Storming & Group Hugs

Posted by jlubans on May 23, 2012

In February and March of 2013, I’ll be teaching an 8-week class on the Democratic Workplace at the University of Latvia. As I develop lessons on democratic concepts, like teamwork, I am well aware that self-managing student teams all too often result in a few students doing the heavy lifting while other students are sidelined. When we have uneven participation in student project teams, the active participants are not happy – they feel like they’ve been exploited. And, the not-so active team members are less than happy because they may feel excluded or passed over by the self appointed “leaders.” However, a few unproductive members are satisfied because the team has papered over their poor performance. No group hugs here!
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So, I am taking another look at how I assign teams and how I instruct them about team dynamics.
Peter Miller, in his book, The Smart Swarm, mentions some Harvard-based research about project teams. The researchers wanted to know if “a group’s performance might be improved if its members took time to explicitly sort out who was good at what, put each person to work on an appropriate task … and then talked about the information they turned up.” The researchers (on pp. 54-55) tested all participants for skills, shared the scores with everyone, and then assigned them to teams. About one half of all the teams were coached on how to make “task assignments”. Teams able to fully collaborate did the best work on solving an assigned puzzle. Several teams had “expert” members - students who had tested very highly - but when those team members did not collaborate well, those teams “did even worse, in fact, than teams that had no experts at all.” Does that finding apply to teams at work? Of course!
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Caption: Bruce Tuckman
Reading Miller’s words, reminded me of a handout I usually give to student project teams. The handout describes the popular notions about group dynamics developed by Bruce Tuckman, (pictured) back in the hippy, group-hugging era of the sixties. His “form, storm, norm, perform” has stood up well over time – it certainly is repeated glibly by team building teachers like myself. But, I am not sure students (or me for that matter!) understand what each of these phases and their definitions mean. Forming is the easy part, although randomly selected teams are probably less effective than teams whose members have some level of propinquity. The “storming” phase is the one most avoided by teams – I have long held that many workplace teams skip (not good) this phase or get stuck in it (really, not good). Why does this happen? Because, to paraphrase the Harvard researchers, many team members do not have the skills nor take the time to explicitly sort out who is good at what, put each person to work on an appropriate task … and then talk about the information they turn up.” There is an implied leadership, if not a leader, in this: who leads the sorting out, putting people to work on tasks and sharing information? Well, in a self-managing team, everyone shares the responsibility. That is what I hope to make clear to the self-managing teams in my Democratic Workplaces class.
Each project team in my 8-week class will get a revised handout of questions to answer before it starts production.
1. Team purpose? Each team member knows and agrees upon “What are we supposed to accomplish as a team?”
2. Roles? Each team member knows his/her role in accomplishing the team goal. (Remember, in the best teams everyone does an equal amount of work.)
3. Our individual strengths? What strengths do each of us bring to accomplishing our agreed-upon goal?
4. Who’s in-charge? What does being in charge mean? Will leadership change from day to day? How do we adapt to changing leadership? (Remember, you are self-managing.)
5. Decision making? Can we make decisions? How will we arrive at decisions?
6. Disagreeing? How do we resolve disagreements? How do we deal with conflict?
7. Risk-taking? How do we increase our ability to take risks until we get to the most creative, productive level? (Risk taking in this context is about departing from usual solutions and asking the tough questions: Why do we do something? Is it important enough to keep doing it? Who benefits?
8. Our sponsor? If our team gets in trouble, who will help us? Who – besides the instructor - accepts responsibility for us?
9. Sources of information? From what sources will we find out necessary information to accomplish our purpose?
10. When and how will we meet? How are we going to make ourselves more accessible to one another in order to complete our goals in a timely manner?

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