before it becomes a full-blown tsunami. The different personalities are seen as a strength and help the team thrive.
Case study: Storming in a High-performing Team
Let me share a story to demonstrate a high-performing team that went through a storm.
One of our clients had an exceptional team, with skilled employees demonstrating mutual respect. They organized themselves by department, with each department acting as an individual unit. For the most part this worked well, but sometimes operating in a silo created a lack of awareness about the activities of other departments which led to balls being dropped.
Management worked well to fix these issues whenever they came up, but there was a reluctance to discuss the underlying problems. No-one wanted to complain or make other people on the team feel uncomfortable. As one team member said at the retreat we facilitated, “if we’re disagreeing about things, doesn’t that mean that we’re in trouble as a team?”
During the retreat, the team realized they needed to have a vulnerable conversation in order to get to the bottom of the issues they were avoiding. This wasn’t easy, and felt awkward at first, but they persevered and were able to have a thoughtful conversation. Subsequent coaching sessions allowed the team to develop clarity on how they wanted to work together to help the different departments communicate better.
From a Thoughtfully Fit perspective, weathering the storm requires Balance. Teams need to find alignment between the needs of all members, and then create a solution that balances those needs. This is not an easy thing to do! It requires the team to talk about what’s going on. Sometimes the solution will present itself immediately, other times multiple conversations with stakeholders will be needed.
To balance the needs on your team, try the following core workout:
- Pause: Take some time out of your day to reflect on the needs of your team.
- Think: Ask yourself what stage of development your team is in. Remember: Storming is completely normal, and happens even in high-performing teams.
- Act: Set up a conversation to get to the bottom of the issues you’re currently working through.
We love helping teams raise their awareness on what stage they’re in and thoughtfully work to be high-performing!