The Part We Forget

You may not be familiar with Dr. Bruce Tuckman’s 1965 article, Developmental Sequence in Small Groups, but you are probably aware of the end result: The “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing” model embraced by many as the cycle teams experience as they go from infancy to becoming high-performing assets.  This article left out a very important phase, however, that Dr. Tuckman added in 1975: Adjourning, sometimes called “mourning”.

The Tuckman model is, of course, an excellent portrayal of team development and behavior.  There are other models out there, and it also has similarities to Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model that we have also discussed before. Interestingly enough, though, in many of the models, there is little mention of this aspect.

Just for review (or prompting, in case you aren’t familiar), forming, the first phase, is the acquainting of the team to one another when they first are given their assignment and goal.  This period finds the individuals forming opinions and learning the negatives and positives of each individual. The leader’s task at this time is to direct the team and give people the chance to see where their role may be.

The next element of this model is the storming; team members begin to jockey for position (think of your classic “leaderless team” scenarios).  There may be power struggles among the team and individuals may even challenge the leader’s ability to be in charge. Often this is where the cliques and factions begin to develop.  The leader’s big responsibility here is to coach and define the roles.

As agreement and consensus forms and the members begin to find trust in one another, cohesiveness and bonding takes place. In the norming phase, roles and responsibilities are clear and accepted. The individuals may even begin to accept some of the minor leadership roles. The leader uses their facilitation skills to draw out healthy conflict so that deeper analysis of the situation can be understood.

As the team faces the performing period, they see shared commitment to the mission. The team as a whole knows what they are doing and why they are doing it. In a highly competent group, the leader delegates and oversees.  The team is a functional asset.

How many of you, though, have had to endure the break-up of your team? Adjourning – the dissolution of the group – seems like a pretty stupid thing to do when the team is rolling along on their own, solving problems, requiring very little maintenance, hosting barbeques together and attending each others’ kids birthday parties.  Why do we do this?

I have asked that question myself many times and gotten both good and bad reasons for doing so.  I am a big fan of team cohesiveness and esprit de corps.  Morale is a force multiplier and good morale on a team can create unbelievable synergy. So why wreck that?

Some good reasons are that the team may need to return to its normal state.  Especially in “Tiger Teams” or special teams formed to take care of a particular problem, when that problem is resolved, it becomes time to return the participants to other assignments so they can “spread the gospel”.  Another excellent reason is because the effort may have identified individuals who now have skills or knowledge to become leaders themselves. Or the mission may be fulfilled and the team does not have another mission.

This phase is problematic in many departments.  I admit that not enough attention is paid to the fact that we spent all this energy and time getting these people to bond, creating a group that likes being together and now we are ripping that bond apart.  For people with low needs for attachment, this time may not even pose a problem.  For those who have developed a strong relationship, however, it can be akin to a divorce, especially if the individuals have socialized and found security in the relationships they created.  There is a certain amount of identification with others that can’t just be dismissed.

The aim of the leader or manager is to develop the team through the four stages, and then to move on to another role.  Not unexpectedly, this outcome is feared by many managers.  I, myself, have experienced this at several times in my career.  Just as we worked to put all this together, we created a high-functioning team, we invested our own emotions in it, and now…we separate from that group.  It’s like watching your kids grow up and leave home – and when those team members are successful, you feel proud, and when they fail, you wonder about your ability to lead.

As leaders of high-functioning teams, we have to look at the bigger picture.  As we each become better at what we do, we end up needing our own space to grow and succeed.  When we find ourselves at this juncture, it is imperative that organizations and senior leadership recognize the value these teams have and recognize their contributions, through rituals or awards, or just promoting the remembrance of those experiences.  The thing NOT to do, though, is to be dismissive of these emotions.  To do so does not benefit the members, who you asked to create trust and bond to solve your challenge, and now as we need to sever those ties, we need to honor that and give it the proper farewell.

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