In 24 years of team building with groups I have interviewed many executives as they contemplate the decision to hold some type of team development program. From shorter, lighter, fun programs to in-depth interventions for really stuck teams the goals for team building vary widely or can often be inadequately defined.
Most clients are not team building experts and so speak of the symptoms of bad teamwork; lack of communication, lack of trust, redundancy of effort, or lack of progress where it is needed most because this or that work group is not ‘getting along’. It is often a very helpful process for them to have the consultant help define specifically what the issues really are and what desired alternatives for teamwork might be possible. I often help my clients figure out what is really going on with the team and what it is that they really want rather than the way they are treating one another today.
The following are some of the most common reasons organizations cite for participating in a team-building program:
1) Have Fun
For whatever reasons some group just wants to have fun. Although almost any team experience can also be used as a valuable teamwork learning opportunity, sometimes fun is the objective. Organizations may already have detailed training and development programs in place and want a ‘break from it all’ or just want to have a good party, nothing more. Sometimes this is influenced by the culture of the organization and weak or immature leadership. Without passing judgment here, it is worth mentioning that a high energy shared experience has many positive benefits such as : seeing one another in a different light than at work, creating a relaxed atmosphere where people might be more comfortable talking to someone at a different level in the organization, or bonding with one another because of some kind of shared activity like a softball game. If expectations for building teamwork are low and outcomes are not defined some longer term benefits will undoubtedly occur, but not necessarily the highest priority benefits that a work group might need.
2) Get everyone together, have a shared experience
Often planned by the well meaning, shared experiences hopefully take into account the comfort and participation level of each person. Rock climbing, for example, might be an intense trust building exercise for some, where it is an embarrassing reminder of one’s lack of physical condition for another. The motivation here is one of defining the group culture and anchoring a sense of identity by doing something together. Typically, this might involve participating in entertainment together, corporate Olympics or company picnic type events, going on a dinner cruise together etc.. Any activity where everyone is together in the same place doing more or less the same thing can help anchor the idea of ‘the unit’ or ‘the group’. This is not a very sophisticated objective but many companies are reticent to search for deeper meaning or learning because they fear the cultural push-back of not doing something ‘cool enough’ to keep each clique and faction happy. There is of course, no limit to spending money on extravagant events but many of these provide little in the way of long term intrinsic benefit to the team when everyone returns to the ‘same way of working together’ the next week. These types of events are almost like bribes to keep the worker happy, rather than opportunities to learn and become better as a team.
3) Celebrate Recent Achievements
Although similar to number 2 above, this type of team event actually has more structure and content and serves a very useful purpose for the team. Key points include:
-Acknowledging that everyone has been working hard, validating the rationale for asking a lot from workers on a regular basis.
-Acknowledge that the plan has worked and the goals have been reached. This inspires belief in leadership and engenders support and belief that future initiatives will also be successful.
-Gives credit and recognition to those who deserve it. Most employees crave acknowledgment for the contributions they make and relish being treated as a valuable contributor to the group.
-Builds a sense of identity as a team member of a strong, capable and successful team.
4) Presented or Perceived as a Workplace/Company Benefit
Once again, a ‘perk’ for working in a particular company might be a luxurious travel trip or junket that could be called team building, when in reality it is a personal benefit many employees look forward to because of the great meals, resort hotel and far away location. Some work cultures routinely provide these types of benefits but few have real beneficial teambuilding structure. More often they are filled with additional sales or technical training or are used to unveil next year’s goals- ever more aggressive and demanding than the last, which are supposed to go down with the spoonful of sugar that the luxurious junket serves to provide. Re-calculating next year’s sales or production goals with team building doesn’t always mix.
5) Interact with Senior Management, Key Customers or Vendors
Sometimes team building is a good way to force interaction with the objective of solidifying relationships. This might seem a little ingenuous at first, but well structured team building programs are actually a great way to deepen business relationships, which must first be acceptable personal relationships. A shared experience such as a ropes course or team initiative exercises can open up and stimulate all kinds of interactions and discussion that bring people closer together. Deepening communication and collaboration, learning about one another’s leadership and decision making styles, and exploring strategic approaches to quality and improvement in fun ways together can make for stronger teamwork throughout the value chain.
6) Build Communication Within the Team
Every group can do better with their communication with one another. It is the most common objective for team building and is nearly always at the heart of what coworkers want to do better when they get back to work. Modeling group communication skills should be woven into all great team building programs.
7) Cooperation/Collaboration between two groups
This is a very common rationale for team building programs and should be used more often, particularly where two work groups or departments form vital parts of the value chain such as sales and production, or engineering and marketing. Each group needs to better understand the demands and capabilities of the other and to work towards a realistic set of expectations that creates both efficiency and a way of operating that everyone can live with- especially the customer. Sometimes a lot of healing and conflict resolution will need to take place with a healthy dose of getting everyone enrolled in better possibilities for getting things done in the future.
8) Merger or Acquisition
When the dynamics and infrastructure of an organization changes everyone wonders how it will affect them. Once they get past the question of whether or not they will still have a job, the next logical questions cluster around what will be each employees roles and responsibilities, and how will things be different on a day to day basis? Workers need assurances. Will the status quo be maintained or will there be sweeping policy and procedure changes? How will changes be introduced? Calling this team building is really a stretch, but often the need is to get everyone together and communicate a new approach or philosophy and hopefully, integrate operations and new requirements quickly for no loss in production. It is a classic organizational challenge, but one that can be made smoother with a well designed team building program. After all, the new must integrate with the old with the result of a better and more capable result.
These team-building programs must be designed carefully.
9) New Management/Leadership
Many military groups are cursed by a changing command every two years or so. Each new commander strives to make his/her mark and make a unique difference that has never been seen before. These commanders know that they need to establish a new pace and climate quickly, coalesce the high influencers and important departments into an even more effective machine and direct the machine towards the achievement of ever more ambitious goals. Every one involved dreads the integration of a new commander and does their best to remain under the radar so as not to get noticed or focused upon as an opportunity for improvement or change. The private sector lacks the role specificity and rigidity of structure characteristic of the military but makes up for it in political intrigue and the introduction of complexity and lack of humanness.
Integrating new leadership and a ‘new approach’ is a great reason to undertake a team-building program. For success the key is to focus on what works already, the voice of the worker, readiness for change, and consensus on areas that need improvement, rather than some disconnected and ambitious management by objectives approach by an executive who hasn’t been there and done that. A humble new manager that listens rather than tells, that strives to understand rather than redefines, who use subtlety rather than dictate to institute a new rhythm will use a team building program for one of it’s highest potential benefits.
10) Pull together for a new strategy and new direction
When this motivation is genuine it can be very powerful. Hopefully top management knows where they are going before asking everyone to jump on the new bandwagon with them. They need to have definitive plans and be unequivocal about their commitment. In this case the message to employees and workers is one of engendering the motivation to support the leadership who knows how to work their way out of the current situation or crisis. These type of team building initiatives will fall on deaf ears if they are not well thought out and well executed. The core of the message sent to employees in this situation is that we will pull together to weather this crisis and we will support each other and work together to get it done. Employees quickly see through disingenuous lip service and lack of commitment from key executives who don’t put their money where their mouth is and lead with their own example.
11) The dysfunctional group
Dysfunctional groups are made up of dysfunctional individuals, thus requiring a series of individual behavioral changes that will need to take place for the group to change it’s modus operandi. This is truly an artful process involving very sophisticated approaches to get the group to want to commit to a new approach, to see something in t for them individually and collectively to operate differently together, and to let go of ego-based defenses and negative behaviors that disrupt the smooth functioning of the work group.
Usually, the dysfunctional nature of this work group is costing the company a lot of money and frustrating everyone around them. And also, most in the organization are scared to confront the obvious, challenge unproductive behaviors and demand these individuals to elevate themselves to a higher standard for the well being of all concerned.
Because of ‘who they are’ in the organizational hierarchy, the issues are treated like political hot potatoes or spoken about in hushed tones or overly sensitive terms, rather than being labeled as the immature, unprofessional inefficient and ridiculous behaviors that they are. Everyone agrees that there is a better way of operating out there if they would only open themselves up to the possibility. Herein lies the rub. Facilitating commitment to move beyond the current state to a better future state is the entire purpose of the team building experience, and it takes very skilled and professional handling. Like a delicate baby chick emerging from it’s shell, the possibility of a more satisfying way of operating needs to be handled gently. New ideas need to be carefully introduced and subscribed to with very specific expectations on everyone’s part as to how they will happen. Overcoming a history of lack of trust and moving into a more collaborative, open and honest future together means that this decision and agreement must be seen to be made by each group member. Herein lies the finest art of facilitated team building. Often a group like this will require continued support for some time so as to be reminded of their commitment and so as not to backslide into old behavioral patterns.
Corporate team building programs can have varied goals or combination of goals and require a flexible, customized approach. The goal is results; a better functioning, more satisfied and productive work team, whether on the front line or at the top executive level. People are people at whatever level of the organization, and often need the power and leverage of a well designed team building program to remind them that they can indeed work together, and even in fact, enjoy it.
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