The art of storming well
What is storming? Storming is when differences, disagreements and disappointments surface in a team, often with strong feelings. During a storming phase we might experience ‘car-crash’ meetings after which sub-groups retreat to lick wounds. We might spend energy and time feeling anxious, angry or hurt and contemplating how to have difficult conversations with our colleagues.
What’s good about storming? Storming can be a time to learn about each other at another level. Storming can be a time when we re-negotiate our soft contracts with one another. Storming can be a time when power balances shift in a better direction. Storming can be a time when we learn a great deal about ourselves. Storming can be a time of creativity in the endeavours of the team. Without storming, grievances may get suppressed and do more damage in the form of passive aggression and resentment.
Why does storming feel hard? I’m aware of writing this in the UK and with professional and cultural references that are largely from Northern Hemisphere organisations. There’s certainly something very ‘unBritish’ about storming. Instead we have developed a capacity to suppress storming. It’s a useful capacity to have at times (keep calm and carry on etc) but it would be nice to have other options. I believe one of the reasons why storming is not something we do well or know how to talk about is because of something else we don’t do well or know how to talk about – emotions.
Storming and emotions. When a team is storming, the emotions can feel really big. They are set in train by a nervous system which is jangled based on its assessment of social or physical risk. I might be attacked! I might be overwhelmed! I might be abandoned! I might be out of control! I might not be good enough! Emotions such as fear, anger and hurt can rise up to help us find the remedy – an escape, a boundary, support. The energy behind these emotions is strong. We can quickly feel like storming is too hot to handle. I’d like us to get better at sitting in the fire.
The limitations of the XYZ model. Most of us know some form of the XYZ model. It’s a useful framework for giving feedback and having difficult conversations. It goes like this. When you did X, the impact on me was Y, I’d prefer you did Z. It’s a helpful model for difficult conversations, but learning it doesn’t seem to take away any of the angst of storming. I believe we need to do better in helping leaders navigate the storming phase of team development and we’re not going to be able to do it without talking about emotion.
What am I suggesting? I’d like to see us all engage with the emotional content of storming more effectively. Emotional self-awareness and emotional literacy need to be on the agenda for team development activity. I’d like us to build our capacity to tolerate big emotions in ourselves and each other. I’d like us to be able to name big emotions and talk about them with each other. I’d like us to acknowledge the ordinary, everyday nature of big emotions and not to panic when we meet them in ourselves and each other. I’d like us to be able to name our fear, anger and hurt without drama and to courageously inquire about the impact we’ve had on the feelings of others. Of course, I’m writing about what I need to learn for myself. Carol Brockmon, my wonderful teacher and colleague at the Gestalt International Study Center, uses a phrase which will always stay with me. “Lucy, the size of your feeling is not the size of the emergency”. I’m going to do my best to support my clients to believe this. Team storming is not an emergency. Storming is part of team life to embrace, to ride and learn from.