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No Storm – No Team?

I recently conducted a session for senior managers of a large corporation seeking to inject a performance culture into, what is essentially a delivery organization. You know this type of company, or perhaps department. They work to a cost budget and at the end of the year, if they need more money it is made available!

One of the frameworks we discussed was Bruce Tuckman’s “Development Sequence in Small Groups; Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing”. Tuckman described the four phases of group development in this 1965 paper which was based on a study of 26 groups.

Forming is easy when the organization is new, like a startup, where the founding team starts out as a close-knit group, who over time add new hires, all of whom absorb the prevailing culture. In companies, however, teams or departments are already in existence and managers are dropped in with the mandate to build a high-performance culture. Easier said than done!

Tuckman described the Storming phase as a period of intragroup conflict. It is here that individuals seek clarification of their role, performance expectations are set and the manner of feedback or reporting is established. The question, I was asked was simple, can you skip the “storming” phase? My answer was a definite “No” you can’t. Let me explain why storming is critical in building high-performance teams. In Tuckman’s research, groups were small and actually half did not go through the storming phase. He was explaining the evolution of groups in general. If you want to build a high-performance culture, then I do feel that “storming” is absolutely necessary.

It is only natural that motivated members of a team (or leaders) will set high targets and these expectations will not be shared by all on the team. Without regular and honest feedback or appraisals members of the team would be left guessing where they stand, both individually and as a group. The way family ties evolve is quite similar and many (including myself) will have experienced family disputes. If the desire amongst family members to honestly to discuss and resolve issues is commonly held, the family is able to stay together, else the family bonds get eroded. Perhaps it is the families that successfully negotiate the storm that gave rise to the expression “blood is thicker than water”.

In Asian societies, where confrontation is avoided, tenure is more important than competence you can never really get to storm! Compounding the problem is the need to “save face” so people rather hold their thoughts, suggestions, and feedback in order not to cause embarrassment. Without honest feedback, an understanding of the realities of the situation and clear goals, you don’t have a solid enough foundation to create a high-performance culture.

This is one reason I strongly advocate the adoption of entrepreneurial management. In a startup, emotions always run high. For most of these companies, their very survival depends on pushing each other to perform, being honest and open with criticism. Just as the founders don’t worry about the rules of management, they also don’t worry about the rules of etiquette. You only have to read how Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Steve Ballmer, etc. conduct meetings to know that feedback is immediate, direct and relevant. This sets the culture of the organization as it grows.

That’s why with Asian teams’ managers need to be armed with the skill to address issues without the emotional and personal tags. Managers need to learn the skill to be constructive and teams need to be conditioned to receive feedback in an open manner. One caveat though. In order to impose this level of honesty on large organizations, it needs to start with the senior leadership team. This is critical, but once you are committed to open, honest conversations, you can take these steps;

  • Understand how and why your company operates. What’s the purpose of your organization? Develop a clear and powerful story that will engage not just your employees, but also your customers.

  • Teach Managers the skills of asking tough questions and holding people accountable. Conduct regular feedback sessions and keep them independent of the annual performance reviews.

  • Be transparent about remuneration, incentives and bonus schemes. Recognize that in your team, you will have performers and others. It’s simply not possible to cut out the non-performers. You need to weed out the truly destructive people, but for the average performers, assure them a place in the organization, but also make it clear they cannot expect the same rewards as the performers.

  • Use technology. A lot of problems in organizations happen because of the paucity of information. This is an easy fix.

Of the nine Entrepreneurisms that successful entrepreneurs practice, four are particularly relevant to high performing teams. These are; Passion, Learning, Realism, Persuasion, and Execution. Get these hard-coded into your organization and you will have the foundation on which build high-performing teams.

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