How to build effective teams

Adam Ambrozy

Introduction As we gain experience collaborating with others, most of us naturally start noticing parallels between the different teams we’ve been part of. Maybe it’s the realization that giving feedback is important, or maybe it’s that a certain communication style cools the air during a conflict. Humans are naturally drawn to collaborate and as we grow older, we develop conscious and unconscious habits to support how we work with others. We acquire most of our habits by trial and error, however there are well-researched tools out there to help us resolve conflicts, understand the people around us, and improve our skills als leaders and collaborators. One of these tools is the Integrated Model of Group Development by S. Wheelan.

Maturing into valued collaborators The Integrated Model of Group Development by S. Wheelan, builds on Tuckman’s original framework and takes the perspective that groups achieve maturity as they continue to work together.

Early stages of group development, when a team first forms or a new member joins, are associated with specific issues and communication patterns such as those related to dependency, counter-dependency, and trust, which precede the actual work conducted during the later, more mature stages of a group's life.

Stage One: Dependency In this first phase of group development members are very dependent on their designated leader. Often concerns about safety, inclusion, and likability arise. If there is no designated leader, dominant group members are likely to take over and provide direction. As one or more members of the group are new, they are likely to bond over activities and topics that are not relevant to the group goals. Bonding happens by spending time together, sharing personal stories, and observing each other in different situations.

In this first stage, the foundation for trust is laid. It takes a certain level of trust for members to be able to openly discuss their concerns and deal with their fear of rejection so they can finally focus on achieving the group’s goals and move on to the next stage of group development.

Stage Two: Conflict This stage of group development is characterized by conflict. Members begin to openly disagree about goals, values, and procedures. This often leads to conflicts and confrontations. To resolve conflicts, it’s important to take the time to develop a set of goals, roles, values, and agreed-upon processes. The task in itself is likely to generate some conflict, however, once these are resolved, can lead to improved collaboration in the long run and most of all generates trust and a safe climate that is necessary for healthy collaboration.

Stage Three: Trust Only if the group manages to work through all of the conflicts that arise in the previous stage, will it reach the third stage of group development. This stage is characterized by a high level of trust, member independency, commitment to the group and its goals, as well as a willingness to cooperate effectively to avoid conflict and increase performance. Discussions become more mature and members strengthen their relationships with each other. Communication usually is open, transparent, and task-oriented.

Stage Four: Productivity While all stages of group development are important, this fourth stage is often seen as the desired outcome of any kind of collaboration. It’s characterized by high productivity, effectiveness, and a focus on performance. Due to resolved conflicts and having developed a unified set of values and procedures in the previous stages, the group can now focus purely on achievement.

It’s important to mention that those groups who have a distinct ending point often experience a fifth stage. That ending point can be a member leaving or the project being finished. This termination may cause disruption and conflict. Potential separation issues should be addressed by i.e. expressing appreciation to each other or sharing a Closure Experience (introduced by Joe Macleod). A leader should now step in and guide the group through this phase of reorientation.

Collaboration is like any other relationship: non-linear Collaboration works like most relationships: it takes dedication and sometimes hard work. It’s non-linear and can change quickly when the circumstances change. As soon as a new member joins the group, a member leaves, the leader changes, or something happens that massively effects the group’s purpose, the group falls back into the first stage. Naturally, the newly formed group now needs to go through all the stages again. When you break up with your partner and start dating someone new, the trust building process starts fresh. Groups work just like this.

In today’s times of high employee turnover and competitive project work, excelling leaders need to know the different focuses of each stage and what is required in terms of leadership in each one. Only then will they be able to form and maintain effective, high-performance teams over and over again.

Much like life itself, group development is non-linear. Only leaders who acknowledge this nonlinearity with all the challenges connected to it will be able to build thriving teams in the long run. If you’re a leader on the journey to building a high-performance team, it’s important that you practice self-awareness and other important traits of high EQ (“emotional intelligence”, a human’s awareness of others’ and their own emotions), such as empathy, social skills, and self regulation.

A different leader for each stage As the short descriptions of the group development stages already imply, groups require a different leadership style in each stage. In the first two stages, leaders need to be very present, offer continuous guidance and feedback, and hold up the group’s shared goals. As the group progresses into the third and fourth stage, leaders are required to step back and let the group members work more independently. In a highly productive stage four team, the leader ideally acts as a guiding light, rather than being actively involved in each member’s tasks. Leaders who want to guide teams effectively must understand and adapt their leadership style to each stage, much like a parent adapts their actions towards their child as it matures through different stages of development.

The 10 key areas of successful group development Based on the research of more than 700 teams, Susan Wheelan suggests that there are ten key areas that team members should be aware of and aligned on in order to perform at their best:

1. Goal Setting Aligned goal setting helps teams focus on a shared goal and keep their eyes on the prize. There are different methods to practice aligned goal setting. A simple but effective framework is the SMART-goals method. According to this framework, to ensure goals are clear and reachable, each one should be:

  • Specific (simple, sensible, significant),

  • Measurable (meaningful, motivating),

  • Achievable (agreed, attainable),

  • Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based)

  • Time bound (time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive)

This is only one of many frameworks leader can use to align team members around a shared goal.

2. Role Distribution Who is responsible for what? While most team members tend to bring different skill sets and backgrounds and therefore naturally take on certain tasks, it’s still important to clarify who is responsible for what. By setting clear expectations on each role and agreeing on them, psychological safety is created. According to research, this perceived safety is a key-driver for innovation, creativity, and performance. Besides setting clear expectations, regular feedback, another key area of successful group development, also contributes to creating and maintaining this safety. A leader’s responsibility is to ensure each member knows what’s expected from them.

3. Interdependence How do members depend on each other? Does member B’s task require the delivery of member A’s task? How does member B’s progress affect the rest of the team? Without a true understanding the nature of interdependence and an honest effort to nurture it within a team, other values erode. Success of the mission becomes more elusive.

Interdependence is a collaborative value that naturally develops with a sense of community. The result is synergy, which enhances a group’s strength. The characteristics of a team with high interdependence include high levels of team member information sharing and service to one another’s success. Improvements in team interdependence increase improvements in trust, genuineness, empathy, risk and success.

4. Leadership As mentioned earlier, different stages of a group’s or team’s development require a different type of leadership. While the first two stages require a more dominant leader, stage three and four function better if the leader gives members more independence. As the previous point illustrates, a leader also needs to be aware of how team members depend or not depend on a respective leadership style and its tactics.

5. Communication and Feedback Open communication and continuous feedback are key to achieving the final, high-performance stage of a team. To ensure both are practiced regularly, it can make sense to schedule feedback sessions and time for reflection in advance. Leaders can try out different methods of giving feedback in order to discover the one that works best for a particular team. You can find some suggestions for feedback sessions here, in the Hyper Island Toolbox.

6. Discussion, Decision Making and Planning Some teams define processes and rules for how to handle discussions, ideation, decision making, and planning. Even if a leader decides not to define clear processes for the above, it’s important to talk about expectations and outcomes of different steps in the team’s performance journey. Who leads discussions? How are decisions made? What happens when a milestone is reached or something fails? While in the early stages of team development the leader will likely be responsible for most of the planning and decision making, it may naturally evolve that certain team members take on more responsibility.

7. Implementation and Evaluation After members have been working together for a while it’s important to make space to evaluate how the collaboration has been functioning. Are the agreed-upon processes and methods actually supporting each member or have difficulties emerged? It may be necessary to adjust processes or communication or to implement new rules or routines. Remember, team development is not linear. By giving the team space to develop naturally, the need for adjustments and change will arise. While it’s easy to come up with a set of rules and guidelines, it can be difficult to implement. A leader must take the responsibility to hold each member accountable for following the rules, otherwise frustrations may arise. Why isn’t he following the rules? Why should I follow them? Especially when paired with regular feedback, members will expect actions to be taken to improve collaboration. Leaders must be aware of these expectations and have a clear plan for implementation.

8. Norms and Individual Differences Individual differences, such as in communication style or task management, can heavily influence collaboration. Members may have quirky behaviours, such as a short attention span or a need for regular alone time. By sharing these needs and behaviours in the beginning, members not only aid their bonding experience, but also minimize the fear of rejection.

Team norms are a set of guidelines that a team establishes to shape the nature of their interaction. Team norms can be developed during an early team meeting, preferably the first meeting, and more norms can be added as the team deems necessary or once evaluation is due. For most teams it makes sense to revise set norms on a monthly basis.

Once developed, team norms are used to help guide the behavior of team members and are used to assess how well team members are interacting. These guidelines enable members of a team to call each other out on any behavior that is dysfunctional, disruptive, or that is negatively impacting the success of the team's work - an important tool to manage individual differences.

A very useful framework to help with this key area is the Team Canvas. This model consists of 9 sections that structure your team culture conversation. You can think of the Team Canvas as a lunch box. The content of each section is quite different, but going through each type of conversation results in a great overall effect. You can read more about the Team Canvas in action here.

9. Team Structure and Optimization Most teams have highly-influential internal structures. This can mean anything from two members collaborating more with each other than others, a member collaborating a lot with people outside the team, someone having a very specific task, or any kind of reporting and communication flow among members. A leader should be aware of the structures in a team and how they affect collaboration, communication and, finally, performance. Once the structures are known, the team can work together to optimize them. It may also be the case that one or more team members become obsolete as project tasks become clearer and progress is made. It’s important to address concerns when this happens and to help members find additional tasks or, if necessary, support their journey of leaving the team.

10. Cooperation and Conflict Management What happens when a conflict arises? Are there processes in place that make it possible for group members to seek help and support when they are encountering a problem? Who manages a conflict? Is there a neutral third party or does the respective leader step in as a mediator? Especially as groups move into the second stage of team development, the need for conflict management increases.

Introducing the Integrated Model of Group Development to your team Do you want to introduce The Integrated Model of Group Development to your team? It’s not that difficult. At Innential we use the Integrated Model of Group Development and automate it to help you build high-performance teams. Educating team members about the model, the different stages and common scenarios, is an important first step. After members have been introduced to the concept, it makes sense to give them time to reflect on it. What stage do they think they’re in? Do they feel like their needs are being met? What key areas of development are most important for them right now?

While ideally you start working with the model as soon as a new team forms, it can prove just as helpful with already established teams that haven’t managed to move past the first two stages on their own. The nonlinearity of group development means that all stages will be experienced sooner or later. It’s never too late to start the conversation and start focusing on the key areas to aid your team on its journey towards high-performance.

Are you already working with The Integrated Model of Group Development? Do you need help getting started or are you interested in finding out what stage your team is in and how to adjust leadership? Reach out to us. With many years of experience, we’ve worked with teams all over the world to help them on their journey towards high-performance.