Call it a bad, real-life version of The Office. The boss decides that productivity and morale are down, so there needs to be team building. So on a chilly Wednesday morning, rather than being at work, the whole staff finds themselves at the base of a high ropes course. The morning starts with some reaffirming words about trust and positive thinking and keeping an open mind from the facilitator, followed by some activities to aid in communication and trust, such as a trust fall and the human knot game. Soon, after some rudimentary safety training, the staff begins to tackle the high roped elements of the course; some are not so wild about heights, so they elect to stay on the ground and help with the safety ropes. As the sun sets that evening, the facilitators congratulate everyone on a job well done and for participating, and hope that the staff is able to take the lessons learned that day back into the office.
Come Thursday morning, with the exception of maybe some sore muscles, its back to business as usual. The boss cannot figure out why his team is not any better, and retreats back to the confines of his office to ponder what to do next.
This is actually an all-too-common scenario. Too often when a team is not performing up to expectations, the powers-that-be elect for a “team building” day, such as the one described above or something similar. And while a day scrambling up an artificial wall may be fun, there is one major caveat to engaging in the above activities: none of it is team building.
Simply put, team building is not an activity, but an ongoing process. There are certainly activities and initiatives that can be of use as tools in this process, but they are not an end unto themselves, and if used as such or not properly facilitated, they can potentially create more harm than good.
In understanding team building, it is important to determine what it is not.
Avoid the Clichés
First, there must be a distinction made between bonding and building. Bonding is merely an act of sticking two or more objects together; in terms of people, it is two or more people getting along and caring for each other at some level. This can be done very quickly, such as a child using paste to attach the eyes onto their Halloween jack ‘o lantern project in school: effective, though temporary. A more permanent bond is possible, but requires greater time and effort.
Building, on the other hand, is an organized and planned effort to construct a solid structure to serve a purpose. There are many individual activities and transactions required to achieve this goal, and once the initial structure is complete, constant maintenance is required to keep it functional. It is a continual process.
As such, team building is not building camaraderie. While in an ideal environment the team will bond and genuinely care for each other’s well-being, it is more realistic that there are people on every team who wish nothing more than to come in, do their job, and go home. Even more realistic a view is that there are people on the team who may actively despise another member. These are obstacles, to be sure, but ultimately the success of the team is not dependent on everyone liking each other, so this is not a goal of team building.
Additionally, team building is not an activity. Putting a team through team building “initiatives”, such as the aforementioned human knot and ropes courses and the like in an attempt to demonstrate examples of core team behaviors does little at building the team, as these activities 1) do not always translate well to the work environment, and 2) do nothing to secure continual support of the potential lessons learned.
Team building is an ongoing, multifaceted process encompassing several disciplines that, when done properly and given the due attention it deserves in any organization, plays an important role in an organization’s success. Ultimately, it is getting a group of people to work together towards a common goal in such a way that the results of their efforts are greater than the sum of their parts. This requires constant attention and is achieved over time, and must be maintained through continual efforts. As mentioned before, there are additional activities that can help boost or accelerate team building, but these tools are only an additional support option for what should be a daily function of the workplace and the team leader. Moreover, the activities that qualify as team building tools are very specific in scope and how they are applied; in other words, not just any activity provided by a book or facilitator can necessarily fulfill this purpose.