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Have you ever watched a group of kids on the playground who don’t know one another? First they smile, then they squabble, then somebody suggests a game to play. At that point, they either get involved in the game or the group breaks up.
In many ways, adults aren’t really all that different from kids. They’re just a bit more subtle (usually). Most work groups go through fairly predictable stages before they can work in a “grown up” manner. What stage is your work group in? And how can you help them grow into a productive team?
Unspoken Questions: What will these people think of me? What do I think of them?
When groups first assemble, the members are usually on their best behavior. They are polite, cordial, and seldom reveal their true feelings. But beneath that calm, professional exterior, they are all sizing each other up and forming opinions. They are also quietly wondering whether this group will be successful. If first impressions are not managed well, the group can get off to a rocky start.
Don’t just jump right into your task. Give people time to get acquainted so that they can begin developing relationships. Clearly describe the purpose of the group and how everyone adds value. Ask for input on “ground rules” that will help to keep the group productive. These steps will set a positive tone.
Unspoken Questions: What do I want to stand for in this group? Who are my allies and adversaries?
As group members become more comfortable, they feel free to express differences of opinion. Arguments and debates occur as people make their points and stake out their territory. Members may struggle for control or begin to challenge the leader. Those who fear conflict tend to withdraw. Although this can feel like a looming disaster, it is actually a sign of progress, because a group with no disagreement will inevitably fail.
Point out that this stage is normal. Identify various points of view and discuss differences in a constructive manner. Refer back to the group’s purpose and turn conflicts into problem-solving discussions. Resolve issues without damaging relationships. If there is no formal leader, an informal leader may need to guide the group through this stage.
Unspoken Questions: What are we trying to accomplish? What part do I play? Is it worth my time?
To get past the divisiveness of the “marking territory” stage, the group must focus their energies on a clear, achievable shared goal. Each member needs to feel that he or she has an important role to play and that working with the group will produce useful results. Disagreements must not become personal. If the group fails to focus, it will either dramatically self-destruct or members will just gradually drift away.
Keep members focused on the purpose of the group. Develop a specific work plan. Emphasize how each member contributes to the group’s purpose. Refer back to the ground rules when people are straying from them. Reinforce productive behavior and ignore or point out unhelpful behavior. Relate disagreements to group goals.
Unspoken Questions: What does it mean to be part of this group? How can we succeed together?
If the focusing stage is managed well, the group will start to develop a shared identity and a “team personality”. Because members are willing to collaborate and support one another, the group is able to draw on the total pool of talent in the group. When people disagree, they listen to different points of view, reconsider their own opinions, and search for collaborative solutions.
Look for ways to “brand” the group and give members a sense of shared identity. Examples include naming the group, finding a symbol that represents the group, having “in-group” sayings or jokes, having group lunches or get-togethers. Find opportunities for members to work on tasks together. Help people see how different personalities or points of view make the group stronger.
Unspoken Questions: Can we deliver results and meet expectations?
If all has gone well in the first four stages, members will now be working together productively and accomplishing group goals. To stay motivated, they need to feel that their task is meaningful and that they have the resources to succeed.
Keep the group on track, make necessary decisions, and resolve any issues that arise. Celebrate successes and recognize group accomplishments. Remain open to questions and issues. Share any positive feedback from upper management, as well as any concerns. Keep members informed about changes.
Unspoken Questions: Will these changes screw up our group?
The only certain thing in life is change. At some point, all groups will get new leaders, new members, or new tasks. When this happens, even the most successful group can revert back to a previous stage as the members acclimate to their new environment.
Help the group see how the changes have affected group functioning. Apply the strategies for the appropriate stage. Help members move back into a productive mode.
Unspoken Questions: What did we accomplish? How will I feel about leaving this group?
Some groups are ongoing, while others finish their project or task and move on. In the hustle of daily life, members may be tempted to just rush on to their next assignment. However, this is not a good way to end. Members need to take time (even if it’s just s few moments) to acknowledge their accomplishments and take leave of one another.
Have the group identify what they have accomplished and what they have learned. Give team members an opportunity to express appreciation to one another. Note “lessons learned” to be applied in the future. Celebrate success!!