Continued from an earlier blog entry:
Stage Two – Constructive Storming/Managing Differences
As mentioned, storming, while a handy word because it rhymes, tends to evoke unfortunate images of dramatic conflict. We’ve witnessed faculty in a graduate program actually get upset with a highly functioning group because they didn’t appear to be “storming,” and mark them down based on the criticism “how could they be a healthy group?” We think that is serious and common misunderstanding of Tuckman. While intense confrontation may happen in any relationship, differences can also be managed effectively without dramatics. Stage two in Tuckman’s model is primarily about the shift in the group’s dynamics from a predictable and understandable focus on fitting in (managing initial anxiety by focusing on similarities and on the leader) to noticing and addressing differences. It is the end of the honeymoon phase. This happens when people begin to feel comfortable, a process our inclusive forming speeds up. Ironically, it is this very sense of becoming comfortable with the group that increases anxiety as one begins to note differences. “I’m just starting to feel good about this…why rock the boat by bringing that up?” An active leader, using the methods already outlined, can help the group past any such anxiety by maintaining norms of inclusion and dispersed participation, and by openly valuing the surfacing and exploration of differences.
A fundamental key to this stage lies in one’s beliefs about conflict. Many, especially in the early stages of beginning to be a member of a group, fear conflict will fracture the group, or at least their relationship to it. It is tempting to play it safe, and avoid “rocking the boat.” In contrast, we believe that differences between any two people, and certainly in a group, are inevitable, and if managed well are a source of higher performance. Toyota’s culture is a prime example. Their climb to high quality and performance was built upon immediately praising employees for bringing production problems to management’s attention (a vital cultural detail ironically overlooked by many adapting the Toyota system and/or lean manufacturing). Upon review, you and the group are not going to put time and effort into every problem raised, but it is far better to be aware of potential issues than to be ignorant of them. If the attempt to raise concerns is met with defensiveness and other forms of push-back, all but the most persistent group members will stop trying. Information and engagement will be lost. The likelihood of high performance will diminish.
This is the critical juncture for the group and nowhere is the shadow of the leader cast more strongly than in the management of conflict. As objectively as possible, a wise leader is clear about their own beliefs about conflict, and manages conflict in a manner that is best for group performance, even if it in some ways runs counter to their own beliefs. Conflict, according to noted expert Dr. Jay Hall, “is a natural part of human interaction…the way we, as individuals, think about and choose to handle conflict is more important in determining its outcome than the nature of the conflict itself.” Dr. Hall goes on to say that conflict itself is neither good nor bad: what matters is how we think about it and manage it. A simple way to think about it is that a conflict is any differences, whether large or small, whether high or low in emotional intensity, that matter to either party. Ignoring small “differences,” while tempting, often leads to even more complicated clashes down the road, or to avoidance of issues and/or individuals. Surfacing differences about work issues is far better for performance than driving them underground.
Of equal or greater importance as one’s beliefs, and related to them, is one’s behavior. We all have habits when managing conflict. An accurate understanding of your behavioral tendencies allows you to not be limited by them. For example, is it easy to give you feedback, or do your reactions make it difficult? Ideally, you are able to calmly listen and make sure you really understand even when the person raising an issue is doing so in a less than polished or stellar manner. A master of conflict can help the parties involved (including themselves) get to clarity, even if they initially feel defensive and upset by the topic or the manner in which it was raised.
In sum, to navigate stage two, a wise leader assesses their own beliefs and behaviors, and does the work necessary to overcome their own shortcomings, such as seeking feedback and skill building. With a patient and non-defensive approach, with norms of inclusion and dispersed participation, Tuckman’s phase two can unfold smoothly, without high drama. And if there are some fireworks, or difficult conflicts, the team will be much better positioned to move forward trusting that they can handle any difficulties that emerge.
Next segment: Stage Three – Active Norming