Team leadership means sometimes you have to shift or alter your approach for various situations. You may also be aware that there is a process that teams transition through from then they first come together to when they become highly functioning. But have you thought about how to match your leadership approach to the specific phases that your team is experiencing?
Let’s take a look at the phases of team development and the team leadership strategies best suited to each phase.
Phase 1: Forming
When a team first comes together, they are focused on getting to know each other and figuring out how they might all get along. First impressions are being made and everyone is assessing who they like and hoping to be liked by the other members. In this first phase everyone tends to play nice.
While there might be some superficial discussion about the work the team is to accomplish, most of the attention will be on forming preliminary bonds with each other.
To facilitate the forming phase, leaders need to encourage each member to talk about their strengths and what skills they bring to the team. Another great question to ask during this phase is for everyone to express their understanding of what the purpose of this team is. This can help the leader see where each person is coming from and what their perspective is on the potential success of the team. Asking questions can help team members develop a sense of trust in the leader.
The leader needs to allow for the forming of bonds yet set clear expectations for the work at hand. This is when the goals and objectives need to be clearly outlined. The leader needs to establish the roles and responsibilities of the team and set the tone for the team’s attitude. Team charters can be helpful in documenting and sharing this information. The team is also getting to know you as a leader, so it is important that you can articulate your leadership style. This will help team members feel confident in your ability to lead them.
The key leadership skills for this phase are empathy and communication of vision.
Phase 2: Storming
The politeness of the forming phase has worn off and the claws come out. The realization of all the barriers and challenges of the work comes to light and members show signs of apprehension and stress. At the same time, they have all sized each other up and are now working to establish status over each other. Frustration and negative feelings run rampant and create a sense of vulnerability.
Time to practice your ability to solve disputes and work toward harmony. You need to instill confidence in the team. They need to believe in the team goals and believe that you can lead them down the path to success. You need to project calmness while listening carefully to determine the causes of each conflict. It is important that you remain impartial and do not show favoritism toward any one team member.
The team members will be watching you closely during this phase and it will determine the amount of trust and respect they have in you. This is your make it or break it moment as a leader. You will need to give everyone a chance to voice their concerns and establish order within the team. It is critical that you don’t take sides but work to bring everyone together, clarify the goals and each person’s role, and prepare them to move forward productively.
The key leadership skills for this phase are conflict resolution and facilitation.
“Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses and their concerns without fear of reprisal.” Patrick Lencioni
Phase 3: Norming
Here the team is looking like a team. Everyone has settled into their roles and understands their responsibilities. The team knows how to work together and communicate with each other. Cooperation, acceptance and respect allow the team to proactively discuss the work, feel a sense of ownership within the team, and determine the best course of action.
The norming phase gives the leader a chance to breathe. You need to give the team some space while demonstrating your confidence in them to achieve the goals. You may need to assist them in outlining their shared responsibilities and guide them to work to their strengths, but for the most part the leader takes the backseat to the team during this phase.
The key leadership skills for this phase are delegation and encouragement.
“If we were all determined to play the first violin, we should never have an ensemble. Therefore, respect every musician in his proper place.” Robert Schumann
Phase 4: Performing
This phase is where the work gets done and goals are accomplished. The team is functioning cohesively and momentum builds. This is the phase that all teams strive for. The more highly functioning the team is, the brighter this phase will be.
Leaders need to ensure that the team stays focused on the goals and keep the energy and enthusiasm strong. Lots of positive messaging is needed to help every member feel valued. Communication should be frequent to provide clarity on the progress and the leader should work to remove any obstacles to success the team encounters.
The key leadership skills for this phase are motivation and communication.
“You need to be aware of what others are doing, applaud their efforts, acknowledge their successes and encourage them in their pursuits. When we all help one another, everybody wins.” Jim Stovall
Phase 5: Adjourning
Some teams are designed to carry on from one goal to the next. In those cases, there should be recognition of what has been accomplished and that the specific goal has been completed. After that, new goals can be established; but be aware, new goals can cycle the team back to the storming phase.
If the team is sunset, then recognition should take place for both the goal the team achieved and for the contributions made by each member.
When the team winds down, the leader needs to provide closure and end things on a positive note. This is step that is often overlooked, but you may need some or all of these members again for another team in the future. You want them to be eager for another opportunity to work with you. This is accomplished by showing genuine gratitude.
The key leadership skill for this phase is appreciation.
Putting It All Together
These stages of team development, known as Tuckerman’s Stages, have been around a long time. American psychologist John Tuckerman created them in the late 1960’s but the premise of human behavior and team dynamics still holds true today. Many leaders are taught the stages of development; but how the role of the leader needs to shift in accordance with each stage is rarely discussed.
In addition, every time there is a change in the team – someone leaves, someone joins, or changes in project occur – the phases change as well. Teams may cycle through some phase’s multiple times. Leaders need to pay attention to these changes in team development and constantly adapt to each dynamic. That is why there is no one size fits all leadership approach. You need to lead people, manage tasks, and facilitate decisions.
Revised May 2022. Originally published under The OD Pro in March 2020.