Star performers

It seems we can’t get enough of reality TV these days: Big Brother, Survivor, I’m a Manager (sorry, Celebrity) Get me Out of Here; the list goes on. Surprisingly, however, this genre has a lot it can teach setting up and building teams.

Bruce Tuckman published his “forming, storming, norming, performing” model of group development in 1965. Forty years later it possibly remains the best known.

All groups, Tuckman suggests, go through a series of stages. In “forming”, the group establishes its tasks and methods. The next stage is “storming” in which there may be resistance to the demands of the task or polarised opinions or resistance of control. This is said to lead to “norming” in which there emerges the development of group cohesion and the open exchange of views and feelings. The final stage is that of “performing” when a group creates its own energy and becomes effective and is characterised by flexibility and maturity.

Although this theory is limited to groups rather than teams, and to those who are starting from scratch (which is rarely the case), it does offer a framework for understanding team development.

Reality TV gives us a lesson on how never to get to this “performing” stage. After all it is great for the office, but makes terrible television. The producers want our contestants to be for ever forming and storming – and seek to achieve this through uncertainty, competitiveness and membership turnover.

The contestants know nothing about each other before entering the artificial environment, which could just as easily be an office. Contestants are invariably kept in the dark about future intentions and what is going on in the outside world. Throughout the series the team roles are constantly changing. This collective mix of uncertainties adds stresses on the group which lead to conflict.

Individuals are invariably asked either to compete or carry out single tasks on which the comfort of the group relies. This introduces a blame culture and also a feeling of inadequacy for members who do not perform the required task, no matter how stupid. This can in turn lead to exclusion.

The group is rarely allowed to become settled as members are constantly getting voted off and in some cases added. The turnover naturally perpetuates the uncertainty and prevents the group from settling down and “performing”.

We should draw on the art of management to tread the performing stage as quickly as possible. So we need to remove uncertainty by helping people to get to know about each other. Team games can be useful, as is making sure people understand their roles and tasks. You also need to eliminate excessive competition and any remnant of a blame culture.

In some settings, such as residential care, teamwork is made more complex because it may involve managing large groups of staff who work shifts to cover the 24/7 services. Coupled with this, work practices are likely to entail staff working in overlapping “teams”.

One could argue that within field and residential work the focus is still too heavy on the model of individual caseloads and responsibility. Thus you face the dilemma of being in a system that does not necessarily encourage or even allow for teams to work effectively.

To be a successful team the requirements are:

  • An agreed and shared understanding of what you are doing and what you want to achieve.
  • Knowing what the individual strengths are and how they can be fully engaged.
  • A manager who is able to facilitate the work.
  • Confidence and trust.
  • Good, open communication and working relationships.
  • A systematic approach to resolving problems.
  • Planning and review.

Working in a mature and well-developed team can be a stimulating and rewarding experience in which everyone feels that their abilities are used to the full and there is great flexibility. We know there are teams like this but it is as likely that the experience of working within a team is characterised by unclear objectives and top-down decisions and bureaucracy with – and this is what reality TV shows exploit – no one much interested in the achievements of anyone else.

But it wasn’t all bad for contestants. Viewers were often treated to glimpses of real team cohesiveness. This normally came when the group had achieved a task collectively, the lesson being that nothing can motivate a team better than its own success.

Des Kelly is partnership director, Bupa care homes; Vijay Patel is an independent consultant in the voluntary sector; Claire Smart is purchasing manager, Gloucestershire social services.

When I was…

“…working in a US summer camp, the staff were expected to take part in an exhausting 20-day (16 hours a day) induction and training session, after which they would be looking after children for 46 days. The merits of this approach were that everybody was clear about the vision and aims of the camp, while having time to get to know each other. The small teams were built on the strengths of the people and time was available to start work on improving their weaker areas. The teams focused on how they would achieve their tasks and take ownership of how they would deliver it, with the result that most teams provided a high-quality service. There were always some failures but this could not be attributed to lack of management support.” (VP)

Top tips

  • Acknowledge individual strengths.
  • Share responsibilities fairly.
  • Encourage people to see themselves as working on a common task and help each other out.
  • Encourage the team to develop their own team-building skills.

Rubbish tips

  • Try to treat everyone the same.
  • Find a model of team working and stick to it.
  • Avoid team conflict by one-to-one sessions.
  • Simply enable people to spend time together to facilitate team-working.

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