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Bruce Tuckman developed the four stages of team formation: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.* This is useful to use as a diagnostic framework to overcome hitches when integrating remote or virtual teams.
Table: Stages of Team Integration
Uncertainty about roles; looking outside for guidance.
Growing confidence in team; rejection of outside authority.
Concern about being different; wanting to be part of a team.
Concern with getting the job done.
The team makes some attempt to define the job to be done.
Members resist the task demands.
There is an open exchange of views about the team’s problems.
Resources are allocated efficiently; processes are in place to ensure that the final objective is acheived.
Team members look outside to managers for guidance and direction.
Team denies the task and looks for reasons not to do it.
The team starts to set up procedures to deal with the task.
The team is able to solve problems.
People feel anxious and are unsure of their roles.
People still feel uncertain and try to express their individuality. Concerns arise about team hierarchy.
People ignore individual differences and are more accepting of one another.
People share a common focus, communicate effectively, and become more efficient and flexible as a result.
importantWhen it comes to remote teams, the friction of distance makes the “feelings issues” that are a part of each of Tuckman’s four stages take longer to process. Groups rely on social cues to move from one stage to the next, and the lower the amount of social interaction, the more difficult it is for team formation to progress. This is an area of team formation where remote leaders will want to pay extra attention.
When a team first comes together, it’s important to identify the boundaries of this new unit. Identity statements like a team name, ensuring clarity on the roles and expectations of each team member, and creating a team mission statement help to bring a group of geographically isolated individuals together.
This is a good time to humanize one another, too. At Zappos, a fully remote company, new hires give video tours of their workspaces. Leaders Tony Hsieh and Jenn Lim say this practice “allows colleagues to form mental images of one another when they’re later communicating by email, phone, or text message.” Putting people in the context of their home or office environments can help remote teammates remember that their colleagues are autonomous individuals with lives all their own, and so should be treated with respect and empathy.
importantSome people might not be comfortable sharing the details of their personal spaces. It’s important for companies and managers to respect those boundaries as well.
In this phase, conflict plays a critical role in integrating virtual teams. Once this does happen, it’s common for distributed teams to get stuck in a place of “artificial harmony,” where disagreement is buried, and productive conflicts are avoided. Instead of a truly harmonious team, you get a group of individuals who are quietly and silently opposed and disengaged from whatever the team is doing, and because the team doesn’t have the levels of psychological safety needed to disagree openly and still maintain the relationship, this festers. Storming is the most common phase where team integration stalls. Without personal bonds to sustain a frank discussion, team members avoid conflict at all costs, and group performance suffers. A team that doesn’t go through the ‘storming’ phase will not reach the levels of open debate and trust that characterizes ‘performing’ teams.
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During the storming phase, leaders must be actively involved in managing conflict for the phase to come to a successful resolution.
Once a team has reached a point of productive conflict, it can then enter the next phase of “norming,” in which conflict no longer dominates group discussions and the job at hand is getting work done.At this point, documenting preferences and agreements helps reinforce conflict as necessary and role-based rather than personal, and aids in moving on from continuous conflict. Helping teammates prepare for more candid discussions by reviewing one another’s conflict profiles and agreements also helps a preoccupation with conflict change into a tool in the team’s toolkit rather than its defining action.
Harvard Business Review recommends assigning an “official advocate for candor” in team discussions on an ongoing basis (Patrick Lenceoni also recommends a strategy like this). This can be a rotating position assigned at the beginning of a virtual meeting or conference call, similar to how one might assign a meeting facilitator or note-taker. Having an assigned candor advocate raises the odds of productive conflict occurring: “I sense that not everyone agrees here—can we pause for a bit of constructive debate?”
Taking this a step further, when productive conflict is occuring, giving participants real-time permission to continue can help: “This might feel awkward, Alice and Bob, but I want to remind us all of how important healthy conflict is, and that on this team, we’ve all agreed to break through artificial harmony. You’re both doing a great job at this!”
At this point, the team has started to perform as a ‘gelled’ unit, with high levels of psychological safety. In a remote team, active maintenance of the team’s focus and morale helps to keep teams in this high performance phase.
Managing Conflict in Remote Teams
Resolving conflict between team members (and across teams) is a classic responsibility for managers, and the challenges are exaggerated on distributed teams due to distance and degraded emotional information from asynchronous, written communication. The solutions, too, are not necessarily as straightforward as they would be in an office setting.
James O’Toole and Warren Bennis describe observable candor as a foundation of successful teamwork. It is the degree to which “people have access to relevant, timely, and valid information.” Without it, teams are simply less effective. Unfortunately, remote teams are especially ineffective at frank conversations: HBR research shows that in dispersed groups, leaders have to actively push team members to be candid with each other.
In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick M. Lencioni defines “artificial harmony” as the lack of “passionate, unfiltered debate around issues of importance to the team.” Teams may avoid passionate debate in an effort to stay conflict; back-channeling is often the result.
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