Mitchell Langbert

Four Best Practice Tips in Dynamic Team Building

Why it is critical for your firm.

October 21, 2010
by Mitchell Langbert, PhD

Teams and team building are as critical to accounting practice as they are to manufacturing, advertising and general management. In KPMG’s 2009 International Review (PDF) the word team appears 44 times, most prominently in KPMG’s vision statement, which considers team membership to be a crucial component of employee relations. Similarly, 79 percent of Fortune 1000 firms say that they make use of self-managing work teams (E.E. Lawler, S.A. Mohrman, and G.E. Ledford, Creating High Performance Organizations: Practices and Results of Employee Involvement and Total Quality Management in Fortune 1000 Companies. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. 1995). But team building, like any aspect of interpersonal skill, is a matter of continuous skill development. Even those who excel at it can benefit from consideration of how to develop it further.

A classic war movie, Twelve O’clock High, depicts General Savage, who is given the responsibility to build morale and teamwork among a dysfunctional bomber unit in the early days of World War II. In a number of respects Savage’s leadership style is modern. He provides vision and emphasizes the importance of task, of getting the job done, to a unit that previously has overemphasized relationships and has tended toward self pity. As well, he establishes credibility by leading every mission and insisting on training. In any organization both relationship and task orientations are important, and one should not be emphasized at the expense of the other. Twelve O’clock High traces how Savage becomes increasingly committed to his relationships with his team’s members as they succeed at hitting targets that are critical to the war effort. While the tasks in most managerial, audit and tax settings are not the equivalent of navigating a World War II bomber and require greater relations orientation than would be required in the stressful context of warfare, there needs to be a balance between task and relationship building. The proper balance depends on the circumstances, with difficult or easy tasks requiring lesser emphasis on relationships than do the more moderate circumstances characteristic of professional accounting settings.

In 1967, Norman R.F. Maier published a classic article on the assets and liabilities of group problem solving in Psychological Review (Norman R. Maier. “Assets and Liabilities of Group Problem Solving: The Need for an Integrative Function,” Psychological Review, 74:4, 239 – 49 (1967)). Maier argued that assets of group problem solving include development of more information and better problem-solving approaches; better buy-in to a solution from participants; and reduced likelihood of careless or perceptual errors. But groups can also suffer from conformity pressure, groupthink, and the dominance of a single individual and/or competition between factions that can reduce the value of group decision-making. Maier’s point was that not all group leaders are equal. The best kind of group leader is not a martinet like General Savage but rather a facilitator. Maier argued that good group leaders should function like the central nervous system of a starfish, which has no original thoughts but rather coordinates the sensory input from the starfish’s five legs. He contrasted the facilitative “nerve ring” image with that of a salesman. However, context can change the claim that starfish nerve rings are better group leaders than are salesmen. In a high-stress setting teamwork may require rapid coordination. Most importantly, Maier’s point is that good group-leadership and participation skills need to be learned.

Several of the key issues in team work are communication; the stages of group development; establishment of goals; and the leader’s establishment of credibility. With respect to communication, development of supportive communication styles is critical. Supportive communication is communication that focuses on both the content and the emotional content of communication. Most successful business executives are aware of the emotional aspect of communication, but this is a skill that often requires development among professional workers. Good communication requires listening; validation of others’ views; taking responsibility for one’s point of view; and being as truthful as possible.

Stages of Team Development

American psychologist Bruce Tuckman (B.W. Tuckman, “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups,” Psychological Bulletin 63:384 – 99, 1965) developed the four stages of team development:

  1. Forming. In the forming stage people get acquainted; begin to assume roles and get oriented. Sometimes there are gaps of silence and a degree of self-consciousness. People are often afraid to ask questions. Trust and relationships need to be established both concerning the group leader and the team members. As well, goals and purposes need to be clarified.
  2. Storming. In the storming stage members examine possible roles. There may be conflict concerning the leadership role as well as debates about the team’s purposes. Recall the film Twelve Angry Men in which one individual, an architect played by Henry Fonda, turns around 11 other jurors who are convinced of the accused’s guilt. The anger to which the title refers is characteristic of the storming stage, whereby norms, alternative orientations, group leadership and competition among factions come into play. Groups need to learn to manage the building of consensus and conflict. Conflict is healthy if it is managed well, but this requires skill.
  3. Norming. In the norming stage, norms are developed further and team members develop a unified perspective. Norms are expected rules of conduct that members adopt. In this stage excessive conformity can be a problem. Consider the following examples:

    In the 1950s, Social Psychologist Solomon Asch, Ph.D., (Irving Rock, editor. 1990. The Legacy of Solomon Asch: Essays in Cognition and Social Psychology. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 1990.) conducted experiments with decks of cards. Each card had three lines on it, but one of the lines was shorter than the other two. Say “A” was shorter. Six people sitting around a table were Asch’s “confederates” and they would say “B” was shorter. The seventh was not a confederate but rather the experimental subject. The point of the experiment was to see if the experimental subject would agree that “B” was shorter even though “A” was obviously shorter. Asch found that roughly 40 percent of the time the test subjects would conform to the group even though it was obviously wrong. Similarly, the Political Scientist Irving Janis (Irving Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascos. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1983.) identified the source of political fiascoes like the Bay of Pigs invasion as excessive group conformity and even group paranoia. Thus, good group leaders need to encourage diversity and dissent. Groups with devil’s advocates outperform other groups; and
  4. Performing. In this stage, groups need to build on trust and creativity to develop a continuous improvement mentality and a high degree of commitment.

Goals and Team Leadership

In successful teams, members are committed to the group goals. The leader of the group must articulate clear goals to which the members can commit. Good goals are “SMART” — Specific, Measurable, Achievable but difficult, Realistic and Time-based. Likewise, good goals ought to push employees to high degrees of performance by establishing remote targets toward which employees need to continually improve.

As well, group leaders need to establish credibility. Twelve O’clock High Savage may have been modeled after Colonel Curtis Lemay in Japan as well as Lt. General Frank A. Armstrong, who led every bomb mission. Although managers ought not to do the work of subordinates, demonstrating a taste for line work is often a good idea. Likewise, integrity, coaching team members and sharing information are components of developing credibility.


Team-building skill is counter-intuitive. Many people assume that strong leadership is essential to effective group performance, but the reverse is often the case. Leaders need to establish a vision, prove their credibility and facilitate group performance, but they need to avoid imposing solutions. Creative groups support minority viewpoints and focus on both relationships and the task.

Additional Resources
Team Development/Human Capital Center

  Firm Practice Management

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Mitchell Langbert, PhD, is an Associate Professor at Brooklyn College. Widely published on the subject of human resource management, Langbert has consulted and served as an expert witness.