“This doesn’t seem biblical AT ALL!” said one team member. I was sitting in a training session which had gone along very well, when suddenly the group began to ask questions from a more argumentative and adversarial position. The leader of the session calmly took each question one by one. However, the group became more agitated as we went along. I felt like things were blowing up right before my eyes.
Since the training continued into the next day, I was more than a little concerned that we had to do something about it. After expressing my concerns to the facilitator, the session leader turned to me and said, “Oh no, don’t worry. This is exactly what needs to be happening right now!”
The session leader went on to explain that every group needs to go through a conflict stage in order to really form. In training scenarios, that kind of questioning means that people are taking things seriously and testing them. So as each one took in what was being taught, they literally processed and tested the ideas out loud. Sure enough, when we came back the next day, the group settled into a kind of comfortable place with the facilitator, and we finished on a very positive note.
When teams come together, they experience a similar process. At first everyone is polite and positive. Then differences start to emerge, and people want to engage each other to test the differences. Typically, the team finds a way to work through those conflicts and becomes effective in working together. This pattern, identified by Bruce Tuckman in 1965, has four stages of team development labeled as:
For a team to really perform at a high level, both relationally and in task-effectiveness, that team needs to go through the first three stages. What does each stage look like?
FORMING happens when a team first comes together. Typically, people anticipate something good coming out of the time together. They are on their best behavior. People are polite and tend to believe the best. Similarities are most noticeable. We find common ground with each other.
At the forming stage, the team is a fun place to be.
It’s a discovery stage. They’re learning things about each other and the mission of the team. Team-building activities like life maps, Myers-Briggs, DISC or Birkman can help a team get to know one another a bit better by supplying some additional insights for discussion. Strategic planning or project planning lays the basis for the work of the team. Agreeing on basic guidelines for working together is established.
STORMING begins when a team begins to find out that people have differences of opinion, practice or conviction. When people begin to feel comfortable on a team, more of their real selves emerge. They feel the freedom to express differences. The work and the team matter to them, and they will press for their points of view. Conflict may surface about processes, the actual mission, or how the team relates to each other. In a sense, the differences in values, experience and points of view become more evident and can result in serious conflict.
What you may have assumed to be true in the forming stage appears not to be true. The team must navigate this stage well in order to achieve its full potential as a team. It is the place where the future of the team will be determined. It is also the place where our immaturity or insecurities will surface.
Navigating the storming phase is critical for team development.
We may get stuck individually responding to someone on the team or the team itself in unhealthy ways. If a team does not learn to “storm” well, the collective trust and competence of the team doesn’t quite develop, and people tend to settle into their own ways as individuals. You can call yourselves a team but still work as individuals.
Team leaders must recognize that this is necessary and not something that has gone wrong. The differences that surface really reflect the diversity of the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4 instructs us to be humble and gentle, bear with one another and preserve the unity of the Spirit at all times, not less when we’re in this stage. It is not the time to judge one another. It is the time to explore what those differences mean and what particular insights need to be crafted into a good solution.
Team members is need to really listen to one another and bear with one another. What are the differences telling you? This is the place where we listen for understanding and meaning. Reflecting back to each other what you thought you understood is a good practice.
Each team member bears a responsibility to deal with personal conflict seriously. If in the heat of a discussion, you say something that may have given offense, go to the person and apologize. If you notice a reaction, ask the person if indeed you have given any offense. These are the things that build teams up. In this stage, be mindful to “let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth.” There are good ways to disagree.
When “storming” happens, our natural tendency is to shut it down. We can tend to see it as a negative experience. This goes against what the team needs. The team needs to be able to express differences and come out the other side with a solution that serves the purpose and mission of the team. As teams repeatedly solve these kinds of dilemmas, they enter into the next stage. Revisiting the team’s norms, vision and purpose can be very helpful during this time.
NORMING happens when the team learns how to deal with their differences in constructive ways. As a team repeatedly solves the problems they encounter, the members have a greater sense of confidence and trust in one another. That “we can do this” feeling becomes more normal. The team usually develops processes for handling conflict, making decisions, allocating resources and evaluating their effectiveness. This stage is a more comfortable one for a team. The differences are there, but there’s a way to work through them, for the sake of a common mission.
The mission becomes more important. The team tends to want to discuss things more and will spend more time in decision-making. If a team does not allow for dissent at this stage, there is the risk of groupthink. There needs to be a balance between ways to work together well and room for dissent in a healthy way. As the team improves its processes, the team leader or facilitator may need to take a stronger role in keeping the team on task.
A team that learns as it goes has the best chance to reach the PERFORMING stage. Typically, the differences you can see with teams that are very effective and teams that are nominally effective is their ability to learn from what they experience, improving their practice together. These teams regularly evaluate their own effectiveness with a tendency to look for ways to increase it. These teams will actually change what they are doing, not just their strategies, in order to be more effective. They are proactive and intentional; they own their work. They are able to solve their problems, anticipate the obstacles and move forward on their own. They are self- correcting.
To do that, a team needs the humility to measure itself against its vision and objectives of the team. A team who does regular evaluation about their team function and process, as well as their effectiveness, has a good probability of improving their performance together. Evaluation of results is a must, but it is complemented by evaluation of team function. A team who wants to reach the performing stage does not look outside the team for this evaluation. They own it themselves.
High-performing teams display a strong accountability culture on the team. Giving account to one another for your work (or lack of it), enables a team to make traction on their plans. On a team visit several years ago, I remarked to one of the team members about the high level of execution around their responsibilities.
The person looked at me and said,
“I never want to have to answer to the rest of the team about why I let them down.”
When a team member sees their responsibilities as really contributing to the team, and that their work matters, that kind of healthy attitude prevails. Granted there may be good reasons that work doesn’t get done, but the overall atmosphere of the team is “We’re counting on you!”
These stages are not quite linear in nature. As a team composition or strategy changes, it is likely that a team can go from norming back to storming or even to forming. As leaders, we need to recognize these stages as we lead teams toward launching spiritual movements and lead our team successfully through them. As team members, we need to participate well, “looking out for each other’s interests, as well as our own.” As unsettling as it may feel, it is worth pushing through the “storming” to get to effective “norming” in light of what God has called us to do.
We need every ounce of Spirit filled dependence, wisdom and courage to navigate these stages well, for the sake of God’s glory and the eternal destination of those who don’t know Him. So, let’s pray and take action in faith to build the kinds of teams that love each other well and work together well. Let this be part of our testimony to the world of the reality of Christ.
How have you handled any discomfort when differences in team members start to emerge? What part do you play in helping reconcile those differences?