Career Coach: The psychology of building a work team

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, July 26, 2010

Whenever I ask a group whether anyone has had a bad experience working on a team, practically everybody raises their hand. The war stories they share about their teams from hell are intense -- stories about slackers and free riders and teammates with abusive personalities who cause undue stress. In this region, we hear plenty about the importance of working effectively as a team (or about the lack thereof) -- whether it's sports teams, union vs. management groups, nonprofits or different political parties on the Hill. Why are teams such a struggle and what does it take to have an effective one?

Many groups have used Patrick Lencioni's bestseller, "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team," to better understand their team dynamics. He covers 1) the absence of trust and openness among team members; 2) fear of conflict; 3) lack of commitment to a topic or plan; 4) unwillingness to hold teammates accountable; 5) and inattention to results and lack of focus on the collective actions that must be taken.

There are strategies for addressing these five dysfunctions -- and optimal ways to implement these strategies -- mapped out in the mid-1960s by psychologist Bruce Tuckman. He maintained that teams go through four phases: forming, storming, norming, performing before adjourning. Teams need to go through these phases to grow, to address challenges and tackle problems, to find solutions, to plan work and to deliver results. If we take certain actions at these various phases, we can also address Lencioni's five dysfunctions.

Forming: This is when team members get to know one another and build the trust that is critical for a strong foundation. Get group members to participate in various exercises to get to know one another better -- either through personality tools (e.g., Myers Briggs Type Indicator) or group discussions in which they share a little of their personal background (e.g., hobbies, family). The goal is for them to start feeling comfortable with one another and appreciate each other's unique style. Even if you have virtual teams, it is worth it to have them spend some face-to-face time early. Too many teams skip the getting-to-know-you phase in favor of getting right down to the task, but this social time together is critical for building trust.

Storming: At this stage, teams address issues such as what problems they are supposed to solve and how they will function. Some members may become confrontational as they vie for leadership of the group. In some cases, storming can be resolved quickly. In others, the team stays in this stage for a long time. It is important to address differences that arise and recognize and agree on how to manage these differences. Help teams understand that a healthy level of conflict is okay.

One idea: Have teammates complete a conflict management style assessment (e.g., Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument) so that they can see how they each respond to conflict differently and how they can manage their differences. They could also establish a team contract with agreed-upon ways to resolve conflicts, such as "conflict should be handled openly," "stick to the facts and avoid talking about personalities when discussing disagreements" or "all points of view need to be heard." It is also a good idea to appoint a devil's advocate, -- a person who challenges the team on its decisions. It will be important to rotate who plays this role to avoid having one person develop a reputation of being difficult to work with.

Norming: At this stage, teams agree on ways to work together, strengthen relationships and decide members' obligations. Teams often just let norms evolve that aren't effective (e.g., over time people come late to meetings, they are unprepared, they multitask during meetings, etc). It would be far better for the team to spend some time at the beginning to agree to some key norms regarding attendance, participation, quality of work, roles, processes to use, etc. This will help to avoid frustrations later on when things do not seem to be working out. Just establishing norms is not enough -- teams need to make sure they are actually living up to those norms. One of the best senior executive teams I have ever worked with actually put all of its agreed-upon team norms on a flip chart, which members brought to every meeting. They would review the norms before each meeting and then spend at least five to 10 minutes at the end of each meeting to review how successful they were at following the norms. Those meetings were probably the most productive I have ever witnessed.

Performing: At this point, the team is actually working toward project completion, with team members actively helping and encouraging each other and holding each other accountable. During this phase, it is important for team members to provide each other with feedback. For example, one exercise could be that they identify each other's single greatest strength and single greatest weakness in regards to the team's performance. Teams could also conduct after-action reviews of projects to learn and improve and celebrate successes.

Teams are used in everyday life to get things done, whether that means performing community projects, getting laws passed or making business decisions. There are lots of great ideas from research on how to make them work more effectively. Now all we have to do is adopt some of those ideas.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She can be reached at

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