Leadership and the stages of team development

By Linda F. Willing
RealWorld Training & Consulting

The way groups of people develop into teams can be characterized by the model "Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing." In each phase, groups have different competencies and needs, and leadership responsibilities change. 

In this initial phase of team development, members are selected and begin to explore what is expected of them.  They want to know the rules and how they fit in. During this phase, it is critical that leaders establish clear ground rules and demonstrate a genuine concern for those they are working with. Conflict is less likely at this point because everyone is new and trying hard to be on their best behavior.
In the second phase, interpersonal differences emerge and conflict becomes more frequent.  his can be a creative as well as a difficult time. It is critical that the leader do nothing to violate the trust of the team during this phase. This is the most important time for good leadership, and small things count.  Anticipating the difficulties and preparing to handle the inevitable conflicts will help the transition to the next phase.

If a team makes it through the storming phase, things settle down into focusing on the task at hand.  Standard ways of doing things are developed and accepted. Team members may downplay conflict because they fear it will make them revert to the uncomfortable storming phase of development. Leaders must continue to lead by example and avoid being arbitrary in decision making. The team itself takes on more of a decision making role. 

In this phase, a team operates smoothly and effectively handles conflict as it comes up. There is a high level of mutual trust among all members and productivity and morale are high. At this point, leaders can step back and let the team members be largely self-directing. In fact, one of the dangers of this phase is over-management by leaders, which can lead to resentment or apathy among team members. 

Storming can be the most challenging aspect of team leadership. It is easy to assign blame for the conflict to a so-callled problem employee, and try to resolve the conflict by transferring that employee to another work group. This action may seem effective in the short run, because by reconfiguring the teams, everyone reverts to the forming phase of development, where conflict is less likely. But if the root cause of the problem is not recognized and dealt with, chances are the problem will reoccur, only now in two groups instead of just one.

Leadership is about solving problems and doing what is necessary for the situation. Understand leadership roles at different stages of team development, and experience the satisfaction that goes with developing a group of people into a truly high performing team.

Linda F. Willing is a retired career fire officer with more than 20 years experience in the emergency services. She currently works with RealWorld Training & Consulting, a company that specializes in providing customized solutions for organizations in the areas of leadership development, conflict resolution, diversity and change management, and team building. She is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum developer for the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program. Linda has a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MS in management science from Regis University in Denver.

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