What type of team building really works?

February 7, 2023
Team building is aimed at bringing people together in a way that ultimately benefits their everyday roles and duties. But what is the right way to team build?

The right way to team build

Team building is aimed at bringing people together in a way that ultimately benefits their everyday roles and duties. It is a term that has been broadly applied in the past – covering everything from escape room challenges to tai chi - but what is the right way to team build?

The idea of bringing people together from across an organisation, uniting them in an engaging activity, is a good one. Connecting on a personal level creates a strong foundation for any relationship, not just one with business and career pressures applied. But team building often takes the shape of activities not connected to the business, its challenges or its individuals. That might provide a bit of a distraction from daily routines and get people talking but if that’s the extent of your company’s experience of it, is it really worth it?

There are different offerings from business coaches, event companies and offshoots of household names who have tagged team building on to their main product – recognition enough that it is in demand. Essentially there are two types of team building: one that works and one that doesn’t. The ones that work are structured around a clear objective.

The right way to team build has little to do with stereotypical extrovert-friendly exercises and trust activities, or fun-focused away days. Getting out of your comfort zone through a different type of learning experience can open communication and forge bonds between colleagues but that is a desired outcome, not a starting point. When team building is too far removed from the business focus it can seem frivolous, undermining the time and money spent on it.

Meaningful work

Managers can be eager to tick boxes to prove they have worked on communication in their team, and, says the BBC’s Alison Green, team building can be a substitute for more meaningful work on communication issues.

“Real team building isn't about one or two events per year. Instead, it's about how a team runs, day to day… Good managers prioritise communication, co-operation, and morale year-round, not just for the duration of a team-building event.”

Some commentators take a harsher line:

“Team-building exercises are pointless and even insulting to your team members, because they suggest that if only your team members spent more time doing silly things and solving group problems together, climbing trees and rolling around on the floor, they would work more effectively together the rest of the time.”

Solving team problems

In short, team building is a way of managers avoiding facing the fact they should be solving the communication problems of the team.

Carlos Valdes-Dapena, who spent years working on collaboration at Mars, found that the vague nature of collaboration is at odds with the recruitment focus of individual skills and job descriptions:

“It occurred to us that their failure to collaborate was, ironically, a function of their excelling at the jobs they were hired to do and of management reinforcing that excellence. Collaboration, on the other hand, was an idealised but vague goal with no concrete terms or rules. What’s more, collaboration was perceived as messy. It diluted accountability and offered few tangible rewards.”

By creating and applying a framework to make collaboration clear, specific and compelling, Valdes-Dapena concluded:

“Strong relationships and trust do matter to collaboration, but they are not the starting point. They are the outcomes of dedicated people striving together. Connecting collaboration to the motives of success-minded team members is what unlocks productive teamwork.”

The real ‘how’ of team building comes from tapping into a group’s needs. Uniting employees over the workplace topics they have in common is a natural starting point: no booking of activities completely unrelated to your industry required.

Ask for input

Asking for input on which subjects would make a good hinge for a team building event creates buy-in. Bringing real issues to a workshop makes a route to a tangible outcome, adding definitive value to what can otherwise be a vague use of time. Even if solutions cannot be arrived at by the end of the session, opening discussion and debate on points that matter will foster the trust intrinsic to successful teams.

Real people connecting over real concerns doesn’t need bells, whistles or the crazy antics of stereotyped team building. Simple comforts can help: an open-feeling venue away from the office, devices off with dedicated check-in times, breaks, refreshments and time to talk can accentuate the positive impact of tailored techniques, exercises and surveys.

Keeping the event real and relatable to daily working life has the added implication of ongoing benefits to all involved. Feedback, reviews and implementing techniques learned can make a little team building go a long way.

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