Why Teams Get Stuck

Published: May 21, 2019

Please enjoy this excerpt from The 4 Stages of a Team: How teams thrive… and what to do when they don’t. The ideal team flows from challenge to challenge, moving over, under, around or through obstacles. Team members understand the purpose of their struggle and keep working on the problem. Because all living things move through predictable cycles, each transition provides an opportunity to get stuck.

Whether it’s to re-establish direction, build connection, push growth or manage change, halting the team’s progress is a natural reaction to struggle. The goal is to keep the team moving even when there’s an urge to stop. Let’s look at the four most likely stuck-points:

Stage 1: Investment

During the Investment Stage, teams are re-establishing their direction after a transition. This is a labor-intensive stage of a team’s growth, so frustration is a common emotion. The team wants to forge ahead, but the structure of the team needs to be built or rebuilt.

Typically, this stage is marked by role confusion and conflict. As differences are negotiated, mission, values, vision, goals and norms are clarified. Whatever gets re-established in this stage – whether it’s healthy or sick – gets woven into the fabric of the team culture until some other significant change triggers another reboot.

Stage 2: Trust

The foundation that was built in the Investment Stage gets tested in the Trust Stage. Because teammates are growing more connected, the stakes are higher if trust is broken for some reason, big or small. Every team interaction either strengthens of weakens trust. Teammates either follow through with commitments or they don’t. Colleagues are either respectful and professional or they’re not. Co-workers either hold themselves accountable or they let the rest of the team down.

At this stage, teams rise and fall together. When any teammate thrives, everyone benefits. When someone fails, the whole team suffers. The symptoms of struggle in the Trust Stage include a breakdown of psychological safety, tolerance of disrespect, lack of accountability and weak interpersonal connections. Teams are unlikely to take the risk to innovate (which comes in the next step) if trust has been compromised.

Stage 3: Innovation

Teams are ready to explore, experiment, discover and create when the vision is clear and trust is strong. While everyone agrees on the destination, there may be many paths to get there. One of the delayed benefits of managing conflict successfully is an appreciation of difference.

A diversity-friendly and risk-tolerant workplace is a rich garden for innovation. However, if the environment is not safe for taking risks, teammates will be restrained by caution. The symptoms of struggle in the Innovation Stage include fear of punishment and careful loyalty to the status quo. Employees who are afraid of a punitive response from leadership are unlikely to stretch themselves. Fear immobilizes the willingness to try new things.

Stage 4: Distancing

The Distancing Stage is focused on coping. Innovation sparks change. As exciting as change can be, it takes a toll on most teams. Whether positive or negative, managing change requires letting go of the old and adjusting to the new.

Living things seek sameness and stability. Growing things adapt. Adapting consumes energy. It’s much easier to stay the same. It’s normal to feel depleted physically and emotionally when going through a transition.

Some teammates might be unwilling to embrace the new circumstances. Resistance to change is both normal and, in some cases, healthy. Slowing down the process can help the team prepare for what’s next.

Everyone heals at a different pace, and it’s difficult to accept new conditions when the team’s strength is sapped. Like a night’s sleep or a tree’s dormancy in the winter, the Distancing Stage offers a chance to let go, regroup, refuel and refocus.

Teams thrive in cycles, not straight-line trajectories. Whether it’s a short-term task group or a lifelong commitment, team dynamics repeat as teammates manage the challenges of coming together and building something new, tolerating closeness, managing growth and embracing change.

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 University 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.