How many teams do you think you’ve been part of in your lifetime?

Think back. Grade school projects, sports teams, clubs, volunteer organizations, committees, and of course all the work teams you are part of in your job. If you’re like most, it’s probably more that you could easily count. Now think for a moment about how much actual training you’ve received when it comes to teamwork. How much theoretical knowledge have you been taught? How much have you intentionally practiced the skills of teamwork?

If you’re like most, it’s probably relatively little.

Curiously, even though teams are a basic organizing unit of daily life most of us never deliberately learn much about how they work or the tools to make them highly effective.

But it’s not for lack of available material. There’s a huge amount of research, writing and practical tools around teamwork. This post represents a small sample of some of my favourite reads and resources on the topic — stuff that, I think, gets at genuinely useful insights that anyone can use.

As you read on, think about teams you’ve been part of. Think of a dream team you’ve been part of. Think of one that made you want to bang your head against a wall.

**How Teams Develop**
There’s an abundance of research out there to show that most teams develop along similar a similar pattern. Though each team is unique, there are recognizable stages of development, each with specific characteristics. Being aware of these common patterns of team development is a useful first step.

The most comprehensive model of team development is called the Integrated Model of Group Development (IMDG). It was developed by Susan Wheelan and it builds on the work of many other researchers. The model sees team development in four key stages:

First, Dependency and Inclusion, where a team gets together and begins working together. Because relationships are new and very little trust or structure are established, members are dependent on the formal leader and largely focused on feeling safe and included. This stage is also sometimes called forming.

Second, Counterdependency and Fight, where team members feel secure enough to express themselves openly, disagree with each other and even challenge the leader. Friction is an inevitable part of this process, but it’s a necessary step to establish the trust and openness to move forward. It’s sometime called storming.

Third, Trust and Structure, where the team has worked through the friction and normalized differences of perspective, personality, etc. By now, members feel a high degree of trust and commitment to the team. Structure and roles develop and the team needs less directive leadership to get work done. This stage is sometimes called norming.

Fourth, Work and Productivity, where the team has established a high level of trust and structure, resolved outstanding friction and can shift nearly all of its energy to productive work. Here, the team has become highly self-leading and benefits more from a coaching style of leadership than a highly directive one. It’s sometimes called performing.

Finally, Termination isn’t exactly a development stage itself, but is still an important step in a team process. Deliberately ending a team, helps ensure that learning is extracted and that members feel a sense of closure. Sometimes called adjourning.

The stages will look different for different teams. They won’t necessarily happen in an obvious linear way. Many teams will get stuck and sometimes regress, before moving forward. But the general pattern is very common across teams and if you begin to look for it, you will probably see many signs of it.

Next, let’s dig deeper and unpack each stage a bit further. I’ll highlight some worth-your-time reading material as well as a few useful workshop methods to apply in different stages.

This first stage is characterized by a strong need for safety and inclusion and the group is dependent on the leader. Members seek to get to know each other, they are polite, they follow rules, take few risks, and seek inclusion in the group. Conflicts are pretty rare in this stage.

To support a team to develop at this stage, creating a climate openness, where members feel secure to show themselves, is important. Tim Leberecht explores this idea from the leader’s perspective in his piece, Leaders Win Trust When They Show a Bit of Humanity. He writes:

“We might think we want our leaders to be machines or heroes. But it’s impossible to trust a person who is always rational, serious, and in control…have the courage to present yourself as a more complex being”

This is also the stage where the culture of the team begins to form. Spending some time discussing team culture helps create a foundation In this article, Rhys Newman and Luke Johnson lay out their own essential guidelines for healthy happy group culture, including simple things like saying good morning and goodnight every day, cooking together, and rotating leadership. Check it out: No Dickheads! A Guide To Building Happy, Healthy, and Creative Teams

A Tool: Is a team you’re part of in this stage? The method Personal Presentations is a simple and powerful way for a new team to begin building trust and openness by sharing stories. Find it in the Hyper Island Toolbox. Got trust and openness covered? Maybe your team is in the next stage: storming.

The second stage is characterized by friction and conflict. It can take many forms, but it’s basically inevitable. As members feel more secure and trusting, they open up. And it reveals differences of personality, perspective, values, etc. Often, a first sign is questioning of the leader. Meanwhile tension emerges around interpretation of tasks and objectives. Put one way, each member is somehow working out out: How much can I influence others here? How much will I allow myself to be influenced by others?

The liberating insight here is that conflict is an inevitable (and productive) part of every group’s development curve. Whether it’s fiery and overt or muted and diplomatic… we all go through it. And it’s often the stage where most lack good tools.

The key to making it through this stage is accepting and handling the conflict rather than trying to suppress it. In this short piece, Mark de Rond writes about three ways to become more comfortable with conflict. He writes:

“Be careful not to confuse what things feel like with what they really are like. What feels dysfunctional may, for all practical purposes, be perfectly effective.”

On a personal level, this stage can be a stretch, inviting lots of emotion and reaction. One effective tactic is to be extra mindful of your feelings, thoughts and behaviours. A simple model called Event + Reaction = Outcome is a simple way to be more mindful of how your reactions influence your daily life. Also check out 5 Hard Questions to Ask Yourself During a Conflict by Julie Zhuo.

A tool: Is your team storming? One of the most useful things to do in this stage is communicate. Sounds simple, but it really works. This Team Reflection method is an good guide for structured team conversations — to create some open space to let the friction play out and eventually move on.

The third stage emerges as the friction of stage two settles and team members establish a sense of commitment and trust that includes differences. This stage is characterized more focus on work, mature negotiation around roles, structure, methods, etc., a surge of team spirit, and less need for directive leadership. Conflicts still happen, but now they’re dealt with more easily, given the trust and norms that exist.

In a way, this stage is energised by the thrill of getting through the storming stage. There is a great deal of focus on team unity, team identity, even a “we’re the best!” attitude. Teams in this stage get way more work done than they did in the previous two stages.

Here, teams are accelerated by continuing to strengthen structure and trust. Re-visiting and discussing the team culture; optimising working routines, and learning more about each other.
One of the best ways to stimulate development at this stage is through feedback. Feedbacks acts like a mirror: for individuals, to see their own behaviour and how it affects affects others, positively and negatively. And, for the team, to better understand how effective structures, routines and roles are and how they can be improve. But practising feedback can be challenging. This piece  —  Making Feedback Happen by Nate Kettles — gives a simple, practical guide to giving feedbak and makes the perfect case for why it matters. Read it. Try it.

“The idea of receiving structured performance feedback from a peer, the person you sit next to who is not your boss, is somewhat foreign to most of us. But when you get past the perceived awkwardness, it can become something that allows you and your business to thrive.”
For another set of great insights and examples-in-practice of building trust and structure, check out Better together; the practice of successful creative collaboration by Stefan Klocek.

A Tool: The Toolbox has a range of tools for practising feedback in teams. If you’ve tried out the approach outlined in the article above and are looking for something a bit different, try Back-turned Feedback. In this method one person sits with their back to the rest of the team; then the team talks about how they appreciate that person as if he/she wasn’t in the room. Sound awkward? It can be at first. Is it powerful? Every time.

You made it! The fourth stage is where a team really flies. Even if the group has been able to get work done during the previous stages, some of the energy has always been diverted to other things (getting to know each other, resolving conflict, reinforcing structure, etc.) Now, the team can invest all (or at least most) of its energies into the work. Teams at this stage are more creative and happier. They are comfortable with conflicts and handle them with ease. They are more flexible thanks to the high degree of trust established. Communication is direct and open.

Teams at this stage need very little directive leadership. They highly self-managing and are best supported by a coaching style of leadership that encourages the team and helps members overcome barriers autonomously.

Some fascinating research has been done into the ‘secrets’ of high performing teams. In The New Science of Building Great Teams, MIT professor Alex Pentland describes the results of an extensive study. It’s basic conclusion is that patterns of communication are the predictor of effective teams. The most successful teams have a few factors in common. Among them: Members talk and listen in roughly equal measure; Members connect directly with one another — not just with the team leader; they carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team; and they periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.

Another study found that the ability to read people’s emotions and the number of women were additional success criteria.

A Tool: Even the most effective teams still need to spend time on their communication and team culture. The method Active Listening is a great way to work actively with peer coaching. Using this tool, members can support each other to explore important questions and work through work challenges.

It’s not exactly a “stage” like the other ones, but the end of a team is an important moment in its lifecycle. As with other kinds of endings in life, the termination of a team can come with feelings of loss and sadness. It’s important to create time and space for wrap-up and closure.

Taking time to ‘close’ a team serves to create a feeling of closure. It also gives space to evaluate the work of the team and learn from the shared experience. When wrapping-up a team project, take time to evaluate, reflect, give feedback and celebrate.

A Tool: The History Map is a useful tool to use in a wrap-up workshop to accomplish the kind of closure described above. It invites members to create a shared “map” of their journey and reflect on it together.

There will never be a perfect formula for creating great teams. As much as we might wish for an easy how-to guide, ultimately it is messy, complex, human stuff.

But even though there’s no golden answer for team building, there’s much we can learn about how teams usually develop and many great tools for helping them along. Teamwork research, insights and tools should be in the spotlight more. The more we become students of teamwork, the happier, healthier, and more productive we will be.

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Article updated on: 15 April 2024