Not all groups are teams and how to tell the difference

Issues with team dynamics and team building are often the most demanding module of High Performance clinics. I believe this is the result of people creating obstacles for themselves and in turn, inhibiting their quest for excellence due to these impediments. Therefore, the process of helping people get to their next stage of excellence can be found by assisting them in overcoming and understanding their obstacles. O. S. Marden explained that:

Obstacles are like wild animals. They are cowards but they will bluff you if they can. If they see you are afraid of them, they are liable to spring upon you. But if you look them squarely in the eye, they will slink out sight.

So the task in helping teams overcome their issues and conflicts can sometimes be found in assisting them to face the demons that confront them. In the beginning….

Way back in the late 1960’s, Dr. Bruce Tuckman examined the stages of team building and developed his breakthrough theory of FORMING, NORMING, STORMING and PERFORMING. All groups go through the “forming” stage. They have not yet become a team. Most group members are hesitant to rock the boat. This phase is most like early dating in the love or romance process. Remember when your girlfriend said she loved watching hockey on TV? She was just “forming”. The “norming” process finds team members getting along, but not really making progress. They are spinning their wheels and need to find a motivator to get out of this phase and get where all teams need to be to achieve success. As Henry Ford reflected, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; and working together is success.” However, many teams need to go through the “storming” stage to get to “performing”. This is a difficult and arduous journey. Conflict is usually necessary to graduate from this phase. The “storming” is nearly always caused by one of these five problems in team development:

  1. lack of attention to results;
  2. lack of commitment to goals;
  3. low standards;
  4. inability to trust;
  5. fear of conflict.

Let’s deal with the last one first; conflict is not always bad. We learn in elementary school English that conflict is needed in a narrative to create action. Team building also requires some action and conflict is often the best source for improvement and the road to success. Why is conflict constructive? Conflict:

  1. encourages meaningful dialogue amongst team members;
  2. enables us to learn and expand perspective;
  3. opens up important issues;
  4. produces innovative solutions;
  5. leads to clarity and understanding amongst teammates; and, conflict
  6. leads to cooperation and greater unity.

That said – here is the hard part for the coach – teams and athletes must be trained to learn to handle conflict. They need to be made aware that facing their fears is the best way to overcome them. We as coaches need to make our athletes better thinkers. Ask better questions in hope of finding better solutions and not always giving them the answers even when we have them. We must lead them to the best answer and have them demonstrate it to their teammates. As Coach K of the Duke Blue Devils says, “You hear, you forget. You see, you remember. You do, you understand.” When our athletes grasp this concept, our team has arrived at the “performing” stage. Here, we are firing on all cylinders. Progress is being made – harmony and competitive drive is the prevailing atmosphere. Success and excellence in performance is within reach.

So where do we go from here? How do we maintain this state and continue to move forward? Well, to help solve problems and build toward “performing”, we need to understand that we are different and have different needs and require unique communication.

Understanding personality types and their leadership abilities is a step in the right direction. I like the “Dominant – Patient – Extrovert – Conformist” model and use it with our teams. This process allows for a better understanding of what makes your teammate tick. How do we get the very best out of this highly skilled and competitive person? We go through the testing process and extract the important information: personality type, behaviour type, and most importantly, coaching strategies to make the synergy work in this relationship. We then develop tips for adapting, and identify motivators and de-motivators in a team profile. Our teams also spend considerable time on the value of positive thinking and the dangers of negative thinking in the team building process. We try very hard to promote the psychology that “instead of cursing the darkness – light a candle.” Be proactive, and not reactive, in your handling of others. Through my years of coaching I have definitely found the old axiom:

While positive thinking does not always work – unfortunately, negative thinking nearly always does!


As you can see, team dynamics can be a positive force and does not need to be a minus to performance. When we combine ability, motivation and team support we are on the road to success and performance equals excellence. Remember:

A champion is someone who has fallen off the horse a dozen times and gotten back on the horse a dozen times.

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