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The Roller Coaster of Leadership Driven by 4 Stages of Team Development

April 14, 2020

These uncertain times have confirmed that no team is exempt from change, and the question everyone’s mind is: how to act now and in the times to come?

In 1965, psychologist and researcher Bruce Tuckmann published a pattern that redefined the existing view on group behavior. He identified that all teams go through four stages, which he called: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing (image above).

Stage 1: Forming

In the Forming Stage, there is a mixture of feelings among the team members. On one hand, there is excitement for something new, but on the other hand, a set of questions invade individual thinking: What role will I have in this context? What is the team’s goal? Who can I trust?

Stage 2: Storming

As the name indicates, the team’s first wave of conflict occurs in this stage. Its elements tend to challenge themselves when looking for their role, and as new ideas emerge, the team’s “modus operandi” is put to the test. People may have different opinions on what should be done and how it should be done – which causes conflict within the team. In this context, as Tuckman points out, group performance tends to decrease due to the changes the team is going through.

Stage 3: Norming

In the third stage, the team begins adhering to the rules, processes and procedures more consistently. Each individual becomes aware of his or her role within the team and, automatically, the levels of trust and cohesion increase. However, performance is not yet at the level the leader believes it can be.

Stage 4: Performing

The fourth stage appears without prior notice, as the team begins to consistently perform at a higher level, in unison. Everyone knows their place as they run for a common purpose, greater than their individual goals. Open and healthy discussions take place and success is achieved.

After 12 years of drafting this model, Tuckman, together with Mary Ann Jensen – at the time a doctoral student at Rutgers – identified a new stage. During the Adjourning Stage, the natural end of a project nears, and therefore, fear of the unknown returns.

Tuckman’s focus in this study was to help leaders better understand the elements of their teams, and he notes that success in performing tasks may vary, depending on the relationship that exists between team members.

Today, we realize these stages are not steady. After the Performing Stage, the next stage is not always Adjourning. Changes caused by external or internal factors can arise, leading some stage(s) to recede. This is especially true for inexperienced teams. A situation like Coronavirus—a factor not decided on by the leaders—makes it possible for a high-performing team to revert back to the Storming Stage, or even the Forming Stage. Doubts, anxieties, and vagueness take over the thoughts of all team members.

Internal causes, including those driven by leadership, can also take teams through the roller coaster loop. Change of manager, dismissal of a specific employee, or entry of new software can all move the team back to an earlier stage of development. However, this is not necessarily negative. A team that wins simply moves on and implements adjustments. How else could performance improvement occur?

Leaders are often afraid that their changes may not yield an improvement effect. Due to external pressures, many leaders who do not see immediate results stop in the middle of the Norming process and try returning to the safe haven of previous performance.

The truth is, no team has lasting success if it does not implement changes. This often means going back to Norming and Storming Stages, or even the Forming Stage.

Now, what is the leader’s role in this process? To minimize the period between Forming to Performing. How? By acting in accordance with the requirements of each stage.

In the Forming Stage, when team members are confused and doubtful about the future, the leader is expected to possess the visionary ability to help team members navigate which way to go and which objectives to achieve. No high-performing team functions without goals, without objectives. How could you run a marathon without knowing where the finish line is located?

As we are experiencing with COVID-19, the changes that occur in the Storming Stage present many challenges. The leader must actively listen and clarify roles and tasks for quick acceptance. This enables the team to enter the Norming Stage, when there is a systematization of processes, even if it is not yet consistent. The leader is required to remain convinced of his strategy (even if he has yet to experience successful results), and consistently coach, train and give feedback so that the occasional becomes systematic. Then, the magic happens: The Performing Stage.

At this stage, it becomes essential for the leader to recognize superstars and rock stars (as defined in my previous article—read here) using the appropriate strategies with each profile. In addition, delegating and creating new goals are expected from a leader. More difficult than winning a game is winning consecutively and adapting the team to new challenges. It is therefore common for a successful leader to celebrate a goal achievement fleetingly, as his focus moves onto the next challenge in an effort to prolong this stage of performing.

The moment this success ends (yes, it will eventually end), the Adjourning Stage begins. The main role of a leader will be to review the strategy, recognize the team’s key elements, and start developing new goals so that the Performing Stage will be achieved as soon as possible.

Successful teams are those that manage to have a longer performing period with shorter adjourning, forming, storming, and norming periods. And what is the leader’s role? Adapting to the context, influencing and guiding the team, and making the best decisions possible, adjusted to each stage of the team’s development.