Teambuilding – Does It Really Work?
By Richard Milecki
For someone who makes a living out of teambuilding interventions this is a tricky question. After twenty years of working with hundreds of mostly Israeli companies it is time to ask whether teambuilding works. The field draws big budgets and the message has been internalised – many managers feel the need to stop day to day work and take their teams for a time out day to deal with team communication and to “improve” teamwork. The market is hot on their heels. At my last count there were about sixty companies providing services of experiential team and leadership learning from the highly professional to those who are just looking for another market for the activity they developed.
Surprisingly, in Hebrew there is little written about the issue, as if Israelis agree that teambuilding is a good thing. In Israel there is wide acceptance of the importance of teambuilding although in other countries one can find many voices that reject interventions of this type with a number of consultants, staff and managers who are prepared to publicly criticize paintball, karting, trust falls, cooking and who can forget goat herding. “Why are we doing this?” they ask.
There is place to wonder if the difference of opinion is cultural. The British and the Americans are less tolerant of imposed close relations in the work place whereas in Israeli culture it is acceptable to share details from ones private life. Friendship is something you definitely look for at work. Career is not everything. At school and certainly in the army friendship and mutual responsibility are emphasised.
The following choice was offered in the former Sudden Teams site:
When you are tempted or told to do some “teambuilding”, you have a stark choice:
Fix the issue that prompted the thought
Waste your time and money.
The Daily Telegraph published a workplace survey in Britain. 66% of respondents reported that they had participated at least once in teambuilding activities and 54% feel that carrying out further activities of this type will not improve their ability to work with their colleagues.
In a highly critical article “Team Building Does Not Work and how is it possible to really help build your team”, Hildi Gottlieb (2005) suggests two basic assumptions that motivate most of the referrals she receives for teambuilding:
“Team Building proposes that it is possible to build trust and engender positive working relationships among people who obviously aren’t feeling any of those feelings to start with (otherwise, the team building wouldn’t be necessary!), all through concerted effort on the part of those who are “misbehaving.”
The premise is that if only this or that worker or team would change their behaviour then everything would be okay. If we can just change a team’s behaviour for a few hours then surely change will be possible back at work. But is teambuilding the right tool? After all if a team member is not acting within the accepted norm, the manager should deal with him or her directly.
She continues: “In virtually every situation where teambuilding is requested, the lack of a sense of team is merely a symptom of other larger issues.”
When direction, vision, leadership and clear values are lacking, treating team behaviours will only deal with the symptoms and not with the cause so that the effect is likely to be only very small. Often all that are needed are some thought and management initiative.
Here is an example: A department head and VPHR met with me in order to plan a teambuilding workshop. As the discussion progressed and further difficult and even embarrassing issues were put on the table it was clear to all that there were problems that needed to be dealt with online with the team and the organization. Would it be fair to shift responsibility to the shoulders of the team members? A few days later the two managers updated me that due to “personnel changes” the workshop was postponed. My explanation – a short chat with a professional was enough to look in the mirror and take a few personnel and other tough decisions regarding the structure and roles. And for this they considered dragging the whole team offsite in order to talk about their communication. Preferably not.
The critics say that there is no need to work on openness. communication and other positive behaviours when really the manager or managers need to take some hard decisions or to put in the work to set strategy, priorities, appropriate work conditions, staffing and work plans.
Support for teambuilding effectiveness can be found in research literature. In the comprehensive article “Does Teambuilding Work?” Klein et al (2009) summarise sixty studies that claim that teambuilding influences positively on all of the chosen factors and especially on the emotional (affect) aspect of the participants. Improved performance was further down the scale. Shuffler et al (2011) differentiate between team building and team training. Team training refers to the tools that are needed in order to improve their teamworking abilities. Teambuilding is the action taken to improve the ability of a specific team. In this study team training had a higher impact on results than teambuilding that is adapted to the specific needs of a team and therefore to outcomes.
I agree with some of the critics. Often clients who turn to us are looking for a quick fix without the willingness to probe the root causes. In fact turning to a teambuilding provider will demand a lot of preparation, thought and follow up if any change is desired. The aims must be well defined and obtainable and the direct manager must lead the project including responsibility for conclusions and execution.
So…does it work?
I have experienced extraordinary events and outcomes in workshops including discussions that have never before taken place about the function of the team, team members who finally get to know each other even though they have worked together for years, problem solving and setting values and goals and action items that give hope that the team can act differently. All of this does not guarantee real change. Only when I hear of changes that I have been carried out as a result of what happened in the workshop such as more effective team meetings, a manager that starts to carry out one on one meetings, real planning, monitoring, the lowering of interdepartmental walls or expressions of the newly set values – then I really know that it worked.
Here is my set of tips for anyone who is considering a teambuilding activity:
- If you know what management action needs to be carried out, then do it. Afterwards consider a teambuilding day.
- Follow Up. A workshop that does not include a longer process including preparation, documentation, follow-up, implementation and evaluation is indeed probably going to be ineffective. Participants will ask why did we put in all that effort time and money when it was ignored back at work? Without a long term commitment it is not worth setting out.
- Commitment of the direct manager including time and effort is essential. Without that there is nothing to be gained in a teambuilding workshop.
- Be prepared to go through a process of discovery and refocusing of the aims. Often the initial aims need to adapt to changing realities or as a result of the ongoing discussion with the consultant.
- Teambuilding is not a reward, birthday present or pay off for high sales. The aim is to raise issues, practice behaviours and plan for the future. Celebrate birthdays with a nice cake.
- Try building an entire team development programme and in the final meeting carry out an experiential team workshop. The experience is much more powerful as everyone understands that the change has been carried out successfully and the workshop’s job is to celebrate and cement this change.
- Extreme activities are only appropriate to certain people and age groups. Make sure the planned activity suits all participants.
- No Competition. Competition in this kind of workshop will usually promote the opposite of everything that you are trying to achieve. According to research, the losing team will reject any learning that you were trying to promote.
- Alcohol is not a good idea to add to the lunch menu. People under the influence tend to lower their guard – defenses that may be preferable to keep in place in the workplace.
This article is an adapted translation of the July 2013 Hebrew post.
Gottlieb, H (2005) Why Team Building doesn’t work and how you can build your team. http://www.help4nonprofits.com/NP_PRSNL-TeamBuilding_Art.htm
Klein et al (2009) Does team Building Work? In Small Group Research, Vol 40 (2) pp 181-222.
Marissa L. Shuffler, Deborah DiazGranados and Eduardo Salas (2011) There’s a Science for That : Team Development Interventions in Organizations, Current Directions in Psychological Science 2011 Vol 20 No 6, pp365 – 372.
The Telegraph: Team Building doesn’t improve work http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/9063890/Team-building-doesnt-improve-work.html
Huffington Post: Your Start Up Life: Do Team Building Retreats Ever Work http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rana-florida/your-startup-life-team-bu_b_1630316.html
Sudden Teams Site: Why “Team Building” does not work http://suddenteams.com/teams-blog/why-team-building-does-not-work
Wall Street Journal: Can Spending a Day Stuck to a Velcro Wall Help Build a Team? http://online.wsj.com/article/SB116709218188859244.html