Building Teams – Don’t skip the “Storming”
By Sean Buck, 2009
A lot of you may be familiar with the Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing stages of a team. It has been around quite awhile, almost 45 years actually. It’s also referred to as Tuckman’s Stages, since it was first brought to us by a psychologist named Bruce Tuckman. Something I have observed and found interesting is that there are a lot of people that don’t embrace the Storming so much. Maybe because there are many personalities that would rather avoid conflict. I have even observed instances within the organization where some members would rather take things “off-line” or may possibly exhibit a passive aggresive behavior by agreeing with something in a meeting, yet disagreeing and not supporting it outside of that meeting. In my humble opinion the Storming stage of building a team is one of the most important steps that does need to happen to becoming a Performing team, and needs to be properly facilitated and supported by leaders. It’s needed to build trust and comraderie, which are crucial traits of a high performing team. I would like to share a brief story on how the United States Marine Corps embraces storming, and some tips on supporting a positive environment for Storming within the organization and just the corporate environment in general.
Storming in the USMC – What I learned in 3 days that will last me a lifetime
As a Sergeant in the USMC, I understood the importance of teamwork. The teamwork concept is so crucial to how we operate and execute. So much so, that teamwork is a focus from day 1. When you arrive at bootcamp the first thing they do is shave your head, and throw you into a camoflauge uniform. This is symbolic of stripping away your individuality. Not that individuality is not valued in the USMC, but it’s overvalued in the civilian world. You even don’t have a name and can no longer say “I” or “me” You are required to refer to your self in the third person. When addressing a Drill Instructor, you can’t say “I have a question” It’s “Sir, this recruit has a question, sir” From day one everything we do is done as a team. And throughout training storming will occur. The USMC forces Storming in a final event leading up to graduation called the crucible.
Back in the 90’s I had the luxury of being in one of the first platoons through a newly created event called the crucible. Although it has probably changed over the years, for me it was 3 days and nights of one of the most challenging experiences I have faced. Throughout the course of the 3 days, our platoon had marched over 60 miles in full combat gear (about 75 lbs on your back), we had about an hour of sleep per night, and less than one meal per day. In the middle of all that, there were obstacle courses of over 60 different missions that required our 6 person team to be working as a team to complete. Things like scaling a 15 foot high wall as a team with no rope, trying to get to the other side of a bridge damaged by an explosion, getting down from a series of platforms simulating a four story building blown in half (there are no stairs on your half.) All things we could possibly experience in combat. The crucible was our last event, or challenge if you will. It was the pinnacle of our training that ended in our transormation into Marines. After this event we were called Marines instead of recruits.
The Storming Part
Anyone ever been cranky after skipping breakfast, or getting an hour less sleep at night? Imagine what we were going through from a stress perspective with basically no sleep and no food, physically exhausted from marching, and then being asked to complete these missions as a team. When we first started on day 1, we were accomplishing missions ok. We were divided into newly formed teams of people we probably hadn’t worked with before. After all the exhaustion, crankiness, and stress started to settle in, things got ugly. We were yelling, arguing, fighting (physically), and pretty much hated each others guts, and obviously failing at all of our missions. The Drill Instructor assigned to our team just watched, sometimes laughing at us, but let us carry on. After awhile he then explained to us that what we were going through is absolutely normal. That teams normally go through a period of storming, however due to our lack of sleep, lack of food, and exhaustion that everything was amplified.
Now The Norming and Performing
It didn’t take long after he put things in perspective for us, that we started to see what was going on. We even started joking about some of the stupid things we were doing and started to bond. Funny thing happened is that as time went on, we had less food, less sleep, and more exhaustion but yet were accomplishing our missions with greater ease and we were seeing the difference. Our productivity and performance was night and day after experiencing our storming. That’s not to say that we didn’t have our arguments throughout the rest of the crucible. But they were more constructive and actually lead to greater results. Because we learned how to properly storm, when not to cross the line, and how to control our emotions by recognizing stress was changing our rational thought. I still remember that event to this day. Not from all the blisters and pain. Not from the ceremony in front of an Iwo Jima monument – where our platoon of beaten down recruits were handed an Eagle, Globe, an Anchor (USMC logo) and called Marines by our Drill Instructors. But I remember that event because I think I finally learned and figured out what a team was. That it was more than a group of people. In 3 days I saw with my own eyes and was part of a transormation that lead me to believe that the saying that “the whole of a team is greater than the sum of it’s parts” was not just a bunch of BS. And I truly believe and see how the storming was necessary step for us to understand how to work with each other to perform.
I wanted to share that story as an extreme example of Storming, but to drive the point that it is necessary. It can’t be skipped over. Well, it can, but your team will not reach it’s full potential, and in my eyes won’t be a team unless they go through that stage. Passive aggresive behavior is detrimental to a healthy team.
How I Embrace Storming Today – Tips:
It doesn’t always happen, but the first thing I try to do when forming a team is talk about storming and “constructive arguments” with my team. And that I feel it is a necessary component and completely normal thing for us to go through. I also let my team know that I expect them to challenge me and my thoughts and ideas. That they should feel comfortable engaging in a “lively discussion” with me and not just always agree with what I say. I do outline rules of maintaining professionalism but encourage lively discussion. No insulting anyones thoughts or ideas. Challenging is ok. Absolutely no personal attacks or insults are tolerated. Another rule is that the storming phase of a team does stay within a team, and people should feel comfortable to solve their problems and talk them through with team members. As a leader you are a facilitator, but when it comes to 2 people not getting along, they are the only ones that can resolve that. In the USMC we used to make 2 people having difficulties with each other go dig ditches together for hours. They might be upset at first, but eventually figure out they need to work together, find some common ground and start talking. I’ve experienced this myself, and even observed some people becoming best of friends after such an event. When a lively discussion is taking place sometimes I joke about us storming to ease tension but also recognize that we are exhibiting healthy team behavior. When I see someone biting their tongue, I encourage them to talk and voice their opinion. Otherwise, they will go voice their opinion to someone outside of the team and start anti-team behavior. Always keep an eye on things, when you get passionate people together with strong convictions, chances are sometimes lines will be crossed. Call timeout on such events and follow up with the individuals to address problems and concerns. Never reprimand someone in front of the team. Know your own limits. It’s innevitiable if you are a strong, passionate leader that you will sometimes not just facilitate but will get involved. In many cases, I have found myself needing to take a step back from a discussion. Others thoughts or feedback? Feel free to storm with me if you disagree.