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Understanding Team Dynamics and Evolution

Silhouettes of five people standing on top of a rock formation at dusk, with their hands in the air.
Photo Credit: Natalie Pedigo
Silhouettes of five people standing on top of a rock formation at dusk, with their hands in the air.

Understanding the distinction between groups and teams can help shape the structure for the individuals working together toward your cause. This article helps identify your team dynamics and provide strategies for helping your team evolve.

Not all groups are teams. Understanding the difference can help shape the structure and function of the individuals who work together toward your cause.

Distinguishing teams from groups

A team is a group of people linked to a common purpose. Teams are especially useful for highly complicated tasks that build off of one another. But as mentioned, not all groups are teams. Why is that?

One of the key differences between teams and groups is how they work together. Teams are interdependent, which means that everyone needs to work together to accomplish anything significant even though team members specialize in different tasks. The benchmark of a successful team is simple: if an individual is successful, so is the team.

Groups on the other hand are independent. Independent workers typically perform more or less the same tasks without any direct effect on the performance of the next person in the group. This disconnect between the success of the individual and the rest of the individuals is what distinguishes groups differently from teams.

A simplified breakdown of groups and teams

Independent; not working towards same goalInterdependent; working towards the same goal
Focus on individual selves rather than group goals or objectivesOwnership of shared goals and their role in creating the goals
Members are given tasks or told what to do to accomplish goalsMembers collaborate using talent and experience
Cautious and afraid to ask questionsTrust is foundation of success

Reflection: Are you part of a team or a group?

Take a moment to think about how you work together with others at your organization. Do you relate more to the characteristics of a team or a group? Why?

How teams evolve

Teams change over time as individuals come and go, which means that the dynamic and function of the team changes too. Most teams follow similar stages when coming together:

Characteristics: Members cautiously explore the acceptable group behavior in the forming stage.

  • They search for their position within the group and test the leader group and test the leader ’s guidance.
  • Conversation is polite as teammates are trying to understand their place.
  • Team members maintain a façade, conceal weaknesses, and avoid confronting issues or conflict.
  • Team members may still be wary of each other at this stage, or may have assumptions or hidden agendas.
  • It is normal for little team progress to occur during this stage.

Leadership Strategies: Strong leadership is helpful at this stage – someone who can be highly visible, facilitate team introductions, provide the big picture, establish expectations, determine and communicate success criteria, and build momentum by moving quickly. The team goes through a process of identifying skills and interests, agreeing on roles and responsibilities, and beginning to establish ways of working together.

Characteristics: Once teams start to get to know each other and work together, conflict tends to arise in the storming phase.

  • Team members may feel detached, question the plan, struggle for power, blame outsiders for problems.
  • In this totally normal phase, productivity often suffers as the group has yet to figure out how to put aside personal tensions and work together.
  • Unfortunately, some teams become stuck in this phase.

Leadership Strategies: In the storming stage, conflict resolution is required to move forward. Requesting and encouraging open communication around feedback and working to build trust are both critical.

Characteristics: At the norming stage, teams begin to work together more effectively, resolving issues, and practicing clear, open communication.

  • Teams here are beginning to learn how they work together, as leadership and structural conflicts are resolved.
  • At this stage, teammates begin confronting issues instead of people, and teammates are comfortable giving feedback
  • People are often now contributing more. The increased trust offers a great environment for experimentation.

Leadership Strategies: Norming teams can backslide into storming, as new conflicts and projects arise. Watching for this, managers can begin to back off, encouraging and celebrating both great individual work and team brainstorming.

Characteristics: At the performing stage, there is a clear commitment to the team over self-interest.

  • Teams have clear goals, are highly motivated, are trusting that the right people are in the right roles, and clearly understand responsibilities.
  • There are agreed-upon leadership and management practices, and teammates have a sense of ownership in their work.
  • Conflict is dealt with comfortably, and honest self-assessment is the norm.

Leadership Strategies: Delegate and celebrate. Encourage the team to make decisions as a team. Keep everything moving forward with a light touch such as team status updates.

Characteristics: Teams have a natural life cycle and will disband for numerous reasons, such as the end of a project or the departure of a colleague.

  • This adjourning stage can elicit feelings of worry and anxiety for some individuals.

Leadership Input: At this stage, teams benefit from looking back to recognize what they’ve accomplished individually and collectively, articulate what they’ve learned, and recognizing the change taking place.

Reflection: What stage of development is your team or group?

Take some time to consider which of these stages relates most to your situation. Are you in between? Has your stage changed recently? What might need to happen to move into the next stage?

How different stages affect your work

The characteristics of each stage have a direct impact on how the team is functioning together toward your goals. The following graphic visualizes the natural dip from Forming into Storming before the Norming stage. Effectiveness increases to a peak in the Performing stage. Then, as the life cycle comes to a close in the Adjourning stage, effectiveness drops down again until the team re-enters the Forming stage.

A graphic charting team effectiveness against five stages; forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.

How to help your team succeed

Cultivating a high-functioning team can be incredibly difficult. If you’re feeling stuck in the storming mode, it can be helpful to understand the root causes of the most common team challenges.

This is a common situation for teams to find themselves in, and once you recognize that there is a problem, you are well on your way to solving it. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, articulated here by Patrick Lencioni, outlines an effective way to figure out where your team can focus energy to address the root of the challenges you face. While this structure may seem bleak, it’s important to consider it from the other side, as five skills that can support effective teamwork.

Ultimately, the foundation of all of these skills is trust. With trust, teammates can openly share without feeling judged and feel comfortable engaging in healthy conflict. When everyone feels heard and committed to the team goals, they’re more willing to hold one another accountable and can stay focused on the team objectives.

Try it for yourself

Are you feeling inspired? It’s time to try it out using our worksheet, meant to walk you through the Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

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