Today’s post: team dynamics; what makes a team?
Last Updated: 11/15/2021
Hi there Ladies and Gents,
Welcome to Monday, November 15th! Andreas here on the Andreas Philip Gross Enterprises blog and today it's time for another Coordinate THAT! From the Desk of the Elementary School Coordinator post. Well, despite the lows I have sunk to recently within my own mental and emotional self, I do feel happy and accomplished that last week I was able to successfully stick to a solid Monday and Thursday posting schedule here on this blog! Although it was a week later than it should have been, we got the end of December-beginning of November Monthly Round Up last Monday, and last Thursday I talked about coaching, with a prelude honoring Veterans Day. By the way, if you want to talk more about coaching with me, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org. In today's post we'll be delving into the issue of what actually makes a team, as opposed to just a group of people who work together.
Whether we are talking about our personal or professional lives, all of us - or almost all of us (someone will probably contest this, ha, ha!) - are a part of a team, many of us multiple teams, to one degree or another. These teams can and do change - some of them more than others - throughout our lives. I start of with this, and, in fact, I wanted to make this post about team dynamics today in general because I have been in a state of both personal and professional flux lately myself, and, as this is happening and I am aware of it, I see team dynamics bending and changing around me at the moment. Since the passing of my wife's maternal Grandmother two weeks ago, family dynamics have changed. With all the.....well, I don't really know what to call it....*stuff*.......that's been going on at my "day job" this semester (that I won't get into here right now), I can feel a major shift in team functioning and dynamics compared to just two and a half months ago when the school year started back in August.
When talking about teams and team dynamics, Bruce Tuckman generally leaps to the front of our minds. We all know Bruce Tuckman’s (1965) famous stages of group development – Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning. These are “old hat” by now – there’s nothing new here. We can all repeat these six times ‘til Sunday in our sleep. But what do they mean, really?
Let’s examine these phases here:
The Forming phase is when the whole team – and all its members – are new, or at least new to working with each other on a team. When a team forms, you are all trying to get to know each other in the beginning. This is the stage where individual members of the team are feeling each other out, seeing what makes each other “tick,” seeking a voice of leadership, looking for direction, looking for a “pecking order,” possibly sizing up who is “weak” and “strong” (for want of better terms), etc.
Once the individual members of the team have developed enough of a preliminary personal sense of understanding of each other, the second stage, Storming, starts. As the name implies, when the team transitions from just “getting to know each other” to voicing opinions (i.e. the Storming phase), people start trying to put their feet down. This is the stage where team members can, and often do, step on each other’s toes and piss each other off – both intentionally and unintentionally.
The Norming phase happens when the team is ready to set boundaries, lay down the law, and “normalize.” At this point in the life cycle of the team, the individual team members know each other well enough as fellow team members to know each other’s basic personalities, strongly held opinions, likes and dislikes, and general feelings and visions for the team and what it is that the team does (or is supposed to be doing). The individuals are acquainted with each other well enough to know that if the team is really going to move forward and accomplish what it is supposed to accomplish, a mission statement, vision statement, and set of “team norms” need to be developed. These Team Norms are your “rules for the game” moving forward.
Once everyone is on the same page and playing by the same rules, the team can really start Performing, the final phase in team maturity. As the name implies here, this is when you can really get things done effectively together as a team, working like a well-oiled machine! You understand each other as individuals and you understand your mission, vision, and the “game rules” you are all playing by. You leverage the best in each other and follow your agreed upon rules (Team Norms) to accomplish your mission and bring your vision to life!
All good things eventually come to an end. At some point in time, our mature, well-functioning team will enter the Adjourning phase. Again, this phase is pretty self-explanatory through the name of the phase alone – this is when the team dissolves, for whatever reason...people move on, the company goes under, the particular team served its purpose and was intentionally disbanded because its work was finished – whatever.
Let me just point out here that whenever a new player shows up on the scene or something happens that drastically affects team dynamics, even a mature team operating at the Performing level has the potential to go back into Forming, Storming, or Norming mode. For example, let’s say you work at a school, and your grade level team, who has worked together for 6 years and is functioning as a smooth, mature team at the Performing level suddenly gets an entirely new set of curricular material – standards, textbooks, science kits, weekly readers, etc....the works; a total overhaul – dropped on you from your superintendent (your team did not generally want this change). You don’t have a new person on your team, but a drastic change has now happened. You may 1) simply absorb the change well as a team and just carry on with business as usual, OR 2) this situation could cause the team to “re-form,” “re-storm,” and/or “re-norm.” With the total overhaul to the curriculum, everyone could (potentially) feel lost and back to square one of getting to know each other and to how best navigate working with each other in this new environment. Everyone might have different thoughts and opinions about how to best roll out and implement the new changes. How to best use the new Weekly Readers. How to “properly” (in his or her opinion!) use the science kits and during which times of year. Some members of the team may like the new way of doing things. Others may feel vehemently negative about it. Others neutral. Some may start to disagree with the agreed upon team norms, believing that some – or all – of them don’t work well under the dynamic of the new curriculum. And so on, and so forth.
As mentioned, getting this new curriculum doesn’t mean that your team has to fall apart and re-form, re-storm, or re-norm. Scenario number 1 could happen! I’m just say that at a pivotal moment like this the possibility exists where re-forming, re-storming, and/or re-norming might happen.
Of course, not just changes in policy or what the team is using (like the curriculum example) can cause disruptions. Probably the big, obvious catalyst of change is when there is a new member added, or a member removed from the team. This can – and very frequently does – change team dynamics instantly. In fact, from personal experience, this is probably the single biggest factor that I have come across that will drastically change a team’s dynamic.
It is also important to point out here that there is no set timeframe wherein these phases should occur or have to occur. A group of people could be thrust together at the 8:00AM Monday morning clock-in bell and told they are a team, and then that group could Form, Storm, Norm, and move right on into being a smooth, mature, high-functioning Preforming team all before the first morning coffee break! Similarly, a group of people could be placed together and told the same thing (i.e. “You are now Team X.”) and work together as a jumbled mess of individuals with their own pride, trying to force their own opinions and agendas through the organization or institution, for the next five years, fluctuating back and forth between Forming and Storming without ever even coming within spitting distance of the Norming phase until a strong leader comes in on the sixth year and takes charge of the helm, so to speak, and finally leads the team to victory.
Now that we’ve explored the ebb and flow of a team’s life cycle, how can we answer today’s fundamental question: what makes a team? As we’ve seen so far, a team is more than just a bunch of people physically working in the same location. You can have teachers lined up in classrooms side-by-side each other in a school building, office workers in cubicles packed tightly together like a can of sardines, or dozens and dozens of construction workers working should-to-shoulder on a construction site, but not necessarily have a true “team” in any of these situations just because the people are working close together. You can even specifically assign people to a “team,” give that “team” a name and a job description, but still not have a true team (or have a poorly developed hodge-podge of a team at best) after taking those steps.
As we have seen from Tuckman, the Godfather of Group Dynamics (at least in the Western world), to really have a mature team that gets the job done in a truly teamly fashion, as opposed to “just a group of people hacking it together,” the group of people in question need to be working together, yes, but in order to be called a team the group needs to have a clear mission as to what it is they are doing – their purpose. A clear vision regarding how they believe their work should look...as they move forward completing their mission, what are they creating and how does that look in the real world? And a clear set of Team Norms: “rules of the game” that all individuals on a team agree to uphold and “play” by in order to move forward with the mission and make the vision become a reality.
Do differences of attitude and opinion exist on a team – yes, for sure! That’s natural! But a mature, high-functioning team is not in the business of fighting against these differences of attitude and opinion. A high-functioning team embraces these differences and leverages them as best they can for their benefit.
Let me give you a little personal example here of a team learning to work together and leveraging each other’s strengths and differences for the overall good of the team. Back between 2012-2015 I was the 5th Grade Team Leader at an international school in Shanghai, China. We had 5 people on our immediate team, and we all five exhibited different personality types! Yes, it was a really interesting team to lead, I will say! And I will say this, we were stuck fluctuating between the Forming and Norming phase for the better first half of Semester I. Part of that was my own “newbieness” to management at the time....I was in my late 20s at the time and still very much young, dumb, and full of....well, not full of administrative and management leadership knowledge and skills, I can say that for sure, ha, ha! The other part of this puzzle was also the fact that all of our personalities were so different that it was going to take some skilled leadership to facilitate weaving us together as a true team.
There was one person on our team who loved to talk and always had to be the star of the show and center of attention. As you could probably well imagine, this took up a considerable amount of time from our team meetings and planning sessions – always having to listen to this person’s stories and grandiose ideas of saving the world. “Oh great!” was the overall resounding sigh under our breaths when this person would launch into a story that we knew would blow a good 10 to 20 minutes of our precious time! But then one day, this person wasn’t there...absent for some reason. I believe this individual happened to be sick this particular day we had a team meeting. At this particular team meeting, in this individual’s absence, we actually hit pay dirt with an idea!
“You know,” we all agreed, “this person loves to hear himself talk and always wants to be the start of the show – and is actually very good at doing so; how about we let this person be the star of the show rather than fighting it all the time?!” We tried it and it worked wonders for the team! From then on out we would welcome this person to kick our team meetings off his “story of the day.” It generally put a smile on our faces (most of the time), got the story “out of his system,” and then he was calm(er) throughout the rest of the meeting! Furthermore, we learned that we could leverage this “superpower” of his for MCing and being the “bouncer”/greeter at team events – which he loved to do, and it worked out well for the team because that was his strength.
With this piece of the puzzle in place, we began to look at other strengths others had and could bring to the table. There was an expert scheduler on the team. We also had an expert innovator. And an efficiency expert. We delegated “areas of expertise” to each person on the team, crafted mission and vision statements, whipped up a document we call The Five Team Norms Fifth Grade Lives By, and were a smooth Performing team by Christmas...our Christmas present to ourselves! And yes, I grew as a manager as the result of this experience as well!
On a final note of What Makes A Team?, I’d like to talk briefly about team leadership. I am a very egalitarian person by nature. I work best on a level playing field with some basic systems in place where we are all offered a variety of resources so we can work independently but in confederated agreement with one another towards a common goal. Though I am neither a millionaire nor a billionaire, it is the classic “loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires” way of tackling problems and working together that Paul Simon sang about in his song The Boy in the Bubble so many years ago that is how I work best – an I’ll call you when I need you, kind of thing.
As a naïve young man, I jumped head-first into the world of team and departmental leadership believing that many other people in this world functioned this way. Now I just laugh at my naïveté towards it all back then! I laugh in a warm, ha, ha, I didn’t know anything way, rather than a scathing way. Of course, I, too, have lived, learned, and grown for the better and am a stronger person now because of those naïve experiences of yester-year. Anyway, the point is that I believed that if you got a group of people together, hashed out your game plan and a common set of basic rules and systems to follow, and all agreed on the common mission and vision you were trying to conquer and produce, then everyone would just naturally try their hardest out of the goodness of their hearts to stick to the mission and vision and play by the rules. Ha, ha! I laugh now!
While I have met liked minded people over the years, and I do still truly believe such a team is possible to form, in reality such a team seldom works as a well-oiled machine from the very get-to in reality! I mean, look at history...even Jesus got stuck with Judas Iscariot on His immediate team! In general, there is usually going to be a player or two or three, or a “faction” of players on the team, who are not going to be fully on board with everything all the time, or who are looking to bend certain rules in their personal selfish favor, or who love to “stir the pot” and simply need some extra “whipping into line” for whatever reason. This has been the case with every single team I have ever worked on over the years except for one. That one was the exception and a truly beautiful team from the beginning – the others became beautiful teams after some work!
My point here with all these words is that every team needs a strong leader! Simple as that. The team leader sets the tone, attitude, and ethic of the team. Although there are exceptions, the team is generally only as strong as its leader, as a strong leader can help to mitigate even the weakest link of a team. The team members look to their leader for direction and leadership. The leader has to be there! The leader has to be present and do his or her job effectively! Now, there are many different leadership styles, for sure, and different leadership styles will fit different teams better than others; but that is a whole nother post for a different time (leadership styles). The simple point here today is that every team needs a strong leader – whatever kind of leader they may be in terms of different leadership style, the leader must be there to support the team and lead the team to victory.
How does your team stack up? Where is your team within Tuckman’s team life cycle? Is your “team” just a group of people who happen to work together in the same physical location, or are you a truly cohesive team working under a common mission to achieve a common vision while playing by agreed upon rules?
Some things to think about until next time.
Better life, better business, better you!
Ideas, inspiration, opportunity,
Andreas Philip Gross Enterprises
Washington State Certified K-8 Educator, K-12 International Education Consultant, Professional Coach, Proofreader/Editor, Affiliate Marketer, Popsicle Stick Crafter, Print-on-Demand Products Designer, and Webmaster
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