So here we are again then. The clocks are going back, the nights are drawing in, and here comes storming fortnight – that magical time of the year when almost all sabbatical teams go through a period of intense conflict.
Psychologist Bruce Tuckman came up with the memorable phrase “forming, storming, norming, and performing” in his classic paper “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups.”
It describes the path that teams follow on their way to high performance. Later, he added a fifth stage, “adjourning” (also known as “mourning”) to mark the end of a team’s journey.
In the beginning, when a new team forms, individuals will be unsure of the team’s purpose, how they fit in, and whether they’ll work well with one another. They may be anxious, curious, or excited to get going. That exciting period ends for most SUs as Freshers finishes.
Now, a few colds and endless meetings later, things are different. It doesn’t matter how many times it happens (and this will be my upteenth year of it across multiple unions as a staff member), it’s still a time I dread.
Little things that seemed small months ago have now bubbled up and the air is poisonous.
Everyone’s tired, it’s cold and dark, and Christmas seems like weeks away.
In this “storming” stage, people start to push against boundaries and eachother. Conflict or friction can also appear as their true characters – and their preferred ways of working – surface and clash with other people’s.
At this stage sabbs challenge each other’s authority or style, or even the objectives agreed around a flipchart pad in August.
If roles and responsibilities aren’t yet clear, individuals might begin to feel overwhelmed by their workload or frustrated at a lack of progress.
And left unchecked, this can all lead to face-to-face confrontations or simmering online tensions.
Who’s gonna help?
Someone has to step in, because if you get this right, storming is where the most important issues are worked out that really set the team up for success this year – real goals, real roles, real relationships and proper identification of barriers.
Different unions do this in different ways. In our union, when we first see signs of personal poison bubbling to the surface, that’s when it’s OK for senior staff to call a time-out. Some unions use an external facilitator.
Whoever you use, people have work to do – tormenting one another is not just wrong, it’s irrelevant to the union’s mission for the year, and certainly irrelevant to students.
Just like on that residential over the summer, there are questions during storming that need answering for the team to make progress. They include:
- What are we supposed to accomplish as a group?
- How often do we give each-other decent feedback?
- Where do individual portfolios start and end?
- How will we arrive at decisions? When will we know we have done that?
- When will we meet, and how (large groups, small groups, one-on-one, etc.)?
- What’s gone wring? Where did we do well? Where did we annoy each other?
- How are we going to make ourselves more accessible to one another?
A team that manages to answer those questions in the early part of storming will minimise the pain of a necessarily painful process. Storming takes as much time as there are issues in need of resolution.
It is not a difficult task for teams made up of like-minded individuals. But cross-functional teams are by nature made up of primarily unlike-minded individuals. Nowhere is this more so than in SUs.
It’s not storming, they’re evil
All officers should understand the signs of storming. During storming, every team member is wondering if they are respected by the others.
Some will be hostile or overzealous. Some will be intimidated. Pulses will race. Sleep will be lost.
Jealousy and infighting, competition and polarisation are the orders of the day.
Alliances which seemed solid one day come crashing apart the next. Some individuals will rush too soon into the cauldron and offer to be boiled down into “team.”
Others will resist membership, the compromise of their individuality as if their lives depended on it.
It’s especially bruising for staff. Suddenly, you’re the one enemy they can agree on. You’re the one trying to make it better, but you’re the reason the team can’t coalesce, you’re the reason deadlines aren’t met, you’re the reason individuals feel unfulfilled, misunderstood and deadended.
As officers wrestle with their identity and direction, anyone who steps up to help can be singled out for judgment. Tin hats at the ready.
9 tips to get through Storming
- Spend some time together. Remember those plans to catch up regularly that fell by the wayside once Freshers came? Everyone does that. Go out for a Pizza or something.
- Your behaviour is contagious. If you do the right thing, there’s a chance others will. If you don’t, there’s no chance. Take the chance.
- Belief. You really are going through Storming. It is natural. The other people are not “evil” or “useless”. No, Honestly.
- The written record. Often a decision which is not recorded will become clouded and have to be re-discussed. This can be avoided simply by recording on a large display (where the team can clearly see) each decision as it is made. This has the further advantage that each decision must be expressed in a clear and concise form which ensures that it is clarified.
- Feedback (negative). All criticism must be neutral: focused on the task and not the personality. So rather than calling Johnie a moron, point out the error and offer him a calculator. It is wise to adopt the policy of giving feedback frequently, especially for small things – this can be couched as mutual coaching, and it reduces the destructive impact of criticism when things go badly wrong. Every bit of feedback should must be accompanied by a positive suggestion for improvement.
- Feedback (positive). If anyone does something well, praise it. Not only does this re-enforce commendable actions, but it also mollifies the negative feedback which may come later. Progress in the task should be emphasised.
- Handling failure. The long term success of a group depends upon how it deals with failure. It is a very British tendency to brush off failure and to get on with the next stage with no more than a mention – it is a very foolish tendency. Any failure should be explored by the team. This is not to attribute blame (for that is shared by the whole group as an individual only acts with delegated responsibility), but rather to examine the causes and to devise a mechanism which either monitors against or prevents repetition.
- Handling deadlock. If two opposing points of view are held in the team then some action must be taken. Several possible strategies exist. Common ground could be emphasised, and the differences viewed for a possible middle or alternative strategy. Each could be debated in the light of the original task. But firstly the team should decide how much time the debate actually merits and then guillotine it after that time – then, if the issue is not critical, toss a coin.
- Sign posting. As each small point is discussed, the larger picture can be obscured. Thus it is useful frequently to remind the team: this is where we came from, this is where we got to, this is where we should be going.
- Active communication: Communication is the responsibility of both the speaker and the listener. The speaker must actively seek to express the ideas in a clear and concise manner – the listener must actively seek to understand what has been said and to ask for clarification if unsure. Finally, both parties must be sure that the ideas have been correctly communicated perhaps by the listener summarising what was said in a different way.
The author has worked in a number of different unions but wishes not to be named