The rollercoaster ride to high team performance

08/03/2017
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Those who play or follow sport are aware of the complexities of team dynamics. Individual skills and abilities are one thing, but creating a winning team involves more than just selecting a group of talented athletes and expecting them to meld into a single, all-conquering unit overnight. A team can consist of outstanding individuals, but the team’s initial overall value and ability can be considerably less than the sum of its constituent parts. Teams develop though.

Understanding how this occurs is important – even for a sole practitioner. In much the same was as we cannot avoid interacting with other humans, and therefore benefit from displaying courtesy and empathy, even those of us not part of or responsible for leading a team will encounter teams of workers at some point, and will benefit from a better understanding of team dynamics. In 1965 Bruce Tuckman provided a model for team development in business known as ‘Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing’. This provides a framework for the way in which teams evolve and may well be familiar to you.

Initially, as teams are ‘Forming’, individuals’ roles and responsibilities are unclear. The team leader faces an important directing challenge to define and maintain the team’s objectives and purpose, whilst keeping an eye out for any individuals using this early opportunity to test the tolerance of the system and their superior.

Teams begin ‘Storming’ as their members start vying for position and attempt to establish themselves in relation to both their fellow team members and the leader. Clarity of purpose increases but plenty of uncertainties persist. Cliques and factions can form and there may be power struggles. The team needs to be focused on its goals to avoid becoming distracted by relationships and emotional issues.

With individual responsibilities defined and accepted, and a general consensus of how to operate agreed upon, teams begin ‘Norming’. The team discusses and develops its processes and working style. There is general respect for the leader and some of the responsibility of leadership is shared by the team, such as smaller decisions being delegated to individuals or sub-groups within the team.

By the ‘Performing’ phase, the team is more strategically aware. The team knows clearly why it is doing what it is doing. The team has a shared vision and is able to stand on its own feet with no interference or participation from the leader – the team has a high degree of autonomy. The team requires delegated tasks and projects from the leader and while they do not need to be instructed or assisted, team members might ask for assistance from the leader and not feel uncomfortable about doing so.

This is all well and good, but rarely does the process of team development occur this smoothly. Change is the biggest factor that can throw things off. Change is a good thing. Businesses not changing can become obsolete very quickly, but changes, especially changes in personnel, can affect a team and potentially throw them backwards in terms of progression. Even your arrival into a team environment (either as a team member, leader or external factor) could result in the team having to form again.

The effects of gaining and losing team members can be seen by returning to the sport analogy. Very occasionally, the arrival of a new player can produce remarkable results almost overnight. More often, a period of adjustment is needed. A new player needs to find their feet, understand their role within the team and, however considerable their ability may be, adapt and adjust their skills to operate at their full potential in a new environment. Most people understand that a new team member will require an acclimatisation period, which may stall or reverse the development process temporarily. Sometimes overlooked is the effect of change on the team members who have remained constant.

Organisational change to a team can have various effects. After a recent departure, some can feel threatened that they may be next; overall team cohesion can be damaged if a new member is not integrated or accepted due to them being perceived as too skilled and therefore intimidating, or not skilled enough and a liability; it may come to light that a recently departed team member did an awful lot more work behind the scenes than anyone ever realised and the remaining members are struggling to cope. Whatever the effects of change, the reaction from employees tends to be the age old ‘fight or flight’ response.

Those who ‘fight’ or use control coping will try to shut out the change going on around them. Essentially, they get their head down and carry on, focussing on making their own cog in the machine run as smoothly as possible and ignoring the other cogs. Potentially more damaging are those who react to change by ‘flight’ or escape coping. With uncertainty all around them they choose to opt out of work. Thoughts such as ‘everything’s changing around here, so why bother devoting my time to this when, by the end of the week, it could be someone else’s responsibility’ or ‘if I’m next in line to be replaced I’ve no reason to be working hard on this’ are not good for individual performance or a team atmosphere. They do whatever they can to avoid the challenges that change has brought about.

Communication is key to addressing these responses and getting a team moving forward again. The impact of change is lessened the further along the development model a team is, as delegated decision making and increasingly shared leadership responsibility means that team members may well have been involved in orchestrating the change in the first place. However, people will still react to change and a leader needs to communicate with the team members; to offer support to those who are control coping and integrate them back into a group mentality, and provide direction to those who are escape coping to re-focus them on the task at hand. Regardless of what the change is, it is people’s perceptions of what that change means that are important. Communicating and sharing the positive outcomes of change before, during and after help to foster positive perceptions. A change to a team will stall their development, but a team that understands the change will react and recover far more effectively.

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