Team Building Stages

Being a member or leader of a workplace team can be a frustrating experience, particularly if your team is ineffective or routinely gets mired in unhealthy conflict.

Take comfort in knowing that all teams go through “stages” before reaching a level of high performance.

What follows is an outline of the typical stages a work team will go through, based on Bruce Tuckman’s group development model, and some practical tips for how to work through them.

Stage 1: Forming

Remember what it’s like attending the first meeting of a new team or group? People are often cautious, tentative and even nervous when they first come together. Members at this stage tend to politely focus on “safe” subjects (the weather) and avoid controversy as they get to know one another. Internally, people mull their concerns and judgments around trust, leadership and expectations (Is someone going to keep us on track and hold me/us accountable?).

During this “forming” stage, team leaders need to provide structure, direction, safety and order by:

  • Identifying methods and activities that help put the team at ease and get acquainted.
  • Letting members know why they have been chosen and what their role is.
  • Defining goals.
  • Establishing norms of acceptable team behavior, including your expectation that members will openly and respectfully voice their views and concerns.
  • Being transparent, genuine and open about how you lead a team (including how decisions will be made).

Stage 2: Storming

This stage can be very difficult — and those who naturally avoid conflict likely will be uncomfortable. The initial politeness of the forming stage gives way to risk taking, exposure of the “hidden agendas,” turf guarding and the emergence of conflict. Misunderstandings, confusion, tensions and emotions rise as members start testing the boundaries of power, decision making and control. This is the stage where the differences in individual attitude, perceptions, goals and skills (including emotional intelligence) tend to emerge — and they will! Yet, storming is both natural and necessary.

Leading a team through this stage can be trying for even the most seasoned leader. The most common reasons for storming are also the areas leaders need to focus on — including unclear roles, goals/expectations, lack of commitment/accountability, misunderstandings and improving the emotional intelligence of the team. Teams often get stuck at this stage and to get past it requires effective leadership and facilitation skills. Some leaders will need to make tough calls for the sake of team performance (those who are unwilling to be accountable or commit to the team should be culled).

Really stuck teams with potential and commitment may require outside facilitation help. To move past this stage leaders need to facilitate team process by:

  • Surfacing conflicts and getting issues out in the open.
  • Coaching team members to give each other constructive criticism and feedback.
  • Clarifying roles and responsibilities — address any issues, concerns or confusion.
  • Re-establishing, clarifying or modifying team norms (ground rules) for working together effectively.

Stage 3: Norming

Teams that work through the storming stage are often rewarded with a calmer, more focused and collaborative team environment. Having learned productive ways to work through their differences, creativity and team camaraderie emerges.

The focus now shifts to how we will accomplish our work together. There is more sharing of information, less turf guarding and renewed focus on how to accomplish team goals collaboratively. Leader “to-dos” during this stage:

  • Identify individual members’ strengths and weaknesses — and how members can support one another more effectively.
  • Focus on improved processes — including decision making, planning, tracking and accountability.
  • Encourage expanded team building/camaraderie, pride and acknowledgment.

Stage 4: Performing

Not all teams will make it to this stage. Those that do will experience the pride, energy and excitement that comes with team unity, creative synergy and accomplishment. Teams that reach this stage are highly productive with an emphasis on achievement of team goals and an environment of high trust, morale and loyalty. They balance time and attention spent on a) task and b) fostering team trust and ways to work better together. Having knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, team members support experimentation (such as adjusting team members’ roles to the changing needs of the team or individuals). Most important, team members can engage in productive debate to determine best solutions. Recommended actions to stay in this stage:

  • Debrief regularly how well the team is working with each other.
  • Re-evaluate team member roles and plans.
  • Build in rewards and fun to keep morale high.

The intensity and duration of these stages vary depending on the team, leadership skills and situation. Some teams can hit the performing stage in a matter of weeks; for others it can take months. Others will never hit it. Whenever a team takes on a new member or loses one, it naturally recycles back to Stage 1.  I can help you with team coaching and building your ability to coach a high performing workplace team;  360 682 5807.  I coach via Skype or Facetime anywhere in the world.