Joining a new team as a leader, whether as an internal or external candidate, presents a unique set of challenges that I have seen very few managers gain mastery of. Over the past several years I have had the opportunity to lead several strong teams. In some of those cases I have been an internal candidate with existing connections to my new team, and in others I have joined the organization as an external candidate with very little mutual familiarity between myself and the team.
In this post I will be exploring a few of the challenges that I have faced through those experiences and I will talk through some of the strategies that I used to develop an understanding of my new immediate organizational environments. Specifically, I will talk about the stages of team development (using some fun and relatable movie examples), and the importance of cultivating relationships.
To start things off, recognize that on day 1 in your new role you will be required to trust your team. On the other hand, they will not be required to trust you. While you have been assigned authority, the ability to influence others is predicated not on the strength of your relationships with your peers and employees, but on the pre-existing organizational structure and the selection process that placed you in role. While you may have been the most qualified candidate and you may have the belief of your boss and the HR team, the most important people in the room, your new employees, do not know that. In a very real sense, your authority is assigned rather than earned at this point with your team. As the saying goes, “trust is earned, never given”. I like to lead with that when I talk about this subject because I believe that it frames a lot of the content that I will discuss now.
Phases of Team Development
A commonly used framework in Human Resources, Organizational Psychology, and leadership literature alike is Tuckman’s (1965) “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing” model of small group development. Anyone who paid attention in their HR business classes should be familiar with this one, but I am always surprised at how many people either take it for granted or give it a chuckle when it is introduced in team discussions. The basic concept is that groups must go through a natural progression before they can arrive at the goal of becoming a high performing team.
The basic model proceeds as follows;
Forming – The first stage of the model is “testing and independence”. In this stage, the group is assembled and assigned the task. The group becomes oriented with their objectives, creates ground rules, and tests boundaries for interpersonal and task behaviours. Relationships are formed and the team begins to develop familiarity. Think of this as the part in the movies where Nick Fury brings together the Avengers, the Fellowship of the Ring is formed at the council of Elrond, or where the world’s best deep core drillers is inexplicably assigned to go into space to blow up the asteroid (I’m still trying to discern why its easier to teach drillers to become astronauts than it is to teach astronauts to drill roles in Michael Bay’s timeless classic, Armageddon).
Storming – This period represents a time of intergroup conflict and is characterized by a lack of unity and polarization around intergroup issues. Tuckman (1965) stated that ‘group members become hostile toward one another and toward a therapist or trainer as a means of expressing their individuality and resisting the formation of group structure’. Expect emotional responses, growing tensions, and friction between group members in this stage. Switching genres, this is the part in sports films where team members find that they don’t get along with the new rising star rookie (Willie Beamen in Any Given Sunday), that they aren’t onboard with the new coach’s style with a focus on academic excellence (Coach Carter in Coach Carter), or that they don’t get along with their new teammates after the merger of two high school football programs (Remember the Titans). When you land on a new team, once you’ve settled in and team members start highlighting challenges and conflicts, this may be an easy stage to recognize.
Norming – During this phase, the team begins to develop cohesion, or “starts to gel” as some would put it. Roles and norms have been established and the team is in the process of developing an understanding of how one another performs. The team now is able to self regulate and strengthening interpersonal relationships give way to the team acting as a more synchronous entity. This is the part in Ocean’s 11 where Danny Ocean and the rest of the gang are practicing their big Bellagio heist in a replica of Andy Garcia’s impenetrable vault, or in Pitch Perfect where the Barden Bellas let Anna Kendrick start remixing songs like “Bulletproof” to bring something new to the finals. You may not even notice when you’ve transitioned into this phase, but its when things start to feel normal and less time is spent with putting out fires.
Performing – In the final stage of the original model, the group develops “functional role relatedness” (Tuckman, 1965). The group now effectively acts as unit that is able to adapt to challenges and work effectively towards task or goal completion. Whether it’s winning the finals, defeating the villain, blowing up the bad guy (or asteroid), or pulling off the heist, I’ll let you insert your own example of performing here. This is when and where you have a high functioning team where team members respond to challenges with little or no direction and are able to support one another almost seamlessly.
Adjourning – In 1977 an addition was made to the group life cycle model to address group separation. This one is pretty self explanatory. Just imagine the scene at the end of Ocean’s 11 where Danny and his team are enjoying watching the fountains at the Bellagio and one by one depart into the evening to the track “Claire de Lune”.
Its very important to understand the phases of team development as a new manager. Recognize that your own introduction to the team will effectively bring the team to the forming/storming phase. Take a moment to let that sink in. Just like a sports team with a new coach, an orchestra with a new conductor, or a country with a new president, you need to recognize that your team will not be functioning at its optimal capacity upon your arrival. The team that existed prior to your arrival is not the same team that it is now. Your first job as a leader to understand and develop relationships to bring the team from storming to norming.
Its also important to acknowledge that its rarely just the team leader introducing transition to the team. Often times with new management and leadership, agents internal or external to the team have identified a need for change and you may be just one part of the shake up. In each of the teams that I have assumed leadership over, I was just one of several moving pieces and my introduction roughly marked the midpoint of a period of punctuated upheaval. Depending on your preexisting relationships with the organization or team, the amount of change or turnover in the team prior to your arrival may or may not be information that you are privy to. This makes it even more important for you to develop your own assessment of the situation as you begin to develop relationships and understand team dynamics.
If you’re a seasoned manager, you’ve probably seen this in action. Rarely are new managers introduced to a team because the team is at the top of their game. New management can often be introduced to manage high turnover, fill gaps that have resulted from the departure of other leaders, or to oversee the development of entirely new teams. Recognize that in the real world, Tuckman’s model is not linear. You’ll bounce back and forth between stages in the model as other variables play out and how long you spend in those forming and storming phases may be longer than was pitched to you before you came aboard. Even once the proverbial storm has settled, the departure or replacement of one other team member that may seem insignificant in the moment can nudge you back into the phase where recalibration of group norms is required.
An important part of your role as a leader is build relationships, earn influence, and understand interpersonal dynamics such that your team is capable of moving quickly to the norming and performing phases of group development.
A 2012 article (Yukl, 2012) examined over fifty years of leadership research and established a hierarchical taxonomy of 15 specific component behaviours organized into four broad meta-categories. The four meta-categories of behaviours were; task-oriented, change-oriented, externally focused, and relations oriented. Focusing in on relations-oriented behaviours, four key behaviours were established; supporting, developing, recognizing, and empowering. The article cites the timing and quality of the behaviours as an important area for future research.
Based on my personal experience, I would posit that relations-oriented behaviours are one of the first and most important focus areas for newly minted managers. Focus too soon on change-oriented behaviours and you risk undermining worker psychological safety by doing too much too soon. Likewise, if you zoom in on external or task-oriented behaviours and you may seem uninterested in getting to know your team. There’s a spectrum of behaviours required for a leader in any given moment, and individual circumstances will vary, but strong relationships with their immediate reports and team members is vital to any new leader’s long-term success. Here’s why.
Job satisfaction is cited as a critical driver in life satisfaction among the world’s 2.1 billion workers working in group or team settings. Of that, interpersonal relationships account for nearly 40% of respondent satisfaction (Layard, 2020). Peel the onion back one more layer and you’ll see that relationships with management account for a staggering 88% of satisfaction in interpersonal relationships at work for respondents (De Neve et al, 2018). On that basis, it should be self evident that higher employee satisfaction will lead to lower turnover, better communication, and higher team commitment. All that is to underscore that an important precursor to success for new managers in role is the cultivation of strong relationships with peers and employees.
At this point you should be wondering what strategies and tactics exist to cultivate relationships with new team members when you’re new to the team. It starts with getting curious. Here are a few questions you should be asking your team as you transition into a new role. Note that these are sufficient to just get you started, you’ll have your own questions specific to the situation, role, and organization.
- Tell me about yourself – this isn’t really a question as much as it is a statement or request. But the intent of this question is to start building an understanding of your employee. Pay close attention to their answers here. Are they defined by their work by focusing on their job and role? Or do they open by talking about their family or hobbies? Is their focus on recent academic experience? Listen carefully here because this will give you important insights towards your employee’s values and goals.
- Where do you see yourself in 3 years? This is a valuable question where its important to be unattached to the outcome. Their goal may be a linear growth progression through the organization, it could be a career change or higher learning, or it could even be to have your job (in a threatening or non-threatening way). The intention here is for you to develop an understanding of what your team member’s goals. In turn this will help you to understand the organizational challenges your team may face in the short to medium term.
- How do you like to receive feedback? Its easy for leaders to default to assuming that others prefer to receive feedback the same way that they do. But a quick Google Scholar search will show you that there’s a myriad of ways that feedback can be delivered, and that what works for one person may not work for the other. The sooner you know how your team members prefer to receive your feedback, the better.
- What do you feel the team needs right now? As previous mentioned, in my experience, leadership changes have come during times of general upheaval within a team. Asking your team members what they think the team needs will provide you with valuable insights towards the past, present, and future of your team’s well-being, and in turn, your role. Remember, you’re still in the storming phase and there are very likely organizational variables beyond your line of sight that a question like this can help you with.
- How can I support you in your role? This carries the previous question one step further and focuses on what the team member sitting across the desk from you needs in order to be successful. One of the most important aspects of you becoming a strong leader is being able to support those who report directly up to you. New leadership creates uncertainty within teams. Demonstrating that you’re working to understand the needs of the team and its members will going a long way towards earning their trust.
- What else? This is a valuable catch-all that provides your new team member with the opportunity to share any other details or concerns lingering in their mind. I find that those two words can bring a lot of insight to the end of any important conversation.
If you are a new leader assuming a senior role on a new team, I cannot stress how critical it is to cultivate relationships with your new reports. Psychological safety is one of the most important ingredients of a high performing team (Edmondson & Lei, 2014) and you must recognize that the upheaval your team is experiencing with a management change will have created an environment where psychological safety is lacking. You need trust your team to communicate challenges and opportunities with you. Likewise, the sooner they can trust that you are there to support them, the better you will fare.
In your new role you’ll be spending a lot of time absorbing organizational knowledge, familiarizing yourself with norms and processes, and developing new skills. It will be overwhelming and challenging but with a team of allies and advocates you will be much better set up for success.
De Neve, J., & et al. (2018, February 10). “Work and well-being: A global perspective,” Global Happiness Policy. Retrieved from happinesscouncil.org
Edmondson, A. C., & Lei, Z. (2014). Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 23-43.
Layard, R. (2020). Can we be happier? Evidence and Ethics. London, UK: Pelican Books.
Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. The Psychological Bulletin, 384-399.
Yukl, G. (2012). Effective Leadership Behavior: What We Know and What Questions Need More Attention. Academy of Management Perspectives, 66-85.