Million Dollar Moments

The current season of the CBS TV show The Amazing Race features teams of two who met and were partnered on the very first day of their race around the world. Rather than being randomly assigned, one partner chose the other partner in order of their placing in an initial challenge. This dynamic created an additional struggle as while some of the chosen partners were thankful to have been selected by a strong team member, others were resentful about getting paired with someone more challenging. Some partners immediately found commonalities such as careers or upbringing, while others struggled with communication blocking differences.

Teams line up to start the race

While most of us may not find ourselves partnered with a stranger in an intense race for one million dollars, we’ll no doubt find ourselves in situations where we’re called on to work quickly and closely with a partner or group we don’t know well. In these high-pressure circumstances, teams may experience volatility as they quickly progress through the team formation phases.

When time is short, it’s important to plan time for team formation. This is the first and most important stage of Bruce Tuckman’s five stages of team development.

Our U.S. work culture is known as being fast, driven and not slowing down for the pleasantries and conversation that are so important to business dealings around the world. However, it’s important to pause and make sure team members get to know each other. Get to know others on a personal level, identifying commonalities as well as discussing the professional strengths each member brings to the team. The other important aspect of the forming stage is the establishment of mutually acceptable norms and rules.

A thorough forming stage sets the team up for a productive storming stage. This occurs as team members become more comfortable expressing opinions with each other, tensions and emotions are heighted and members may challenge authority or resist assigned tasks.

During this stage it is important to continue to refocus the team on their shared goals and objectives, to remain positive, supportive and ensure all members are heard. This is a frustrating but critical part of the process and where an understanding of Tuckman’s stages comes in useful. When a team acknowledges that this emotional period is normal and will pass, it allows them to handle the stage with a more diplomatic approach. Working through this challenging stage together builds the cohesion necessary for the next stage.

Cooperation is important in the norming stage of team development as members have become trusting and supportive of each other and learned how to communicate more effectively. This unity ushers in the performing stage where the team functions as a unit, with energy directed into achieving the team goal. Disagreements that arise are resolved in a positive way.

The five stages are not always such a clear, linear process. Teams may find themselves in multiple stages at once, or backsliding. The phenomenon can be clearly seen in the Amazing Race. Teams may find themselves re-establishing the leadership role as they face a challenge in which one partner excels. And as new information is learned about each other along the way, communications breakdowns may occur. Like work teams, they are always forced to continue performing the tasks during each leg, regardless of how much conflict is occurring. However, to have a chance at winning the highly competitive final leg, teams must have successfully reached the stage where they are able to fully direct their positive energy into one last unified effort.

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