The thing with team-building is that it is one of those subjects that is so ambiguous, meaning so many different things to so many different people that it is often hard to get a handle on what it actually means.
To some it means those activities that are rolled out by companies offering drama groups, dressing-up and acting out scenarios from work-life, games, sporting competitions, war games, etc., in an attempt to get people working together effectively.
Others may have in mind some of those strenuous quasi-outward-bound activities, where mild mannered office workers are metamorphasised into snarling Royal Marine Commandos for a day.
Some may have the idea in their mind’s eye of the “It’s a Knockout” style games where everyone wins as long as they all pull together – but do they?
Of course all of these are pretty valid definitions of team-building activities, but team-building is a continuous process that helps meld a group of distinct-and-separate individuals into the process from a group to a team, working for common goals, and defending common values.
Team-building activities are usually implemented using outside organisers, in an attempt either to keep a sinking ship floating or as a customary, annual reward for the faltering team to grin and bear the company of their colleagues and peers whilst carrying out seemingly futile tasks in the name of fun and togetherness.
Now, I don’t want to appear cynical, but – this just ain’t gonna work!
When the team-building activities are finally over, people will, quite naturally, go back to the old ways again, knowing little more than Fred from accounts has got white, knobbly knees, that Jane from quality can run fast and that Jim from production complains as much outside of work as he does in his job. Now, I must admit, I do sound a tad cynical there.
The thing is, that good team-building can be highly effective, highly beneficial and highly rewarding, but, and here comes the rub, the one-shot, drop-in-the-ocean, team-building day will not solve any systemic problems in a team’s make-up, nor bring people into a team mode, when at all other times they are actively working away from each other.
Unfortunately some ‘leaders’ are not always too willing to get their hands dirty with such grimy tasks as team-building, which, they then contract out to anyone who has a whacky idea and a silver tongue to sell it to them.
Here are some of the reasons that team-building activities fail :
1. Values have not been created – The shared values that a team needs to function effectively, as a team, have not been created, shared and signed-up for by the team – if you want people to work together, fight a common cause and to care about each other, they need strong values, built by the team, upheld and recognised by the team and not imposed from outside.
2. Competencies have not been clearly set out – Are we working on skills development or behavioural change within the team? If the facilitator or leader running the team-building event is not clear, then we can be fairly sure that the participants will not be clear either.
3. Activities are too vague – if the activities are vague, i.e. there is no real learning outcome, whether it be learning about ourselves or about others than it will almost certainly be nothing else than a pleasant distraction from the work-day. By the same token, if activities are not aligned with operational and organisational issues faced with the team, they are almost condemned to peter out over a relatively short time.
4. Activities are irrelevant – If the team members are not clear about the objectives of the activities, then it is probably quite possible that the event leader has not spoken to the management regarding the desired outcomes of the events. This is not a good time for improvisation, with such a serious case in-hand.
5. Activities are organised in isolation of broader OD (Organisational Development) outcomes – Most successful team events are clearly linked with professional and personal development efforts undertaken both in the organisation and by the team members. If there is no link there could be a chance that the team-building event is viewed as just a jolly day out. Those that link to both operational and strategic issues are generally the most successful.
6. No pre or post planning – The team event is a bog-standard series of events, rolled out for all companies with no attention to the preoccupations of management and team members in the pre event stage and no follow-up put in place to ensure that efforts are then consolidated and included in the OD or IDP (Individual Development Program) for each member.
7. Planning for convenience – Team building events that are planned in advance are usually a sign of forward thinking. However, there could be times that are better than others for the staging of team-building events, that are attuned to the OD efforts carried out in the organisation, where a clear flow and reason can be achieved by planning the events in more of a strategic, rather than traditional fashion. It’s not because we always do team-building events in July that July is the best time for them, when everyone is just preparing to go off on holiday. If the high workloads arrive between October and January, there could be a good case for melding the team together in September to get the team fighting-fit and healthy for this final push.
8. Events are simply seen as a reward – OK, this could, in itself help team cohesion, but there is little other benefit from activities that are seen thus. Team-building events are more effective, when the reward is felt more as being part of a fully-functioning team, rather than being part of an event.
9. Team-building as damage control – Some events are organised in order to salvage the remnants of a faltering and dysfunctional team. Sorry to say that this will never work. The event can bring about a semblance of a team dynamic and even some form of team-dynamic, but it will never last over time.
10. Competition in team-building activities reflect – Competition in team-building events can actually reflect back on, underline and strengthen the real-life competition that cause fractures and fragmentation in teams. Anyone who knows the “prison experiment” will know what I am talking about here. Competition can be both a highly effective and healthy dynamic and an ugly side of team dynamics – when managed by inexperienced or ill-equipped (informed) facilitators. Competition can also foster behaviour traits and accentuate the worst in people – it has also been proved, by research, that people learn less when involved in competition than when they cooperate together.
11. Activities that reveal weaknesses rather than strengths in all members – It is clear that competition, whilst generally considered to be a healthy aspect of life, can, in fact, damage otherwise healthy relationships within a team. Nobody, really, likes losing. Activities that accentuate the strong members at the expense of weaker team members can foster feelings of resentment and introversion, resulting in bitterness and unwillingness to participate in activities and thus the building of a cohesive team.
12. Activities focus on results only – Activities that reward the stronger individuals for their success are actually counter-productive in team-building. There needs to be a system where rewards are given to those that help others, and especially the whole team to succeed, that can then be integrated as a core value in the team ethos that can then be transplanted to the workplace.
13. Activities focus on the team only – for a team to function effectively, they need to include the Whole team – that includes management. It would then seem reasonable to assume that management should also be included in team-building activities. It can be a highly fruitful exercise to include management in the successes and difficulties included in team-building activities – which, then, brought back into the workplace, can form a new paradigm for sharing both workplace experiences in terms of failures and successes – that all are a component part in what occurs in real-life.
14. Activities concentrate more on fun at the expense of learning – Good team-building activities will always incorporate an element of fun – excellent team-building activities concentrate on learning that includes fun. We always learn more when we are having fun, but those that are set-up with the sole objective of having fun, can fall very short of the mark in terms of learning. It’s great to let your hair down and have a laugh, but does it really bring value?
15. Poor activity Planning – There is little point in planning and organising a team-building event, without knowing what is going on within the team, the organisation and the particular industry. Arguably, the best-placed person to carry out any team-building activities and then being ‘in-place’ for following them on, in the long-term, is the team leader. That is as long as this person is not, effectively, at the root of any fragmentation or division within the team.
The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Zu spoke about a certain general in his famous treatise “The Art of War”. This general was a great warrior, as he knew no pain, hunger, fatigue or fear, which was why the emperor would never put soldiers under his command—as his men knew pain, hunger and fatigue.
Effective, fully-functioning teams come about when certain ingredients are placed in the right quantity – much like a well-balanced cocktail – moving people into key positions within the team can greatly affect the result, take one out or add another and the result can be very different.
Delegating tasks to the right individuals on a team to achieve success is a skill that many don’t naturally posses. Luckily, there are options that include classes in an organizational leadership masters program that provide new strategies and outlooks on how to lead more efficiently.
The most effective teams are when people recognise the interdependencies that the team has at its core that take precedence over the individualities and independence of each member.
Keeping this in mind for team-building activities can be a make-or-break in the success or failure of any team-building efforts.
In short, there is little point in team-building that brings neither results nor learning -if the two can be separated.
Team building should bring about greater self-awareness and a realisation of the strengths and assets of others in the team – forming a strongly-motivated, cohesive unit sharing learning and values that help both the team, individuals and the organisation move forward together – fun and games are not always able to guarantee any of this – team-building in essence, cannot be bought out of a catalogue; well it can, but the effectiveness is always going to be questionable.