Getting comfortably lost: How to move your team out of the norming phase

How managers can help their teams fight complacency and become highly-performing units

Teams finding themselves coming out of the storming phase may view the next phase of team development as a longed-for utopia. After struggling through conflict, challenges and change, the norming stage can feel like you’ve finally reached solid ground after an arduous journey through choppy waters. People are engaged, working well together and starting to respect each other. Sounds idyllic right? So why would anyone want to move away from this comfortable state of productivity? 

Whilst it is very normal to want a breather after finally finding your groove, it’s also easy to get complacent and start coasting. At Let’s Talk Talent, we believe that in order to perform, people need to be regularly stretched and challenged. We believe in the 70:30 rule which states that for individuals and teams to be successful, the majority of the role they perform needs to be comfortable (70% in fact), whilst the remaining 30% should be more challenging, thus avoiding falling into routine. That 30% is the missing puzzle piece that will enable you to move your team from norming to performing. After all, performance is about being uncomfortable. 

So once your team has gotten their energy back, we think it’s time to pick up the pace a little and start thinking of moving up to the next stage of the Tuckman’s team development model: performing. Here are a few tips on how to challenge your people and help them become the kind of collaborative high performance unit every organisation dreams of.

Signs your team is stuck in the norming phase

A norming team will be functioning well overall, with a good performance level, and each member focused and working towards a common goal. Individuals develop trust, and even feel comfortable offering or receiving constructive feedback. But whilst there are many positives linked to the norming phase, the team could soon start to stagnate. Here are some of the signs it’s time to inject some new energy and motivation into the mix: 

  • You team may be consistently hitting targets, but is struggling to outperform them;  
  • The work doesn’t feel challenging or stretching anymore; 
  • Opinions are no longer challenged and a ‘hive mindset’ starts to set in (pay particular attention during team meetings and ideation sessions: if everyone seems to be agreeing all the time, it’s time to mix things up).

What managers can do to progress into the performing stage

As mentioned, the storming phase can sometimes be a little rough and it’s normal to want to take time to breathe and enjoy the moment once you’ve managed to find your footing. Some organisations or teams are also quite content with remaining in the norming phase. But for those who wish to regroup and continue their growth journey, we’d like to put one thing straight: pushing your team to become a high performance unit does not equate to “getting more sh*t done”. It’s about quality over quantity. So before anything else, define what growth means for you. Can you pick five key things that you want to excel at collectively? Make sure you all agree on what performing looks like for your team. 

It’s also key to mention that stretching your team is not something that can be achieved through one big grand gesture. It happens organically, by trying every day to come out of the business as usual mindset. It’s about pushing a little bit here and there, making little tweaks and keeping the momentum going. Here are some ways to do this:

Team performance tip 1: Promote idea generation

Put mechanisms in place to encourage innovative thinking. This can be done by organising ideation sessions, brainstorms, quarterly reviews or planning workshops that encourage people to take a fresh look at things. Here are a few exercise suggestions: 

  • Team stand-ups are a great way to get people talking and to generate energy first thing in the morning. With everyone standing up, each participant should go through what they are currently working on, what they have done recently and whether or not they are stuck on anything. Sharing knowledge could spark some useful discussions.
  • “Stinky Fish” is a short activity focused on sharing concerns and promoting openness. It gives participants the opportunity to clear the air and uncover areas where the team could improve. Find it here.

Other ways to encourage idea generation include discussion groups set up on technology platforms such as Teams or Slack, or ideas boards such as Trello or Miro.

Team performance tip 2: Get to know each other

Expressing opinions and challenging the status quo isn’t an easy thing to do. It requires a certain amount of trust and psychological safety. Individuals need to feel comfortable being themselves in order for innovation to happen. But trust is built over time and team members need to spend time together in order to learn to lean on each other. Which can be difficult to facilitate in a hybrid world where chance encounters for a social chat in the corridor are a thing of the past. You’ll have to work a little bit harder to find ways to recreate those watercooler moments. And don’t underestimate the importance of social events when focusing on improving team dynamics. Try one of the following in order to foster connections between your team members:

  • Set time aside for the ‘Personal and professional brand’ exercise. Ask people to create a mood board (with both words and images) summing up who they are and get them to explain it to the team. Watch out for emerging trends, both in similarities and differences, during the discussion.  
  • Alternatively, simply get people to share the one thing that is not on their CV. This is a quick and very simple way of getting to know people.

Tip 3: Optimise your processes

Constantly reviewing existing processes and tasks will allow you and your team to optimise them on an ongoing basis. Just because something works doesn’t mean it cannot be improved, so stay open to suggestions and don’t be afraid to try new ways of doing things. Only by challenging business as usual can your team start to progress towards performance and become a collaborative unit. 

Try a few of the following to facilitate team processes optimisation: 

  • Project retros offer a great way to inspect your latest outputs. Schedule those at regular intervals and ask the team for feedback on what went well, what didn’t go so well and what you can do to improve next time. 

The Hyper Island Toolbox ‘How might we’ exercise is also designed to help your team find ways to identify problem areas and approach them with fresh insight. Find it here.

Conclusion: How to move from norming to performing

As team members start to feel comfortable, it’s up to their team leaders to ensure individuals are challenged beyond the everyday normal. But as a manager, make sure you don’t go too far the other way by pushing your staff too hard or asking more than an individual can give. Use empathy, emotional intelligence and active listening to know when to strive for more and when to give your team room to breathe and recover. Reaching the performance stage requires a fine balance and you may not get it right every time. It’s ok. Don’t hesitate to ask for support if needed. 

And don’t forget that asking for different opinions and viewpoints, whilst essential to team growth, could lead to conflict erupting again. Don’t panic: you may be back in the storming phase temporarily, but your team is still further down the line and will be better equipped to resolve issues quicker this time around. So don’t be scared of pushing yourself and your team. Go ahead and set stretching goals, tweak things, find new ways to generate energy and motivation and get out of that BAU rut. As we like to say at Let’s Talk Talent: it’s all about being comfortably lost.

Find out how to drive a high performance culture.
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