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Forming and storming in legal teams — how to make the most of it

03 August 2018 - By Emily Morrow

In 1965, Bruce Tuckman wrote his memorable article, “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups” (Psychological Bulletin, 634(6), 384-399), in which he discussed the four stages that teams generally go through: forming, storming, norming and performing. Some years later he added a fifth phase: adjourning or mourning. These stages are associated with a team becoming a high performing group and achieving its full potential. Because the process is cumulative, to progress into the next stage of development, a team must successfully move through the prior developmental phase.

I will be discussing these five stages and how they apply to legal teams in two articles. In this first article, I’ll take a look at how legal teams go through the forming and storming stages and how to ensure a team does so successfully. The topics of norming, performing and adjourning/ mourning will be discussed in a second article in the October issue of LawTalk.

Teams in the practice of law

Teams are often a critical part of a successful law practice. Whether one practises in a large, medium, small firm, a barristers’ chambers or as in-house counsel, there will be actual or virtual teams that are the basis of how lawyers work together.

High performance teams don’t just happen. Although a few teams sail through the first three phases and then blissfully perform, many don’t. Teams and team leaders often stall out in one or more of the developmental phases. One always knows when this happens – productivity drops, turnover increases, morale decreases, conflict occurs and team members become cynical and pessimistic.

Problems that develop are usually best addressed in the context of that same structure. Although team leader performance impacts team functioning, leadership alone is usually not the full “fix”. The best solutions are often generated by the group as a whole.

Forming legal teams

New teams are formed for many reasons in a legal practice. A partner’s retirement or promotion, the acquisition or merger of firms, the lateral hiring of a new partner, or a major new project can all result in the formation of a new team. They often bring together newcomers with longtime employees, different cultures, varied definitions of success and many ways of practising good law.

An illustration of people climbing onto a pile of books

Sometimes teams are painstakingly formed over time and sometimes they are constituted quickly in response to an unanticipated need. A firm may divide an existing practice group into new, smaller sub-units to take advantage of a carefully considered strategic opportunity. Conversely, a team might be formed when a lawyer resigns to address an unexpected crisis.

The forming stage is often characterised by optimism, curiosity and careful behavioural and relationship management by team members and leaders. It can also be a somewhat anxious or sceptical time when members question the role of the team and compete for position. The team leader will need to be very clear about expectations, roles and responsibilities. The forming stage can last for a while or be brief, depending upon the team’s mission and objectives.

An excellent way to expedite the forming process can be through a facilitated team retreat, the agenda for which might include:

  • An interactive relationship building exercise, such as work on team member temperament preferences (so everyone has a common basis of knowledge and language to use to ensure optimum collaboration and minimise friction);
  • Something fun and light that could be athletic or otherwise and is often done outside;
  • Some educational discussion about group dynamics (to enhance everyone’s understanding of what a high functioning team looks and acts like);
  • A discussion about the team internal organisational structure including, for example, developing an organisational/work flow chart;
  • Identification of future topics for group discussion.

Successful outcomes typically include:

  • Enhanced individual and collective understanding of diversity, commonality and complementary capabilities;
  • A robust discussion in which team introverts and extroverts participate;
  • A channeling of early stage optimism and a reduction of formation anxiety and confusion;
  • The beginnings of strong team identity and esprit de corps;
  • An enhanced commitment to achieving the team’s goals.

I suggest expediting and optimising the forming phase so the team begins to get real traction. Investing in this stage creates a strong foundation for a team, including minimising the potential for a difficult or damaging storming phase.

Storming legal teams

After the optimistic glow of the forming phase, the storming phase may come as a bit of a surprise. Everything was going well, everybody was feeling good and then things start derailing. In most legal teams, storming is inevitable and necessary. Expediting and managing the process can minimise the adverse aspects and optimise the opportunities. Because of the nature of lawyers and the law, storming can be particularly intense in legal teams. Lawyers often don’t just discuss differences of opinion; they “litigate” them.

The storming phase in legal teams is often characterised by:

  • Team members testing boundaries established by the group or leadership in the forming stage;
  • Conflict caused by temperament and work style differences;
  • Team member frustration, pessimism and cynicism;
  • Challenges to team leader authority and the vision for the team;
  • Development of factions and unhelpful informal leadership structures;
  • Individual or collective questioning of the team’s goals or raison d’etre;
  • Those team members who remain focused on the team’s core work experiencing greater stress and “doubters” coming into ascendancy.

Surviving and thriving through storming

To ensure a team survives the storming phase, optimises the benefits of storming and moves toward high performance, I suggest the following:

The team leader needs to understand the team’s needs, have an appropriate management style and have excellent communication with team members. Transparent, consistent, honest, high-quality, high trust communication will be critical. The leader will need to articulate and advocate for the team’s mission internally and externally. Lawyers who are not natural team leaders may benefit from professional coaching. Fortunately, many team leadership skills and best practices can be learned.

If a team is prone to factions, emphasising the importance of collaboration, having a clear and compelling mission and recognising the role and importance of each team member will be critical.

Storming will occur in most teams and the leadership choice is whether to have storming discussions occur informally or in a facilitated, structured setting. Articulating a compelling team mission can sometimes be difficult and is often best done in a structured storming discussion. Such a discussion should focus on (1) developing a team strategic plan, (2) understanding how the team fits into the firm’s overall objectives, (3) identifying roles for each member, and (4) discussing the benefits of collaboration and how do achieve it.

I generally find that the best agendas for structured storming sessions are those that are organised around open-ended, provocative questions having to do with team dynamics. Optimal discussion outcomes often include agreeing on what success for the team means, appropriate guidelines for individual and collective behaviour, clarifying responsibilities and lines of authority and settling things down.

Success for a team going through the storming phase will typically consist of:

  • A renewed commitment to a refreshed vision and mission for the team;
  • The departure of some members who were a less than ideal fit for it and the addition of new, better aligned members;
  • A realisation that the benefits of collaboration outweigh those of factionalism and politicking;
  • Personal and professional development for team members;
  • Enhanced leadership capabilities and an acknowledgment that capable leadership really does matter;
  • Improved client service, productivity and profitability after the dust settles.

Sadly, some teams never fully emerge from the forming or storming phases, limping along at a low level of productivity and success. If you suspect your team is stuck in either phase, I suggest you do a critical diagnostic of where the problems are occurring and act accordingly.

Those teams that successfully progress through forming and storming will move with greater assurance into the norming and performing phases which are the golden phases of team functioning and development. More about those in my next article.


Emily Morrow www.emilymorrow.com was a lawyer and senior partner with a large United States firm. She now resides in Auckland and provides tailored consulting services for the legal profession.

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Last updated on the 3rd August 2018