by Rick Love
For more than 20 years, I’ve experienced “the agony and ecstacy” of team life, both as a member and as a leader. Over that time, I’ve noticed that most teams go through four stages before they are productive: forming, storming, norming and performing.
Experience has shown that understanding these four stages will help you anticipate and be prepared for problems ahead. A grasp of these stages will keep you from unnecessary pain and make your more effective. Review these stages with your team, using them to discuss how you can be more fruitful in fulfilling His purposes.
These four stages describe the typical development of team relationships. In a sense, these dynamics are cyclical. Teams go through ever-deepening levels of storming, norming and performing. Furthermore, one individual on the team may be storming with one teammate and performing with another. Thus, these stages merely give a rough outline of the growth dynamics of any team.
The beginning stage of team life. Zeal is high. Expectations are unclear. Members test the water. Interactions are superficial. This is the honeymoon stage.
This stage is characterized by conflict and resistance to the group’s task and structure. The team is struggling through its differences.
There are healthy and unhealthy types of storming. The goal is to work through the healthy types of storming and minimize the unhealthy types. Unfortunately, since we live in a fallen world, some unhealthy storming will take place. In my experience as a team leader and a coach, I have found that conflict crops up in five major areas: character problems, gifting fit, authority issues, vision and values dissonance, and personality differences.
The Five Stumbling Blocks of Storming
1. Character problems.
Even Jesus faced character problems on his team! James and John were seeking power and prestige. They wanted high places of authority. The rest of the team got upset by their power play. Jesus’s response? He called the team to a life of humble servanthood. (See Mark 10:35-45.)
Character problems hinder team life more than any other type of conflict. Lack of godliness, servanthood and sanctification on a team are often ongoing problems. Understanding and practicing biblical peacemaking is one of the most practical ways to address this problem.
2. Lack of Gifting fit.
In Acts 6:1-7, a problem arose in the church regarding the serving of Hellenistic widows. Apparently, those who were distributing food were taking care of the Hebrew (Jewish) widows and ignoring the Hellenistic (Gentile) widows. In response to this problem, the apostles set forth guidelines to choose new leadership for this needed ministry.
The problem here was related to gifting issues. A team needs to have the appropriately gifted people doing the ministry that best fits their gifts. In this story, the apostles needed to remain focused on the task God gave them: to pray and minister the word. They needed to be good stewards of their gifts. They also needed to serve the whole Body. Thus, they had to delegate the ministry of serving the widows to those within the church who were motivated and gifted to do so.
Table 1 gives a contrastive analysis of the first two stumbling blocks to “storming.”
Mark 10 Acts 6
3. Authority issues.
Four passages in the New Testament directly address the authority issues for leaders and followers: Mark 10:35-45, 1 Corinthians 16:15-16, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, and Hebrews 13:17. Scripture speaks to both leaders and followers about authority. (Let the following summary lead you to examine these four passages on your own).
Leaders are people in authority. The leader’s problem, then, usually relates to abuse of authority. Leaders can be closed-minded, overbearing, or too demanding. In response, Scripture firmly exhorts leaders not to lord their authority over followers, but instead to humbly serve them. Moreover, godly leaders must be hard workers and teachers who are accountable to God for their work.
Followers are people under authority. The follower’s problem, then, is usually rebellion against authority. Because of this, the Bible calls followers to esteem those in leadership and submit to them.
This area is probably the most neglected of the five stumbling blocks to storming. Submission to leadership is unpopular but biblical. It is true that leaders can sinfully lord it over those on their team—that’s why Jesus called leaders to servanthood (Mark 10:35-45) and Peter exhorted his fellow elders to “not lord it over” their flock (1 Pet. 5:3). It is equally true that those under authority often sinfully balk at some of the simplest suggestions. The Bible teaches that “rebellion is as the sin of divination and insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry” (1 Sam. 16:23). We need to take these passages seriously! (The “performing” section below discusses how to properly handle authority issues in order to enhance productivity.)
4. Vision and values dissonance.
Vision and value dissonance is a major problem on many teams. In fact, it is a chronic headache in most organizations. Too many teams lack leaders who know where they are headed.
I have found that most people on the team have general agreement with the vision (= the “what”). Conflict usually centers around values, how we carry out the vision (= the “how”). Too many organizations, churches and teams experience unnecessary division because the vision and values are not clear.
In some organizations, each team leader develops a covenant-like document called a Memo of Understanding (MOU). To facilitate unity of purpose on the teams, each team member is required to carefully consider and sign the MOU. Yet some team leaders have complained to me that their team really doesn’t believe in the vision and values described in their MOU. Team members have admitted this is true. Vision and values dissonance usually develops because the team leader lacks clarity or the team member lacks integrity. The commitment to a team covenant—whatever form it takes—is no small issue and should not be taken lightly.
But what if the vision and values change? What if the team leader or the team member grows and gets new insights into the issues confronting the team? Hopefully, this will be the case. We need to be eager for coaching and upgrading, and we’d better be growing!
Communication is key. If the team leader and the team member talk about what they are learning and help one another process this development of thought, either the team will remain unified or part amicably. Parting is never easy. But it is healthier for the team (and the task!) to have a clean break rather than a chronic problem because of vision and value dissonance.
5. Personality and/or cultural differences.
God has created each person with particular giftings and temperaments. We each have different styles of learning and unique personalities. Biblical authors reflect this same kind of diversity. Paul writes differently than Peter, James or John. Their styles are determined partly by the problems they address and partly by their personalities.
Every personality has its unique strengths and weaknesses, yet every personality must submit to Scripture. The Word of God cuts across every type of personality type, affirming its strength and correcting its weakness. Introverts are called to sacrificial love, even if they don’t like to reach out beyond themselves. Extroverts are called to humility, even if they are tempted to parade around like a peacock. I’ll never forget one day when my wife and I were counseling another couple. The woman vehemently objected to the counsel we were giving her because it wasn’t natural for her personality type! We reminded her that our personality type never excuses us from obedience to Scripture.
Nevertheless, to maintain healthy team life, we must acknowledge and appreciate valid personality differences. Frustration and misunderstanding between different personalities result in needless conflicts. Personality tests like the Meyers-Briggs help us understand the strengths and weaknesses of each type and how different personalities can best work together.
The Bible affirms cultural diversity. The New Testament describes how the gospel spread from a Jewish culture to a multi-cultural world. In this transition, God did not force Gentile churches to live up to Jewish cultural expectations (Acts 15). Apparently, this ethnic diversity will remain throughout eternity, when people from every tongue, tribe and nation worship the Lord in endless, exuberant praise (Rev. 7:9-12).
As personalities have strengths and weaknesses, so do cultures. For example, the Sundanese are hospitable, gentle and patient people, excelling in virtues that most Americans lack. However, it is often hard for them to speak honestly or forgive others – traits that Americans tend to be a bit better at. Again, the Bible affirms the cultural values that are right and corrects those values that are wrong.
However, some cultural traits are neither right nor wrong, just different. Americans value privacy; Asians value community. Americans’ direct approach to problem solving often offends Asians, who value a less confrontational way to address conflict. Anyone on a multi-cultural team must seek to understand and appreciate the differing values of the people on the team.
I have purposefully listed personality and cultural differences as the last stumbling block of storming. To recognize personality and cultural differences is not fundamental to healthy team dynamics, but godly character is. A team that develops godly character through peacemaking will be able to see personality and cultural differences in their proper perspective—as helpful tools for enhancing team dynamics.
In this stage, a sense of group cohesion develops. Members accept the team and develop norms for resolving conflicts, making decisions and completing assignments.
Norming takes place in three ways. First of all, as they grow through the storming stage, the team becomes more relaxed and steady. Conflicts no longer frequently throw the team off course.
Secondly, norming takes place when the team develops some kind of routine. Scheduled team meetings of various kinds give a sense of predictability and orientation to the team.
Thirdly, norming is cultivated through team building events and activities. Celebrations, public and private affirmation, retreats and fun get-togethers are practical ways to help the team norm. These team building events move the team toward the performing stage. The team’s goal is performing, not just norming. Yet norming is a necessary transition stage. A team can’t move to performing if there is no norming.
This is the payoff stage. The group has developed its relationships, structure and purpose. It begins to tackle the task productively. The stumbling blocks of storming resolve into stepping stones of performing.
The Five Stepping Stones to Performing
1. Character Developed
Character is never fully developed. We are always in process, constantly growing. Yet certain aspects of our character need to be developed adequately for a team to perform. Through the ministry of the word and prayer, a team’s character needs to grow in at least two areas for fruitful team life.
First of all, humility must be valued and practiced on the team. Team members must see Matthew 7:3-5 as the first step to overcoming team conflict. Team members must be committed to spiritual introspection, getting the logs out of their own eyes before confronting others. Isaiah 66:2 describes this orientation another way: “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit and who trembles at my word.” I describe this as “brokenness,” in the sense of being humble (not wounded). Broken people are easy to entreat and quick to forgive – valuable traits for team dynamics.
Another key to mature character is a commitment to following Jesus’s steps to peacemaking as outlined in Matthew 5:23-24 and Matthew 18:15-17. When we have problems in our relationships, we must pursue peace and go to the person involved.
2. Gifting Fit
Gifting fit is a leader’s continual challenge. A leader must vigilantly endeavor to use team members’ gifts to best advantage—for the sake of the individuals as well as for the work of the team.
Leaders can take two practical steps to refrain from abusing their authority. First, they must serve their followers by praying for, encouraging, providing resources, equipping, and empowering them. Secondly, leaders must be receptive to their followers’ counsel. The wise leader receives reproof (Prov. 12:1,15). Followers will follow their leader if they sense the leader is serving them and listening to them.
Followers can develop submissiveness in two ways. First, followers must cultivate loyalty. They must think of practical ways they can express their loyalty to the leader and to the vision of the team. However, the follower must not be blindly loyal. True loyalty must be expressed by “truthing it in love” with their leader. They must develop what I call a “critical loyalty” to the leader – being loyal, but not blind. They need to be critical in the sense of asking hard questions in love, but without having a critical spirit. Receptive servant leaders and critically loyal followers combine for dynamic, productive teams!
4. Vision and Values Congruence
The team that performs has found vision and values congruence. All its members are committed to the direction and the distinctives of the organization. Three qualities enhance this congruence: clarity, communication and commitment.
The leader must have clarity in his own mind about the vision and values of the team. The more clearly the leader can separate the essential from the negotiable in the vision and values, the more likely he or she will be able to impart it to others.
Clarity is not enough. Through word and deed, the leader must also communicate the vision and values. This communication process needs to involves direction from the Lord and feedback from the team. Jesus is the head of the church and thus the head of the team. As he guides a team, he will sometimes lead them into new directions. He will expose blind spots and show them new areas to emphasize. He will frequently help the team make explicit what is already implicit in the vision and values. Part of the Lord’s guidance comes through team members giving fresh input to the leader. The vision and values must continually be sharpened and refined.
The third aspect of developing vision and values congruence is commitment. Understanding the direction and distinctives of the team is not enough. Commitment is the goal! The team needs to be wholeheartedly committed to the vision (what the team is trying to accomplish) and the values (how the team seeks to accomplish its task).
5. Personality and/or Cultural Acceptance
Personality and/or cultural acceptance is not as crucial to team dynamics as the four stepping stones noted. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, an understanding of personality and cultural differences and acceptance of those differences does enhance team life.