Team Dynamics

Team Dynamics

Another semester underway - PCCs right around the corner - tournaments abound - Key Results Areas monthly check-ins - so much going on. Many of these things are on my mind. But what’s the number one component of LearningLeaders I’m thinking about right now? Team Dynamics. Every partnership, team, or group goes through stages of evolution. While the exact metrics of this evolution might differ between who is asked to define them, I’m a big fan of Bruce Tuckman’s framework, the ‘Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing’ model. Before I get into a quick explanation of the framework and a more thorough explanation of why this is on my mind right now at this moment, let’s take a step back and look at why smoothly-functioning team dynamics matter. When everyone in a group trusts that each other is working in the best interest of the group, that is the moment when everyone can become vulnerable and open themselves to each other. I’m not talking about sharing deep dark secrets or talking about the kid in third grade who bullied you. I’m actually speaking much more superficially than that. Much more plainly professional. I’m talking about the willingness to make mistakes and to provide and receive open feedback. This leads to the confidence in others that when you provide guidance, they receive it not as a personal attack, but as a call to action to improve the company and our output for everyone. I’m of the pretty firm belief that I can ‘be myself’ more at LearningLeaders than I have been able to be at other companies because the people here will forgive me for mistakes I make. I can tell you that while sometimes there can be perceptions of assumptions that mistakes aren’t corrected at LL, ‘overcorrecting’ I think is far worse. I can speak from experience in this regard - the moment my boss’s boss at my old firm screamed at me across the conference room table for making what I thought was a trivial mistake, I took notice. But from there on out, I didn’t work ‘for’ the guy, I worked ‘in spite’ of him. Call me immature, but it just didn’t feel good to not be able to make a single mistake. I much prefer longer leashes with constant gentle pressure - long term, I think this builds greater amounts of trust. At LearningLeaders, for the most part, people will tell me when I am on the right track and on the wrong track rather than jumping to conclusions. And when I share constructive feedback, they will understand it not as me fulfilling some personal vendetta, but rather to improve performance of everyone. It’s all based on trust that people are working towards a common good. That’s one reason, among many, why I strive to consistently remind everyone of our mission: to empower everyone to lead, delight, and inspire. If we are all aligned on the mission, then we at least have common ground from which to approach problems. A trusting, supportive, and cooperative workplace is worth its weight in gold. One where you need to walk around on eggshells isn’t really a place I’d like to work in anymore. Now, let’s be clear - this is trusting, supportive, cooperative workplace is super hard to achieve. Super duper hard. Like, uber wuber super duper hard. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to build that type of workplace - one in which everyone can make mistakes or errors and not worry about their job security. Everyone. Makes. Mistakes.

Interestingly, it will be even harder for an organization like LearningLeaders with such a diverse group of Partners to achieve this end. Research from the Rotterdam School of Management and Erasmus University has shown that we are less likely to share information openly with those who do not share our same cultural background! We’re less likely to give open and honest feedback with those who aren’t from our walk of life.

Similarly, there is more than ample evidence to demonstrate challenges with multi-national and ‘gender dissimilarity’ in the workplace. I’m referring here to Guillaume, Brodbeck, & Riketta, 2012; Joshi, Liao, & Roh, 2011; Tsui & O’Reilly, 1989, some landmark studies in the space, published in The Journal Of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, The Journal of Management, and Administrative Science Quarterly. It’s true, sometimes I spend my days off reading Management and Organizational Psychology Journals. Go ahead, let those ‘this is how entrepreneur nerds recharge their batteries’ jokes fly. :P

To add to this, as Aparna Joshi publishes again in the Journal of Management in 2011, “individuals who are dissimilar to their colleagues in terms of their nationality are more likely to have bad relationships with their colleagues.” Dang... This is only one study, but if you look into it, the two decades of research are pretty telling.

There are troves of further information about this that basically reach similar conclusions:

The best decisions are made by multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-gendered, multi-everything groups of decision-makers. And yet... and yet... organizations with the most diversity have higher degrees of dysfunction in the social relationships within them! They’re harder to keep employees (in our case, Partners) happy and motivated. They’re harder organizations in which to make friends. They’re harder organizations in which to build trust, support, and cooperation.

What. The. Fruitcake.

So yes, we have an incredible uphill battle as a Partnership here. But this is also an amazing opportunity for us to learn and grow, because we are picking the hard battles to fight. And I hope you’ll agree with me that if something is important and something is hard, it’s probably something worth fighting for. That’s what may even give meaning to our very existence: working with others, to improve the life of others, by focusing on hard and important problems.

In summary: group dynamics are hard to get right. We have it even worse because we’ve chosen to strive to become an organization at its best, not fall down to the expectations of other organizations at their mediocre middles. So let’s look at how we might do that.

What comes below is a brief introduction to Tuckman’s model of group dynamics: ‘Forming - Storming - Norming - Performing,’ with a little seasoning of LearningLeaders-specific content sprinkled in and with a side of Mike’s previous experiences. Some of this may come across as pretty direct - to me, this is such an important topic we need to get straight to the heart of the matter. As a thank you for reading such a long Memo, I’ve also included a ‘first-of-its-kind’ and ‘unlikely-but-possible-to-be-repeated’ illustration. Don’t hold your breath. Mrs. O’Malley, my second and third grade art teacher, didn’t think my circles were great. You might agree. Anyways, above was all the WHY. Now for the WHAT - ‘Forming - Storming - Norming - Performing.’


Tuckman proposed that groups or teams followed a distinct pattern of evolution. First, they Form. The team meets, gets to know each other, discusses the opportunities and challenges that abound, and prepare to begin their journey. Often at this point, groups are defined more by individual motivations than a cohesive vision of group success. In order to move to the next phase, Storming, team members must be willing to go beyond the comfortable and embrace the unknown or challenging. (Sounds kind of like the Monomyth or Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey, from PSDS, right?)


Like any good story or Hollywood movie, conflict begins. There may be jockeying for power or confusion over status and tasks. Individual and team working styles begin to merge and both formal and informal hierarchies begin to form. There might be simultaneous feelings of happiness and anxiety. Certainly, team members begin to form clear opinions about others in their group, evaluating their abilities, trustworthiness, commitment, etc. Motivation may be sapped and the Storming phase can truly be destructive to a team unless tolerance, direct understanding, and openness are prioritized. There is a slightly above-average degree of anxiety or stress for most team members.

The honeymoon period has definitely ended and often at this phase, the team members also begin openly or not-so-openly questioning a leader’s authority and decision-making. In order for a group to move to the next phase, Norming, team members must resolve inter-personal conflicts. If there are any remaining, a group may appear to move on to Norming, but will quickly revert back to the Storming phase.


General disagreements have been resolved. Teams are aware of outside threats or competition and the team’s focus is honed on a common goal. Team members take responsibility for achievement of both their personal goals and well as the team’s overall goal. Tolerance of personality quirks and idiosyncrasies becomes necessary to progress to the next stage, Performing. The danger in this phase is complacency and not challenging other team members to bring their best work and contributions.


The team functions in independent and highly-driven methods. Supervisors are still involved, though there is a great degree of accountability and high performance outcomes begin to show up from distributed members of the team. A common occurrence in a Performing team is to find out that someone who a person didn’t at first feel was capable of achieving a certain outcome routinely delivers superior-quality results. In essence, the entire team is ‘firing on all cylinders,’ ‘hitting home runs,’ ‘crushing it,’ or ‘delivering the goods.’

At best, a team remains at the Performing phase for a long period of time and continues to ‘spin out’ or ‘grow’ to become a greater and greater team. A team can stay at the Performing level for a short or long period, perhaps regressing to the Norming phase or even back to Storming, given particular circumstances. Perhaps there is a change of leadership or incident that drives the team backwards to achieve below their potential.


This one I’m adding here, because in my own experience I’ve seen this. Basically the idea here is that when new members are added to a team, the team automatically goes back to the Forming phase, no matter what. It may be just for a single day, or it may be for an entire year. The addition of new team members reminds all the pre-existing team members that they have certain formal or informal positions of influence. This can threaten certain team members and encourage others. This can cause certain team members to withdraw and others to seek to expand their presence.

Reformation, as we know, is an experience of re-birth and re-invention. This is generally positive, though undoubtedly slows down the overall movement of a team and makes it incredibly challenging to remain at a Performing level. Although this isn’t in the original literature from Tuckman, I feel pretty confident that this can be added.


Also one I’m going to add here, similarly because I’ve seen it happen. This is the notion that when a group forms, the team is generally working in a specific direction or on a specific goal. If the goal itself changes, the composition of the team changes so dramatically that it is unrecognizable from the first team, or the method or tools in which the team operates, a team might Transform.

This is similar to Reforming in that it denotes a re-birth of sorts, but this is less about evolution and more about revolution - something completely different emerges. This is probably the most contentious change/edit that I’ll make to Tuckman’s model, though I feel in today’s day and age with workplaces and careers and projects changing so rapidly, it is important to engage with the new speed of community formation and deterioration that exists in the Information Age.

Mike’s Diagram of Tuckman’s ‘Forming - Storming - Norming - Performing’ Cycle:


I think we’ve experienced all areas in this cycle so far at LearningLeaders. With each addition of new Partners, we (Re)Form. I think last Spring semester would be a great example of Norming - I think we were delivering great work and building great relationships among our team, though I feel we were still not at our best. I think the closest taste we got to Performing was at May Day, when we truly delivered an amazing experience to our community.

Therein lies the challenge - how can we keep Performing at a high level? This is every Partner’s duty and when a single weak link emerges, the Performing might cease. We’ve experienced Storming numerous times: A big one was during the month of April 2017. Another Storming time was after the departure of LL Partners and the subsequent formation of a directly competitive organization.

Based on the Team Voice Survey, it feels to me like we’re in the midst of another Storming moment right now. ‘Increasing gossip’ or something of the sort has been identified within the Team Voice Survey. While ‘gossip’ has been mentioned before, according to the most recent survey, it seems to be more than before.

This might not come as a shock, but I’m not a big fan of gossip. Nor am I a fan of remaining in the ‘Storming’ phase of team evolution. But let’s acknowledge that teams do go through this phase and, more importantly, grow through this phase.

What particularly bums me out about gossip is that when you speak about someone when they aren’t in the room in a way that you wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking about them when they are in the room, you remove any opportunity for them to step in and correct your assumptions. And this is a potential crux of the issue as is unique to our company - when we exist in such a diverse workplace, where we may not share the same values or understanding as everyone that we work with, assumptions are more likely to occur about other people. We’ve learned about it at each of the last two offsites, Diversity and Inclusion trainings, Themes & Theories, and even in the scholarly articles cited earlier in this Memo. We’ve also probably all learned through various personal experiences.

If anyone at LearningLeaders has not ever made an assumption about another person, please do give yourself a pat on the back, because I’m going to hypothesize you’re in the vast minority. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that I’ve made some assumptions about people that turned out to be incorrect. And guess what? The only way I found out that my assumptions were incorrect were to ask the person themselves about it. I am ashamed to admit it, but I still make assumptions about other people to this day. I’m afraid that I may never grow 100% out of this terrible habit - but I am less afraid than ever before to speak directly with other people about those assumptions.

Between what is said and not meant and what is meant and not said, so much of love is lost.

I’m quite sure that is what we are training our own students to do in the classroom, correct? Question assumptions of the other side to ensure that not only they are debating the same topic, establishing what the value criteria of each side are, and then, if the assumptions are unfounded, to explain why they might be that way. While I understand that debate is not a carbon copy of personal and professional discourse, I strongly feel we should at least extend the same opportunity to our loved ones, friends, and colleagues to be able to clearly explain their definitions, value criteria, and assumptions before moving forward.

I don’t think that through a snap of fingers, waving of a magical wand, or clicking the heels of ruby slippers together that gossip disappears. I do think through talking to people about questions or unclear issues, we can reduce (though admittedly, maybe not 100% eliminate) the amount of assumptions we make about each other.

Let’s break free of this Storming phase ASAP, people. It’s no fun to spend mental energy on other people’s business. Let’s get back to winning. And get back there quickly.


I’ve heard the question asked - Why should I give constructive feedback to people who are going to rate me in the 360 survey at the end of the semester? Won’t that just hurt me and give them an opportunity to ‘dock me’ points from my 360? Won’t that hurt my chances at getting a high bonus and getting promoted?

It’s a super challenging question for me to answer, because I can’t 100% empathize with the position you are in today. But for everyone in the company, I’ve been in your position at one point of another (being a Junior Partner or a more Senior Partner). Here’s my best take at it.

If you think being perceived as giving constructive feedback will hurt you, bear in mind these five things, from ‘shortest-term’ to ‘longest-term.’

  1. Feedback isn’t about you. It’s about helping the other person improve. Keep your ego out of it. If you respect the other person, then you should give them guidance on how they can do their work better as it helps that person and it helps the entire team.
  2. In the delivery of your feedback or suggestion, feel free to rehearse what you want to say. I always find it helps me to speak out loud or even write down what I want to say before I do. If you’re still concerned, preface your feedback with, “I want to ensure you I think you’re awesome and all I want is for us to succeed as a team. I’m making a comment about a certain behavior and not who you are as a person.” Go back to our Management Training module about feedback if you’d like to rehearse. It’s in the Podio > Professional Development workspace.
  3. You can and should be giving positive feedback too! Let’s imagine you want to give someone constructive feedback. If you have been openly communicating with this person and giving them open positive feedback, then each piece of constructive feedback won’t be as harsh. Let’s not forget that while ‘feedback’ has connotations of negativity for many people, feedback is simply another person sharing an observation and their feelings about the observation with you. That doesn’t have to be negative.
  4. I can promise you that as the organization grows and we become continually more rigorous and systematic about our promotion and management selection process, higher-level Senior Partners will be selected for their abilities to deliver effective feedback, among other criteria. As the role of a manager is to effectively improve the behaviors and manage the output of her/his team, feedback is essential to success in this regard.
  5. Beyond LearningLeaders, for the rest of your life, within whatever communities you choose to be a leader in, being known as someone who wants other people to be successful, who is known for giving feedback and coaching that helps others, and who is known for committing themselves to team success is going to help you infinitely more than getting ‘marked down’ by a colleague right now. I know and can completely understand this may be challenging to see right now. That, I can 100% empathize with. Because at my first job, I was petrified to give feedback to my supervisor. It took me a few months to gather up the courage to do so. And what happened? It definitely didn’t go perfectly, but I saw behavioral change in my supervisor that enabled me to do my work better. And he thanked me for it, because it was a blind spot for him. Not giving feedback or having an open discussion for the reason that ‘they’re not going to change anyway AND they’ll think less of me.’ IS a real possibility. I promise you though, the odds of that happening are far less than you would imagine.

In order to get out of this Storm, we need to communicate openly with each other. Assumptions are poison. Share openly, honestly, and with the care of the other person in mind. Let’s Perform.