The interconnected world we live in has long ago started re-shaping the boundaries and frames we use in our daily group life. This could be described as disruptive, revolutionary and even ground-braking, depending on whom you ask and when you ask them. Group development has come into the spotlight many times, offering a variety of new models and revisions to any practitioner or group member seeking additional insight into what’s next. Leaders everywhere have been trying to aid or disrupt different patters of group behavior at the beginning, or at each new phase, of team work. An accessible and fairly flexible model for group development has been introduced in 1956 by Bruce Tuckman –
A brief overview of the proposed stages of group development:
- forming – the gathered group gets introduced, show motivation, good manners and learn about the challenge/opportunity. Taking the setting/provided context into account, model appropriate behaviors start emerging. As members start focusing on the first tasks, interpersonal and working style conflicts lead to
- storming – where power and status are assigned. As members of the group start working closer together, their egos, knowledge and habits start taking the shape of different conflicts. This stage is quite interesting, as not every team goes into it, and move on to the next one. If a project group is picked among a larger organizational staff, of if issues of power and trust are resolved differently, the team does not need to revisit these decisions unless a new context feature has been introduced. On the contrary, some teams never really exit this stage, due to the principles and solutions being established are without exception contextual and situation-based. Thus, every new situation or new element reintroduces conflict by default.
- norming – at this stage team members start to overcome their differences and rely on the solutions and hierarchy forged in the previous stage, in order to establish a holistic working solution and start working towards a common goal/ set of goals. Norms by themselves are wonderful constructs, but organizational culture and further local idiosyncrasies are to be considered as part of the deal.
- performing – once group members have been selected, they have been introduced and a catalytic process of sorts has ended, there is nothing else left but to achieve the set list of goals. Group members here are already adept at taking small to medium autonomous decisions, aligned with the team and strategy. Needless to say, some teams never enjoy this stage to the fullest, or were even meant to by team design.
Depending on the type and setup of the organization, teams may require a debriefing of sort, if they are to return to another team, or a full-blown ending ceremony.
As you can see, the stages themselves are not based on mystery or exotic knowledge or command of inhuman skills. You have probably experienced these at a very young school age, and you have continued to experience variations of this throughout your life – including in the intimate setting of you and your partner.
The whole process of establishing norms is vital to society and how you function in it. As in this exact example shows, some conflicts may not be resolved to full satisfaction of the involved parties. Trust and legitimate power may not be established.
Just as in reality, unresolved conflicts would lead to fractions, deviations and the need to re-visit decisions and the status-quo as work moves along. Additional team members may be brought in just to take care of an aspect the team does not wish to deal with at this stage. Then storming can be re-engaged with a desirable outcome, allowing the team to proceed towards a common goal.
An interesting aspect of this model present the things with which we choose to substitute the storming stage.
Group development’s storming re-imagined
If we take the storming stage at its results, and try to exclude conflict as an ingredient, then we should aim to introduce a non-invasive way to setting up a power hierarchy and a reward-punishment system to reinforce the structure. Taking a top-down approach, you can set the leader for the whole project and base the whole team around this person, or function. The issues this approach brings:
- the leader must be very well versed in almost all aspects of the task, in order to ensure maximum legitimacy of the structure, and not come to a situation where an expert on a task overtakes a mode of work, thus diminishing the authority and potentially reshaping the importance of a single function versus all others;
- lack of rewards, or the potential for rewards resource can lead to an exaggerated punishment function which inclines passive behavior. Alas, not all task in the modern work field have a prescribed solution, and creativity tends to be a gradually developed skill set;
- lack of punishment for insubordination or slacking goes against the next phase, the norming stage, where you need to set an expectation for quality of work and delivery of work. Also, punishment also comes into play when keeping the assigned leader in check as otherwise you may go towards a cult-of-personality team;
- with time, the power structure could start to solely rely on nominal assignment of power and value, thus potentially diminishing the role of leadership altogether. This would affect goal-setting capabilities and execution;
- when changing the leader, the organization could oversell the power position for the team, and then end up punishing the appointed person without any proper reasoning, for mistakes which were technically not the person’s fault, and have arisen due to an oversold person exercising the promised power role. This tends to reverberate further down the power structure, as means to even out the pressure and preventing separate members from applying bottom-up pressure or questioning the punishment feature.
Needless to say, depending on the size of the team, fractions will form in any case, so any of the above weaknesses can be exploited to another level, thus inducing a major conflict, when conflicts are what we were trying to avoid in the first place.
Another approach to tackle the function of a storming stage could include a prescribed distribution of power based on a compromise and consensus technique to all the team members. This seems so easy when the team is small and poses the following issues:
- none of the team members would be inclined to take on new tasks or develop new skills without the proper nod from management, meaning redistribute or manufacture power;
- retaining consensus and equilibrium based on a team of 10 is highly entertaining diplomatic maneuver;
- separate functions will attempt to break free from the structure and demand they set their own priorities;
- a punishment feature here will be much more complicated, since it should be based on what consequences any activity has on separated functions. Imbalance in following through can leave certain areas underdeveloped due to insufficient team work;
- changing the single leader on a highly independent team will probably be next to impossible without losing some control of deliverable outcomes at first, or enduring power struggles, so technically conflict.
You have probably seen some or all of the mentioned issues at some point of your work, and this is why conflict, in some way, seems inevitable. Maybe the best solution to minimize conflict, if this is a legitimate goal, would be to set rules and parameters to how conflicts are started and resolved. Yet for this one needs a solid contextual foundation, which is already implemented in the company culture.