Why is our team like that?

Classes have not started, but my mind is exploding from all the pre-readings! :P

I’ve been doing some reading on teams.

Teams are important in the work environment: we organize work functions and processes around teams, we form teams to look into new issues, we build management teams to run organizations.

Yet, sometimes we don’t seem to understand them very well.

To begin, here’s a nice video on how a team differs from a group.

In short, a team differs from a group, in that:

  • the members depend on one another
  • there is a common goal, for which
  • the members are mutually accountable

In the ’60s, a professor by the name of Bruce Tuckman identified different stages to a team’s development:

1. A team forms when the members come together to work towards some goal(s) (called the “forming” stage of a team)

2. At some point, the members start to differ in views about what they should do, why and how etc. (“storming” stage)

3. Some teams are able to resolve their differences, towards a common goal and plan (“norming” stage).  But not all teams do so; some teams never quite move on from the storming stage.

4. Over time, teams learn to work better among themselves, and their outcomes improve (“performing” stage)

Others have built on Tuckman’s model.  For example, some have observed that a team need not always evolve in a straight-line fashion from #1 to #4.  Some teams can go from #3 (or even #4) back to #2.


With these theories, here are a few reflections on teams in our organizations:

1. If Tuckman is right, disagreements are part and parcel of a team’s development.  In fact, we should probably give sufficient time and space for all teams to go through this natural stage.  But often we don’t, and we are surprised when disagreements take place.  In fact, we may even frown on them, or worse, avoid or stifle them!  How often have we seen new teams formed to look into issues within a very tight timeline and expected to produce great results?  It goes against science!

2. Someone once said, “when a new leader joins an existing team, it becomes a new team”.  I thought this was so true, and many of us can identify with this when we have new bosses join our organizations.  If we look at this through the 3 characteristics of a team (listed above), we can see why.  A new boss alters the relationships and inter-dependencies within a team; sometimes they change the goals too! :)  When these change, the team may go through the stages of forming and norming again, as members figure out how to relate to the new boss and his/her expectations, and how to relate to one another.  In fact, this can happen even if the new person is not a boss but somebody junior.  In fact, any addition or subtraction shapes new dynamics and inter-dependencies.  (Of course, senior people may have a greater impact on a team.)

3. Sometimes, the new boss may actually be from the team.  Even though he/she may be part of the team, when he/she wears a different hat and takes on different responsibilities, that will alter the dynamics and inter-dependencies in a team.

4. During critical transitions, I have often heard people say things will be “business as usual”.  I suppose some bosses say this so as not to cause alarm among staff and stakeholders.  But many bosses seem to believe their own rhetoric (almost as if the business will go on as usual just because they say so!).  On the surface maybe, if the processes and protocols do not change.  But organizations run not only on processes and protocols, but also its people and teams.  When the composition of the people and the dynamics of the teams change, it is not quite the same organization anymore.

And there are many other observations we can draw.  But an important point across these is that bosses should probably pay more attention to transitions, for these are crucial moments in a team’s (and organization’s) development.  Sometimes, new bosses go into organizations with lots of exciting ideas and guns blazing.  For a while, the organization may feel a breath of fresh air, energy and momentum.  But if attention is not given to nurture team dynamics, and teams do not have the time and space to find their new equilibrium, they may not grow and it may be difficult to sustain the change over time.

If we believe that people and teams are the lifeblood of our organizations, we would do well to pay more attention to them :)


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