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Teams are constantly “storming”: Here’s how to do it well

Team storming — as defined by psychologist Bruce Tuckman — can be fractious. Done right, the benefits are immense.
A team of people standing around a table in an office.
Daniel Faro / Death to Stock
Key Takeaways
  • The team around us determines everything, from how much we enjoy work to how productive we are.
  • Close friendships between employees boost happiness, productivity, retention, and job satisfaction.
  • If your team isn’t clicking during the storming phase, you can rework the process.
Excerpted from Reworked ©2023 Nicholas Brealey Publishing, an imprint of John Murray Press. Reprinted with permission. This article may not be reproduced for any other use without permission.

Almost all of us will work with other people. Whatever the size of the organization we work for, or even if we work for ourselves, we will connect, communicate and engage with others. The team around us can determine everything, from how much we enjoy work and value the company, through to how productive we are. Other people are too important to ignore, and if things aren’t working, they need reworking. 

Gallup, the global analytics firm which gathers data from the workplace around the world, poses an interesting question in its annual survey: ‘Do you have a best friend at work?’ Many people still draw a line between home and work and therefore consider their best friend to be in their home sphere, possibly from school or the neighborhood where they grew up. However, Gallup is asking specifically about the workplace and places the emphasis on ‘best’ friend because it recognizes the impact of a meaningful and close relationship at work. So, do you have a best friend at work? 

Friendships at work used to be frowned upon. Even today some old-school managers don’t want people being too friendly at work as they view it as disruptive and counterproductive. They believe people will be too busy having fun and socializing to get the work done. Those managers are wrong. People who have a ‘best friend’ at work are shown to be happier and healthier in the workplace and are also seven times more likely to be engaged in their role. Not only that, close friendships between employees boost productivity, retention and job satisfaction. 

Those we work with have the ability to make us feel safe, motivated, connected and purposeful. However, they also have the power to disengage us and make us miserable, especially if team dynamics aren’t working or if we feel constantly at loggerheads with our co-workers. 

The idea of a team and team dynamics is a strange one. Within a team, we have a combination of many different people, with different ideas and personalities, all coming together to achieve the same goal. We get thrown together into the mix, under the heading of ‘team,’ and are expected to work well together. Like all successful relationships, a healthy team dynamic is going to take work and dedication. 

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We don’t get to choose our colleagues. In any other realm of our lives, if we were spending hours and hours together, we would think carefully about who we spend that time with. Imagine you had to go on holiday with a friend from your social circle. You wouldn’t leave that to chance. You would think carefully about who you wanted to spend the time with, who is likely to want the same type of vacation as you, and whose company you would enjoy the most. All of that is just for one holiday together, whereas we spend a third of our entire lives at work. Our colleagues really matter. 

Don’t panic if your team isn’t working, both literally and figuratively. If your team isn’t being productive and engaging in their work, or if they are not getting on together and you’re struggling to find your place in the team, then don’t panic. Teamwork can be reworked and made a lot more comfortable.

There is a very normal team process which the American psychologist Bruce Tuckman identified in 1965: the ‘forming, storming, norming and performing’ process. The forming and storming stages are typically where people may feel apprehension and see problems. Forming is your team coming together, and this is a constantly developing process as people join and leave a team, or team dynamics change (e.g. when a change in leadership occurs). When we are forming our teams, we are trying to figure things out, work out who is who, and trying to identify a role or ‘fit’ within the team. This can take quite some time, so if you are in a team and you feel you haven’t found your place yet, then don’t give up – it will happen. 

The storming stage is the one people find very challenging, and often panic about, but it is a normal part of teamwork and needs to be approached calmly. It is the storm before the calm where the team falls into norming, where they are working well and performing, where they can achieve excellence. Storming is the stage where all the different characteristics, ways of working, opinions and beliefs come to the surface and can clash with one another. Naturally, this can lead to some challenging conversations, and people can experience friction and conflict. 

By highlighting the normality of the storming stage, you can prevent it feeling personal and help your team to recognize it as a healthy part of team development.

The best way to manage this phase is to identify it, name it, and work together to move past it. Most people have heard of the Tuckman model, and storming, but some believe it happens on day one of a new team and then we all get past it and move on. But teams constantly storm. That’s OK, and it’s a normal part of team dynamics. Every new project or focus may lead to a storming phase as people challenge one another on the best way to do things or the roles each team member should take. 

By highlighting the normality of the storming stage, you can prevent it feeling personal and help your team to recognize it as a healthy part of team development. Clear identity of roles and responsibilities will help people through the storming phase, as it alleviates anxiety and gives a clear focus. Leave storming unchecked and you’ll find the team splits into different micro-teams based on similarity of thought and behaviors. This can lead to a rupture in the team which is hard to repair. Much like a split sauce, you cannot just leave it and hope it comes back together; it needs help. Revisiting roles, responsibilities, overall aims and the motivation for completion is a great way to reunite a split team and remind them of their joint purpose and the roles everyone has in achieving it. 

A storming phase is a really positive opportunity to grow and build psychological safety into the team. We can ask ourselves, ‘Are other people wrong or just different in their way of thinking?’ As we know, when we are uncertain, we tend to stick with what we know, and so we may side with people with similar thinking and ideas. This isn’t great for creative problem-solving or diversity as you will get the same ideas echoed back to you. 

Next time you feel your team is storming, deliberately seek out alternative views, work with people in the team you haven’t typically connected with. Name where you are, and tell people in your team if you are feeling a little lost or out of place. This creates the psychological safety to openly explore and discuss team dynamics and rework what’s needed to lead to positive change.

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