Building Cohesion When Team Composition Changes


This article was based on episode 68 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the mini-guide here or the full guide by joining The Modern Manager Community or purchasing it at the store.


Stop for a moment and count how many times over the past year either you’ve changed teams or your team has added a new person. If you’re lucky, the answer is close to zero. These days, it’s not uncommon for a team to add and lose colleagues regularly. When the composition is in flux, it’s hard to establish a collaborative groove.


THE GENERAL STAGES OF TEAM FORMATION


Psychologist Bruce Tuckman offers a team development model in which a group of people come together and experience five phases of team formation:

  1. Forming: People are just getting to know each other.

  2. Storming: The group experiences initial conflict.

  3. Norming: The team establishes shared understanding and expectations.

  4. Performing: The team is working well together.

  5. Mourning: The team experiences a sense of loss when someone leaves.

When a new team member joins, the goal is to speed up the process of building relationships and trust, so the group can move quickly from forming into performing. This is even more important when the new addition is the team leader.


Tuckman’s model isn’t the only model of team cohesion, but I appreciate its simplicity and find it to be relatively accurate in describing the relationships and systems among people in a team. It’s not as linear as the model suggests and teams do experience all five stages at various points even without a change in membership. For example, a high performing team may move back to storming when trust is broken. A team that is still forming may clarify norms early on.


ESTABLISHING A STRONG FOUNDATION WHEN INHERITING A TEAM


In theory, a group that has been working together and lost their leader will experience a mourning phase during which they’re adjusting to the loss of their prior leader. This period is not necessarily one of sadness or even particularly emotional. While an effective team leader will be missed, not all leaders are beloved. Some team members may be happy the leader has left. Or, perhaps the team has functioned for a while without a leader. In any case, your arrival means things are about to change which will likely trigger hopes, concerns or fears for both you and them.


Employees may be wondering: “Who is this new leader? Will they want to change a whole bunch of things? What’s their management style? What fresh ideas will they bring us? Will we finally be able to [fill in the blank with whatever thing the prior leader said no to.] What do they care about? How do I not get on their bad side?”


You may be wondering: “Who are these people? What do they love about this team that I shouldn’t mess with? How should I motivate or inspire them? How can I show them I’m trustworthy?”


During your initial weeks with the new team, you’ll have opportunities to get to know the people and the team culture. While it’s important to have individual meetings and let organic relationships form, it’s also helpful to intentionally learn about the team and share your management approach.


This can be done in a Leadership Assimilation Meeting.


HOLD A LEADERSHIP ASSIMILATION MEETING


A Leadership Assimilation Meeting is designed to quickly bring everyone up to speed on core questions of culture and management style. Over the course of 2-3 hours, the group will reflect, share and discuss a number of topics, resulting in increased understanding and potentially some concrete agreements.


First, the team leader will answer a series of questions while the team will separately answer a set of questions. These questions are designed to put information on the table that the other party may be wondering about. (For a list of questions, download the mini-guide to episode 68.)


After this reflection time, everyone regroups to walk through the answers. I prefer the initial walk through to be focused on understanding and therefore limit the discussion to questions for clarification.


Once everything has been shared, the group can move into a discussion. Unanswered questions should be addressed, inaccurate assumptions should be corrected, etc.


Finally, the team should translate the discussion into next steps. As a group, ask yourself, “now that we know all this, what do we do about it?” If there are questions that are still unanswered, you may want to plan an additional meeting. Maybe there are a few norms the team can immediately adopt. Or maybe a subteam must be formed to work more extensively on a topic. Or, maybe it’s enough to simply know more about each other than you did before.


INTEGRATING A NEW HIRE


While you may inherit a team on occasion, most managers find themselves hiring new team members regularly. Adding a Team Integration meeting to your onboarding process will help the team bond with the new hire while also strengthening the relationships among existing team members.


A Team Integration meeting generally consists of two parts over the course of an hour:

  • An ice-breaker that helps people find things they have in common or things they didn’t know about each other.

  • A story telling activity that helps the new team member get to know the team culture.

There are a number of ice breaker activities that are fun and interesting regardless of how many times you them with the same people. For example, Two Truths and a Lie, the Spectrum Activity, and Motto for My Life can all be used multiple times. The key is to use the activity to spark conversation in which people move beyond the surface. By asking questions, sharing stories and offering points of similarity, the group can deepen their bonds.


The second 30-40 minutes is spent telling your team story. Who are you as a team and how did you get here? What’s important to you? What should this new team member know?


Rather than one person presenting, make it interactive. It’s fun to approach it like a game where each person says one sentence building on the ideas before them. The group goes around the circle or popcorn style, painting a picture as a group. Encourage the new person to ask questions as you go.


Be sure to document the key points on a white board or a digital document to help the group keep track of what’s been shared and what still needs to be said. Plus, you create a record for the new colleague to refer back to.


The story can include the following topics:

  • How our team was formed / when people joined.

  • What our team mission or purpose is.

  • What’s important to our team.

  • What successes we’ve had or what we’re proud of.

  • What make us special or unique.

  • How we do things around here.


INTEGRATING A NEW HIRE


When the composition of a team changes, the group will experience an interruption to its dynamic. This interruption may be experienced as positive or negative, but regardless is a time of uncertainty, potentially heightened emotions, and a chance for positive change. Pay attention and be sensitive to the situation–to the fears and hopes that come with having lost a team leader and gained a new, to the fears and hopes of how a new colleague may impact a close knit team, create ambiguity or expectations.


The more you can put everything on the table up front, in both a group setting and through individual meetings, the smoother the transition will be.


The full guide includes instructions for the ice breakers, sample agendas for the leadership assimilation and team member assimilation meetings and more.


Get the mini-guide here or the full guide when you become a member of The Modern Manager community, along with additional guides and guest bonuses to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.


To purchase the full guide, visit the Modern Manager store.


This article was based on episode 68 The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.

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