Imagine if team building actually worked

By Frik Nortje

While huge budgets are spent on team building initiatives, few companies report any increase in the execution capacity of whichever team was sponsored for such interventions.

During the 90s, team development interventions were rife. This is also where things went wrong. Today, we are still battling the legacy of fly-by-night service providers who may have started with the good intentions of improving team or work group functioning but failed miserably in the long run.

5 reasons why your team building intervention could fail

With all the money invested in these interventions, why have these not provided the return on investments promised? There are many and varied opinions but through our own informal desk research, we were able to identify the potential reasons why this category of organisational development failed:

  1. A one-size-fits-all approach: More often than not, consultants will propose an intervention they believe is the be-all-end-all of team building interventions. They have preconceived ideas about what the team issues are and they will have a standard programme to address all potential issues.
  2. Treating the symptoms and not the problem: This seems to be the major reason for the poor results that team building delivers because solutions are offered without the situation being examined properly. You must keep in mind that organisational behaviour is very complex and the perceived issues are seldom the root cause of the problem but merely the symptoms – the image of “treating a patient for a headache but missing the brain tumour” comes to mind. You need to peel away the layers of symptoms to get to the real issues.
  3. The emphasis is on the get-away and not the issues at hand: Yes, people want to have fun as part of a team building. Unfortunately, some interventions are so much fun that the focus shifts from the issues. Regardless, people may get so enticed by the wonderful environment that, at least for the duration of the intervention, they forget the real issues, which lead to the feeling of having achieved a harmonious state of functioning. Which brings me to the next point: What happens after the two or three days out of the office?
  4. No aftercare: Let’s assume that the cause of the problem was identified and addressed during the team building. What happens after the intervention? The reality is that people will regress to their old ways of doing things once they hit the piles of work back at the office. Why? Because they are used to how things are and cannot afford to invest any energy in changing things when the work at hand requires all their energies. Teams need to build their strength gradually, with the necessary support, to change deep-rooted systems effectively.
  5. Progress is not measured: The fuzzy euphoria of “we’re a great team now” will not suffice. Real progress should be measurable in the work environment. This is much easier said than done but it is not impossible. Use yardsticks to see if an intervention had the desired effect. Only then will you be able, confidently, to say that the intervention was worth their while (and money). This does not imply administering a 10-question questionnaire at the venue where the team building took place when everyone is still on a high. You need to measure key areas a few months later.

What do the executives say about team building?

We interviewed a few of our clients and this is what some of them had to say:

  • “Despite the fact that we are still unsophisticated in terms of team building, we do acknowledge its value and are therefore budgeting for it. We are open to new innovative approaches.”
  • “We don’t believe in retreats anymore. We do acknowledge the importance of team building but we have it at our offices. The format is somewhat different from the traditional team building: We do a lot of psychometric assessments and tend to get together to discuss the results in order to facilitate a better understanding of one another. We focus on the practical dynamics within the work environment as opposed to team building activities.”
  • “We do value team building but not the artificial activities which force people to work together. Once we went rowing on the Orange River. I paired people in boats who I knew did not get along well. We also had a braai and just talked. This was a very positive experience”

Team building is an important element of organisational development. Imagine if it actually worked.

This article first appeared on HR Pulse.

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