The Reasons Teams Get Stuck

Published: September 6, 2017

The ideal team flows from challenge to challenge moving flexibly over, under, around, or through obstacles. Despite the dynamics that get most teams stuck, they understand the purpose of their struggle and keep working the problem. As diverse as teams are, there are four common causes to derailment.

Because all living things move through predictable cycles as they change and grow, each transition provides an opportunity for the team to get stuck. Whether re-establishing direction, building connection, pushing growth, or managing change, halting the team’s progress is a natural reaction to struggle. The goal is to keep the team moving in the face of the urge to stop.

Let’s look at the four most likely stuck-points:

Investment

When a team has been through a change, culture needs rebooting. Team norms are re-anchored as teammates decide whether they are aligned with the new direction. Conflict is inevitable. The normal emotion during this phase of a team’s lifespan is frustration. Many teams get stuck during this stage because rebuilding team infrastructure is hard work.

Trust

Once the foundation of the team gains clarity, teammates practice meaningful communication, deeper collaboration, and the exchanges of respect. Accountability strengthens connection leading to feelings of safety and togetherness. Many teams get stuck at this stage because trust feels good. It is counterintuitive to put safety in jeopardy when the next phase of the team’s growth call for risk-taking.

Innovation

Mission alignment and a culture of connection provide a solid platform upon which the team can grow. In exchange for the safety of comfort, strong teams stretch themselves to experiment, explore, and create. The normal emotion during an innovation phase is anxiety. Many teams get stuck during this stage because taking risks is scary. The devil you know is better that the devil you don’t know. Why change when you can stay the same?

Distancing

Innovation creates change. Change is a form of loss. Loss results in the need to grieve, mourn, and distance from the way things used to be. Eventually, teammates will embrace their new circumstances and reinvest in a different iteration of their culture. Before this can happen, however, everyone needs to figure out how to let go. The normal emotion during a period of change is depletion. Many teams get stuck in this stage. It’s difficult to muster the energy to rally around new goals (or new teammates) when you are exhausted from losing something (or someone) important to you.

We all have choices about the way we manage these cycles. It’s possible to stay the same while the rest of the world moves forward but it comes at great cost. Would you rather have ten years of experience or one year of experience ten times? To grow or not to grow? That is the question.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst College where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.