Junior officers within the Navy and Marine Corps Team continue to face a unique dilemma that hinders mission accomplishment and bottom-up innovation. This leadership challenge impacts both large and small teams equally, and indiscriminately affects combat arms, combat support, aviation, and combat service support units. Both the most capable and least experienced leaders within the organization struggle to overcome this challenge. The most detrimental aspect of the Navy and Marine Corps system is the constant rotation of personnel through different positions or stations with little to no control held by the leaders of subordinate units to maintain lasting continuity. While the need to transition individuals to different positions inside an organization is often necessary, the impact these transitions have on both the unit they left and the unit they join has lasting second and third-order effects that often degrade capabilities for a period. Junior officers have little to no control over the timing of when Sailors and Marines transfer, or when they transition themselves, they must become subject matter experts in the art of building teams. Junior officers who demonstrate an ability to rapidly cycle through the stages of team development will find increased performance from their teams, greater job satisfaction, and improved work-life balance. Bruce Tuckman identifies five stages teams transition through as they develop, build cohesion, and accomplish their objectives. This model for team-development, sometimes referred to as forming storming norming performing, explains why every team experiences friction in its infancy followed by the establishment of formal or informal policies and procedures that enable the successful accomplishment of goals and objectives. Understanding these stages of group development is of tremendous benefit to the Navy and Marine Team as every size unit must go through each of these stages anytime an individual is added or removed from the team if they wish to maintain success. Understanding how to move from one stage to another, and the impacts of becoming stagnant early in the team development cycle will assist young leaders to focus effort and attention in the best locations to accelerate the team development cycle-time enabling their team to rapidly transition through the early stages and maximize time available to accomplish objectives before the next change in personnel. The five stages of Bruce Tuckman’s model are forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning. By understanding these stages junior officers will be able to identify which stage they are in and develop the best approach for transitioning to the next stage.
The forming stage is where every team starts. This is the stage that every unit returns to when anyone departs or joins the unit. This stage is marked by the creation of new relationships within a team or the creation of a team as a whole. Individual roles and responsibilities are unclear and confusing during this stage and members may begin to get frustrated with this initial friction. In existing teams changes of personnel are generally accompanied by changes of positions for existing team members. These departures, arrivals, and changes in roles disrupt the momentum of the team and reset the cycle of team development.Leadership during this stage tends to be managerial in nature. Leaders can begin influencing action towards the achievement of established goals, but the team will have little understanding of these goals during this stage. This lack of understanding of the desired endstate requires the leader to provide regular and specific guidance and direction on tasks that need to be accomplished while also holding each member of the team accountable for their given assignments. Some team members may begin to test the leader to determine what actions they will accept and which they will not, while also testing the leader’s ability to hold them accountable. The establishment of team values and goals is an important aspect of the forming stage. When establishing values leaders should ensure the team values are aligned with their beliefs enabling authentic leadership and consistent accountability by the leader. Ensuring ideals are aligned with senior leadership beliefs enables longevity of team values and avoids future changes improving clarity within the team. Through clear communication of these values and goals, the leader ensures understanding throughout the team and can start the transition out of this stage. Increased understanding of the current situation and desired endstate, as well as the knowledge of the intended path the team will travel to achieve that endstate, will reduce internal friction for the team and create initial buy-in that allows the team to move out of the forming stage.
The storming stage is marked by friction and confrontation within the team. Team members compete amongst themselves for position and status, while challenging the leader for control of the team. Cliques may develop creating internal barriers between groups. Established teams experience degraded cohesion and loss of momentum upon arriving at this stage. Unknowns about the future, group hierarchy, and internal procedures hinder the development of team initiative. Leaders should look for signs of internal power struggles and the formation of divides and cliques amongst team members. Additionally, leaders should be aware of members attempting to advertise their achievements and gain favor with the leader as this could be perceived as favoritism will contribute to internal friction and lead to loss of credibility by the junior officer. Once leaders identify their unit is in the storming stage they must put all their attention and focus on stabilizing the team, creating working relations, and reinforcing team values. Clear guidance and direction continues to drive the accomplishment of tasks and remains the responsibility of the leader.It is important to understand that while a team remains in this stage there can be no momentum or forward progress towards the attainment of goals. Holding team members accountable for their tasks, demonstrating a high level of personal integrity, and preventing the perception of favoritism is vital to maintaining the credibility of the team. By creating distance from the internal strife of the team, while still enforcing team values and pursing established goals, the leader positions themselves to assist the team in navigating the storming stage as opposed to delaying the transition out of the stage.
When teams arrive at the norming stage the cohesion and forward progress are generally disrupted by the next round of personnel transfers, returning the team to the forming stage. The norming stage is marked by unity of effort and common purpose amongst the team. Internal processes and procedures are developed, either from within the team or by the leader, that mitigates friction and confusion and enables effective working relationships. Competition for status and recognition is replaced by a thorough understanding of individual roles and responsibilities of team members. This stage marks the transition from managing to leading. Leadership is respected by the team, and the ideals, goals, and objectives of the team are embraced by all personnel. Leaders can begin delegating some decisions to subordinate leaders while empowering their leadership team to accomplish tasks. Leaders of teams in the norming stage must begin to transition responsibilities away from themselves and empower the team. Initiative should be fostered to develop proactivity and innovation amongst team members. Likewise, experimentation and possible failure should be allowed to begin building trust and rapport.
Rarely do teams achieve this stage, and the ones that do rarely last long before major transitions or shifts in personnel commence. During this stage the team is largely autonomous with a focus on exceeding expectations of the leader, over-achieving goals, and surpassing establishing timelines. Internal friction and disagreements are positively handled by the team members involved and do not disrupt the momentum of completing tasks. Team members are comfortable holding each other accountable and participating in constructive debate to increase productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency.Leaders will know when their team has achieved this stage when the leader is no longer required to oversee daily operations or provide detailed guidance and direction for routine tasks. The leader delegates tasks to team members and can focus attention on future projects or tasks. Team members begin to trust the leader and may start to share personal ambitions and life details that are not directly related to their jobs. Leaders should encourage the autonomy of the team by allowing the team to manage itself while providing broad guidance and direction on a scheduled basis throughout this stage.
The final stage of a team, marked by the disbandment of the team, following completion of all assigned tasks. Recognition of accomplishments helps leave the individuals fulfilled prior to departing the team. This stage provides closure to the project and team that enables individuals to move to the next project with ease.The adjourning stage of team development is the only stage that few teams, if any, within the Navy and Marine Corps Team achieve. The exception to this is composited forces that form in preparation for deployment, deploy, and de-composite upon redeployment. The leader helps to ease anxiety and feelings of insecurities of team members preparing for departure or transition from the team during the adjourning stage. The lack of closure for teams, following completion of all assigned tasks and achievement of established goals, leads to frustration over the course of a junior officer’s career. To mitigate this frustration, leaders should forecast periods of high turnover and build short-term goals that can be accomplished before the transferring of personnel. While this may not be perfectly in-line with how the Navy and Marine Corps Team conducts operations, it does allow junior officers to create closure for themselves and their team that leaves members feeling accomplished and complete. Additionally, leaders should make a conscious effort to provide closure to individuals as they prepare to depart, recognizing personal accomplishments while with the team. This is the idea behind end-of-tour awards and why they should be presented by the awarding unit as opposed to the individual’s future unit. Teams that are allowed to complete this cycle while maintaining continuity of personnel are poised to have lasting impacts on the Navy and Marine Corps Team and provide a valuable asset to Commanders and senior leadership within the organization. Examples of what can be achieved once a team reaches the performing stage are prevalent across the Special Forces community where teams are built and maintained for longer durations than other components. Team members in these highly skilled and specialized units are forced to develop cohesion with the rest of the team. If all Navy and Marine Corps Team units were built and maintained with this standard attrition of talented individuals would decrease and job satisfaction and performance would greatly improve.
In summary, understanding the stages of team development, and being able to recognize the current stage of a unit is vital to a junior officer’s ability to cycle through the early stages of team development and arrive at the performing stage in the least amount of time. This skill at navigating these stages will enable junior officers to overcome the current process of the Navy and Marine Corps constantly rotating personnel. By neglecting or failing to recognize the stages of team development junior officers will continue to find frustration and lack job satisfaction due to stagnation in the forming and storming stages while never experiencing the rewards of the norming and performing stages.
The above article was written as an entry to a Leadership Essay Contest for the US Naval Institute in 2019 but was not selected for publication.