In this article Sefton Davies shares with us a perspective of team development and team dynamics that many of you will recognise as part of the story of your life. Do you remember that last conflict with a manager? Was he right to blame you and were you right to blame him? Was it that the basis of your interaction was not clearly understood? What are the principles of good co-operative working relationships? You will find Sefton's analysis of group dynamics and the development of co-operative working relationships in teams a very helpful guide in how to survive in a team.
In my work as a management consultant, I frequently encounter organisations whose performance belies the high levels of technical expertise, intelligence and commitment demonstrated by their managers. Examination quickly reveals that such under-performance derives, not from ineffective policies or individual incompetence, but from the interactions between them, i.e. process rather than performance. This factor, often referred to as group dynamics, needs to be understood and utilised if an organisation is to achieve its full potential for effectiveness.
The nature of organisations
Organisations are comprised of people who share a common task and who combine in a structured and systematic manner to achieve its successful completion. Observation of successful teams reveals common qualities such as:
all team members fully understand, and are committed to, the team task
at any one time there is a recognised leader who provides a sense of common direction
they work for the success of the team, rather than for themselves
they support each other in their efforts and are concerned for each others' welfare
they enjoy working together
between them, members provide all the skills necessary to success
However, a team is more than just the sum of its parts, and the very highest levels of success depend upon that extra dimension of the team dynamic. To understand this, it is necessary to examine the ways in which teams develop from a collection of individuals. Much research work has been done on team development and although the terminology and detail many vary, a commonality of conclusion emerges.
The stages of team development
(1) The birth of a team occurs when a group of individuals is brought together to achieve a common task. Initially, they have all the qualities of individuality (personal ambition, self-esteem, the need for power and status, etc.) and are usually unknown to each other, at least in the sense that they have not explored their ability to work together. There is, therefore, an initial uncertainty both about the task itself and their relationships, and time must be spent in examining both of these. This is the first task of the leader, that is, the person who has brought them together. All team members will look to the leader to clarify direction, explain working practices, provide resources and prescribe the rules by which the team will work. This initial stage has been described as the 'forming stage', or the 'ritual sniffing stage', after the behaviour of animals encountering strangers.
During this early stage, members are circumspect about their relationships with others, and there is usually an air of extreme politeness and a stiffness in interpersonal behaviour, which produces nervousness and embarrassment, often demonstrated in cathartic laughter and forced humour. Members are not yet prepared to take any risks and tend to wait for the leader to initiate action, and to promote group activities through the allocation of roles and tasks.
The team is ineffective at this time, because its members are uncertain of their roles and their task. As vital energy is absorbed in establishing relationships and exploring means of co-operation, the sooner the team move away from this phase, the quicker the process of team development. The leader has an important part to play in this process, by undertaking to:
accelerate the process of familiarisation between individual members, e.g. by encouraging them, as soon as possible, to combine in group activities and to stimulate self-disclosure about their values and beliefs, concerns and hopes. The sooner members know each other, the sooner they will be able to establish effective working practices.
ensure that members understand and accept the team's task. This is not merely a question of definition, since it is important that members can readily support the values that underlie the task; otherwise commitment will be less than wholehearted. The participation of the group in articulating the task and its purposes is therefore critical to final success, and the outcome of the process is usually called the 'organisational mission'. This should be simple and succinct, and should be supported by all members of the team: if it cannot be then the mission must be modified or the team membership changed.
encourage members to contribute to the definition of acceptable and effective work practices. This requires the leader to promote the shift of power for decision-making, allocation of roles and work, etc., from self to group, while retaining the authority to ensure that the task is completed in accordance with the organisation's needs. Many leaders find this difficult, but unless it is done the team will maintain a dependence that is dysfunctional as it diminishes the utilisation of creativity and cooperation.
create a climate of openness and questioning which will accelerate the team away from dependence and the artificiality of the forming stage.
(2) Effective teams swiftly leave behind the forming behaviour described above and move towards interdependence, rather than leader-dependence, by challenging the artificiality characteristic of early interactions. This phase can be uncomfortable and is often known as 'storming', since hidden irritations and grievances are brought into the open and conflict can result: however, it is an essential development if the team is to become effective, since the 'hidden agendas' of an immature group cause energy to be diverted from the main task into posturing for status, power, etc.
Storming is characterised by the following behaviour:
the tangential exhibition of negative feelings, such as aggression, blaming, accusing or bickering. They are not open, honest expressions of genuine emotion, but snide and sarcastic comments, often disguised as humour or teasing. Such comments are rarely addressed directly to the person under attack, and are not 'owned' by the accuser. Rather they are oblique statements, using 'you' rather than 'I': 'You often feel like . ' rather than 'I often feel . '.
the projection onto others, particularly the leader, of feelings and thoughts belonging to the accuser. This is an indirect means of bringing concealed feelings into the open without risking the antagonism of other members.
intrigue and backbiting in small groups outside the main activities of the group, often directed at the leader or ridiculing the nature of the task and the group process.
This negative and dishonest behaviour may continue unless someone is willing to bring it to a head by a more forthright declaration of dissatisfaction about the group's performance. This makes possible the open examination of the hidden agendas present within the group, and their satisfactory resolution, but only if members are prepared to accept the uncomfortable criticisms that usually form part of them. Too often, the group 'sweeps the dirt under the carpet' and pretends that the issues have been resolved, but this only exacerbates the situation, since the irritations, grievances and dissatisfactions expressed have not been resolved but have generated new resentments in those who are targets of these criticisms and jibes.
(3) Some groups never leave the storming phase, and remain uncomfortable and ineffective teams that lurch from crisis to crisis and put unnecessary energy into quibbling. An effective leader can, however, use the energy of the storm to move into more productive behaviour if (s)he can:
accept the need for the group to air grievances and bring personal agendas into the open.
model the types of behaviour that will produce desired results, e.g. be being just, polite, caring and committed.
listen to oblique criticisms and bring them into the open by asking, in an assertive manner, for more information about them. This requires the strength to listen to direct criticism without being defensive or aggressive, and to indicate that members have the right to express their dissatisfactions so long as this is done openly and in a positive manner.
engage all members in a discussion of the criticisms expressed and stimulate group responsibility for finding solutions to them. By switching from the expression of negative criticisms to a search for positive solutions, the team begins to move towards effective performance.
use conflict resolution strategies to focus the group's energy on the root problems underlying the surface irritations. In severe cases, particularly when the storming has been prolonged and become part of the group's normal behaviour, external help may be needed to facilitate conflict resolution.
promote the definition of the norms by which the group wishes to behave. If this is done without prescription from the leader, the group begins to take responsibility for its own behaviour and the leader's role ceases to be a subject of envy and dissatisfaction.
If the leader is successful, the group can move to definition of how it wishes to proceed as a committed, effective team. This requires the establishment of a 'psychological contract' regarding acceptable behaviour, e.g., members will not interrupt others, will not discount the opinions of individuals, will confine criticisms to open expression within the group and will individually accept responsibility for drawing attention to breaches of this contract.
During this phase, roles may well be redefined and leadership may change hands or be redistributed among the members. Members whose behaviour is considered to be detrimental to the best interests of the team will be asked to change or, in extreme circumstances, leave. Members who have taken little part in team activities will be encouraged to do so and those who have dominated it will be asked to allow others to participate more fully.
(4) Only when group norms have been accepted and are being implemented does a team become truly effective since its energy is now focused on completing its mission. Members feel safe with their colleagues and team procedures and can commit themselves totally to the team. Morale is high and team members enjoy working with each other. Leadership becomes increasingly contingent on the particular task to be achieved and can therefore be in the hands of the member who at that particular time possesses the skills needed for success, although the nominated leader will still possess the authority to make final decisions.
Behaviour typical of this mature stage includes:
members support each other in their efforts and are willing to admit their own inadequacies by seeking help and sharing problems.
calculated risks are taken in the interests of the team, since members are not frightened of negative criticism.
feedback on performance is positive and flows easily between members, with much praise when appropriate.
decision-making becomes a team responsibility rather than the prerogative of the nominated leader, and lack of success emanating from poor decisions does not result in blaming.
information is readily shared in the interests of effective performance.
However, this ideal state is not permanent, since external events or unforeseen internal problems can sometimes cause the team to regress to the storming stage although such a setback is, of course, more easily rectified because the team has already learned how to resolve such conflicts. Team problems are most likely to occur if there is any change in team membership, since, even when only one member changes, it is essential to return to the forming stage and renegotiate the team's norms of behaviour.
Applying knowledge of the process of team development
Since it is the ambition of all organisations to be fully effective, it behoves managers to ensure that operational processes ensure success. Most managers have achieved their position because of technical expertise, i.e. they are expert in production processes such as engineering or teaching where their success is measured in added value, or because of political expertise, i.e. their ability to influence organisational policies, in which case their success is often measured in terms of added organisational status. However, such effectiveness also involves interactions between members of the organisation. In addition to technical and political skills, therefore, a fully effective manager needs to be able to form and maintain a team in which every member gives maximum commitment to the task. This can be achieved if:
each member is fully aware of, and has participated in determining, the organisational mission, which must be congruent with the beliefs and values of all its members. It is necessary to check periodically that this is still the case, since circumstances and experience can change perceptions resulting in a need to modify the mission.
performance is monitored to ensure that every action of each member of the team is consonant with its mission and that members' competency is maintained through the provision of appropriate training.
the team contains all the expertise needed for the task. While technical expertise is an obvious need, process skills such as leadership, creativity and conflict resolution are just as important but usually less recognised.
care is taken over forming the team to ensure that the process of familiarisation is rapid and complete. This implies early involvement in determining or modifying the mission, the opportunity for members to socialise and explore relationships and the deliberate opening up of hidden agendas by frank discussion, self-disclosure and positive feedback. The leader has a particularly important role here and can speed up the forming process by (a) assertively expressing his/her perceptions of the team's performance and (b) by inviting feedback from the team on his/her performance and responding to it honestly and without defensiveness, thus creating an atmosphere of openness and modelling the types of behaviour which will enable effective team formation.
any 'storming' is viewed positively as an opportunity for exposing hidden agendas and removing grievances. Again, the leader needs to set an example in active listening, willingness to confront issues in a caring way and by responding assertively to negative comments. However, it is important that (s)he gradually transfer accountability to the team itself by refusing to accept responsibility for what should be group decisions. The worst course of action would be to ignore storming in the hope that it will go away.
norms of acceptable behaviour are produced in response to storming. It is advisable for these to result from free discussion among team members rather than being prescribed by the leader. They should also be recorded so that reference to them can be made by any member of the team if it is felt they have been transgressed.
leadership is allowed to move around team members in accordance with their expertise. This contingency does not remove accountability for the group's overall performance from the nominated leader, who must retain the right to make final decisions however unpopular these may be, but will ensure that as far as possible decisions are the result of consensus among the whole team.
information is freely shared, although care needs to be taken that this does not result in information overload. It is therefore advisable to target members on a 'need to know' basis while ensuring that all information is available on request.
efforts are made to maintain group identity and to foster good relations among team members by enabling socialisation.
By following these guidelines, it is possible to build and maintain a highly effective team. However, potential leaders would be well advised to remember the characteristic of good leadership is ' . when his task is accomplished and his work done, his followers will say "it happened to us naturally"'.