High Performance Teams - a Question of Group Dynamics

Dr. Arlena Jung

The goal and wish of every manager is a well-functioning, high-performance team. When it comes to complex and creative tasks, the performance potential of a team is often far superior to that of an individual, however qualified - especially when the team members complement each other well with their professional skills and their role behavior. However, not all teams develop these characteristics. Team leaders often see the symptoms without truely understanding the causes: a lack of initiative and accountability, a bad working atmosphere dominated by competition, power games and elbow politics, frequent illnesses and high employee turnover.

The perfomance quality of teams is not merely a question of the individual potential of each and every team member. It is in equal portion a question of the quality of group dynamics. Group dynamics often seem to have a life of their own at times becoming more powerful than the individual team members. In order to understand how you can influence group dynamics in your role and function as a team leader it helps to understand group dynamics.

One of the best known models of group dynamic processes is the phase model by Bruce TUCKMANN (1965). Tuckmann distinguishes four phases of team development: "Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing".

This is a linear progressive model, i.e. it is assumed that a team must successfully go through each phase of this development in order to move on to the next phase. So according to Tuckmann all teams go through exactly the same phases. A surprising assumption considering the differences in organizational context factors and the personalities of the individual team members? In my experience as a consultant, and leadership coach he is absolutely right. The challenging and interesting differences lye in the quality of group dynamics in these respective phases. Everyone who has experience as a team leader and who has worked in different teams knows no two teams are exactly alike. Each team has its own team characteristics, shaped by the individual personalities of the team members, the organizational context and also the leadership style of the team leader. Why then do all teams go through the same phases? Because on their way to becoming a high performance team they all face the same challenges. The clue to success is not hoping your team will manage to avoid facing these challenges and jump straight to the glory and satisfaction well-functioning high perfomance teams enjoy. The clue to sucess lies in understanding what your teams needs inoder to master these challenges and learning how to give it to them in your role as a team leader.

So what characterizes the individual phases? What challenges does your team face in each of these phases? And: How can you, as a team leader, guide your team in the respective phases?

Forming: (In)security and (dis)orientation

Team Members: Behavior and Needs

In the initial phase of teamwork team members are usually preoccupied with testing the waters. Their main concern is understanding what is expected of them and what they can expect in return: What are the professional norms and standards they need to abide to in order to be accepted and successful? What can they expect from their peers and supervisors?

Team Leadership: Challenges and Success Strategies

In this phase team members are usually very much attuned to the behaviour and stance of their team leader. They more or less implicit expectation is that he give them orientation and clarity by setting the tone and the standards.

Another crucial factor is the mindset and inner stance of the supervisor. If he immantes a sense of confidence and security the team members will develop a sense of belonging and commitment. Depending on the quality of the group dynamics, the personality of the team leader and his previous experience this may require a certain degree of selfmangement. Especially in the early phases of working with a new team team leaders are also concerned with what the team will expect of him and weather they will accept him in his role as a team leader.

The length and quality of these phase varies depending on organisational context and the personality of the individual team members. Do the people in my team need time to warm up to eachother or are they very emotional and extroverted? Is it a performace oriented group, impatient to role their sleeves up and get to work or do they need time and guidance to understand what is expected of them?

Creating space and time to get to know eachother enhances team identification. Too much time for formalities and nicities will, however, robe your team of its energy and performance motivation, preventing it from successfully entering into the much feared but absolutely necessary storming phase. Once again good leadership is about finding the balance.

Storming: Coming Out and Stepping Up

Team Members: Behavior and Needs

In this phase, the team members are now quite certain of their affiliation. They slowly dare to show their individual interests and expectations and also to demand that their professional expertise are taken into account.

As a result tensions that almost inpercievably arose during the forming stage gradually become visible. Confrontations are more frequent and more emotional. Differences of opinion tend to end in long discussions about the right goals and the right way to achieve them. Disputes about professional roles and areas of responsibility arise. Team members tend to insist on their own points of view and are unwilling to compromise. Instead of dealing construtively with mistakes or delays blaming games are played.

The willingness of team members to speak openly and honestly about their both professional views and about their personal needs and interestests is a good thing. The danger is, however, that the discussions that arise become too longwinding, too emotional and too personal. In order to prevent this some team leaders make the mistake of sweeping differences and tensions under the carpet rather than truely resolving them.

The issues these disputes revolve around may vary greatly from team to team. What is at stake, is, however, in a way always the same: the legitimacy of individual interests, perspectives and team contributions. What are people arguing and fighting over? Ultimately the recognition their value as both an individual and a member of the team. If team members begin to feel that their interests, concerns, role expectations, and perspectives are not taken seriously then they either resign and loose their internal motivation or begin to act as eternal opposers.

Team Leadership: Challenges and Success Strategies

In this phase good team leaders need to be able to deal constructivly and proactively with tensions and conflicts. But what exactly does dealing constructively and proactively with tensions and conflicts mean?

Many team leaders feel that dealing well with conflicts means being assertive. Even team members often long in these situations for an authority figure able to take a stand and willing to take on the responsibility of resolving the conflict by making clear and binding decisions. The underlying belief is that team members will be spared the costs of emotionally stressful, time-consuming and hurtful arguments.

Resolving conflicts per decree may indeed be effective ... at least in the shor term. It, however, rarely helps in creating a truely cooperative, high performance team of engaged and intrinsicly motivated individuals.

A good team leader is able to recognize the tensions that arise in this phase. He is not afraid to adress them. The longer conflicts remain unresolved the more difficult it becomes to find satisfactory solutions.

A good team leader is not only not afraid to adress tensions. He is also skilled in how he adresses tensions.
If he manages to instill a sense of shared responsibility for dealing both openly and constructivly with differences teams can greatly benefit from the challenges of the storming phase.

Your job as a team leader in this phase is to use every conflict, every tension to establish the standards by which these are dealt with in your team. Make it clear that differences of opinion, individual interests and perspectives are welcome and legitimate. But also make it just as clear, that you expect each and every team member to take an active and constructive role in finding good and lasting solutions. If you succeed, you are well on your way to establishing a well-functioning, high-performance team!

An effective team leader is able to remain neutral. He recognizes the more or less implicit invitations to take sides and diplomaticly declines. His goal is to understand each and every perspective and instill a sense of responsibility in the team members for finding realistic solutions.

Good team leadership is, however, not only a question of mindset. It is also about communication skills and leadership tools.

Norming: Defining Roles and Rules

Team Members: Behavior and Needs

Once you have managed to deescalate the conflicts and establish a constructive, solution-oriented way of dealing with differences, you have sucessfully navigated your team into the norming phase. The norming phase of team development is characterized by a lot of communication about roles, professional standards, responsibilities and how to deal with conflicts. The team - although constructive and solution-oriented - is primarily oriented towards the inside and preoccupied with itself.

Why? The emotionality and tension of conflicts has subsided. There is a feeling of mutual good will and an optimism that a win-win situation ist possible. There is, however, still no consensus on and shared understanding of team norms, roles and responsibilities.

How then can team leaders successfully use the positive energy for guiding their team through the norming phase and preventing them from slipping back into the storming phase?

Team Leadership: Challenges and Success Strategies

One key sucess factor on the road to high-performance teams is creating the time and space for team development.

Good team leaders understand the importance of this phase and have the patience and will power to provide space and time for it.

Norming is a process that can cost teams much time and energy. Teams can become so involved with themselves that customers and product goals are lost from sight. The longer it takes to come to agreements the more frustrated team members become. What team leaders need to facilitate effective and constructive norming processes are skills as moderators.

Performing: Alignment & Optimization

Team Members: Behavior and Needs

You have now successfully navigated your team through the forming, storming and norming phase to a high performance team. The quality of products and customer needs are the key focus of everyday working life. The woking climate in your team is charaterized by trust und mutual respect. Differences in perspective are greeting with interest and seen resources for enhancing the quality of products and customer services. Their is a high degree of commitment to team goals and a drive to contiually improve and optimize the quality of team results.

Team members depend and help each other to obtain team goals. Successes are celebrated as the fruits of good team work. There is a constructive, solution-oriented approach to dealing with delays or mistakes. The focus is not on finding out who is to blame but rather on learning together.

Team Leadership: Challenges and Success Strategies

This phase is characterized by effectiveness, confidence and good cooperation. Good team leadership means supporting the team members in their work, appreciating and rewarding the high degree of personal responsibility and initiative. It also means creating time and space for optimizing team performance and regularly fostering the trust and inter-personal quality of communication you have successfully achieved.

On the other hand, it is still the responsibility of the team leader to create space for social interaction at regular intervals. With this, the team leader repeatedly leads the team temporarily into the forming phase, from which it emerges with a view to a feeling of belonging and trust.

The Essentials in a Nutshell

Good team leadership is about understanding what your team needs in the different phases of groud dynamics. Giving them the space and time to develop as a team is essential for high performance teams. Your job is to influence the quality of the team development process by facilitating a constructive goal-oriented dialog characterized by mutual respect.

In order to do this you need a deep understanding of gourp dynamics.