Why Team Building can Backfire, and How to do Ensure it is a Worthwhile Investment.
From Titian Thoughts
Thursday, 28th February 2013
A stinging article recently appeared in a major newspaper describing why some team building exercises can be a waste of time.

A poll referred to in the article revealed that only 5% of the people surveyed say team building programs are effective, 68% say they are not effective, and 27% say it depends on the activity. When considering these apparently damning results, though, it is critical to consider how team building is being defined.

In the article they are referring to what we would call 'team games', such as Amazing Race, Master Chef, paintball and golf. Comments and blogs related to the article reinforced the survey's findings, with several respondents indicating something along the lines of, "Don't waste the company's valuable money, just buy lunch!" But building a team could and should be much more than simply playing games together.

We agree that many organizations might be wasting money on 'team games' where the participants may have fun but the activities are often contrived and the learning outcomes can be minimal. Instead, we believe, organizations should focus on 'team development' programs that are targeted, relevant, authentic and educationally oriented.

Consider the three levels of team approaches we identify when discussing needs with a client. These can help to define what the real needs of the group are in order to ensure an intervention program achieves the desired outcomes:

1) Recreational Team Building: Designed to change the way people feel (to entertain, re-energize, relax, re-create, socialize, teach and learn new skills)
2) Educational Team Building: Designed to change the way people feel and think (to gain awareness of needs, to add knowledge of new concepts, to understand new ways to look at old or familiar concepts)
3) Developmental Team Building: Designed to change the way people feel, think, and behave (by increasing positive functional behavior, by improving interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships)

Why do a lot of team building programs not work? Unfortunately, and all too often, this deeper level is not sought after nor reached. Real learning or transformation can be prevented by:

1. a lack of reflection (defeating awareness)
2. the presence of resistance (defeating intent)
3. barriers to supporting transfer (defeating maintenance)

Simply playing a game (often childish) is not team building even if the team plays it together. However a group activity can become 'experiential' (an experience-based learning opportunity) when elements of reflection, support and transfer are added to the base experience, and of course where the base experience has credibility.

Psychology Melbourne senior psychologist Campbell Thompson says team events are a waste of time if they're badly planned or don't have a specific organisational outcome in mind. Too many are arranged in the spirit of, "God, got to do an annual away day", he says, while others fail to consider the individual differences and needs of group members.

Trust falls gone wrong, and the real instrument of change

One of the most basic team building exercises, one which many of us would have participated in as kids, is still used today: the trust fall (falling backwards with your eyes closed, trusting that someone who has been positioned behind you will catch you). But trust without clear communication can be counter-productive, and sometimes even downright dangerous.

Even a simple activity like this can be utilised on many levels if the learning experience is designed correctly. At the basic level an activity or problem solving challenge can simply be used to engage and motivate attendees and to get them mingling (RECREATIONAL).

At the next level the activity or challenge can be used to demonstrate the value of teamwork and to introduce new team strategies (EDUCATIONAL). Once the benefit of teaming is evident, an activity can be used to actually build new teams and develop individual skills (DEVELOPMENTAL). Lastly, if one group is not getting along very well - if they withhold information, sabotage change efforts, and distrust one another - the organisation can use similar challenges to help them become more aware and effective in their work (REDIRECTIONAL).

In these examples, the facilitation methods used to introduce and reflect on the experiences (not the action events themselves) are the instruments of change.

Why team building can miss the point

Many people miss the point when they choose a team building program. The activity itself should not be the core focus, but should instead be seen as the means to achieving a specific outcome.

So before jumping in to what may sound like a fun and exciting activity, it pays to clearly identify the outcomes desired and even go further deeper to assess the team's current performance and future needs. Does the team need rewarding for a good run (turnover)? Do they need motivation after a tough year? Or will it be important to overcome personality clashes and team politics? Is the goal to release the team from bureaucratic responsibilities for a time and to inspire them to be creative and innovative? Or to help them to take advantage of different skills and strengths within the team and create alignment? Or perhaps the goal is to develop leadership?

To understand virtual or cross cultural team challenges and talk through them in a safe environment? Perhaps the focus may be on helping the team identify its purpose and roles (vision mission values)?

Effective 'team building' that is really strategic 'team development' must be intelligent in content as well as stimulating in approach, and it needs to really connect with and directly address the individual and team needs of the group.

Tell us about your experiences!


In part 2 we will look at a step by step way to ensure team building really can work and what to look for "Overcoming the IFS and BUTS of Team Building"

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