More Than Trust Falls: The Evolution of a Team

Working on a team is a walk in the park, right? You and respected colleagues come together to achieve a shared goal. You work in cheerful concord, instinctively honoring each other’s differences and recognizing everyone’s unique value, and within a few days, you’re giving each other facials and sending Facebook friend requests.

Yeah, nah. At least initially, building a strong, effective team is not so much a walk in the park as it is a terrifying stroll through a minefield accompanied by the screams of your inner voice. Who ARE these people? What am I DOING here? And of course, Why can’t we all JUST GET ALONG? Transforming a group of disparate people into a high-performance team is a tough and, sometimes, contentious experience. The good news is that all the angst is totally normal. Whether your group is work-based, part of a hobby, or even the organizers for a large family event, knowing about Dr. Bruce Tuckman’s Stages of Team Development will help you know what to expect and so you can ROCK your team.

Come together: the Forming stage

Before individuals start to work on a project, they assemble in the Forming stage. Forming is all about exploration. Team members tend to be on their best behavior as they get to know each other and begin to learn how they will work together. This is when members become familiar with the issues, objectives, and plan for fulfilling the purpose of the team’s existence. Decisions about how the team will be organized, who will be responsible for what and by when, and the establishment of ground rules are all part of Forming.

Forming can be both an anxious and exciting time for introverts, who need to push outside their comfort zones and let people get to know them. It’s important for all team members to be authentic, share what they need and can offer, and be open to the preferences of their teammates. And yes, that might mean smiling through the requisite team-building activity as you die a little inside.

Forming is the perfect stage for introverts to dazzle everyone with one of their superpowers: listening. Introverts ask good questions and then really focus on the answers, which can lead to a deeper level of understanding and a thoughtful perspective on the team and the project.

One thing to be on the lookout for is the provocateur who tests boundaries. She or he isn’t on every new team, but this is the person who pushes buttons just to see what happens. By practicing their power pose, keeping their cool, and standing their ground, introverts can keep a lid on the pot stirrer.

We can work it out: the Storming stage

The Forming honeymoon ends with a crash in Storming, the stage when people (and personalities) collide. It’s uncomfortable, confrontational, and—if handled effectively—useful. Clashes need to be resolved before a group of individuals can transform into a high-performance team, and resolution comes about through understanding, tolerance, and patience.

During Storming, team members begin the transition from independence to interdependence—and it can be tricky if there isn’t a thorough understanding of the ways everyone works. An introvert’s quieter style and need for solitude can be misinterpreted as snobbery or a lack of interest and commitment. Ebullient extroverts may come off as domineering when they’re really just enthusiastic.

This is where the planning from Forming begins to earn its keep. Clearly established roles, responsibilities, and rules of engagement can minimize the frustrations that come from misunderstanding and misinterpretation. It’s critically important to gain consensus on the ways opinions are aired and conflicts are resolved.

Storming is the stage that conflict-averse introverts dread. Although the friction involved often results in a blaze that sustains the team throughout the project, the initial conflict can be draining and upsetting. But if they know it’s coming, introverts can prepare themselves to handle it.

It’s important for introverts to overcome their initial tendency to withdraw when there’s conflict. Storming is part of the team development process, and team members owe it to each other to participate and stay engaged. Keep in mind that while colleagues may differ on the ways to do things, they all have one key factor in common: all are working towards achieving the project’s ultimate goal.

Here comes the Sun: the Norming stage

After the fireworks have sputtered out, the actual work begins in Norming. Team members become accustomed to each other’s habits and quirks, learn to respect differing viewpoints, and evolve into a cohesive unit, working towards the successful achievement of the team’s goal. If Storming is managed well, this is where things get fun—team members trust each other enough to relax and begin actively seeking each other out for help and input. Ground rules are still important, but since the team has become comfortable with each other, there’s a lot more flexibility as rules are revised to accommodate the team’s changing needs. There’s a sense of community that eases things along when the team hits the inevitable bumps. The team begins to make visible progress toward the end result.

At this point, it can be easy to slip into a sense of complacency in which team members are reluctant to express controversial ideas. Introverts excel at making sure everyone gets heard, which is invaluable when it comes to maintaining the health of a team. When things are going off the rails, introverts can be the voice of reason that gets the team back on track.

And when introverts are the ones who have an eyebrow-raising idea, it’s important they don’t keep it a secret or allow themselves to be marginalized. Their ideas are important, and, in all probability, well-thought-out and worthy of consideration.

All together now: the Performing stage

Team productivity shifts into high gear during the Performing stage. Team members are knowledgeable and motivated, and the team acts more autonomously when it comes to decision-making. While conflicts still arise, team members can resolve them and move on without interfering with the progress toward the goal. This is the time when the project goal will be achieved, revised, or tabled. Yes, that’s right—not all goals reach fruition, and it’s the team’s job to make sure the powers that be know if it’s time to pull the plug and not waste more resources.

One consideration during the Performing stage derives from the sense of comfort the team has developed: a tendency to act without thought. Prevent this by making sure every decision is based on facts, not feelings, and that there is complete understanding within the team as to the benefits and drawbacks of, as well as the justification for, the decision. In other words—no trips to Abilene.

Not every team makes it to this stage. If your team gets past Norming and moves into the Performing stage, it’s proof of how great teamwork can be—you are actually achieving and making progress towards something meaningful. How cool is that?

Golden slumbers: the Adjourning stage

The Adjourning stage was belatedly added to the original Tuckman Model after the first four had already been published. Adjourning means the goal has been achieved—the project ends, and the team disbands. There’s often ambivalence, reminiscent of graduation—you’re glad you made it through okay, but you also may feel melancholy that it’s over and unsure of what’s going to happen next.

Introverts can help make Adjourning meaningful by initiating a postmortem analysis to explore what went well, what could have been better, and what future teams can learn from your experiences.

And for heaven’s sake, go to that last happy hour. Your team did something amazing!