Let’s start with two questions.
1) When do you do team building?
2) What do your team-building efforts include?
How you answered those questions might suggest how you define the concept of “team building.” Leaders have varying interpretations of the idea and, therefore, experience varying degrees of success with its execution.
Before we explore those questions, let’s define “team building.” It’s not organizing employees into groups. It’s not getting everyone to think alike. It’s not getting everyone to like each other. (Perhaps that would help, but it’s not realistic.) Nor is it getting everyone to have a couple of hours of fun.
In its most effective form, team building is the practice of structured interactions among members of a team. These interactions are designed to facilitate understanding of how each member thinks and works, and further develop skills necessary for effective collaboration. Thus, to be productive, team building should be more purpose than party.
Let’s return to our questions and tackle the first one – When do you do team building?
Many leaders turn to it when employees become divided, are bickering, or challenging one another. In these cases, the leader is often frustrated with the entire team or particular employees and is concerned about a decrease in productivity and morale.
Faced with the emerging impacts of interpersonal discord and inefficiency, a leader may automatically decide that a team-building effort is a solution without first identifying the underlying problem.
With good intentions or only out of desperation, the leader seeks to offer something without clearly understanding what is needed or, a leader may be aware of the underlying problem but chooses not to deal with it directly. The problem may be rooted in the leader’s skill deficiency or a performance issue specific to one employee. In response, the leader decides to offer a team-building effort to avoid the discomfort that might exist with addressing the real problem. They may hope that the initiative will somehow spark a needed change without directly driving the necessary change.
In either case, the team-building effort often produces superficial, short-lived results at best or, at worst, even more significant problems. In those cases, what is needed is a severe assessment of the problem and a resolution plan that directly addresses it with the individual(s) involved.
How did you answer the second question – What do your team-building efforts include?
Many leaders seek something “fun,” such as a social activity like a lunch/dinner, a lighthearted activity like karaoke, an outing like bowling, or physical challenges like team relay races or construction projects to name a few. The motive behind most of these efforts is to take the pressure off and encourage employees to work together, but the unstructured nature and informality of these activities do not typically equip employees to work together.
These fun activities, when offered with no performance framework or behavioral goal in mind, are often limited in their effectiveness. Employees don’t understand the activity’s connection to the workplace. As a result, they discount the activity’s value. They may resent their required participation with the event. They may even distrust the entire effort and you, as a leader. In contrast, your credibility as a leader will is strengthened when employees perceive the team building activity as something of value, not fluff.
No team-building effort, structured or not, will meet the individual desires of all employees. While it would be helpful for our efforts to be fun for employees, that is not the primary purpose. The purpose is to support employees’ ability to better understand and engage one another in the shared mission of their work.
In summary, how do you make your team-building efforts effective?
The key takeaways include:
- Understand the difference between when you need to manage the performance of one employee and when you need to build the team.
- Take time to identify the underlying problem of the team’s struggle so that you can locate appropriate support.
- Offer an effort that aligns with the need (e.g., Don’t plan a beach-themed lunch when what’s needed is change management training).
- Provide a framework and clearly define goals for the effort. Then structure the initiative in such a way that provides an opportunity for employees to build understanding, knowledge, or skills.
- Debrief the effort to highlight practical application in the workplace and to set performance expectations.
- Make the team building an ongoing leadership practice, not a quick fix, a one-time event, or a blanket effort.
Team building provides an opportunity to reinforce good behavior and equip employees with the mindset and skills needed during more challenging times. Employees will likely be more receptive to the effort and view it as development, not punishment.
However, when team building is needed to help employees overcome a barrier to productive interactions, a purposeful approach is best. And the rewards you reap from a more purposeful approach may make you want to party!