From “Storming” to “Performing”: Helping Teams resolve conflict and make the Leap

From “Storming” to “Performing”: a lighthouse in a stormy weather - teams conflict

If you manage a team, work as part of a team, or even think about teams in the workplace, you may have heard that teams go through distinct developmental stages.

American psychologist Bruce Tuckman writing in 1965, claimed that all teams must go through the stages of:

  • Forming – getting to know one another
  • Storming – conflict and frustration as early expectations aren’t fulfilled
  • Norming – increased comfort and acceptance of one another
  • Performing – successful focus on common goals

Later Tuckman (together with collaborator May Ann Jensen) added a 5th stage:

  • Adjourning (or mourning) – completing the task and breaking up the team

Not all teams make it to the “performing” stage. Some get stuck in “storming.” Unfortunately, there has been little research investigating why some teams pass quickly through the conflict stage and others get mired there. (And anyone who figures out how to predict which groups of people will make high performing teams will become very wealthy.)

Since storming is a normal part of team development, does it ever make sense to intervene in a team conflict? When is it better to let a team navigate conflict themselves and when is it time to intercede or bring in an external party?

There is no rule or agreed-upon norm of how long the storming stage should last. Some teams manage to combine high performance with a good deal of (healthy) conflict. As I’ve said before, not all conflict is bad. Rather than using the calendar to determine whether to intervene, you have to look at two things: 1) results (dysfunctional conflict tends to hamper performance) and 2) the behaviour of individual members.

Here are some signs that an intervention is necessary:

Harassing behaviours: These are actions that are known (or should be known) to be unwanted, such as yelling, using a harsh tone of voice, insults or demeaning remarks, off-colour jokes, and remarks that discriminate against identifiable groups. Of course, unwanted sexual advances belong on this list as well.

Scapegoating: If one person is persistently blamed for the team’s problems, you need to figure out what is going on. Is that person really a problem or is something else happening?

Indirect communication: Watch the body language of team members during meetings or when you see them interacting. Do you notice shrugged shoulders and eye-rolling rather than frank conversations? Do people seem reluctant to speak up in group settings? These are signs to investigate further.

Broken record syndrome: Do the same issues keep coming up again and again? This is a sign of unresolved issues. They will probably not get better on their own.

Emotional distress: If team members are showing signs of stress beyond what is normal for your workplace, it could be a sign of deeper problems. Start by offering support, then look deeper.

Any one of these signs should be a prompt to investigate, at the very least. The presence of two or more likely means that some kind of intervention is necessary.

About the image: Stormy weather #3 by José Moutinho via Wikimedia Commons