High performing teams move through five stages of development.  Managing the storming stage — where conflict occurs — is crucial to your growth. Here’s how it all work.

You know when you walk into a room and ask how things are going and people say fine — but they really don’t mean it?

Sooner or later, it happens to all of us.

We were working on an exceptionally challenging project and things were going “fine” — which meant there were some underlying issues. When we queried the team, it was clear some frustrations were preventing us from moving forward. The more we talked, the more emotions surfaced.

We were in the storming phase.

The Five Stages of Team Development for High Performing Teams

People sometimes forget that high performance team building takes work. Psychologist Bruce Tuckman said team development occurs in five stages:

  1. Forming:Teams meet, define goals, and start to work. They often behave independently and discussions focus on project scope and how to approach it.
  2. Storming: Team members start to share their opinions and emotions, including excitement, anxiety, or even fear. While some teams skip this phase, it takes strong leadership to resolve conflicts, reset goals, and achieve consensus on roles and responsibilities.
  3. Norming: One of the characteristics of a high performance team is that once disagreements and conflicts are resolved, there is often a greater sense of intimacy. This results in a spirit of co-operation as teams normalise their working relationships.
  4. Performing: In this stage, team members focus on achieving project goals. They are motivated, competent, and can work fairly autonomously.
  5. Mourning: At the end of the cycle, teams are often dispersed. While Tuckman calls this stage adjourning, breaking up the team sometimes results in a mourning process as intimacies fade.

If you analyse any high performance team model, you will typically find evidence of these five stages, whether it’s a project team or a sports team.

Overcoming the Storming Stage

Back to our team, I recognised what was happening and knew we needed to address things. You can’t stand united until you get past the storming stage. To be effective, leaders need to take action to accelerate the storming stage to resolve conflicts and frustrations.

That requires active listening.

After a cup of coffee on a cold winter morning, I organised a brainstorming session with our seven-member team and invited them to name every single thing they did not like about our process. They didn’t hold back.

I had to remember to allow criticism without judgement and treat the information more like a gift rather than a complaint. I knew this was an essential step in how to build a high performance team and this information would be invaluable.

Together, we wrote everything on a whiteboard. As we talked, we started to find some common ground and patterns that allowed us to group concerns into three categories:

  1. Agility
  2. Planning
  3. Knowledge Transfer

It formed the acronym APK, which is a Dutch abbreviation for regular vehicle inspections. We realised with our team that we needed regular project inspections. APK?  Sometimes you get lucky as a consultant.

We came to a consensus on each of these categories and agreed to move forward together.

  • Agility: Team members agreed to address any problem or issue promptly.
  • Planning: While the project was organised according to Scrum principles, the group realised they agreed to project goals too easily and did not spend enough time defining the scope. We needed to improve our planning.
  • Knowledge Transfer: Newer team members needed to receive technical information from more experienced members sooner.

We all agreed to have weekly project inspections to ensure we stayed on track with our APK goals to maintain focus and clarity.

The brainstorming session had a strong normative effect on the team to help us operate at peak performance. With everything out in the open and a consensus on how to move forward in a more organised manner, trust levels within the team grew considerably. As you know, trust is essential for success.

If we hadn’t addressed the storming stage, the team could have easily descended into chaos, infighting, or paralysis. By recognising the symptoms and confronting the concerns head-on, we were able to accelerate the storming stage and move forward — together — to achieve success.

In the end, the project exceeded its performance targets by more than a factor of 2.5.

What Makes a High Performance Team?

To become a high performance team, the group has to move thru these five stages and bond over common goals to become motivated and self-directed. Many groups fall apart or never move past the storming stage. When you see the warning signs emerge, don’t treat it as a negative. It’s an important stage in developing a high-performance team.