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Nov 30, 2021 Jennifer Hofmann

Adapting the Tuckman Ladder for Global Virtual Teams Post Pandemic

Virtual teams are now the lifeblood of many organizations. The pandemic accelerated the trend towards more global, virtual, and mobile teams.

All evidence points to virtual and hybrid work being here to stay. How do managers and leaders evolve their existing skills to support this modern way of working? One proven approach: adapt an existing model based on our understanding of successful remote teams. 

Let’s explore how you can adapt the Tuckman Ladder to create a more highly functioning global virtual team.

The Tuckman Ladder: An Introduction

Virtual team leadership requires skills also needed in traditional workplaces, but with extra attention paid to communication and conflict resolution.

The Tuckman Ladder, Tuckman's Model of Group Development, or just simply Tuckman’s Model is a ubiquitous framework used in team performance and leadership courses and seminars, and it can provide the guidance you need to ensure your virtual team is successful. Bruce Tuckman, a PhD in Psychology, used his research to create his now-famous four-stage model in 1965.

Even if you haven’t heard of Tuckman specifically, you’ve likely encountered his stages:

  1. Forming,
  2. Storming,
  3. Norming, and
  4. Performing.

He later expanded his model to include a fifth element: the adjourning stage or mourning stage. Each stage refers to a specific part of any team’s development. It defines how members interact with the business, with their leaders, and with their coworkers.

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Supporting Each Stage of the Tuckman Ladder for Your Virtual Team’s Development

Let's explore how this applies to today's unique environment.

Stage 1: Forming.

During the Forming stage, the team is still developing. Team members are highly dependent on the leader for guidance and direction. There’s little agreement on each team aim, and members are still looking to the leader. There’s little trust between members, no norms have been developed, and roles and responsibilities are unclear.

What does this mean for leaders? Members look to them for direction, while also testing the tolerance of the system.

Support the Forming stage by allowing time for team bonding, acknowledging that this process takes longer for virtual teams, and providing direction and purpose to your team. Find creative ways to connect, using virtual watercoolers, mentors, and team celebrations.

Impact of the pandemic on Forming:

This is especially important when bringing on young new hires to an organization. Individuals starting their careers during the pandemic are especially vulnerable to feeling left out and lost. If they don't feel part of the team early, you may have permanently lost the opportunity to integrate them.   

Stage 2: Storming.

During the Storming stage, we’ve already developed articulated roles and responsibilities. Team members have agendas and are working out boundaries and team mission. Because trust isn’t fully established, there are still some problems with problem solving.

Leaders need to be aware that at this stage, sub-groups can develop in your team. The team may be distracted by relationships and emotional issues (even more so today). Furthermore, your team members may be performing at different levels.

Guide your team through the Storming stage by:

  • increasing skill-building opportunities for your team,
  • requesting and accepting feedback,
  • defining rules of engagement, and
  • establishing a supportive work environment.
Impact of the pandemic on Storming:

Individuals are under an unprecedented amount of stress right now - and the virtual environment makes some feel more enabled to lash out and make it easier for other individuals to withdraw. Leaders need to find a balance, and look for signs that external stress is impacting the team.

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Stage 3: Norming.

Now we’re starting to see consensus forming if we as leaders did our job during the first two stages of virtual team development. There’s agreement on the team, and responsibilities are clear and accepted. People are making decisions by consensus, and delegating because there’s commitment and unity. Hence why it is called the Norming stage.

As leaders, we shift from commanding our team, to facilitating and enabling our team’s success. A habitual, short team morning session should occur where any challenges or roadblocks are discussed (like a standup session in agile development).

Encourage Norming by putting things in writing. Talk about the norms so that everyone knows what they’re doing and how things work on this team.

Remember: norms are not obvious unless they are documented and agreed upon.

Impact of the pandemic on Norming:

There is a lot of research being done on remote-work productivity. The evidence points to more productivity when it comes to completing tasks, at the expense of spontaneous collaboration. Find ways to encourage that collaboration - use your Slack or MS Teams channels in a very deliberate way. When you see a spark of creativity, connect the right people and throw them into a brainstorming opportunity. Be the facilitator of the interactions - and then step back and watch. 

Stage 4: Performing.

When teams reach the Performing stage, they have a high degree of autonomy. Yes, disagreements will occur, but they are resolved with trust and positivity. Team members look out for, and after, each other.

In this stage, leaders now delegate tasks and work on encouraging the professional development of our direct reports. We also fend off distractions or disruptions from outside the team, including organizational politics.

With virtual teams, we need to remember that it’s easy to slip out of this stage and revert back to earlier modes of operating. We can take things out of context, or struggle with communication. With awareness and constant work, we can maintain the Performing stage on our global virtual teams.

Impact of the pandemic on Performing:

As restrictions ease and move us into a more hybrid model of work, it will make less of a difference where people are working. How people are working will be the focus. 

We'll find ways to be efficiently productive and collaborative.

Stage 5: Adjourning/Mourning.

Whenever a project ends, or a new team member is introduced into the mix, group dynamics shift to the fifth stage of development: the adjourning stage or mourning stage. Virtual team leaders have to anticipate the grieving stage their employees go through during a period of change, and prepare to start back at stage one at the beginning of a new project or team iteration. 

Leading virtual teams requires patience, persistence, and presence of mind.  People will move in and move out. 

In a virtual environment, it will be easy for people to 'disappear' once a project is over. Public acknowledgments of contributions will help ensure they don't feel forgotten - and they are eager to join the next virtual team.

Impact of the pandemic on Adjourning/Mourning:

Individuals are not only under an unprecedented amount of stress right now, but also extreme loneliness. It may be helpful to your learners that during these stages you provide a means of communication so that they can keep in touch, but also invite them into conversations when the project is completed. Chatting about things beyond the classroom and work also helps this stage's impact to be lessened.

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Published by Jennifer Hofmann November 30, 2021
Jennifer Hofmann