Six Characteristic Stages Of Team Development
by J. Alex Sherrer
Though we often use the term team as a catch-all for any group of people, there is a distinction between a work group and a team, and there are conditions when one is more suitable than the other. Work groups are more efficient when the objectives are clear and there are only a few options for how to achieve them. A team is best when there isn’t a clear path to the objective, and alternative, creative, or innovative approaches are needed.
When a project needs the expertise of a team rather than a work group, most of us are familiar with Tuckman’s four stages of team: forming, storming, norming, and performing. However, those labels imply that a work group’s development into a team is a naturally-occurring, passive activity. We assemble skilled and experienced personnel and often expect them to materialize on their own into a high-performing team when it really takes the leadership skills of the project manager and project management team to help a work group evolve into a cohesive, focused team.
An extension of Tuckman’s stages is what I call the six characteristic stages of team development. These “6 C’s” are exhibited by the group as it progressively matures into a team, and they help the leader to easily understand the team development stage the group is at and adjust his or her leadership style to foster an environment that’ll help it mature into a team. Another way to think of the 6 C’s is that they are a tool for the leader to engage the group into situations, discussions, interactions, and activities that enhance its current stage of development as well as help it progress to higher levels of performance.
copyright J. Alex Sherrer
In the workplace groups are usually brought together by an external authority, such as a supervisor or manager. Both teams and groups usually have their ultimate goal established for them. If there are a lot of options or flexibility in how the goal is achieved, teams are more likely to find innovative approaches to reach a goal. But regardless of whether a team or group is the best solution, all teams start out as work groups.
One of the key differences between a team and a group is its perception of its goal. Members of a group view the goal as somebody else’s while members of team have adopted the goal as their own. But this perception and internalization of the goal takes time, and though the leader can foster this change, he or she cannot force it onto the group.
Just as a project is most likely to fail early in its life cycle, team development is most likely to fail early in the group’s existence. Even if the group members know each other and have worked together before, there’s little trust, shared vision, or peer accountability. Members are not likely to be committed to the leader or goal yet, and most are unsure of what’s to be expected from them and exactly what their roles are.
It’s important for the leader to be actively involved with the group and set the correct tone. Group members will get their cues for acceptable behavior from the leader. The leader needs to be direct and open with information to the group. Team ground rules need discussed because this helps clarify expectations and gives group members an opportunity to learn the values of each other. The leader also wants to stress the collective skills and abilities of the group. Diversity is a key ingredient to a successful team, and the leader wants the group to know that it’s their individual differences that make the whole stronger. This is important to reiterate throughout the early stages because it is often these differences that initially spark unhealthy conflict.
Under the stress of tight deadlines and wanting to get things started as soon as possible, the leader may resort to a task-oriented leadership style by handing out duties and responsibilities to the group or pushing his or her own decisions onto the group. This should be done only when absolutely necessary and urgent. Whenever possible the leader should let the group establish its own tasks and make its own decisions because an autocratic leadership style will keep the work group from forming into a team. If decisions must be made autocratically then the leader should explain the full situation and rationale to the group.
The leader must also be personally committed to the goal in order for the group members to believe in the goal as well and later adopt the vision as their own. Can a leader (and subsequently a team) be committed to a goal he or she doesn’t believe in 100%? Absolutely! A vision takes many small steps to achieve, and there are always setbacks along the way. So even if the goal is not 100% to the satisfaction of the leader, he or she must believe the objective is the best that can be accomplished right now for the organization, customer, or project.
Uncertainty is prevalent during these early stages – uncertainty in each other, uncertainty in how to reach the goal, and uncertainty of expectations and roles. Uncertainty breeds fear and distrust, which are always at the root of unhealthy conflict. If people distrust each other then it will be impossible for new ideas, alternatives, debates, and differences of opinions to be logically discussed by the group. Trust between group members and between the group and the leader is not easily established, and it isn’t established only through quick team-building exercises but instead through consistency in the leader’s actions and words.
Conflict may arise early because of discussions around ground rules, goals, priorities, resources, or the activities the members need to perform. There are generally two extremes at this stage – either the group relishes conflict or it avoids it entirely. Neither is healthy nor beneficial for the group to progress. Some members may be dominant and vocal while others are reticent and hesitate to voice an opinion. Because the group’s goal is still viewed as somebody else’s (e.g., the organization’s goal, their boss’ goal, or the leader’s goal), members may be resentful of the work involved especially if they’re already overworked.
Conflict should be viewed by everyone as a positive event, because it’s through debate and the exchange of alternative viewpoints that innovation occurs. The difficulty with conflict early in the group’s life cycle is that it’s usually centered on issues that have little value to the project, but these issues still need addressed, and the group won’t progress unless it makes it through these discussions. The leader must establish trust between him or her and the group. If the group doesn’t believe that the leader acts only in the best interest of the entire group with no personal agenda then he or she will be incapable of facilitating the group’s maturity into a team. Generating trust takes time, but it’s remarkably easy:
- Be open, direct, and honest
- Be empathetic to others and their views
- Do exactly what is promised
- Be a good listener
- Be unselfish in thoughts, actions, and motives
The leader needs to be the voice of calm and reason. At all costs conflict cannot be ignored and neither should it be allowed to degenerate into personal attacks. The leader will likely need to be the referee to make sure the group follows its own ground rules and to ensure that conflict focuses on the issues and remains impersonal. The leader will likely have to make sure that debate is balanced and everyone is heard by drawing some members out. The group needs to understand that conflict need not be negative and that it’s necessary for the group to be successful.
When this stage is reached the team members are growing more comfortable with each other’s work styles, skills, strengths, and weaknesses, though there is still occasional frustration between group members over their individual differences. Until commitment and community are established, group members are worried first about their own success rather than the group’s success, and this may express itself as impatience with others who aren’t perceived as “pulling their own weight.”
Having made it through the early formation stages, as a whole the group is more confident that it can reach its goal. Team members are less hesitant about voicing opinions and ideas. Group members are more trusting of each other’s motives, and there may be some members who are already putting the good of the group first.
The leader will know that the team is moving towards commitment and community when the members begin helping others, mentoring, or assisting each other in activities. The group may appear on the surface to be a team, but it’s still only a work group of individuals. Trust building is still extremely important, so the leader needs to remain involved with the group and be optimistic, upbeat, and forthcoming and honest with information. The leader will also want to make sure the group recognizes its accomplishments and the progress it’s made thus far. Even setbacks are a cause for congratulations when the group has learned from the experience.
Whereas in early stages a significant amount of everyone’s personal energy was devoted to protecting or ensuring his or her own interest or success, there’s now a greater focus on the group as an entity. There is a positive energy about the group, enthusiasm is increased, and the productivity level is high, but members are generally self-reliant. This will be the maximum level a high-performing work group will achieve, but most members will be committed to the goal only through enthusiasm or devotion to the leader or organization and not because they’ve adopted the goal as their own.
A subtle but important change has occurred –some members no longer perceive the goal as being somebody else’s but their own. This is the primary distinction between a group and a team. When people internalize a vision or goal as their own, they’ll do everything possible to reach that goal. Members are committed entirely to the group’s success, and will begin holding each other accountable and the strength of peer pressure helps keep performance high.
The group requires less decision-making and direction from the leader. The most important thing the leader can do at this stage is to whole-heartedly support the group, offer encouragement, continue to remind the group of its successes, and maintain an honest, optimistic outlook. The leader wants members to become enthusiastic over the goal through their interaction with other members; otherwise, the goal will continue to be perceived as the vision of the leader.
There are now pervasive signs that the group is collectively working and striving to reach its goal. “Community” shouldn’t be misinterpreted to mean that everything is rosy. All teams have and need conflict, and if there isn’t conflict then it’s probably being avoided, which isn’t healthy either. However, unlike in earlier stages when conflict was strained and could’ve torn the group apart, it’s now viewed differently as something that can be logically addressed, discussed, and worked through.
A true team now exists between the members. There’s a real team culture of inter-reliance, respect, and trust between members, and the team is largely self-directing and holding itself and its members accountable. Community can sometimes be too strong, resulting in cliques or groupthink. Both of these defeat the benefit of team.
The leader needs to remain active with the team, but more as a consultant rather than decision-maker, arbitrator, or facilitator. The leader should exhibit trust in the team’s ability to self-manage and self-direct itself, even if he or she thinks the team is making a mistake. As long as the potential mistake is an acceptable risk, it’s better to let the team handle the situation. If the leader senses that cliques or groupthink is occurring, he or she may need to interject some new personnel or other changes into the group, even though that will temporarily cause the team to regress. Groupthink can also occur when members are hesitant about openly questioning another’s opinion or idea, which is why conflict should not be avoided.
The main strength of a team over a group is in its ability to explore and find innovative approaches to problems, and that is what will be happening when the creativity stage is reached. The team members have trust and confidence in each other, and are committed as a team to reaching to their goal.
Energy levels are high, and team members are invigorated by working together. Ideas are freely shared and members question each other openly because there’s trust between them that everyone’s motives are for the good of the team, goal, or organization. There is an openness and willingness to question everything. The “old ways” are not automatically assumed to be the best methods.
The team is self-directing, and the leader should be seen mainly as the team’s champion or cheerleader. The leader needs to stay involved with the team, primarily as a motivator, mentor, and observer, but should avoid being looked upon by the team as the final decision-maker. The leader should have trust and confidence in the team and should be a participant in significant discussions, but the leader will not want to continually second-guess the team.
Copyright J. Alex Sherrer
About the Author: J. Alex Sherrer is the author, blogger, and webmaster of the Project Management Road Trip. He has been in the information technology field for more than 20 years as a manager, portfolio and project manager, business analyst, software developer, technical writer, and trainer. He’s passionate about reading, learning, and writing, and he enjoys discussing innovation, continuous improvement, organizational theories, and technology topics with others