Remember when your team began? They were so excited. They seemed nice, fun, agreeable, and really seemed to appreciate your leadership. Things have likely changed since then. It might feel like disagreements surround almost every decision. Maybe they push back on your leadership decisions or style and sometimes it seems like you don’t quite fit in.
Unfreezing – Change – Freezing
Forming teams can be exhausting. What works at the beginning probably won’t work as the group matures. Early group-dynamics theorists who identified this predictable pattern included Kurt Lewin (1947). Additional stage-of-development theories have been put forth since then, including those with rhyming labels like forming, storming, norming, performing (Tuckman, 1965) and colorful boxes with pathways like those found in Blanchard and Hersey’s situational leadership model (1972), Lewin’s original theory still provides a clear look at some of the growing pains and gains many groups experience.
According to Lewin’s theory, groups begin in an “Unfreezing” (or unfrozen) state in which group members need to unlearn pre-existing mindsets and biases. Defense mechanisms are on alert so group members tend to be hesitant, polite, and agreeable. After all, who wants to make a bad first impression or rock the boat before they learn how safe it is onboard?
Most groups then enter the “Change” stage in which members figure out how things work and hopefully find a way to fit in. Establishing things like leadership, decision-making, roles, status, and ways to deal with conflict requires negotiating (whether conscious or unconscious) and, as a result, some people may feel hurt or marginalized while others feel satisfied and supported.
The next stage is “Freezing.” This is where the norms and processes negotiated in the previous stage are accepted and refined. Group members begin understanding what is expected of them and may feel safe enough to push back on ideas and share what they are actually thinking—even if it varies from what others in the group have said. This is the phase where ideas can be hashed out and creative risks can be embraced. Unfortunately, many groups never quite get to the “freezing” stage, choosing to stay in an endless cycle of reserved politeness or uncollaborative conflict.
Repeat the Cycle
As the group’s membership, purpose, or challenges and opportunities change, it must go through a variation of the above cycle. If it never revisits this cycle, it stagnates. That does not mean it completely fails but it likely means it will miss out on significant successes.
Understanding these processes can help explain and predict group behavior. It can also help you adapt your leadership. According to Hersey and Blanchard, groups may need more structure at the beginning and less once operating norms have been established.
- Moral support and encouragement might be more important as the group works through power, status, roles, and decision-making norms and less important after the group has figured out how to apply their own way of doing things.
- Conflicts at the beginning of a group’s experience may feel more significant as the group works through how to deal with difficult interactions. Learning and applying effective communication and conflict skills are crucial to establishing healthy norms. This is most effectively accomplished during the “Change” phase.
No two groups are the same and no group stays the same. By understanding some of the inevitable growing pains, we can help our teams experience significant gains that benefit their work together and their lives beyond that work.
Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics: Concept, method and reality in social science; social equilibria and social change. Human Relations, 1(1), 5-41.
Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. H. (1972). Management of organizational behavior; utilizing human resources (2d ed.). Prentice-Hall.
Blanchard’s leadership model explained: https://www.kenblanchard.com/KBCPublic/media/PDF/Webinar-Slide-Decks/the-4-leadership-skills-that-make-teams-work.pdf