Getting out of the storming phase of team development

How to help your team move past conflict and into performance

Team development isn’t a linear process, and not everyone goes through the usual forming, storming, norming and performing progression in that particular order. Even performing teams can find themselves tumbling straight back down to the storming stage at any time. As Jo Taylor, MD at Let’s Talk Talent, says: “Sometimes, it all goes to hell in a handbag really fast.”

Whether it’s due to an allergic reaction to a new leader, a change in leadership style that rubs people up the wrong way or arguments amongst team members, conflict is unavoidable. 

When conflict does arise, it can be easy for managers to feel out of control and slightly… discombobulated. It’s important to remember that should your team find itself in the storming phase, it does not constitute a reflection of your leadership skills. However, whilst storming is normal and even a necessary step in the growth process, staying in it for too long can be unhealthy. “Ignoring it doesn’t work. The key is to diagnose it quickly and take fast action that will get you back on track” says Jo.

That’s why we’ve put together a few tips and tools to help you find out if you are indeed in the eye of the storm and if so, how to get out of it.

Signs your team is going through the storming stage

We all associate this step of the Tuckman’s team development model with open conflict and huge blowouts. But does every single argument mean you’re rolling back down the hill? “No”, says Jo. “Life isn’t a straight line. It’s squiggly, with highs and lows. Having arguments doesn’t mean you’re in the storming phase.”

So how can you determine if you need to set a plan of action in motion?

Here are a few telltale signs, with a couple of real life examples for good measure:

  • Regular disagreements and conflicts arise and team leaders are called upon to mediate. Here, a past client experience comes to mind. They asked us to intervene when new employees were brought in to the team to cover some knowledge gaps. With the newcomers experts in their fields, existing staff felt threatened and some sub-teams formed within the department; a huge impediment to teamwork and collaboration. 
  • There is a push against established processes and even the team’s purpose. People may ignore wider team goals and go back to being very insular, focusing on their own performance and objectives, as well as their set ways of working. 
  • Energy is spent on unproductive activities. Everyone seems busy, even overwhelmed, with workloads filled to the brim, but nothing seems to get done quickly. 
  • Some teams may start to show low engagement and motivation levels, as well as high churn rates. This is a dangerous situation; your best people may start leaving first rather than waiting it out as their expectations will be higher.

Now that you know how to spot the signs of a storming team, how can you help people move swiftly on towards the next stage of their development? With conflict erupting around you like a chain of angry volcanoes, what should you focus on first?

Focus 1: Address team conflict immediately

It may sound like we’re advising you to step in straight away and start directing people. But before you do so, just make sure you take the time to truly understand what is going on. Areas of friction could potentially reveal some inefficiencies and opportunities for improvements. “You learn the most when things aren’t going right” says Jo. So learn all you can about the current team issues using your usual feedback mechanisms. Speak to team members individually, have regular conversations, talk to external stakeholders and make sure you have a comprehensive 360 view of the situation.

Once you have a good understanding of the underlying issues, it’s important to address them straight away. And yes, you may have to show your metal as a leader and make some really hard decisions. Sometimes, drastic change is needed to be able to move past the storming stage. Our advice? Be direct, honest and clear about your actions, and don’t leave room for ambiguity. Also, don’t hesitate to ask for support, both internal and external, if needed. Coaching from a professional coach or advice from your HR department can help you find the best way to handle a difficult situation.

Focus 2: Rebuild team trust

Once key change has been announced or implemented, you may need to rebuild team trust from the ground up. But trust and collaboration don’t just happen overnight. They need to be cultivated and encouraged. There are a couple of ways to do this.

Role model the right behaviours

The best way to encourage the behaviours you want to see happen in your team is to showcase them yourself. As a team leader, you can display the kind of traits and attitudes you would like to see displayed in return. Set the tone and make sure you facilitate communications. Show vulnerability by asking questions, owning up to your mistakes and asking for feedback on your leadership. Encourage regular conversations and set up platforms for exchanges and healthy debate.

Make trust a priority

Whilst showcasing the right behaviours is a great step, it may not be enough to create and maintain an environment of trust in which team members feel safe and included. Listening skills play a strong part here and so does empathy. Approach your staff as a human first, and a manager second, and actively listen to what they need in order to feel comfortable at work. Ask them what they love and loathe about being part of the team and make sure you follow up on their concerns and ideas with concrete and decisive action.

Get to know each other

Spending time together to get to know each other is a great way to avoid misunderstandings and mistrust. We’ve had great experiences leading away days for clients hoping to hit the reset button and get back to performing. You can read an example here.

There are also many tools out there that will allow you to get to know your staff on a more fundamental level, such as psychometric tests (including DISC and MBIs). Make use of those and share the results with the whole team so each individual understands what makes their colleagues tick, what motivates them, and how to best communicate on a daily basis. But data and profile charts do not have to be boring: at Let’s Talk Talent, we’ve just done the UCAS career buzz quiz and got to know each other a little better through our ‘totem animal’, so go ahead, make it fun and surprise your colleagues with new ideas.

And if you’re still struggling to get your team to gel, consider team coaching. An external, impartial facilitator may be the solution to finding out exactly what’s wrong and suggest ways to address it. 

In Conclusion, how to move past the storming stage

Teams are like little ecosystems. They are not static, they constantly change and experience ebbs and flows. Finding yourself in the storming phase is normal. You’re not going mad, and it does not mean your managerial skills are subpar. But it’s important to recognise the symptoms so you can get out of it swiftly and efficiently. That’s how you show your worth as a team leader: not by avoiding the storming phase, but by demonstrating you can go grab the tools you need to come out of it quickly when it does indeed hit. 

And in a virtual world, getting out of the storming phase may be a bit more complex or take longer than usual, as we no longer have the luxury of proximity. Be creative and find other ways to make it work.

If you’d like support to overcome issues virtually, don’t hesitate to ask. We offer away days, and many virtual workshops to build connection and engagement between your teams.

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