A New Job, a New Dog, and an Old Paradigm
Reminding Me How to Inspire Groups At All Stages of Development
I started a new job last quarter. We adopted a dog. I visited my alma mater. Each time, I kept thinking about one person.
Twenty years ago, when I was working on my PhD in organizational communication, we spent a lot of time looking at Tuckman’s 1965 model of group development, with its catchily-named stages of Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning.
Whether you’re an entrepreneur leading a new team or figuring out how a wrinkly new dog fits into your family, I believe the model has a lot to teach about the practicalities of day to day life that impact our business and humanity.
In the Forming stage of group development, members are coming together and getting to know each other for the first time. My new job is at a company that recently was created by merging two competitors, and the sales teams I’m bringing together were at the tail end of this phase of development when I started— still showing the politeness and conflict avoidance that is typical of groups in this stage.
As a leader, it’s important to remind myself that these early-stage teams have members who feel uncertain about the future, and are looking for safety and approval. Some are excited about the possibility of a new change in direction, others are suspicious or pessimistic about change — but all are trying to figure out what is expected of them (and weighing whether they want to continue working with this newly-formed team).
If you’re the leader of such a team — whether as CEO of a newly-formed company, or as team lead of a new division — you’ll fill these needs by providing a clear mission and vision for the group, and encouraging conversations about the bigger, potentially controversial topics the group needs to tackle together.
At home, my husband, dog, and I are definitely in the Storming phase of group development. We’ve passed the getting-to-know-you formalities of adoption, and have now moved into what Tuckman says is the work of organizing tasks and processes that surface interpersonal conflicts.
The academic literature tells us that “leadership, power, and structural issues dominate this stage,” and we’ve found ourselves on more than one occasion standing outside an open door in the rain, doing everything we can think of to coax our good girl to cross the threshold and do her biggest work outside instead of on the dining room carpet.
When I arrived at the new job, my teams seemed squarely in the storming stage of development. We described it as being like a soccer team made up of five year olds — lots of energy, everyone swarming in the direction of play, but not yet mastering the nuances of elegantly passing the ball from one player to the next.
At a leadership offsite, we did an exercise where we posted big topics on the walls — lead generation, sales execution, talent development, and so on — and then anonymously posted red, yellow, and green sticky notes to them with comments about what was going well and not-so-well. It helped us identify places where we were in wild agreement with one another, places we had conflict to resolve, and opportunities for projects we should prioritize moving forward quickly.
If you’re leading a team in the storming phase of development, Tuckman says your focus on the interpersonal dynamics of the team is paramount. Listen. Give and receive feedback. Help clarify the team’s thinking on their purpose and their ways of operating, and help resolve conflict when group members violate what is becoming part of the group’s evolving codes of conduct.
Conversations about those codes of conduct signaled that my group had started to move into Tuckman’s Norming phase — where the group begins to find ways to work together more effectively. Groups in this phase develop a sense of cohesion and begin to establish norms and rules for how the group will operate.
We published sales playbooks. We created rules of engagement for tricky handoff points between departments in the customer lifecycle. We set our cadence of daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly meeting and activities — and began to develop more trust with one another, even as we uncovered the strengths and weaknesses that might not have been as immediately apparent in job application interviews.
With the dog, I’m desperately hoping we get into norming soon. I’ve pasted a sign on the wall that keeps track of how many accident-free days we’ve had since coming together. Our best record is three in a row. She may not fully understand what norms my poster is trying to reinforce, but perhaps I’m learning the nuances of her daily routines and when might be the most productive time to suggest going for a walk together.
These first three group development phases are a lot of hard work. But we do them in hope that they will lead to Tuckman’s Performing stage — that golden stage where the group is able to work together effectively and achieve their goals.
They have established a sense of trust and cooperation, and they are able to communicate openly and honestly with one another. They are able to solve problems together and make decisions as a team.
Sales teams make their quotas. Customer handoffs go seamlessly. Dogs recognize their names, and get praised for sitting, and staying, and dropping things on command. The group members crave recognition and shared leadership, and you can give both much more freely than in earlier phases.
It’s a place I’ve been successfully before — and I’m optimistic that I’ll be reporting back securely from this stage (at work and at home) in no time at all.
Indeed, there have been a number of great deals already closed by great sellers — and those wall-worthy three days of being accident-free at home — that show we’ve already got a lot to be proud of.
As I visited campus, I talked with former professors about this Tuckman-inspired way of seeing my work and home lives. They helpfully reminded me that groups don’t always follow these phases in a strictly linear process.
Some groups may skip stages or go back and forth between stages. People come and go from organizations all the time, leading to mini-forming or adjourning phases of development. There are big and small storming, norming, and performing behaviors going on all the time.
For the group leader, the key is to be thinking about which phases and needs might be playing out most predominantly in the group at any point in time, along with where each individual team member may be on the journey.
When it’s done well, we have a team that makes others sit up and pay attention, begging to be like us.
Looking for a quick takeaway? Here’s a summary of Tuckman’s stages that I regularly return to: