Impulses / Texts

High Performance Teams - a Question
of Group Dynamics

Dr. Arlena Jung

High performance teams - the goal and desire of most team leaders.

When dealing with complex tasks the performance potential of teams is almost always higher than any one individual – especially if the teams characterized by complementary fields auf expertise, experience and role behavior. Many teams, however, never reach their full performance potential. More often than not the reasons is a dysfunctional group dynamic. Team leaders often are painfully aware of the symptoms of dysfunctional group dynamics: team members lacking a sense of accountability, power games, absentism and a high employee fluctuation rate.

What, however, are the causes? In order to fulfill your role as a team leader it is important to have a differentiated understanding of group dynamics.

One of the most well-known models for understanding group dynamics is the 4-Phase Modell of Bruce TUCKMAN (1965). Tuckman distinguishes between 4 phases: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. This is a linear-progressive model, meaning, that in order to get to the next phase every team has to pass through this exact same sequence of phases.

As everybody who has worked in more than one team knows, no two teams are exactly alike. The individual personalities of the team members, the organizational context and the leadership style of the team leader all leave a deep imprint on the team characteristics and culture. Despite these differences all team go through the 4 phases described by Tuckman.

So what characterizes these 4 phases? What challenges are inherent to each of these phases? And what can team leaders do, to successfully guide their teams through these phases, assuring they met their full performance potential?


Forming: (Un)Certainty and (Dis)Orientation

Team Members: Needs and Behavior

In this phase team members are usually strongly oriented to the signals and behavior of the team leader. They expect and want to be given orientation and certainty. What professional norms and rules count in this team? What is expected of me as a team member and in my specific role? What do I have to do, to gain approval and appreciation? What can I expect from my supervisor and from my team mates?


Team Leader: Challanges and Success Strategies

What happens in this phase has a lasting impact on trust, mutual appreciation and the quality of team culture. Team leaders are well advised to reduce the performance pressure as new teams and team members come together and make time for teambuilding measures.

In this phase the team leader functions in many ways as a role model. Thus his mindset has a deep impact on shaping team characteristics and culture. If he manages to give team members a sense of security and confidence they will develop an sense of belonging and increasingly identify with the team and with teams goals. Depending on the organizational context and the personality of the team leader this requires a high degree of self-management skills. Why? In the early stages of the team building process the team leader is preoccupied with the same concerns as the team members. He too is wondering what his employees expect of him and what he has to do to gain their respect and acceptance.

In addition to focusing on their self-management skills what team leaders need in this phase is the willingness to engage in open conversations with their employees. Only then do then can they gain a better understanding of their individual goals, needs and expectations. Theses conversations are time well invested in laying the foundations for working relationships based on mutual understanding and trust.

How much time and patience you should invest in the forming-phase depends greatly on the characteristics of you team members. Do you have team members that need a lot of time to build trust or extroverted employees with an open mindset? Do you have employees who need and expect a lot of structure and clarity in terms of tasks, responsibilities, expectations and processes or employees with a hands on approach?

Teams that get stuck in this phase develop into what I like to call lukewarm soup kitchens. Team members prioritize maintaining good relationships over standing up for quality criteria they see as critical. Having a good working climate and not risking any time of controversy becomes more important than performance quality. As a consequence team members fail to develop a real commitment to team goals. These teams are completely lacking the high energy and engagement levels of high performance teams is lacking.

In order to prevent teams from getting stuck in the forming phase team leaders need to set clear signals with regards to their expectations regarding accountability and the quality of performance.

The key leadership challenge in the norming phase is maintaining the balance between:

  • investing time in building trust and engaging in open dialogues, which requires reducing performance pressure and
  • introducing clear norms and rules with regards to accountability and quality criteria

If you wait to long for introducing clear norms and rules with regards to accountability and quality criteria your team will learn that there are no real consequences for breaking these norms and rules. Being very clear about your expectations and what you are not willing to accept both in terms of behavior and quality standards may, however, very well, intiate the beginning of the storming phase.


Storming: Standing up for Yourself and Your Values as a Team Leader

Team Members: Needs and Behavior

In these phase team members have established as sense of belonging and feel relatively secure. They begin to gain the courage to openly speak their mind and stand up for their individual perspectives and interests.

The group dynamics in this phase are characterized by confrontations and emotional tension. Areas of dissent and conflicts of interest come to the surface. Role conflicts emerge. At least some team members usually become somewhat rigid in their standpoints and insistent when it comes to their individual interests. Endless debates and discussions – at times even about trivial matters – seem unavoidable. Mistakes and failures seem to invariably trigger discussions about how’s fault it is.

In and of itself it is a good thing that team members are willing to openly address differences and stand up for their individual interests and perspectives. One of the key risks in this phase is that role conflicts, conflicts of interests and perspectives start turning into relationship and value conflicts. The challenge is to establish a constructive and solution-oriented problem culture in your team. If you don’t conflicts will arise at every corner. The consequence: mutual mistrust, micro-politics and power games. A conflict dynamic develops that team members are no longer able to master of their own accord. Individual team members leave the team or are mobbed out.

The topic over which these conflicts arise vary from team to team. The underlying issue is, however, always the same: Are my team mates and supervisor willing to acknowledge and accommodate my individual interests and perspectives? And underlying this issue is an even deeper issue: Are my team mates and supervisor willing to accept, acknowledge and accommodate me as an individual with individual needs, preferences and stand points? If team members get they are not seen and respected as individuals there are two possible paths they will inevitably take: engaging in an endless struggle for this acknowledgment or emotionally disengaging. Both paths very negative effects on motivation and performance.


Team Leader: Challanges and Success Strategies

Team Leaders need a high degree of conflict competence in this face. But what exactly does conflict competence mean?

Both team leaders and team members often equate conflict competences with assertiveness. As conflicts arise they expect their supervisors to assert themselves, establishing clear rules, norms and solutions that are not up for debate. Enforcing these standards is seen as the key to avoid time consuming and emotionally taxing conflicts.

Solutions dictated top-down are seldom a lasting and constructive method of conflict resolution – especially not in fields based on cooperative and collaborative working relationships. Cooperation, collaboration and real team work is founded in the intrinsic motivation of team members. And intrinsic motivation depends not only on the identification of the team members with the team goals but also the identification with the team and mutual understanding and respect within the team.

In this phase a key responsibility of team leaders is to recognize conflicts and proactively deal with conflicts and tensions as they arise. Left to themselves conflicts have a tendency to escalate and the longer they are not dealt with the more difficult they are to resolve.

How team leaders deal with team conflicts has a deep and lasting impact on team culture. Although this phase is, of course, challenging for everybody it also is an opportunity. It is an for establishing an constructive solution-oriented team culture and building trust. High performance teams are not characterized by a lack of differences. What is characteristic of high performance teams is the open and solution oriented mind set with which the face challenges and address internal conflicts.

The challenge team leaders face in this phase is to use the issues that surface as a chance to establish team culture defined by a shared responsibility for developing constructive solutions. Only then have you managed to lay the foundation for a trust-based, solution-oriented working culture.

And in order to lay the groundwork for this team culture team leaders need to be able to remain neutral. It is important to both recognize the many often implicit invitations to take a side and to consequently ignore them. What the team leader needs is a mindset enabling him to understand and express understanding for different perspectives, interests and needs. If you succeed in remaining open and solution-oriented even and in particular in difficult situations you will not only build trust but also function as a role model for the type of mindset you want to cultivate in your team. Maintaining this mindset in challenging situations is what conflict competence as a leadership quality means. Conflict Competence -
A Key Leadership Quality

At times it is, however, indeed important to be assertive and taking a stand in order to show what you are not willing to tolerate and what expectations you have that are not up for negotiation. This, too, is an important aspect of conflict competence as a key leadership competence. In order to find a balance between these two aspects team leaders need to develop a high degree of inner clarity concerning their goals and expectations. If they do not manage to achieve this inner clarity they will not be able to transport the sovereignty they need to take a stand. They will not be able to communicate their positions clearly. And at least as important: Inner clarity will allow you to gain the inner independence you need to take a stand and make meaningful decisions that are, however, not always popular.

In short, in the storming-phase team leaders need the ability to switch between to roles: The role of a moderator and the role of a decision maker. As a moderator the team leader facilitates a constructive process in which the team members share the responsibility for finding viable solutions. As a decision maker the team leader has a more assertive role, in which he is willing and able to take a stand, be clear on what is not negotiable, set boundaries and if necessary make unpopular decision.

Maintaining the balance between these two roles is not only a matter of inner clarity and mindset. It is once again also a question of moderation techniques and communication skills. The team leader needs to be able to assure that all relevant position and arguments are brought to the table, heard and understand. He then also needs to be able to facilitate a constructive dialog on the issues at hand. Last but not least he needs to be able to take a stand and communication his own position without being derisive or wishy washy.


Norming: Meta Communication & Solution Orientation

Team Members: Needs and Behavior

If you do indeed succeed in establishing a constructive solution-oriented team culture you have set the stage for the norming-phase. The norming-phase is characterized by meta-communication in which team members openly negotiate the norms and rules of their team work. Although constructive and solution-oriented the team is more preoccupied with resolving internal issues than with delivering top-notch results and meeting customer needs.

Team members are willing to understand and accommodate the differing interests and perspectives of each and every individual team member. The team has, however, not yet succeeded in establishing a common understanding of team norms, roles, quality criteria and accountability standards. Team members, however, already share the trust-based conviction that a win-win solution is possible. This team building phase is characterized by a positiv atmosphere and an open mindset.

If the team does indeed succeed in coming to an working agreement on these issues the already existing trust and mutual appreciation will deepen and grow. The team has already succeeded in overcoming its first crisis together. The sense of belonging is strengthened which in turn leads to the emergence of the feeling of being a real team. The politeness characteristic of the forming-phase is replaced a genuine openness based both in mutual trust, sympathy and appreciation.


Team Leader: Challanges and Success Strategies

Establishing a trust-based, constructive communication culture is very conducive to the development of high performance teams. With the establishment of this team culture, however, the orientation of team members to their team leaders is in many ways reduced. The orientation to shared norms and goals increasingly replaces the orientation to hierarchy and formal positions.

Good team leaders need to be able to feel secure on the side lines and at least periodically leave the stage to team members - especially and in particularlly when things are runnding smoothly.

The process of negotiating group norms and rules is, however, not without risk factors. One risk factor is that team members get stuck in a permanent negotiation and re-negotiation process. In these cases the team increasingly focuses on time and energy consuming conversations about individual needs and expectations rather than producing results. The longer the team is stuck in this phase the more likely they are to fall back into the storming-phase.

Teams that get stuck in the norming-phase remain far behind their performance potential.

Teams that get stuck in the norming-phase remain far behind their performance potential. In this phase professional and effective team leadership is very similar to the role of a moderator and facilitator. Using solution-oriented communication techniques the team leader helps his team finds its own solutions. Using question techniques and moderation techniques he assures that important implications, quality criteria and issues are not forgotten.

Performing: Alingment, Accountabiliy and Optimization

Team Members: Needs and Behavior

The team has now developed into a mature performance-oriented team. The team members work together cooperatively. Team roles, responsibilities and tasks are defined in accordance with situational demands. Team members willingly accommodate each other. The working climate is characterized by a high level of commitment to team goal, mutual trust and respect.

This team-phase is described as a phase of interdependence: Team members know they depend on each other to meet team goal in the required timeframe and quality standards. They trust each other and respect each other’s competences and experience team work as being mutually beneficial. Successes are celebrated together. Mistakes are seen as a chance to learn and grow both individually and as a team.

Team Leader: Challanges and Success Strategies

This team-phase is characterized by a high degree of efficiency, positive energy and confidence. In this phase leadership is about supporting team members in finding their own solutions and acknowledging their accomplishments. At the same time it is his responsibility to assure that the team is not consumed by the workload of day to day operations. It is his job to make sure they have the time and energy it takes to continually optimize processes and strategies, continually learning and growing as a team. It is in this phase that team leaders can fully live their leadership role as a facilitator and mentor.

Providing the time and space teams need to learn and grow as a team also means cultivating forming- and norming-rituals at regular intervals. Rituals such as wine evenings and pizza lunches (forming) or retrospectives and feedback-sessions (norming) may feel to team leaders like unnecessary accessories in well-functioning teams. They are, however, much to the contrary, crucial to building-trust, commitment and a sense of belonging and mutual sympathy – a precious resource for getting through the next storming-phase amplitudes.


In some ways the challenge of team leaders is always the same. No matter what the specific team tasks, what the personality traits of the individual team members and no matter what team-phase the team is in he must always balance two key goals: cultivating a trust-based team culture of mutual understanding, respect and sympathy while at the same time enforcing the standards required for constructive, performance and result-oriented work.

In order to successfully meet this challenge team leaders need a differentiated understanding of group dynamics. Forming rituals, for example, while a good idea in newly found teams and well functions teams are counter-productive if not downright cynical in the midst in a team full of micro politics and power games. What teams need in these contexts are not forming-rituals but interventions that bring the underlying issues out into the open and facilitate a constructive solution-oriented dialog.

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