Back in 1965, Bruce Tuckman identified the four stages that groups go through in building effective teams; he calls these Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.
At the outset, Forming involves a group’s members working to be accepted. The tasks in hand are usually around deciding who does what and how activities should be organised. An example of this might be the development of duty rosters and work processes. Difficult interactions around feelings, attitudes and ideas are avoided as everyone gathers information about their fellow group members. People behave well but tend to be concerned with their own interests and not those of the team as a whole.
The group may then move into the Storming stage. This is where ideas and practices may be challenged; now come opinions and views of how things might best be achieved as a group, not just as individuals. This will include who leads, what models to use and how each member differs in their approach and personality. If the previous example of duty rosters is used in this stage, there might be arguments about fairness and how shifts are arranged. Some may be intolerant of others, and a skilful leader can only avoid unpleasantness by steering the group into accepting and embracing the different attributes of all. This role of the leader is crucial to moving the group out of this often destructive and difficult stage.
Norming is the point at which the group shares a common goal and a way of achieving it together, by mutually agreed systems of work. If members do not initially agree with these systems and methods, they abandon their opinions and collaborate with the group in order to achieve the shared goals. This has risks; without challenges to the system, ideas may never be raised to improve practice and stagnation may occur. Those who opt to comply rather than offer alternatives may brood and become disenchanted.
Performing is the Nirvana state where the team is functioning as a unit with no external supervision. They explore new ideas and review and revise practice in line with developing knowledge and experience. Leaders of performing groups are usually participative and this enables the team to make joint decisions which invariably succeed. The reason these performing teams may fail is often due to a change of leadership, when they will revert back to the earlier stages and begin the process of building all over again.
Theory into practice
Over the years I have been called in to ‘rescue’ or ‘crisis-manage’ services that for some reason were failing in their aims to provide safe and adequate care. Sometimes this was as a result of an unexpected event; a manager leaving suddenly or an unfavourable inspection outcome. Other times it was due to a gradual decline in standards that did not result in compliance failures or major incidents, but had created a general reduction in morale or an increase in minor untoward events.
In these situations, the teams involved had become fragmented, disaffected and, as a consequence, ineffective in delivering the service. In most cases, the catalyst was a shift in the membership or organisation of the team. Sometimes, as a result of this change, the team had never got past Forming. More often they were firmly stuck in the Storming phase.
People are strange……
Teams rely on the mutual understanding of individuals’ roles in achieving the common goal. These roles can be assigned (you are employed as a leader, a manager, a carer…) but also are subject to the personalities of the individual members. For this reason, you get your confident and assertive leaders as well as your passive and anxious ones. You find the stroppy and argumentative operative as well as the submissive and brooding type. Just to make matters more complicated, you will find that these personality traits can vary for each individual, depending on the fellow team members. So on one shift, in one group, the person is strident, opinionated and outspoken, yet if required to change duties they become silent, grumpy and morose.
Getting the best out of all of your team requires skill and patience and an understanding of how their particular traits and qualities can be best deployed. Familiarity is important as it builds trust among the different members of a team; they know the role of each member and therefore have a good grasp of their own contribution. Every time the team dynamic changes, the team has to re-establish itself and so do all of the members. If a member is replaced, then there is a period where the whole team is unsettled and disjointed. They return to Form and Storm.
Coping with changes
Change can often be the enemy of harmonious working; people fear it and fight it. Some of them do so loudly, and others never speak up at all. Your duty and responsibility is to listen to all members and include them equally in how you pull things together. A good manager will note the diversity of their work team. For Tuckman this begins at the Forming stage as stronger characters emerge and begin modelling behaviour that others emulate. Whilst it is important to recognise the value and risk of these leaders, it is equally helpful to observe the ones who follow.
During the Storming activity, the quieter and more passive members are more likely to seek acceptance by becoming more so. This does not mean they haven’t got valuable ideas and skills to offer, just that their quest for a quiet life will drive these underground. If the group successfully enters the Norming phase, these are the ones whose acquiescence will prevent some good ideas from surfacing, often to the detriment of the service.
“I think that this idea about the eight hour shifts won’t work, but I will go along with it since everyone else is happy and the shift leader wants it to work.”
Now, as I pointed out, the personality of group members will change and shift depending on the dynamic of the team. If the dynamic alters, the quiet, unassuming and mild team member may become resentful and unhappy, but remain silent about it until their feelings manifest themselves in passively destructive behaviour.
“I’m not going to keep on working late just because the new rota doesn’t give time for handover. I’ll get my coat and bag and be off as soon as the next team get here.”
Bit by bit, this undermining can be as damaging as an all-out mutiny. It is vital to consider the views, experience and contribution of every member of every team, because the combination of different people can allow teams to flourish if properly managed, or fail if not embraced. In crisis situations, the first step must be to renew confidence and harmony in the team. If you can learn the skills and attributes of the members, ensure they are all listened to and contribute equally to the pursuit of the common goal, you are set to weather the storm.