The Tarot of Team Building

I have long been fascinated by the imagery of the Tarot. I’m not fascinated with fortune-telling. Frankly, I don’t believe in it. Instead, my admiration lies in how the organization of the deck, and its symbolism, so accurately represent the human experience. In that respect, the so-called “divinatory” meanings of each card offer insight into life situations.  Reflecting on them is beneficial. I’ve recently been examining Tarot as a tool to better understand the nature of effective teamwork.

There are many theories and systems surrounding teamwork, productivity, and management.  One that I’ve found useful is Bruce Tuckman’s four stages.  First presented in his 1965 paper “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups,” he proposed four incubation stages necessary for effective teams: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. The names initially struck me as shallow marketing lingo; however, over the years, I have observed these stages in my work and social life. So, I’ve decided they hold merit, despite their catchy titles.

Many books and programs offer guidance for each stage.  Here, I will offer guidance based on the Tarot suit of Wands. Wands are typically considered the suit of careers, challenges, and movement. In nature, wands themselves are the roots or branches that allow a larger organism to grow and produce fruit.  Therefore, Wands are the natural suit to study for insight into teamwork.

I enjoy working with many different decks, but I will use one of the traditional Smith-Rider-Waite decks for this discussion.  Not only does that series have well-researched illustrations, but they also feature fully illustrated minor arcana. As a bonus, the artwork was created by Pamela Coleman Smith, who I personally consider one of the world’s greatest graphic artists.


IX Wands from Smith-Rider Tarot (c) US Games
IX Wands

The “Forming” stage of a new team finds its members subdued and respectful. Roles are not clear, although each member arrived with their own areas of expertise and specific work experiences.  Similarly, the man featured on the IX Wands shows his experience in the form of a bandage on his head. He holds his wand in a familiar, yet casual, stance.  Behind him, rows of other wands might represent various tools available to the new team, or the other team members themselves.  We don’t see them, because during the forming stage, we don’t know them yet.  If you are leading a team, keep an eye on how many “nines” you have after each meeting.  The forming stage can be a short period, particularly if people have worked together before, or it can be very long.  If you add a new team member, don’t let them linger as IX Wands much longer than the rest.  Waite’s own interpretation of this card is of delays and the threat of adversity.  Indeed, these are also the risks to your team during this stage.  Failure to form will result if team members sink into personal attacks and political maneuvers.


V Wands from Smith-Rider Tarot (c) US Games
V Wands

Many teams can fail in the “Storming” stage.  Here, the team is exercising their boundaries and establishing their own roles. Differences in work style, technical backgrounds, and ideas of success criteria, lead to clashes.  Team members may become frustrated, or aggressive.  Unexpected problems always arise during this stage.

Storming is depicted on V Wands.  At first glance the five people on the card appear to be fighting.  Upon closer inspection, it becomes less clear what the struggle is about. Anger and violence are not necessarily part of it, but may not be very far away, either. The person in the center appears to be presenting his wand to the group for inspection, while three others are hoisting their own.  These are differing ways we propose our ideas about the problem to the team. One person in the back of the crowd has shouldered his wand.  He might be trekking off on his own, expecting to be followed.  Or, he might be frustrated with the others’ apparent inaction, and decided to take care of something alone.

Waite’s interpretation of V Wands is, likewise, of a struggle for a worthy goal.  Yet, it is a struggle that might dissolve into disputes and false directions. Leading through the Storming phase requires consideration of these different postures. Not everyone will patiently wait for their ideas to be taken up by the group. If people are allowed to carry their own skills off on a tangent, the team will dissolve. 


VI Wands from Smith-Rider Tarot (c) US Games
VI Wands

The Storming stage ends when the team follows a single leader. Personal and systemic differences are being overcome, and  team members recognize each other’s strengths.  In the VI Wands, we see the team leader riding a horse. The team is on foot, surrounding him, not walking behind him.  There is no clear front or back to the group, only a normative leader. But we get the clear sense in the VI Wands that the team will follow at the same pace and direction as the horse rider.  This person is also positioned to listen and react to each team member.  As in Waite’s discussion, the figure can be a victorious General, or a courier with important news.  Both are the roles of an effective team leader.


VIII Wands from Smith-Rider Tarot (c) US Games
VIII Wands

The performing team is the place of hard work. The daily grind of a performing team is a frictionless advance. Specific problems are resolved, new goals established, and accomplished. The team has a structure and methodology that works.  As illustrated in VIII Wands, the members wield as one.  All wands are clearly oriented. They strike in the same direction, and with coordinated timing.  Waite explains this as their goals being at hand. A person joining a performing team easily finds a place to fit. An unexpected loss of one wand would cause only a minor disruption. When your team is in this stage, your responsibility is to make sure gaps aren’t created when people come or go.  Guide individuals so that they don’t interfere with the others’ efforts.  Internal disputes are the main risk watch out for.


III Wands from Smith-Rider Tarot (c) US Games
III Wands

This final stage was not a part of Tuckman’s original stages. However, a highly performing team often faces adjournment.  The project concludes, or management re-organizes the staff, and responsibilities shift to other areas. You don’t exist as part of the team in this stage, but it should never be neglected.  They say it’s a “small world” because we all tend to work in close circles.  We frequently see each other again, perhaps as supervisors, or leaders of other teams.  Like the III Wands, the adjourned team can carry their respect for their friends and accomplishments. The figure in the image seems to be wearing some of the colors and patterns of those in the storming V Wands.   In that sense, the best qualities of a successfully-adjourned team are now part of the next one.  In the traditional interpretation, this card is like a wealthy merchant looking at a new venture, or one he could help with.

Images are from the Pamela Coleman Smith Commemorative Deck by US Games (c) 2019 US Games.

Waite’s interpretations are from A.E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, A.E. Waite, CT, U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 2019.