Great teams don’t just happen. You can exert a lot of time and effort assembling the best of the best, but you will not achieve greatness unless you have some basics in place.

Everyone has worked in different teams, at different times of their lives. Almost everyone talks about an experience that was unbelievably good and where the team achieved outstanding results. Sadly, almost everyone also has a war story or two about a less than stellar experience.

There has been so much written about high performing teams that it seems quite astounding that there are still so many negative experiences. Unfortunately, creating an exceptional team is not easy – no matter how many management books you have read or how many degrees you possess.

Reflecting on my own experiences, I can clearly pinpoint some of the differences in the best teams and the worst teams that I have worked with. These experiences were career defining and taught me valuable lessons. This article is an overview of some of those lessons.

Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing

The “Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing” model about how teams grow and develop was created by Bruce Tuckman[1] in 1965. In summary, Tuckman explained that each of those stages is necessary and inevitable for any team to grow. The key is accepting the stages (and their associated challenges) and making sure that the team grows and moves from each stage to the next.

Tuckman’s model is one of the most useful that I have utilised with regard to teams. It helps you to understand each phase – and what strategies to deploy to become a “performing” team. So many teams never make it past storming or norming, and there are some clear reasons for that.

Let’s assume that you have indeed assembled a diverse team. A team that has different backgrounds, different areas of specialisation, and represents diversity across gender, race, age and sexual orientation. These teams have been proven to produce the best results, so hopefully you are keeping that in mind as you create a team. However, to get to those great results, there is quite a bit of work to be done.

In my view, one of the most important phases is “storming”, as this ultimately defines how a team will resolve conflict. Conflict is healthy and critical for a team – however, if it is not resolved effectively, it can create enormous toxicity. We have all seen unresolved conflict and its nasty consequences in the workplace.

Forming

During the first encounters as a new team, the team will be social and spend time getting to know each other. Typically at this stage, there is an eagerness about the interactions and a lot of genuine curiosity about each other’s perspectives and views.

The team is trying to work out its identity at this point and be clear on what they stand for and their purpose. However, in the early days of any team, they will be polite and only discuss topics that are deemed to be safe and relatively politically correct. In other words, everyone is on their best behaviour. As a team member, I am sure you remember these interactions. It is a pleasant time, but not necessarily the most stimulating phase.

The worst mistake to make at this stage, is to assume that everyone gets along and that the team is going to be conflict free! For the manager, this is absolutely the time to encourage the creation of relationships, but do not get lulled into a false sense of security.

As with other relationships, the forming stage is very much like “wooing” a potential new partner. Each member will be presenting the best version of themselves and a sanitised view of their opinions. Although these interactions will be enjoyable, you will not achieve significant greatness at this stage – as you are not tapping into the real talents and views of each individual. Not yet.

What is the best way for a manager to handle the team at this stage? I personally believe that at this stage, you need to put in place a sound framework for the interactions and meetings. This is also the time to establish your own relationship with each individual.

During the forming stage, the manager needs to consciously set up some clear expectations and goals for each individual and the team, with a clear linkage back to the strategy. Paperwork is actually very important (although it may feel like overkill) – so make sure you document those goals and expectations. Schedule in frequent face to face meetings with each individual where you revisit their progress against those goals and expectations.

Goal setting can be powerful if done well. It provides clarity on expectations and a clear linkage to the organisational strategy. Most team members want to know what they need to do to be successful and this is a great start.

This is also a good time to establish some ground rules around behaviour and what is acceptable in terms of how the team interacts. It is best to lay the foundations now, prior to the conflict that will inevitably ensue.

Since the forming stage is all about getting to know each other, it is also a great idea to have social events and dinners during these early stages. I have always been surprised at every work social event at the new things that I have discovered about my team mates. If you listen and look closely enough, there are always clues about how they are going to work with you (or not in some cases).

Let’s talk briefly about alcohol and whether or not this should be a part of the forming stage. Drinking together is a common way to start bonding, particularly in Australia! However, consuming too much of the “truth serum” at this early stage can get ugly and create bigger head -aches. I have seen many senior managers go down this path and live to regret their actions the next day. So, keep an eye on this and make sure that your bonding doesn’t veer down an unintended path. Moderation is the key.

Storming

Once the team has started to feel more comfortable with each other, it is absolutely inevitable that some conflict will arise. You are now out of the polite stage and this is when a clearer view of personalities, views and preferences will arise.

It seems counter intuitive (especially after the ease of the “forming” stage), but this is when you start to create a more healthy dynamic. Conflict is not something to be worried about, as it means that the team is starting to feel more comfortable and is starting to say what they really think. This is where you realise the value of diversity of opinion. However, and it is a big however, the conflict needs to be managed constructively.

Everyone has experienced teams that have conflict that is not managed or resolved. In those situations, there is a real danger of managers playing favourites, failing to communicate effectively and creating a lasting distrust in the team. I have seen both ends of the spectrum – where conflict is encouraged and managed well, and where it is feared and shut down.

In one executive team, we had a CEO who encouraged arguments and different views. We were sometimes brutal with each other and our feedback. However, everyone had a say and ultimately we would ALL agree on the outcome. Once we walked out of the meeting, we were all in sync and completely supportive of the outcome. This did not happen by mistake – it came from a culture of trust, a safe place where you could say what you thought without repercussion, and we had a CEO who was skilled at facilitating conflict. Arguments were okay, in fact they were encouraged – in the safety of our meetings. Once we were outside the meeting, no one else heard about the conflict.

In contrast, I worked for two very poor CEOs who were completely inept at facilitating conflict, played politics and favourites with the team and dismissed any other opinion or opposition to their own. As a result, the team fell into factions and often spoke poorly of the executive dynamic within the business. I am certain that the organisation knew that we were not a fully functional executive team. It is not hard to figure out which team was high performing and which team was dying.

So, the key thing for a manager leading their team through this phase is that conflict is healthy and a good sign of progress. Encourage your team to speak up with their ideas and challenge each other.

A very simple rule to remember during this phase, is to ensure that each team member knows to attack the problem and not the person – personal attacks are never appropriate or healthy and should be addressed immediately. Remember, it is a workplace and not a kindergarten!  Keep focused on the problem, and then different views are not as difficult to facilitate.

Within your team, if you see some behaviour that you are concerned with, do everyone a favour and address this in private. It is a simple rule: praise in public and criticise in private. Never dress down one of your team in front of others – this will not help you to create a safe environment. It also makes you look unprofessional and ineffective. The ensuing damage will take a long time to undo.

As a manager, it is critical that you remain impartial and independent. You simply cannot have favourites. Yes, there might be a team member that you connect with more easily – however, to get the best out of the team, you cannot spend more time or take more guidance from one or two individuals. Diverse teams are challenging to manage, as not everyone will think like you. However, you will have defeated the purpose of having a diverse team if you always rely on your favourites or spend the most time with those who always agree with you.

As senior managers, everyone watches every step that you take. So, if you have favourites in the team, criticise your team in front of others or fail to resolve conflict constructively, everyone will know. You will be judged harshly for your efforts.

Norming

If you manage the conflict well and have created a safe environment for your team, they will move into a stage where progress toward the goals will be evident. You will know that you have reached this stage when conflict is often resolved relatively quickly and there is often reference to the established team rules around behaviours. More and more frequently, the conflict will be resolved without the facilitation of the manager. As a result, the team will have lowered anxiety and start to trust each other more.

Now you will start to see a cohesion between the team members and they will start to seek out each other’s input and perspectives. Rather than the manager being the central point for discussion, you will see discussions starting to take place between all members of the team outside of the formal frameworks.

During this stage, the manager should spend time focusing on success and praising both individual and team efforts. Importantly, any mis-steps or perceived failures should be utilised in a constructive and positive manner. This means looking for ways to learn from each of these, without blame. Remember that you are striving to create an environment of trust, where it is safe to make mistakes.

The role of the manager is now starting to move from an adjudicator to that of coach for the team. This phase is all about learning from mistakes, praising and communicating success and coaching both individually and as a team.

The goals that you have set at the beginning for both individuals and the team are now important, as you will start to see the team achieving some of these. The hard work that you have put into resolving conflict and ensuring that you don’t play favourites will start to pay off now.

Performing

To move from norming into performing (and especially high performing) takes a high degree of trust, communication and clarity around goals. You will know that you have reached this phase when the manager is rarely involved in resolving conflict. The team will resolve the majority of the conflict between team members themselves, with the manager now firmly in the role of coach.

There is now a great deal of group problem solving and decision making. The team members do not act in isolation, but instead seek out each other’s views and input on key issues. Ultimately, the best work that is produced comes from the team working together, not their individual projects.

The work is now moving away from task orientation and toward process orientation. The team is very focused on the big picture and how they will achieve their goals to support that. There is a high degree of trust, a lot of energy in the team and they exhibit creative tendencies. Creativity is more aligned with a safe environment, hence why the earlier stages are so important in creating trust.

In this phase, if the team is truly a high performing team, there will be many wins and these should be celebrated! Praise and recognition are critical elements for each team member, but a celebration of team achievements is an important step to keep the momentum going and the team energy levels high.

The Role of the Leader

With each of these phases, the leader and their approach is absolutely critical. Without the leader carefully managing the team, they will never truly reach the “performing” phase. In my opinion, a skilled leader can take a group of average performers and create a high performing team. A poor leader will never create a high performing team, even with the most impressive individuals.

In my experience, there are a few key differences that make the true leaders stand out. The most important one is that they communicate – clearly and with transparency. Transparency is vital if you are trying to create trust. True leaders finish their communications with clear actions about what is needed next. There is little room for confusion or doubt.

Excellent leaders are also able to articulate their vision or the bigger picture to their team. This needs to be a vision that also has acceptance, and makes sense. I have watched one CEO try in vain to create a vision that was so ridiculously audacious that it failed to achieve buy in from all of the key stakeholders. It didn’t make sense and it wasn’t attainable – hence, it never achieved true acceptance.

I have mentioned several times in this article the importance of not playing favourites and giving every team member equal air time. This is very important and you need to make sure that everyone’s views are heard and explored. The best leaders listen carefully and ask questions of all of their team members.

Goal setting is crucial and must relate to the vision or the bigger picture. Everyone needs to understand their shared goals and how they relate to each other and achievement of the vision. Then it is easy to see when you are making progress and when it is time to celebrate success.

Summary

In my view, building a high performing team needs an excellent leader, who is prepared to lead the team through the different phases and their associated challenges. The leader needs to be able to articulate the vision, set relevant goals, facilitate conflict and create a safe environment.

To work in such a team is exhilarating and creates an opportunity to form lasting work relationships and achieve great outcomes.  If you are fortunate enough to lead a team, remember that it is worth the effort to set the team up for success in the early phases and facilitate conflict effectively.

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[1] Bruce Wayne Tuckman carried out research into the theory of group dynamics. In 1965, he published one of his theories called “Tuckman’s stages of group development”.