The Responsibility Discussion in Teams

When considering how to promote team development and performance, the Tuckman Model is always a helpful way to conceptualize what’s needed, and how to proceed. (See my article for more.)

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It proposes as a matter of theory, supported in empirical research, that a group becomes a team by progressing through four vital stages of development: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. In this article, we’ll be focusing on the first stage, the process of forming.

Forming is a process we must repeat any time group composition changes (i.e., when members come and go, and when team leadership changes). However, it may also need to be addressed when the group’s mission has changed, and when its reliance on external resources change, especially those with whom we must cultivate critical interdependencies.

In any case, the central task of forming is achieving initial clarification of roles, goals, and responsibilities. As the Tuckman Model suggests, beyond this initial clarity, there’ll be more to do in the storming stage, but the forming stage is where it must begin. So, let’s consider a way to get the process started in something I call the responsibility discussion.

It’s a Special Kind of Conversation

First, we must arrive at a consensus view of the team’s mission and goals, its raison d’être, beforehand. The responsibility discussion then proceeds by calling upon each member of the team to offer his/her view of their individual role and contributions to the mission: “What must I do? What are my specific responsibilities? More specifically still, how do I see myself playing that role and having authority and the prerogative to act, to make decisions?

In 25 words or less, each member of the leadership team should summarize their response to these questions and be ready to share it with their fellow team members. I can be helpful to read it aloud twice in an unrushed manner while others are attentively listening. Then, each member in turn is free to ask one clarifying question; not to challenge or take issue with anything said, but only to ensure one is hearing the other clearly.

This process implies the need for “role takers” to be thoughtful, but they should not feel like they need to provide an exhaustive explanation. It should take no more than 1 minute for the role taker’s initial statement and 1 or 2 minutes for each clarifying question. Those listening are responsible for attentive listening and seeking to a understand. Once this round is completed, a group discussion proceeds.

In this follow-up discussion, one person should volunteer to facilitate, keeping the discussion on track. The purpose? At this point, group members should be noticing and describing areas of overlap in roles, authority claims, and decision-making prerogative that were just presented. You’ll also want to surface and describe patterns of interdependence as well as the kinds of communication, coordination, and collaboration required to realize cooperative action.

Addressing the Overlaps and Loose Ends

The boundary between forming and storming can be fuzzy and nuanced. Mindful of this, you’ll find it helpful to resolve any of the easy questions about overlap, authority, and prerogative first, leaving the stickier ones, those for which we find no immediate solutions, for later. You may need some further experience to guide resolution of role confusion, meanwhile recognizing that case-by-case discussion of such sticky cases will be necessary.

We thereby proceed with an “eye-open” attitude. Some of our felt needs for autonomy, inclusion, or involvement in vital areas of decision-making and action are based upon needs for control in the face of risk: “If I cede a lead role to another person or department am I limiting my freedom to act in ways that will exclude me from decisions or deprive me of opportunities?” We all have egos, confidence, interests, and preferences.

As we get to know one another better – usually through working closely together – we begin to find a more solid basis for trust, goodwill, and more confidence that if something is not working out as we intended or wanted we can discuss it and be heard. In fact, an important part of capacity building that emerges from storming is just this basic competence and belief that we can usually work things out. 

Finally, as our responsibility discussions lead to further development in the storming stage, anchoring our conversations in the concrete realities of the here-and-now is critical. To talk or think in generalities about what’s my role and what’s your role is only conceptual. It’s when we take the discussion down to current business imperatives and streams of work that we see the realities in full concreteness.


I hope you’ve noticed how important it is to communicate for understanding first, that is, before arguing a point of view and communicating for influence. I’d also caution you to avoid the veneer of seeking to understand that becomes a bit too “clever”, only to be found out later as false and manipulative.

Building trust involves taking risks, risks of honest self-disclosure about what we want and what we fear, and risks of taking others at their word. We’ll make mistakes, and when we do, it’s just as important to attribute benevolent intentions to others rather than adopting an attitude of suspicion. 

There’s nothing difficult about this simple exercise (in concept). But to make it really work for you, you must allocate time (i.e., 1.5 to 2 hours for a group of 8-10 people). The rest is a matter of attitude: being present, attentive, curious, and open. It’s a beginning. Approach it with patience and persistence.