Academic Exchange Quarterly     Summer   2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 9, Issue 2

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Leader as Teacher: Conversations to Grow Teams


JoAnn Danelo Barbour, Ph.D., Texas Woman’s University

Deana Dynis Harrell, M.Ed., Texas Woman’s University


Barbour, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Administration and Leadership, and Harrell, M.Ed., is a graduate student in Administration in the College of Professional Education.



Among the opportunities a leader has to improve a work culture, creating and growing effective teams have become important routes to organizational transformation.  Our intent is to help leaders understand the stages and considerations in the process of teaming, the significant role the leader plays in establishing organizational and team norms, and how to use conversations to teach important values needed to grow the desired culture.



Among the opportunities a leader has to improve a culture, creating and developing effective teams have become important routes to organizational transformation.  Developing teams includes structural aspects (focus, meeting logistics, governance, roles and responsibilities) and human considerations.  In the corpus of literature on leading, many scholars who discuss the importance of the “human side” of leadership include the importance of effective communication for the leader (Barbour, 1998; Senge, et al., 1994; Wheatley, 1992; Kotter, 1990; Bennis, 1989; Senge, 1990; Zaleznick, 1977).  Recently, attention is turning to the importance of conversations, how to have them and the types of conversations that are necessary for teams to successfully accomplish their tasks (Patterson, Grenny, McMillian, and Switzler, 2002; and Costa and Garmston, 1999).  Organizational transformation requires, in part, understanding of the delicate art of discourse and discussion.  In other words, conversations are key.  We intend to note stages and considerations in the process of teaming, the significant role the leader plays in establishing norms to build effective teams, and how to effectively use conversations to grow the desired culture.


Conceptualization of teams

Katzenback and Smith (1993) state that “A team includes a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” (p.45), and maintain that since these are the basics of a real team, if any components are missing, the team should work toward getting these key elements right.  Donnellon (1996) adds that a cohesive, real team (compared to a team in name only) possesses several dimensions.  A real team identifies itself as a team, is truly interdependent, exhibits a low need for power, is close socially, and uses both confronting and collaborating processes when managing conflict.  She contrasts the key dimensions above with a nominal team that is a functional group, is independent, exhibits high power differentiation, is socially distant, and utilizes conflict management tactics of force, accommodation and avoidance.


Stages in team development

Tuckman (1965) identifies four stages within a team’s developmental life:  forming, norming, storming, and performing.  Subsequent research published with Jensen added a fifth stage, adjourning (Tuckman and Jensen, 1977).  The leader most directly influences the first stage of team development, forming.  The rest of the stages are team member-involved and member-driven, with the organizational leader establishing organizational norms and values and facilitating or guiding the teams as needed.


Forming and structuring a team

Bolman and Deal (2003) suggest that team building begins with the structural elements in place set by the needs of the organization and leader.  Hackman (2002) suggests that two key conditions for team effectiveness are an enabling structure that facilitates rather than impedes teamwork and a supportive organizational context.  Building a supportive context to allow for the work of the teams is the responsibility of the leader who will not only ground the work of the team members, but also continue to teach members expectations needed to succeed.  A leader will need to keep teams to a manageable size (seven to ten members would be as large as the teams should get) and have the right mix of expertise.  Thus, one needs to reflect upon the reasons and rationale for placing group members onto specific teams.


Conversations the leader should have with group members (before teaming) should be focused upon variables such as:  what the team(s) is/are trying to accomplish, what needs to be done, what expertise and talents members possess, how individual teams interrelate, and how efforts will be coordinated.  Once teams have been structurally designed within the larger context of the organization, and once organizational members have been placed onto teams, then members begin forming their teams.  During the forming stage, members get to know each other, often displaying caution while learning personalities and roles within the group.  After teams are formed, a necessary step in the cohesion and effectiveness of those teams is “norm-setting” or “norming.”  This stage involves many types of conversations for the organizational leader, team leaders, and team members. 


Norming within a team

“A norm is an operational principle or expectation that implicitly or explicitly governs the actions of a group of people,” note Harvey and Drolet (1994, p. 44).  Norms refer to beliefs of how one ought to behave in particular situations and are widely accepted within a cultural group.  Norms are either known and shared (explicit or manifest) or unknown and private (implicit or tacit); thus, it is important to begin with the shared norms, and work through the implicit norms as group members begin to coalesce as a team.


While norming is a group’s responsibility once the teams are formed, a leader’s role is to guide and monitor the development of team norms.  As Schein (1992) asserts, a leader embeds and transmits culture in many ways.  What leaders pay attention to, measure and control is a primary way to embed a culture in an organization.  Thus, if one values communication from and to group members, actions of shared communication will proliferate in the organization.  In addition, deliberate role modeling, teaching and coaching by the leader will promote expected cultural values and norms.


If particular norms are to be in place, then one should state those norms from the formation of the team, so those norms become imbedded in team development and valued by team members.  As the leader then monitors the growth of the team, she or he will realize the acceptance and practice of the important norms.  When one does not see acceptance and practice of the norms, then he or she can intervene, teach, and guide for change.  If needed norm habits are formed in the early stages of teaming, then those habits will permeate the growth of the team in the future; however, if the team never comes to an understanding of important norms shared by the leader, then the team will develop its own norms, whether similar or dissimilar to the leader’s norms.  Since the leader has the power to deal with an errant team or member more formally, the leader should maintain responsibility for forming, guiding and monitoring teams. 


Norming and conversations

Leaders can do much to help teams develop norms for success.  Because conflict often occurs due to differences in implicit norms, it is important for a leader to have a conversation about the types of productive norms a group could or should establish, and to discuss the awareness and handling of non-productive norms.  If one values creativity and idea development, then he or she will promote individual and group ideas.  One way to achieve a high level of creativity would be to adopt the notion that all ideas developed in group meetings are “put on the table.” Once “on the table,” the ideas belong to the team, and personal ownership is let go.  Once personal ownership is let go, the group members can add to or take from the original ideas as needed, and the tendency to want to keep an idea simply because it is “my idea “ is released so that the team, not an individual, becomes designer.


Most scholars suggest that a team norm should be developed that allows for disagreement, discussion, and conflict that is resolved.  High performing teams, according to Katzenback and Smith, will allow for and have conflict, but members will deal with and resolve that conflict so they can proceed with the work of the team.  Norms can also be formal, perhaps explicit processes or procedures, deadlines, and expectations.  Informally, teams develop their working relationships, somewhat implicitly, and often develop over time.  Team members can reflect approval or disapproval of certain norms, which in turn support certain values.  Members of a group reinforce certain norms and influence others by approving or disapproving specific behaviors, which in turn create productive or non-productive norms.


Leaders should remind team members to note desired outcomes of conversations; for example, do we want a brainstormed list, a plan of action, or a decision on a presentation.  Team members should discuss the behavioral norms that have been established in a group, such as norms in place for structured conversations or norms for safety zones for “putting ideas on the table.”  Team members need to be reminded to ask themselves what understandings, assumptions, or values are held with respect to particular issues or projects, and be willing to share their understandings with fellow members. Teams need to be reminded to think about and discuss their current state regarding particular issues or projects.  For example, if they were to “redesign,” how far have they gone, how far do they still need to go, and when will they be finished.  Finally, team members need to discuss what success means relative to a particular project or concern, that is, how will they know when they are finished and where do they want to be when they are finished.


Leaders can help teams utilize a variety of conversational formats.  For example, since teams will be involved with conversations to build consensus, leaders can model consensus-building talk with conversational strategies for creating and maintaining open lines of communication within the team, communicating with clarity, and responding to others.  Leaders need to share possible philosophical and pragmatic concerns regarding, for example, general norms or possible issues to be raised in project design or problem solving.  In sharing philosophical and pragmatic concerns, the leader may want to pose questions to team members, thus providing opportunities to ponder aloud, to discuss, to practice “what ifs,” and, ultimately, to decide next steps.  Subsequent to the leader laying conversational groundwork, the team ought to be prepared to deal with any conflict that may occur, rather than avoiding conflict through, in part, lack of conversational skills.



Conflict (in the storming stage) will be displayed as disagreements surface or stay hidden.  Disagreements can be healthy if channeled productively, or may cause dissension and resentment if ignored or handled inappropriately.  Scholars such as Collins, Harvey and Drolet, and Katzenback and Smith suggest that most high performing teams enjoy an element of conflict because they do not fear challenging one another.  Accordingly, if a leader wishes to develop high performing teams, then an important conversation that needs to occur early in the forming stage is the importance of disagreement and appropriate strategies to deal with differences.  If the leader values conflict or disagreement as a means to creativity and exploration, then a norm is established that conflict is appropriate as it satisfies the search for clarity.  Team members could then distinguish “clarity-seeking conflict” from adversarial discord or disharmony that stems from other issues.  When discord results from issues other than clarity-seeking, then the conflict must be addressed appropriately.  Leaders can model collaborative norms that can be utilized in conversations between team members.  Norms of collaboration can include conversational norms such as pausing, paraphrasing, probing for specificity, putting ideas on the table, paying attention to self and others, presuming positive intentions, and pursuing a balance of advocacy and inquiry (Bolman and Deal, 2003; Baker, Costa, and Shalit, 1997; and Senge, 1995).  These skills, when used as a normal part of group behavior, facilitate effective communication in teams.


Additionally, Garmston and Wellman (1999) note the importance and effectiveness of using both dialogue and debate.  Dialogue is a way for a group to make collective meaning and come to a shared understanding.  The process of discussion, while occurring in a group setting, is mostly internal with members reflecting on assumptions and seeking to understand viewpoints of other group members.  Alternatively, the purpose of debate is to come to a point where decisions can be made.  The debate process, conversationally, involves the sharing of factual information, determining credibility of that information, and eventually choosing the “strongest” decision available. 



According to Tuckman, teams at the performing stage reach the point where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Teams are healthy and resolve conflicts as they occur.  Productive teams have members who are highly self-disciplined and responsible and who possess freedom and creativity to complete their tasks, according to Collins.  Hackman maintains that performance is based on three processes of effort, task and situation appropriateness of performance strategies, and level of knowledge and skill. Team members are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach, for which they hold themselves mutually accountable, add Katzenback and Smith.  Teams at the performing stage should not require a great deal of guidance from the organizational leader.  If democratic norms have been established within the team and the environment is “safe” for the free exchange of feelings, thoughts and ideas, the performance of the group should contribute to the effectiveness of the organization.



According to Tuckman and Jensen (1977), when high performing teams disband, members may experience sorrow or pain at terminating the working relationship of a close-knit team of individuals who perform well together.  Deconstructing a team, for example, might occur when a special task force completes its task, a project team is disbanded, or members are promoted or leave for another organization.  During the adjourning stage, the organizational leader plays a major role to help team members deal with the ensuing sense of loss from separation.  Leaders should be sensitive to the feelings of loss that a functioning team may experience when the work is completed or members move on.  It may be important in some situations for the leader to provide a forum for team members to air their feelings.  McNutt and Graham (2004) suggest that the successful adjourning stage can include special celebrations, an open sharing of feelings, or a web-based chat room to allow members to remain in contact with each other.  Certainly this stage is crucial to the attitudes of effective team members, and, in an organizational setting, may be important to the productivity of those same individuals as they become a part of new teams.



Building and maintaining successful and high performing teams is not something that can be left to chance.  A leader has a responsibility to play a thoughtful, reflective role in structuring teams and forming a foundation from which team members will operate.  Conversations, the basis of sharing information for grounding and growing teams, will remain the cache from which leaders will help teams form their cohesive base, the norms from which they will operate and the processes they will use to deal with conflict.  During the performing stage of a team’s work, the leader should have little direct interaction with a team; the leader’s role is more observational, until the completion of the project.  At the final stage, adjourning, however, the organizational leader may once again need to assist team members with conversations to help the group disband, come to closure, transition to another team, or gain a different role in the organization.



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