Team Processes - Principles of Management

Up to this point we have looked at two sets of elements in the team effectiveness model:

  1. organizational and team environment and
  2. team design.

The third set of team effectiveness elements, collectively known as team processes, includes team development, norms, cohesiveness, trust, and conflict management. These represent evolving dynamics that the team shapes and reshapes over time.


A few years ago the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) studied the circumstances under which airplane cockpit crews were most likely to have accidents and related problems. What they discovered was startling: 73 percent of all incidents took place on the crew’s first day, and 44 percent occurred on the crew’s very first flight together. This isn’t an isolated example. NASA studied fatigue of pilots after returning from multiple-day trips.

Fatigued pilots made more errors in the NASA flight simulator, as one would expect. But the NASA researchers didn’t expect the discovery that fatigued crews who had worked together made fewer errors than did rested crews who had not yet flown together.

The NTSB and NASA studies reveal that team members must resolve several issues and pass through several stages of development before emerging as an effective work unit. They must get to know each other, understand their respective roles, discover appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, and learn how to coordinate their work or social activities. The longer team members work together, the better they develop common mental models, mutual understanding, and effective performance routines to complete the work.

The five-stage model of team development, shown in Figure below, provides a general outline of how teams evolve by forming, storming, norming, performing, and eventually adjourning. The model shows teams progressing from one stage to the next in an orderly fashion, but the dashed lines illustrate that they might also fall back to an earlier stage of development as new members join or other conditions disrupt the team’s maturity.

Stages of Team Development

Stages of Team Development

  1. Forming: The first stage of team development is a period of testing and orientation in which members learn about each other and evaluate the benefits and costs of continued membership. People tend to be polite during this stage and will defer to the existing authority of a formal or informal leader, who must provide an initial set of rules and structures for interaction. Members try to find out what is expected of them and how they will fit into the team.
  2. Storming: The storming stage is marked by interpersonal conflict as members become more proactive and compete for various team roles. Coalitions may form to influence the team’s goals and means of goal attainment. Members try to establish norms of appropriate behavior and performance standards. This is a tenuous stage in the team’s development, particularly when the leader is autocratic and lacks the necessary conflict management skills.
  3. Norming: During the norming stage, the team develops its first real sense of cohesion as roles are established and a consensus forms around group objectives. Members have developed relatively similar mental models, so they have common expectations and assumptions about how the team’s goals should be accomplished. They have developed a common team-based mental model that allows them to interact more efficiently so they can move into the next stage, performing.
  4. Performing: The team becomes more task-oriented in the performing stage. Team members have learned to coordinate and resolve conflicts more efficiently. Further coordination improvements must occasionally be addressed, but the greater emphasis is on task accomplishment. In high-performance teams, members are highly cooperative, have a high level of trust in each other, are committed to group objectives, and identify with the team.
  5. Adjourning: Most work teams and informal groups eventually end. During this stage, members shift their attention away from task orientation to a socioemotional focus as they realize that their relationship is ending.

The team development model is a useful framework for thinking about how teams develop. In fact, a recent study found that it fits nicely with student recollections of their experiences with work on team projects for class assignments. You have probably experienced initial politeness and uncertainty, followed by subtle or not-so-subtle conflicts as fellow students spar for particular roles or squabble over the best way to complete the project. Some student teams work together long enough to experience norming and possibly performing, particularly if students have collaborated on previous assignments.

The team development model is also nicely illustrated in Blue Angels training. The U.S. Navy’s aerial demonstration team needs to complete its maneuvers with nearly perfect timing, and this requires team development to the performing stage. Although highly experienced before joining the squad, the pilots put in long hours of practice to reach the pinnacle of team development.

The F/A-18A Hornets are well spaced apart during the first few practices, but the team gradually tightens up the formation over the 10-week training program until the fighter jets are at times only 18 inches apart. “I know exactly what [the lead] jet is going to do, and when,” says Lt. Cdr. John Saccomando, who flies the Number 2 position. “It takes a while to build that confidence.”

Team development is also sped up through candid debriefings after every practice. “We close the door, and there’s no rank,” says Saccomando, who is expected to offer frank feedback to commanding officer and flight leader Cdr. Stephen R. Foley. Foley points out that thesafety and success of the Blue Angels depend on how well the team development process works.

“The team concept is what makes [everything] here click,” Foley emphasizes. Although the team development model is a useful gauge of this team process, it is not a perfect representation. For instance, it does not show that some teams remain in a particular stage longer than others or that team development is a continuous process. As membership changes and new conditions emerge, teams cycle back to earlier stages in the developmental process to regain the equilibrium or balance lost by the changes (as shown by the dashed lines in Figure below).

Speeding Up Team Development through Team Building Before Milton Elementary School in Milton, Delaware, opened its doors for the first time, school principal Sheila Baumgardner took her new teaching and support staff to Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville, Maryland, for three days of team building. “The idea behind that is to develop teamwork skills since I’m bringing teachers together from buildings all over the district,” Baumgardner explains.

Along with walking in the woods and sharing meals together, staff spent time developing school support programs. “Our main purpose is to develop teamwork skills—camaraderie—to facilitate communication once the school year begins,” she says.

Sheila Baumgardner sped up the team development process through team building —any formal activity intended to improve the development and functioning of a work team. Some team-building activities also improve other team processes (such as team norms and cohesiveness). Team building is sometimes applied to newly established teams, such as Milton Elementary School, because team members are at the earliest stages of team development.

However, it is more common among existing teams that have regressed to earlier stages of team development. Team building is therefore most appropriate when a team experiences high membership turnover or members have lost sight of their respective roles and team objectives.

Some team-building interventions clarify the team’s performance goals, increase the team’s motivation to accomplish these goals, and establish a mechanism for systematic feedback on the team’s goal performance. Others clarify roles by having team members reconstruct their perceptions of their roles as well as the role expectations they have of other team members.

Popular interventions such as wilderness team activities, paintball wars, and obstacle course challenges are used in team building as ways to increase trust and interpersonal bonding. “If two colleagues hold the rope for you while you’re climbing 10 meters up, that is truly teambuilding,” explains Jan Antwerpes, a partner in a German communications consulting firm. “It also shows your colleagues that you care for them.”


Have you ever noticed how employees in one branch office will be absent from work during inclement weather or any sign of cold symptoms, whereas their counterparts in another office practically have to be ordered to stay home when sick or discouraged from coming to work during bad weather? These differences are partly due to norms —the informal rules and shared expectations that groups establish to regulate the behavior of their members. Norms apply only to behavior, not to private thoughts or feelings. Moreover, norms exist only for behaviors that are important to the team.

Norms guide how team members deal with clients, how they share resources, whether they are willing to be absent from work, and many other behaviors in organizational life. Some norms ensure that employees support organizational goals, whereas other norms might conflict with organizational objectives. For example, studies report that employee absenteeism from work is influenced by absence norms in the workplace, not just the individual’s health or job satisfaction.

One reason employees conform to team norms is peer pressure. Coworkers might grimace if we are late for a meeting or make sarcastic comments if we don’t have our part of the project completed on time. Norms are also directly reinforced through praise from high-status members, more access to valued resources, or other rewards available to the team.

For the most part, however, team members conform to prevailing norms without direct reinforcement or punishment because they identify with the group. The more a team member identifies with the group, the more he or she is motivated to avoid negative sanctions from that group.

How Team Norms Develop Norms develop as soon as teams form because people need to anticipate or predict how others will act. Even subtle events during the team’s formation, such as how team members initially greet each other and where they sit in the first meetings, can initiate norms that are later difficult to change. Norms also form as team members discover behaviors that help them function more effectively (such as the need to respond quickly to e-mail).

In particular, a critical event in the team’s history can trigger formation of a norm or sharpen a previously vague one. A third influence on team norms is the past experiences and values that members bring to the team. If members of a new team value work–life balance, norms are likely to develop that discourage long hours and work overload.

Preventing and Changing Dysfunctional Team Norms Team norms often become deeply anchored, so the best way to avoid norms that undermine organizational success or employee well-being is to establish desirable norms when teams are first formed. As was just mentioned, norms form from the values that people bring to the team; so one strategy is to select people with appropriate values. If organizational leaders want their teams to have strong safety norms, they should hire people who already value safety.

Another strategy is to clearly state desirable norms as soon as teams are created. For instance, when Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts opens a new hotel, it forms a 35-person task force consisting of staff from other Four Seasons hotels. The task force “Four Seasonizes” the new recruits by training them and watching for behaviors and decisions that are inconsistent with the Four Seasons way of doing things. “The task force helps establish norms [in the new hotel],” explains a Four Seasons manager who has served on these task forces.

The suggestions so far refer to new teams; how can organizational leaders maintain desirable norms in older teams? One way, which The Container Store has practiced for many years, is to frequently discuss the team’s norms. One of the first and last tasks of the day is for staff to gather for the “huddle,” where they learn about the day’s sales target, review the store’s vision, and discuss issues related to the store’s vision.

Generally huddle sessions were introduced to educate employees, create a team environment, and reinforce norms that the company wants to instill in employees. “The spirit was to keep people on the same page,” explains Garrett Boone, cofounder and chair of the Dallas-based seller of customized storage products.

Team-based reward systems can also strengthen desired norms and weaken counterproductive norms. However, one classic study reported that some employees in a pajama factory were able to process up to 100 units per hour and thereby earn more money, but they all chose to abide by the group norm of 50 units per hour. Only after the team was disbanded did the strong performers working alone increase their performance to 100 units per hour.

Finally, if dysfunctional norms are deeply ingrained and the previous solutions don’t work, it may be necessary to disband the group and replace it with people having more favorable norms. Managers should seize the opportunity to introduce performance-oriented norms when the new team is formed, selecting members who will bring desirable norms to the group.


Team cohesiveness —the degree of attraction people feel toward a team and their motivation to remain members—is considered an important factor in a team’s success.

Employees feel cohesiveness when they believe the team will help them achieve their personal goals, fulfill their need for affiliation or status, or provide social support during times of crisis or trouble. Cohesiveness is an emotional experience, not just a calculation of whether to stay or leave the team. It exists when team members make the team part of their social identity. Cohesiveness is the glue or esprit de corps that holds the group together and ensures that its members fulfill their obligations.

Several factors influence team cohesiveness: member similarity, team size, member interaction, difficult entry, team success, and external competition or challenges. For the most part these factors reflect the individual’s social identity with the group and beliefs about how team membership will fulfill personal needs.

Member Similarity Earlier we learned that highly diverse teams potentially tend to experience more conflict, leading to factious subgroups and higher turnover among team members. Although this suggests that diverse teams are less cohesive than homogeneous teams, not all forms of diversity have this negative effect. For example, teams consisting of people from different job groups seem to gel together just as well as teams of people from the same job

Team Size Smaller teams tend to be more cohesive than larger teams because it is easier for a few people to agree on goals and coordinate work activities. The smallest teams aren’t always the most cohesive, however. Small teams are less cohesive when they lack enough members to perform the required tasks. Thus team cohesiveness is potentially greatest when teams are as small as possible, yet large enough to accomplish the required tasks.

Member Interaction Teams tend to be more cohesive when team members interact with each other fairly regularly. This occurs when team members perform highly interdependent tasks and work in the same physical area.

Somewhat Difficult Entry Teams tend to be more cohesive when entry to the team is restricted. The more elite the team, the more prestige it confers on its members, and the more they tend to value their membership in the unit. Existing team members are also more willing to welcome and support new members after they have “passed the test,” possibly because they have shared the same entry experience.

Team Success Cohesiveness increases with the team’s level of success because people feel more connected to teams that fulfill their goals. Furthermore, individuals are more likely to attach their social identity to successful teams than to those with a string of failures.

External Competition and Challenges Team cohesiveness tends to increase when members face external competition or a challenging objective that is valued. Under these conditions, employees value the team’s ability to overcome the threat or competition if they can’t solve the problem individually. They also value their membership as a form of social support. However, severe external threats can undermine team cohesiveness when the resulting stress undermines the team’s ability to function well.

For example, staff members at Lighthouse Publishing are a highly cohesive team because they excel in a ferociously competitive environment. “Lighthouse staff members [have] kept us independent in the face of stiff competition and corporate takeovers,” says Lynn Hennigar, president of the small newspaper publisher in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, Canada. Cohesiveness is also strengthened by internal challenges, such as when staff scrambled to get the paper out on time after the machinery broke down.

This cohesion partly explains why Lighthouse recently earned more than two dozen awards and its weekly newspaper, the Bridgewater Bulletin, has been judged as one of the top five in its class across Canada.

Consequences of Team Cohesiveness Every team must have some minimal level of cohesiveness to maintain its existence. People who belong to high-cohesion teams are motivated to maintain their membership and to help the team perform effectively. Compared to low-cohesion teams, high-cohesion team members spend more time together, share information more frequently, and are more satisfied with each other. They provide each other with better social support in stressful situations.

Members of high-cohesion teams are generally more sensitive to each other’s needs and develop better interpersonal relationships, thereby reducing dysfunctional conflict. When conflict does arise, members tend to resolve these differences swiftly and effectively. For example, one study reported that cohesive recreational ice hockey teams engaged in more constructive conflict—that is, team members tried to resolve their differences cooperatively— whereas less cohesive teams engaged in more combative conflict.

With better cooperation and more conformity to norms, high-cohesion teams usually perform better than low-cohesion teams. This is true only when team norms are compatible with organizational values and objectives, however. Cohesiveness motivates employees to perform at a level more consistent with group norms, so when team norms conflict with the organization’s success (such as when norms support high absenteeism or acting unethically), high cohesion will reduce team performance.


Any relationship—including the relationship among team members—depends on a certain degree of trust. Trust is a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based on positive expectations of the intent or behavior of another person. A high level of trust occurs when others affect you in situations where you are at risk, but you believe they will not harm you.

Trust includes both your beliefs and conscious feelings about the relationship with other team members. In other words, a person both logically evaluates the situation as trustworthy and feels that it is trustworthy. Trust can also be understood in terms of the foundation of that trust. From this perspective, people trust others based on three foundations: calculus, knowledge, and identification (see Figure below).

Calculus-based trust represents a logical calculation that other team members will act appropriately because they face sanctions if their actions violate reasonable expectations.

Each party believes that the other will deliver on its promises because punishments will be administered if they fail. In class projects, students have at least a calculus-based level of trust that their teammates will complete their part of the assignment because the instructor might fail those who do not make any contribution.

Predictability of another team member’s behavior is the foundation for knowledge-based trust . The more we understand others and can predict what they will do in the future, the more we trust them, up to a moderate level. Even if we don’t agree with a particular team member’s actions, his or her consistency generates some level of trust. Knowledge-based trust also relates to confidence in the other person’s ability or competence. People trust others based on their known or perceived expertise, such as when they trust a physician.

This third and highest foundation of trust, called identification-based trust , is based on mutual understanding and emotional bonds among team members. Identification occurs when team members think like, feel like, and act like each other. High-performance teams exhibit this level of trust because they share the same values and mental models. Identification-based trust is connected to the concept of social identity; the more you define yourself in terms of membership in the team, the more trust you have in that team.

Three Foundations of Trust in Teams

Three Foundations of Trust in Teams

A Hierarchy of Team Trust These three foundations of trust can be arranged in a hierarchy. Calculus-based trust offers the lowest potential level of trust and is easily broken by a violation of expectations. Generally calculus-based trust alone cannot sustain a team’s relationship because it relies on deterrence. Relationships don’t become strong when based only on the threat of punishment if one party fails to deliver on its promises.

Knowledge-based trust offers a higher potential level of trust and is more stable because it develops over time. Suppose that another member of your virtual team submitted documentation to you on schedule in the past, but it arrived late this time. Knowledge-based trust might be dented, but not broken, in this incident. Through knowledge-based trust you “know” that the late delivery is probably an exception because it deviates from the coworker’s past actions.

Identification-based trust is potentially the strongest and most robust of all three. The individual’s self-image is based partly on membership in the team and he or she believes their values highly overlap, so any transgressions by other team members are quickly forgiven.

People are more reluctant to acknowledge a violation of this high-level trust because it strikes at their self-image.

Dynamics of Team Trust A common misconception is that team members build trust from a low level when they first join a team. Yet studies suggest that people typically join a virtual or conventional team with a moderate or high level—not a low level—of trust in their new coworkers. The main explanation for the initially high trust (called swift trust ) in organizational settings is that people usually believe their teammates are reasonably competent (knowledge-based trust), and they tend to develop some degree of social identity with the team (identification-based trust). Even when working with strangers, most of us display some level of trust, if only because it supports our self-image of being a nice person.

However, trust is fragile in new relationships because it is based on assumptions rather than experience. Consequently recent studies report that trust tends to decrease rather than increase over time. In other words, new team members experience trust violations, which pushes their trust to a lower level. Employees who join the team with identification-based trust tend to drop back to knowledge-based or perhaps calculus-based trust.

Declining trust is particularly challenging in virtual teams because communication among team members is an important condition for sustaining trust. Equally important, employees become less forgiving and less cooperative toward others as their level of trust decreases, which undermines team and organizational effectiveness.

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