There’s nothing quite as predictable as the night sky.

Weather, shooting stars and airplanes notwithstanding, you can accurately predict, night after night, what you’ll see when you look up into space.   So much so that you can purchase sophisticated telescopes that will virtually lock on to a star and automatically track it by following the natural curve of movement of that star.

The Journey of a Team

Every team also goes on a journey, only that journey is far less predictable than the nightly movement of the stars, and tracking the progress of a team can be incredibly challenging.

That’s why psychologist Bruce Tuckman came up with the four stages that a team goes through on its way to high performance. He called those stages Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.

Whether you have a long term team, or people are brought together for short term projects and initiatives, here’s  what you, as a leader, can do to support your team in a way that fits the stage the team is at.

Forming

The forming stage is when a team is newly formed, or when team experiences a high volume of turnover.  At this stage people are being polite with each other, but are unsure of how each person “fits” in the team.  Some team members will feel uncertainty and fear, while others will feel excitement and even impatience to get started.

As a leader, your role is to introduce people to each other and to make expectations clear.  You will play a big role at this stage of team development, because what’s uniting them at the beginning is their leader.  What the team need right now is clarity on what they need to achieve, as well as clarity on what everyone’s roles and responsibilities are.  Remember, some people will take longer than others to understand the team’s purpose and role.  Expect misunderstandings at this stage, and take time to address them.

Storming

The storming phase develops as people get to know one another and what the team’s purpose is, and they start challenging each other – and you.  When there’s work to be done, there is bound to be conflict and jostling for airtime and input.  The team is getting to know one another and they’re starting to voice their opinions, often in disagreement.

This is a necessary stage, and not one that should be avoided.  In this phase team members are learning where they stand and how much power they have.  They also are building buy-in – or not – into the purpose of the team and how the team goes about its day-to-day processes.  Expect team members to challenge your authority, to challenge the team’s goals, and to get frustrated and overwhelmed.  How you handle things now as the leader is critical in setting team culture.  Will you dismiss their concerns and tell them how it is, or will you find more inclusive ways of handling this messy phase in the life of a team?

Norming

As the team comes out of the storming phase, a sort of team reality – or norm – is established.  In the norming phase, team members are clear about who does what, and they’ve accepted your leadership.  They know how to do their jobs, they are probably socialising more together, and they have begun to collaborate.  They also begin to recognise each other’s contribution is different in reaching the team’s objectives. It’s reasonable to expect that your team will slip from norming back to storming as the team develops a real sense of culture and as new tasks are taken on, but the storming will eventually stop.

Your role as leader of a team in the norming phase is to take a step back and let the team do its work, and step in when the storming slips back in.  Ensure that the systems and processes that are proven to be working are captured and recorded.  It’s also time to deepen the team’s connection by bringing the team together regularly, such as with team-building events.

Performing

At the performing stage, all systems are go.  The team’s working at a high level and team members often go “above and beyond” to reach the team’s goals.  They are supported by you, by the processes that have been put in place, and by each other.  If someone leaves the team at this point, the team is able to cope, and brings new members up to speed quickly.

This is the point of team or group development where you, as leader, can let the team do the work more autonomously.  While the team is fully engaged at this stage, keep them interested by helping them grow their skills and capabilities so that they don’t become bored. Now’s also a great time to develop high potential people into the future leaders.

Your Team’s Journey

While a team’s progress or journey can never be as consistent as that of a star, it still follows a relatively predictable journey.  You can’t skip one phase to get to the next, but teams can get stuck in one phase.  If your team is stuck in forming, you’ll need to encourage the honesty that comes with storming.  If they’re stuck in storming, you’ll need to step in and make some changes that smooth the process on to norming.

But the greatest value in your leadership is when you can take a team to performing – and keep them there.