, Leave the Games Behind – Team Building 101, Building Wrestling

Call it a bad, real-life version of The Office. The boss decides that productivity and morale are down, so there needs to be team building. So on a chilly Wednesday morning, rather than being at work, the whole staff finds themselves at the base of a high ropes course. The morning starts with some reaffirming words about trust and positive thinking and keeping an open mind from the facilitator, followed by some activities to aid in communication and trust, such as a trust fall and the human knot game. Soon, after some rudimentary safety training, the staff begins to tackle the high roped elements of the course; some are not so wild about heights, so they elect to stay on the ground and help with the safety ropes. As the sun sets that evening, the facilitators congratulate everyone on a job well done and for participating, and hope that the staff is able to take the lessons learned that day back into the office.

Come Thursday morning, with the exception of maybe some sore muscles, its back to business as usual. The boss cannot figure out why his team is not any better, and retreats back to the confines of his office to ponder what to do next.

This is actually an all-too-common scenario. Too often when a team is not performing up to expectations, the powers-that-be elect for a “team building” day, such as the one described above or something similar. And while a day scrambling up an artificial wall may be fun, there is one major caveat to engaging in the above activities: none of it is team building.

Simply put, team building is not an activity, but an ongoing process. There are certainly activities and initiatives that can be of use as tools in this process, but they are not an end unto themselves, and if used as such or not properly facilitated, they can potentially create more harm than good.

In understanding team building, it is important to determine what it is not.

Avoid the Clichés

First, there must be a distinction made between bonding and building. Bonding is merely an act of sticking two or more objects together; in terms of people, it is two or more people getting along and caring for each other at some level. This can be done very quickly, such as a child using paste to attach the eyes onto their Halloween jack ‘o lantern project in school: effective, though temporary. A more permanent bond is possible, but requires greater time and effort.

Building, on the other hand, is an organized and planned effort to construct a solid structure to serve a purpose. There are many individual activities and transactions required to achieve this goal, and once the initial structure is complete, constant maintenance is required to keep it functional. It is a continual process.

As such, team building is not building camaraderie. While in an ideal environment the team will bond and genuinely care for each other’s well-being, it is more realistic that there are people on every team who wish nothing more than to come in, do their job, and go home. Even more realistic a view is that there are people on the team who may actively despise another member. These are obstacles, to be sure, but ultimately the success of the team is not dependent on everyone liking each other, so this is not a goal of team building.

Additionally, team building is not an activity. Putting a team through team building “initiatives”, such as the aforementioned human knot and ropes courses and the like in an attempt to demonstrate examples of core team behaviors does little at building the team, as these activities 1) do not always translate well to the work environment, and 2) do nothing to secure continual support of the potential lessons learned.

Team building is an ongoing, multifaceted process encompassing several disciplines that, when done properly and given the due attention it deserves in any organization, plays an important role in an organization’s success. Ultimately, it is getting a group of people to work together towards a common goal in such a way that the results of their efforts are greater than the sum of their parts. This requires constant attention and is achieved over time, and must be maintained through continual efforts. As mentioned before, there are additional activities that can help boost or accelerate team building, but these tools are only an additional support option for what should be a daily function of the workplace and the team leader. Moreover, the activities that qualify as team building tools are very specific in scope and how they are applied; in other words, not just any activity provided by a book or facilitator can necessarily fulfill this purpose.

The Myths

There are several myths that have unfortunately been tied into team building, that have created unrealistic expectations in regards to the potential outcomes. The two most prevalent relate to team building’s scope of effectiveness and which activities are most effective.

Myth #1: Team building will cure what ails ya’.

FACT: Team building is not a cure-all. There are many possible contributing factors to why an organization is not performing up to expectations, team building being but one. While some quality team building may create a short-term stopgap for overall poor performance, it cannot heal a sick corporate culture. While team building should be a constant endeavor at any organization, regardless of performance, the deeper, underlying issues need to be addressed if team building is going to have the desired impact on success.

The truth is that while a team’s lackluster performance can hurt an organization’s success, it also may be a symptom of a larger problem. It will still do well to treat the cough, but this will do little good unless the cause of the cough is treated as well.

Additionally, team building may not even be the issue at hand. For example, is there truly a team that needs to be built? High school teachers, for instance, all strive for a common goal: educating their students and playing a role in shaping them into productive citizens. However, the Spanish teacher’s job performance is not dependent on the Algebra teacher; ergo, there is no need to spend time and resources trying to “build” this team.

Another example: is the team’s goal mission critical? If the office’s Sunshine Club is not getting along and it is interfering with the plans for the end of year Christmas party, is it worth the money and lost productivity to send them on a daylong team building crash course? Is it worth spending more than an hour’s worth of conversation?

In both of these cases, there is no need for team building. If issues are arising between the parties mentioned in the examples above, other approaches would be more appropriate.

Myth #2: Activities outside of the office can help highlight key behaviors.

FACT: Stripping away all of the excess baggage and eliminating distractions are excellent ways of drilling down to core issues, but most activities do not support this end in a practical, sustainable way. While on paper, the high-ropes course or weekly “team building” initiatives at the morning meeting may seem like excellent ways of demonstrating the core values of team building, there are major reasons why they prove to be ineffective.

One-shot deal. It is the equivalent of brushing your teeth once a week. It may act as a temporary booster, but eventually decay sets in and undoes whatever few benefits gained. In addition, not everyone in the group may get the same take-away value from the activity, thus leading to uneven results at best from engaging in such activities and reducing the return on investment. For them to even begin to approach being effective, the activities need to be engaged in on a regular basis.

Lack of interest. If employees are not interested in the activities, they will not be keeping an open mind to the potential learnings. True, this may stem from a lack of proper facilitation or preparation on the team leader’s part, but it provides for a difficult obstacle: if one employee is acting indignant, the attitude can spread virally and keep more members of the team from engaging.

For instance, if someone is terrified of heights and is generally not an outdoors kind of person, they will not be willing to engage fully in a high-ropes course. Additionally, if they are not participating in the full initiative and are left on the ground working the ropes, they are not going to get the same take-away value as those who completed the course (harkening back to a previous obstacle in engaging these activities). Is it worth the time and resources to attempt to convince these one or two employees to engage fully in the initiative? If not, is it worth engaging in the initiative if the whole team will not be getting something of value out of it?

Statement of the blatantly obvious. Most initiatives will attempt to highlight the building blocks of team building. These “truths” are often patently obvious and the staff already knows and understands them.

Most productive members of an organization understand that they are part of a larger whole, and what they do can either contribute or take away from the overall success of the team. It is during this debrief, with everyone sitting in the circle and each holding a piece of string in a web that symbolizes their responsibility to the team that the facilitator begins to highlight the requirements of team work and the employees’ eyes begin to glaze over.

Same quota, less time. Most employees will see the time spent on team building initiatives better utilized in completing their work responsibilities. The perception often is that there is still the same amount of work to accomplish, but less time to accomplish it in. At a 3-day in-house team building initiative at one company, employees were told that the sessions were mandatory and would last from Wednesday through Friday. At each break, rather than using the downtime to eat something and relax, the majority of the staff were running back to their desks and answering urgent emails, completing reports and making necessary phone calls. Rather than look for the benefits of the session, most employees saw it as a waste of time that prevented them from completing their work.

No follow-through. Once the initiative has been completed, the staff are turned loose back in the office and expected to perform at a higher level with this newfound enlightenment concerning their role to the team. If there is any positive energy generated, and there very well may be, it will often fizzle out after a few days when it becomes clear that nothing has really changed. Managers do not spend the time following up with their teams properly because they become too distracted with other, more important responsibilities. Lessons are not reinforced. Staff members begin to slip into old habits. The facilitator, if an outside one is used, is nowhere to be found to check on progress.

“We do the bonding.” As mentioned at the beginning of the article, many of these activities tend to generate bonding more so than building. They act as a common challenge that people have had to face, much like pledging a fraternity. And while fun, it if bonding is the overreaching goal (and in some cases, it may be as the job requires it), it would probably show a greater return on investment to go bowling or hit the pub for a few pints after work.

Getting on the right track

So what is a leader to do? Is team building relevant, or even useful?

Yes. They key is to readjust the point of view on what team building is and how to enact the process. It boils down to assessing and addressing the team’s needs.

In the initial stage of assessment, a team leader must ask a question that may not have a clear-cut answer: is team building necessary? Prima fascia this seems an ambiguous question at best with an answer that falls somewhere in the gray scale between black and white, but the answer can be simplified by breaking the question down into its core components.

First, is there actually a team? This is a bit of a trick question. Are the people that are working in the department or office dependent on each other’s performance for their own success? Take for example the previously mentioned high school teachers. They are not dependent on each other’s performance for success within their own classroom. True, if all of the teachers are enforcing the rules equally and pushing all of the students to maintain a high standard of performance, then everyone’s job gets a little easier, but because they are not immediately dependent on each other to complete their job every day they do not qualify as a “team”.

However, if there is direct dependency there, then there is a “team”. For instance, if the staff is responsible for achieving a common goal, such as a sales target or a project objective, and each play a role in seeing this goal met, then they are a team.

Who to include on this team can be a slippery slope. Who gets included? How involved in the process must a staff member be to be included as a team member? Does the receptionist who funnels incoming phone calls to the appropriate parties count? How about the administrative assistant who coordinates all of the filing and required meetings?

The team leader ultimately has to make a decision in this case, but to guide this decision, the leader need only ask a question: if this person vanished tomorrow, how much impact would that have on the rest of the team? The administrative assistant would more than likely sorely be missed, as their contribution allows the rest of the team to concentrate on their areas of responsibility, and having team members rotate in to do that job could prove to be counter-productive. The receptionist (as described above) provides a helpful service, but with some adjustments could have their responsibilities taken care of by the rest of the staff with little impact on productivity. The team leader has to make a decision as to who needs to be included, and what the return on that investment must be.

Once the nature and members of the team have been established, the leader can then move on to addressing the team’s needs. To answer the question posed at the beginning of this section, “Is team building necessary,” the answer is if there is a team, then unequivocally “yes”. As has been mentioned several times before, team building is a constant and ongoing process, so if there is a team, the team leader must always be taking action to keep the team moving smoothly.

Meeting their needs

Every team has the following needs that must be met to keep the team functioning smoothly:

  • A purpose or goal: a unifying reason for the team’s existence

    Communication between members and stakeholders: established channels and methods, and protocols, including who is responsible for what types of communication, timetables, contact people for key issues, etc
  • Accountability: clearly defined accountabilities; who is responsible for what, and who is responsible for control and evaluation
  • Support: backing by management at the highest appropriate level, including access to resources and information
  • Real team building lies in addressing these needs. To be effective, a team leader must constantly be assessing and evaluating how the team’s needs are being met. Where are the problem areas? Has there been a break down in communication between two members? Are the appropriate managers supporting the team’s efforts? Have the team’s actions strayed from the team’s purpose? When a team leader starts acting as an advocate in this way, they are laying the foundation for a solid team.

    This is an ongoing competency. Simply laying the groundwork is not enough; a strong leader will constantly be taking the pulse of the team in an attempt to be proactive is addressing the team’s needs and ironing out any wrinkles before they arise. This process can happen in any number of degrees of difficulty, depending on the team members, the tenure of the team, organizational climate, etc. Regardless, the process does not stop.

    The exception that proves the rule

    Now, with any rule there are exceptions. Those aforementioned “activities” that were written off as not building teams? They may still hold a useful place in the team building process, but under very specific circumstances. Even if these circumstances arise, the usefulness of these tools has not been proven, and a leader should only enter into their use under careful deliberation and using experienced facilitators who understand the true team building process and are capable of a longer commitment to working with the team,

    So when are these “booster shots” appropriate? When should a leader drag his team out into the wilderness for four days to help accelerate the process? The following scenarios may call for additional, accelerated aid outside of the ordinary practices:

  • Brand new team with a looming project deadline
  • New members on the team that must be brought up to speed quickly
  • A mission-critical team in critical condition with a project deadline
  • A team where 100% of the members are on board with the activity
  • With the exception of the last scenario, there is a common thread here: deadlines. In all but the last case, the team is threatened by a deadline that must be met. Now, just because there is a deadline does not necessarily mean that there is a need for a team booster shot; as mentioned before, the team leader must carefully consider his or her options before jumping into such an activity. Booster shots are not a cure-all, remember, but only a tool that should be used in conjunction with sound team building processes.

    For instance, a firm that produces portable MP3 players is about to begin a new marketing push to try to take a larger market share. This initiative could mean the difference between several years of strong sales and expansion, or could result in a loss of capital and market share. The senior management team has two new members within the last six months, and there are tensions between the other four tenured managers that have resulted in some communication breakdowns in the last year. In this case, with a team that not only has a looming deadline of some importance, but also has new members and issues between others, there may be a case to engage in some emergency “boosters” to get the team in synch very quickly.

    Boosters that work

    What are some of the options available? If a team leader decides that a booster is necessary, several routes could be taken. In all of the cases below, the key is constant feedback about specific, individual behaviors that are affecting the team. It is not enough to simply engage in the activity with no direction or feedback. And remember, the team leader is not trying to change anyone on the team, but attempting to change their vocabulary and understanding of each other. Focus on the behaviors, not the people, but with an eye as to why the people may be engaging in damaging behaviors.

    Do the work of the team. The easiest and most relevant would be to engage in a team-specific project that directly reflects the work that they do. This has a high level of transfer and relevance to their other work habits and could result in smoother operations.

    Retreats. Take the team out of the workplace and to somewhere new and relaxed where they can focus on the work of the team (as mentioned above). A change of venue and relaxed environment could yield some strong results, but again the work must be focused on the team’s goal. A strategic planning session, for example, would be a good reason for a retreat, but again with feedback given to members regarding how their behaviors are affecting the team.

    Outdoor facilitated initiatives. No, not a high-ropes course (with its previously mentioned built-in barriers). This can be a very powerful tool if used properly. The advantage of being outdoors is that most, if not all distractions have been removed and it lays bare people’s attitudes and behaviors. The stress of the initiatives (often strenuous hikes with little guidance, book ended with facilitator sessions) brings many emotions to the surface and can really get to the roots of the underlying problems.

    Obviously, there are some pitfalls here that, if not carefully navigated, could end up doing more damage than good. This is why it is important to have a strong facilitator present who is not only able to manage the team’s safety and act as an outside observer, but also to help the team heal itself once the inevitable verbal and emotional lashings happen.

    The Takeaway

    As mentioned before, good communication and follow-up are key to the success of any of these boosters. In any of these cases, there must be follow up over several months to ensure that any positive building is being maintained in addition to the ongoing team building that must be present. Faltering in either feedback, follow-up, or ongoing team needs’ assessment will result in a loss of any benefits gained through the boosters.

    Remember, there are three primary keys that are required for effective team building. First, it must be determined if it is even necessary by assessing the nature of the team. Second, it is an on-going effort that requires attention to specific needs that keep the team operating smoothly. Finally, with any team building, whether it is through every day efforts or through a booster, there must be follow through. If a leader keeps all of this in mind, they will be well on their way to developing strong, high-performing team.