On Teams

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I’ve been doing some research on team structure and dynamics lately – not necessarily sports teams but any team, whether it be professional, public, private, or personal. I sit on several “teams” (I’ll explain why I used quotation marks in a minute) and have noticed varying degrees of dysfunction, and this has led me to wonder why they become dysfunctional and how they can be improved.

Some of my research has led me to the Tuckman Model, wherein teams are always at one of the following stages:

Forming – team members are introduced
Storming – the team transitions from “as is”to “to be”
Norming – the team reaches consensus on the “to be”process
Performing – the team has settled its relationships and expectations
Adjourning – the team shares the improved processes with others

Let’s start with a successful team. I play ultimate (frisbee) during the summer and for the past two seasons, my team has advanced to the playoffs. Two years ago we finished as the league’s runner-up. We weren’t necessarily the most talented group, or the fastest, or the best at any one particular thing. I’d wager a guess that our average age was at the high end of the spectrum, and in a game like Ultimate, it seems that youth prevails. But even so, we were successful. Why? I think there are many reasons – luck certainly plays a part in that any game so often comes down to an inch here or an inch there. But we had a strong leader – perhaps the league’s strongest leader – and we had good “team players” who responded well to our leader’s style. We had the right combination of ingredients. We all owned the outcome on the field. In practices, our captain made his expectations for our performance clear and we practiced anything that we needed to improve upon. We communicated on the field and along the sidelines better than other teams. Everyone knew what their role was, why they were doing what they were doing, how they should do it…in short, we were in sync. I could keep going but I think I’ve illustrated the point enough. This was a successful team. We didn’t win any championships but we were in a position to win them and I think that’s how you wind up with a team like the Yankees – they don’t win the World Series every year, but they’re in a position to do so almost all the time. I’ve seen our team go through each of these stages…sometimes you hop back and forth…but we’ve been through all of them.

Now let’s consider less-successful teams. Sometimes the “teams” (see quotations marks again) aren’t even teams…they’re groups. They lack almost all of the elements that would make them a team. I sit on the steering committee for a local association. I’ve been to two meetings now and in that time I’ve been able to observe more than interacting. It is clear that this is not even a team. If we were to consider Tuckman’s model, this appears to be a group of people who at one point were a team but (from what I hear) never made it past the storming phase. The storming phase requires some conflict as people move toward consensus. This group had a conflict but instead of addressing the conflict they balked and one individual seems to have taken over all roles, leaving a group of disengaged, powerless, confused individuals. Some of the symptoms that I saw last night were a refusal to make decisions, a lack of information required to make said decisions, and a vacuum in the lead individual’s absence that nobody wanted to step up and fill. I’m not even sure why the people in this group still show up to meetings (although I know that there are 13 members and only six were in attendance last night).

I sit on a professional team that is equally dysfunctional. We typically meet, have a leadership “discussion” (although there is little actually discussed), and then go around the room to give updates on what we are doing and what we need help with. Just from that description, you might not think things are so bad, but when you consider the symptoms I think you will agree. This team is equally unable to get past the storming phase…they refuse to address conflicts within the team. The lack of a storming process means that there can never be a consensus and therefore the team can never establish relationships, expectations, or performance measures. And the team never adjourns because, without any goals, there is never any reason to adjourn. We just keep meeting…and meeting…and meeting. Interestingly enough, the same person who has taken over all of the roles in the steering committee is the same person who allows this dysfunction to continue in the professional group.

How do you take a dysfunctional team and push them along the stages in Tuckman’s model? I think the first thing you have to do is literally re-form the team. Go back to square one. Is there anyone on the team who no longer wants to be on the team, or shouldn’t be on the team? Is there anyone else who is better suited to be on the team? Make these changes and then reintroduce the team members…even if they already “know” each other. Then you can begin the storming process. You discuss the team’s purpose, the relationships, the roles, and expectations. There will be conflict and power struggles. There will be difficult questions asked. The important thing is to not avoid them. They are necessary, albeit painful. If you allow this storming process to happen, and you have a leader who is able to bring differing ideas together and facilitate the shaping of the new team structure, you can reach a consensus on what the team is to be. This is norming. Then the team begins to perform. And then the team can adjourn when they have reached their goals, or just take a little break and then get back together and start the process all over again. This constant refreshing of team members, roles, expectations, etc. makes for a diversity of ideas and individuals, a greater focus on meeting goals instead of satisfying people’s egos and whatnot, and it stresses the temporary nature of the team. People won’t feel like they are locked into an unending cycle of dysfunction and meetings held just for the sake of meeting.

Easier said than done, but valuable to consider nonetheless.

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