top of page
  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

What Does Your Team See?

“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” Alexander the Great

“The problem with being a leader is that you’re never sure if you’re being followed or chased.” Claire A. Murray

If you are a Project Manager (PM), it is probably both!

Why does a PM need to worry about leadership? Projects are charts, graphs, schedules, projections and risk assessment!

But those things are done by people. If the PM isn’t a good leader, the project probably won’t be successful. But leadership can be taught, and an excellent way to begin is to look at the work of Bruce Tuckman and his study on group dynamics.

Think of your favorite “team” sports movie. A group of individuals are brought together to form the team and they meet for the first time. The coach talks about what they expect and everyone is sizing each other up. Then practice begins and the conflict emerges! Plays aren’t executed properly and everyone blames someone else for the failure. Tensions flare, the coach is frustrated and they may lose a game or two! Then something happens – depending on the movie it can be a bar fight (The Replacements), a common enemy (Major League) or a key player aligning with the coach (Hoosiers). Everyone begins focusing on the team and understanding the needs and capabilities of those around them. And then they start winning!

The sports movie formula is a beautiful way to remember the stages of group dynamics as described by Tuckman. Here they are:

Forming – everyone meets to determine what the task is and who they will be working with. While everyone will probably be on their best behavior, it is clearly a group of individuals. It is the PM’s job to provide the structure and direction necessary to get everyone focused on the task and begin to form a team.

Storming – individual personalities emerge as the right approach for the project is discussed. Disagreements can turn into distrust and anger, and the PM must make sure that the teams passion is focused on the task and not on the individual, directing their energy in a productive way that will eventually lead to a high performing team. Everyone’s opinions must be equally valued to encourage full participation and everyone should feel they are a contributor. Establishing good processes can encourage the team stay focused and move quickly through this phase.

Norming – Everyone is becoming focused on the common goal and is beginning to feel personally responsibility for success. The personality traits of the individual members that were initially a cause of conflict are becoming known and accepted.

Performing – exactly what it sounds like! People are operating at a high level and the team is almost self-directed to achieve the task at hand.

Why should the PM care? Because this cycle is recurring and predictable when new groups form. Projects have a start, a finish and a unique outcome. The faster the PM can get the new project team to “performing”, the higher the chance of success. Tuckman reported something else interesting in his 1965 paper. Only 50% of the groups experienced the conflict described in the “storming” phase and they moved almost directly to “norming”. This indicates that an effective leader can accelerate the process dramatically!

Projects end. In 1977 Tuckman with Mary Ann Jensen added the phase “adjourning”, which is the process of dissolving the team at the end of the project. That is also in the sports movies!

The high performing PM understands group dynamics and quickly moves to the “performing” phase. This gives the project a greater chance of success.


One of my kids is studying the “Progressive” era that occurred in the United States around the turn of the century, specifically the impact of the Constitutional Amendments that were put in place. She was asked to determine if the individual Amendments increased or decreased the power of the Federal Government. She wanted my opinion, and was surprised by several of my answers. She was most surprised by my take on the 17th Amendment which caused Senators to be directly elected and not appointed by the individual states. What could be more "democratic" than returning the power to the people through direct election! I explained that we had a bicameral Congress for a reason, and if the house was already elected by popular vote, didn’t that make the Senate redundant? I also explained that the House was designed to represent the will of “the people” directly through popular vote, but the Senate was to reflect the will of the states as Federal laws were contemplated. The 17th amendment abolished that, so now the states have no representation in federal lawmaking. Clearly that shifted power to the Federal Government. I bet her teacher will be a bit surprised by her essay answers!


bottom of page