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Think Twice About Teambuilding

Many leaders have this experience: They notice the team is not at their best. Staff seem to complain a lot or have withdrawn from meetings. Performance is declining. The leader asks for feedback and gets whiffs of in-fighting and stress within the team. The leader thinks “We need a teambuilding!”

A facilitator is hired, topics are planned, food is ordered, and money is spent. After a day of icebreakers, trivia, superficial talks of teamwork and trust (and god help us, trust falls), people say they enjoyed themselves. Everyone goes back to work and within a week the boss notices the team is back to in-fighting and stress.

What happened? The teambuilding was supposed to cure the issues with the team.

It is not unusual for a leader to believe an activity or retreat is the remedy for teamwork problems. There is a belief out there, maybe fostered by my own industry of trainers and well-meaning HR folks, that if people have fun together, it somehow improves teamwork.

There is robust research that confirms this is not true. Liking each other, being friends, or having fun together has little bearing on team performance. Google set out to understand what made a high-performing team and embarked on a study called Project Aristotle. Charles Duhigg wrote about in the New York Times. It's a fascinating read. In that research, friendship within the team was not factor for high performance.

Often, the rush to teambuilding is the result of a lack of insight or analysis to understand what the root of the issues are for the team. This is typical because most leaders are action oriented and quick fixers. For many, it is even a strength that likely led them to be promoted into leadership. This strength, however, turns into a weakness when it comes to resolving issues with teamwork.

Speed is often not the best approach when it comes to identifying better ways for the team to work together. It requires taking a step back, asking questions, really listening to what people have to say, and creating a safe environment for people to speak up.

This week we revisit the components of high performing teams and offer up a Team Performance Assessment to help you evaluate your team and determine what areas of performance need strengthening.

Team Performance, Five Essentials

Many leaders (including myself) can get impatient with teamwork issues such as disagreement, lack of follow-through, silence in meetings, or critical attitudes. It is natural that the leader becomes frustrated and thinks to themselves “You’re smart people. Figure it out and do your job.” Depending on the boss, exploring the root of the issues may stop there and they do not address the issues at all. These are low performing bosses but not because they are intentionally ignoring their team. It is because they simply don’t have the right information and don’t know what to do next.

Here is the “right information” - teams need five things to perform well: Communication, Goals, Clear Roles and Processes, Productive Conflict, and Debriefs. These are the components of a high performing team.

Here’s the challenge, both the leader and the team members need to be well-versed in these concepts. Because everyone bears responsibility for the success of the team, the members need to understand this information just as much as the leaders do. Too often however, teams are mired in the day-to-day weeds of their work and leave conversations about teamwork on the back burner.

Here are quick descriptions of each component with a link to a full article that provides additional context and information:

  • Communication: This is about asking questions and listening which are two vital behaviors that foster a learning mindset on a team and most importantly, psychological safety. This is a sense of confidence that the leader or the team will not punish members for speaking up or making mistake. Psychological safety has been found to be the most important factor in team performance.

  • Goals: Everyone on the team is aligned to inspirational goals that provide direction and meaning for the work. The goals are published publicly to serve as reminders for what the team is trying to accomplish.

  • Clear Roles and Processes: Who does what when is mission critical to team performance. Assumptions will fill the gaps if roles and responsibilities are not clear.

  • Productive Conflict: Every team experiences disagreement. The teams that invite debate and handle it respectfully and productively do better than teams that don’t.

  • Debriefs: Routinely evaluating how the team performs to their goals as well as giving each other feedback (positive and critical) are important factors to performance.

So, rather than heading down the path of a teambuilding, think about how the team performs within each of these components. To help you do this, use this Team Performance Assessment.

In my experience working with teams, the majority of issues stem from poor operations. This means roles and responsibilities aren’t clear, expectations are absent, or follow-through is unpredictable. These operational issues create frustration and stress which lead people to behave unproductively, even inappropriately. Rather than taking the team out to have “fun” together (to improve relationships and thus try to correct bad behavior) dig into the operations. It is likely that by fixing the operations, stress and frustration goes down and improves the behavior issues too.

When to have a teambuilding

There are a few folks out there thinking, can we never have a teambuilding activity again? Is having fun together as a team off the table?

Of course not.

Have fun together as a team and do it for its own sake, for fun. Build comradery, play games, and laugh together. There are plenty of instances where teambuilding creates a shared experience that builds relationships. I would argue that it may be a way to nudge well-being by hitting some of the PERMA elements we discussed a few weeks ago (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement).

But those positive emotions are fleeting if the team doesn’t ask questions and listen, define goals, establish roles and processes, resolve conflict productively, or debrief and share feedback. This matters more and has far greater impact than trust falls.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leadership and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm.

Get the Team Performance Assessment or the Values Defining Worksheet to get started on your development now.


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