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Most every employer comprises various teams. The large versions are often called business units or departments. Of course, they can also be smaller assemblages of employees—committees, workgroups or simply project teams.
Whatever the name or type may be, every team starts somewhere. And its success or failure very much hinges on the knowledge and skill of its leadership. When leaders allow teams to form and develop with unrealistic expectations or too little oversight, bad things can happen. Conversely, when leaders recognize that every team needs some time and TLC to grow into a functional unit, good things tend to follow.
No matter what type of team you’re forming, you probably shouldn’t expect its members to instantly bond and quickly reach the level of a high-performing team.
For our purposes, a high-performing team is one with a clearly stated purpose, an identifiable leader with decision-making authority, well-defined roles, mutual accountability and shared goals. It has an additional characteristic as well: a high-performing team consistently produces good results.
The Tuckman Model
Few teams hit the ground running as high performing. Most undergo a multi-stage development process; among the most time-honored ways to measure this is the Tuckman model. It was created by psychologist Bruce Tuckman way back in 1965 and still holds value for leaders today. The model breaks down team development into four essential stages:
The initial stage is usually marked by a mixture of attitudes and feelings. Some members will be excited and optimistic about joining, while others will be anxious or perhaps skeptical about their roles. Meetings and other interactions will generally involve cautious attempts to get acquainted and discussions of big-picture concepts, as members determine norms and, in some cases, form cliques.
When forming a team, leaders need to build trust, set expectations and encourage involvement. You want to develop a keen sense of belonging in every member. Creating a team charter is a great tool to help your team, as is conducting different kinds of "get to know you" activities.
This is when things "get real." Having found some level of comfort on the team, some team members may begin to distrust others—whether because of interpersonal clashes, past experiences or other reasons. Resistance to assigned tasks and bristling at certain rules or methods may occur. At this stage, members often begin to question the wisdom of the project at hand or even the purpose of the team itself.
Leaders can weather this storm by welcoming, confronting and resolving the inevitable conflicts that arise. Don’t quell open disagreements, as long as they’re civil. Make time for healthy dialogue. Conducting personality, conflict or team-styles assessments and upskilling team members in areas such as communication and problem-solving will help the team sail through the storm.
Barring a total disaster, most teams make it through the storm. Eventually, a sense of cohesion develops, and the team enjoys a relatively open climate of productive communication. Boundaries are set and interactions are generally friendly. Constructive criticism can occur without fear of retribution. Some people even have fun!
A leader’s role at this stage is to encourage cooperation, leverage the strengths of each individual and, again, identify and resolve conflicts before they get out of hand. Encourage members to roll up their sleeves and work collaboratively. At this stage, having the skills to facilitate open dialogue and enforce accountability is critical.
Welcome to the promised land. It's upon reaching this stage that a team can become high performing. Members will generally be excited about their work and find satisfaction in the results. They’ll also trust each other and interact with a high degree of openness. Best of all, teams at this stage will largely be able to manage themselves, resolve their own conflicts and act collectively, as a whole. You may even be able to turn over some of the day-to-day leadership to a team member.
You might still have to put out the occasional fire, but on high-performing teams, leaders can generally focus on monitoring progress, measuring results and celebrating achievements. Helpful tools include having the right technology and accurate metrics to measure team performance—as well as knowing how to throw a good party.
The Ultimate Objective
Bear in mind that, in some cases, you might need to reform and relaunch a long-standing team to reap the benefits of all four Tuckman stages. And to be clear, the Tuckman model is only one way of looking at team development. But it’s been around a long time and I believe it still serves as a good jumping-off point for the concept of seeing teams as organically evolving entities rather than "plug and play" machines.
Ultimately, whether a group is newly formed or has been around a while, your objective should be to develop it into a high-performing team that enjoys working together and produces positive results for your organization.
Lynda Silsbee is Founder and President of the Alliance for Leadership Acceleration. She has spent more than 30 years creating and leading high performance teams. Along with the other LEAP Certified Coaches, she reports that helping managers make the LEAP to leader is one of the most fulfilling aspects of her work.