There are several mental models that NouLAB uses to predict and understand group dynamics. One is Brian Tuckman’s ‘Developmental Sequence in Small Groups’, which outlines the phases most groups go through on their way to performing well together. This is a helpful model to be able to track where teams are in the formation process and to be able to best respond to what supports they might need. The phases are as follows:
In this stage, most team members are positive and polite. Some are anxious, as they haven't fully understood what work the team will do. Others are simply excited about the task ahead. Team leads play a dominant role at this stage, because team members' roles and responsibilities aren't clear. This stage can last for some time, as people start to work together, and as they make an effort to get to know their new colleagues.
Next, the team moves into the storming phase, where people start to push against the boundaries established in the forming stage. This is the stage where many teams fail. Storming often starts where there is a conflict between team members' natural working styles. People may work in different ways for all sorts of reasons but, if differing working styles cause unforeseen problems, they may become frustrated.
Storming can also happen in other situations. For example, team members may challenge authority, or jockey for position as their roles are clarified. Or, if you haven't defined clearly how the team will work, people may feel overwhelmed by their workload, or they could be uncomfortable with the approach being used. Some may question the worth of the team's goal, and they may resist taking on tasks.
Team members who stick with the task at hand may experience stress, particularly as they don't have the support of established processes or strong relationships with their colleagues. Norming. Gradually, the team moves into the norming stage. This is when people start to resolve their differences, appreciate colleagues' strengths, and respect the authority of the leader. Now that team members know one another better, they may socialize together, and they are able to ask one another for help and provide constructive feedback. People develop a stronger commitment to the team goal, and you start to see good progress towards it.
There is often a prolonged overlap between storming and norming, because, as new tasks come up, the team may lapse back into behavior from the storming stage.
The team reaches the performing stage, when hard work leads to the achievement of the team's goal without friction. The structures and processes that the team has set up support this well. The leader can delegate much of the work, and can concentrate on developing team members. It feels easy to be part of the team at this stage, and people who join or leave won't disrupt performance.
Many teams will reach this stage eventually. For example, project teams exist for only a fixed period, and even permanent teams may be disbanded through organizational restructuring. Team members who like routine, or who have developed close working relationships with colleagues, may find this stage difficult, particularly if their future now looks uncertain.
Another mental model that we use to help teams think about good team process and guide them in working together is the research that Google did on high-performing teams. The research showed that the make-up of high-performing teams could not be boiled down to any specific number or combination of people - that high performing teams often looked quite different - but that across the board, teams fostered what psychologists call ‘psychological safety’ for their members. Practically, this can be boiled down to: Equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and High average social sensitivity among team members. Essentially, in teams where one or a few people dominant the conversation, the overall intelligence of the group diminishes. Similarly, in groups that are poor at intuiting how other members are feeling by reading tone and non-verbal cues, the overall intelligence of the group again declines. Psychological safety is a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ and ‘‘describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’ (What Google learned from its Quest to build the Perfect Team, New York Times, February 28, 2016).
The above research sometimes needs additional reinforcement, in which case we draw on Tuesday Ryan-Hart’s work with power and privilege. She advocates for placing power dynamics and tensions on the table in order to work with them. Tuesday asks questions like: Who is talking? Who isn’t talking? Is everyone’s voice weighted the same? Are you on your phone/computer when others are contributing? Are you really listening or are you just waiting to speak? Who takes up space (literally - sprawled, and metaphorically - airtime)? Are you trying to convince your team of your way of thinking, or are you engaging in collaboration?
Power/team dynamics is something we all experience, and something to continually work on - this includes the facilitation team. It’s an inherent part of working with others - there’s no avoiding it. The important thing is to notice it, name it, and work with (through) it.