On normalcy during team forming

Background: Bruce Tuckman in 1965 published a model for group development known as “Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing” which is now pretty much considered the standard for understanding and categorising team dynamics, at least by lay-people such as me in the commercial space. It’s a model that I employ daily and it has never stopped being useful to me.

A kind word of note: if you have studied Psychology at University, chances are this post will be insultingly benign- forgive me please, I’m looping in things I know little about (I’m reading and learning) to team situations I live in everyday and most likely will do so poorly. I studied Sociology at University briefly back in 1994 and wish I’d studied more, you will too 😉

I’d like to explore one section in particular which is the Forming stage.

The Forming & Storming stages are my favourite phase of all the stages because there is so much emotion and guardedness as well as influencing by many of the parties- but there is also an unspoken drive to achieve, even if it is just the team’s successful formation.
An aspect of this is achieving “normalcy”, it could be finding the standard operating method that the team will work, or even how they’ll communicate with each other. If anything, I wish humans were a bit slower as this process seems to end so quickly in most teams I’m a part of. There is so much I’d love to do in this stage but alas it is gone all too quickly- at least until the next team member change (and we start all over again).

Normalcy interests me as the individuals each have a completely different aspect of what they consider normal elsewhere and here, in this moment. Some for example want to bring how they did it at the last place and bring it here carte blanche. Others though were dissatisfied at their last place and want to do it differently here. Others are passionate and yet others again could careless. Some want to find out how it is done in the existing culture, others want to create a new culture or are completely ignorant of it. Some, are using criteria to make decisions and are aware of it and how it will impact others and themselves.

I find this fascinating and also particularly challenging as it is like a grenade is going off inside all these different people, all at once. Some manage it well, others barely manage it at all. I’ve witnessed a situation 5 months ago where several members of the team had experience with change coaching and perhaps that influenced what happened- direct and clear communication. It was the smoothest and simplest formation I’ve ever seen. Everything seemed effortless as short and medium term friendships were quickly formed and long term ones were rekindled.

The individual in the forming & storming stages is also a huge area for exploration. We don’t know how to behave, what is ok and what isn’t. Nothing is normal yet. What could be normal? Our hopes, dreams and fears are laid for all to see whether we’re prepared for it or not. There are also influencers- both intentional and unintentional. There is programming in that each is programming each other as to what they think normal should be. At this point it is all a negotiation.

I’m fascinated by the Sociometer theory published by Leary & Downs (1995) a nice little run down on it can be found here. I wonder how much of this comes into play when a team forms, especially in IT when there are roles that naturally work together and others that are less distinctly engaged yet they are a team. Do individuals feel left out? or do they expect it? are they resentful? If they are left out, when does that get resolved? In some situations others resolve it, in others the individual does- and in some- nobody does. This is especially evident in introverts- who tend to just want to be in the background.

From personal experience, I’ve found that my own role during forming & storming often sets the nature of my engagement for the remainder of the cycle as in once I’m categorised by others, or self categorised I find it difficult to change it mid-model evolution. It usually isn’t until the next major event and we start all over again that I exert influence over things that I found to be unacceptable. That is, normalcy to me personally is a short period of stabilisation before the next evolution. I know its coming, but I relax anyway until it is shaken.

The next evolution shakes normalcy so much that I do from time to time find myself wishing it “was like it was before” <person x/persons y joined the team> without ill-intent just that’s how I feel- longing for the past when things were simpler or more fun.
Returning to it seems so difficult that it feels implausible.

Another concept that grabs me, is how some teams seem to know they’re going to be high performing even during forming & storming. I wonder if how much Collective Self Esteem (Luhtanen, R., & Crocker, J. (1992)) actually plays out as in it seemed as though this team just knew they were going to be rockstars and that their idea of normalcy would eventually be everyone’s. They believed it, not in a win-lose kind of chest pump over the other teams, but rather as a ‘the vanguard, leading the way’ kind of momentum.

I could write more but I suspect I’m done for the day. I’m curious to know what experiences you’ve had during team formation and storming, what did you learn?

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