|Why Team Building
Doesn't Work & How You CAN Build
|by Hildy Gottlieb
Copyright ReSolve, Inc.
|If the calls to our
consulting office are any indication, there are only 2 solutions any
organization would need to fix all their woes - a retreat or team-building.
Just about every initial call asks for one or the other, making me state the
following right up front in this first paragraph: Team building doesn't work.
(I wouldn't be true to myself if I didn't say that we don't put much stock in
the healing power of retreats, either, but we'll save the topic of "Why Most
Retreats are a Waste of Time" for another article.)
The term "Team Building" has been used to cover a wide
variety of exercises, all intended to boost morale and/or productivity (usually
both) by focusing on the folks who have the bad morale or are being
unproductive. We've all heard about or experienced for ourselves exercises like
the one where we fall backwards into a team member's arms, in an effort to
learn to trust. While the exercises aren't always that hokey, the thinking
behind team building is always the same:
We have seen
numerous organizations who have tried Team Building and declared it a failure -
usually blaming the team. "We've tried everything, but we just can't get them
to work together!" And although we have never seen an organization successfully
transformed by Team Building, organizations continue to look to Team Building
to boost both morale and productivity.
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
Clearly there are problems that need to be solved. And if Team
Building isn't the solution, that doesn't mean there is no solution.
To understand how to get past those
bottlenecks that seem to scream out for Team Building, the first thing we must
understand is why "Team Building" doesn't work. That understanding will lead to
solutions that really do work.
Why "Team Building" Doesn't Build Teams.
There are a number of
reasons why team building exercises don't build teams.
First, people hate these exercises. Most reasonable
people have little patience for going through contrived touchy-feely activities
with folks they are distrustful of in the first place. Yes, it's true that we
don't have to like medicine for it to be good for us, but in this case, the
fact that folks don't trust the exercises that are intended to help them build
trust - well you see the lack of logic and incredible irony at work here. You
can't build trust with a tool the participants don't trust.
Secondly, team building often happens in a retreat-like
setting - away from the workplace, or over a weekend. And retreats are renowned
for having their effects be short-lived. (Ok, so I did end up dangling a toe
into my treatise on retreats.) The immediate results of a retreat may be that
you are sitting around a lake, baring your soul to your new closest friends and
feeling like anything is possible. But come Monday, when you face the pile on
your desk and they face the piles on their desks, very little will have really
Which leads to the main
reason Team Building doesn't work:
We have yet to find
a situation where the perceived need for Team Building doesn't somehow stem
from problems at the root of the organization - a lack of direction, policy or
leadership; a lack of vision or clearly articulated values. What team building
tries to do is to change the behaviors of the team (the symptoms) without
getting to the root cause of why those behaviors exist in the first place (the
illness). By simply attempting to replace a "bad behavior" with a "good
behavior," we create a temporary fix for the symptoms, but the illness
continues to exist. And that can only mean that at some point, symptoms will
start to pop up again.
virtually every situation where "Team Building" is requested, the lack of a
sense of team is merely a symptom of other larger issues.
are simply indicators - the outward signs of what we humans do when problems go
unaddressed for a long time. We become frustrated, and our actions stem from
that frustration. It's a survival mechanism, a way we can feel like we have
some control when things feel like they're out of control.
A lack of leadership, direction, policy, vision, values
- these are NOT problems that can be solved by addressing the rank and file -
which would be any staff team. These are also not problems that can be
addressed through a change in the team's attitudes towards each other - whether
that team consists of staff or board.
These are problems that can only be solved by dealing with those
critical issues head-on. And that is why having the staff and/or board go
through team building exercises, rather than addressing the root causes of the
organization's problems, is a huge waste of time, no matter how fancy and
psychologically sound the individual activities and overall program may
Note: There are some teams that
really are dysfunctional, generally due to serious personal issues on the part
of one or more members of the team. Those issues need to be dealt with
directly. In those cases, professional intervention and mediation are what's
needed, NOT team building. But if the calls to our office are any indication,
these cases are the rare exception.
Why Groups Think of Team
At about this point, someone
generally asks, "So if it doesn't work, why do people still pay money for Team
Building?" The answer is that they earnestly want things to improve, and so
they are addressing what they really think is the problem - the thing that is
the most visible.
organization has those bigger picture problems - problems related to
leadership, policy, etc. - those problems become deep-rooted, laying
underground, hidden in the foundation of the organization, where they can't be
seen. Layer upon layer is built upon those problems, further obscuring them
By the time things really
get out of hand, digging away at one layer of symptoms simply uncovers another
layer of symptoms. Usually those surface-layer symptoms (the ones that are easy
to see) are ugly - bickering, backstabbing - the kinds of behaviors that
suddenly have grown adults sounding like 8 year olds in the back seat of the
car - "He started it!"
plummets, and as goes morale, so goes productivity. It can happen to the board
just as it can happen to the staff.
So now we have highly visible symptoms to point to - a bickering,
backstabbing, ill-tempered team. And we have highly visible negative results
from those symptoms - morale, productivity. And so it is logical to assume that
if we can turn this unruly group into a loving nurturing supportive team, then
morale and productivity will soar.
Therefore the answer to "Why do they consider team building if it
doesn't work?" is that it just seems so logical! We have a problem with our
team, and it's affecting our morale and productivity. It's not that the powers
that be are trying to hide from the real problem - most often, they don't even
realize that the problem goes any deeper than the team. They just know they are
frustrated and sick of listening to everyone bicker. So please, oh please,
won't someone make these folks just get along!!??!!
So If Team Building Isn't the
Answer, What is the Answer?
comes from a combination of awareness and the willingness to get to the bottom
of what's really going on.
Awareness that when
people behave badly, that we can't just tell them to stop, and can't just teach
them to change to "good" behaviors. Awareness that when people behave badly,
it's time to find out why.
Once that awareness
bell has rung, it will take the willingness to peel back the layers of symptoms
so that real answers can be found.
This may sound
simple, but in practice, it's not easy. It takes commitment on the part of the
whole group to be honest in looking at the issues, AND to be insistent that
they will continue to peel back layer after layer of symptoms until they have
diagnosed the core problem.
|Exercise When the idea of team
building or a discussion of morale arises, or when infighting or all those
other bad behaviors rear their heads, use the following diagnostic questions to
get to the root of the problem
| 1) What is this stopping us from doing?
2) Why is this important?
3) How is this keeping us from better helping the
these discussions, it is critical to stay on ISSUES and away from PERSONALITIES
and POINTING FINGERS.
| When the
discussion gets through those surface layers and onto the work you do for the
community, the tone in the room will become positive instead of negative, and
you will hear a sigh of relief. And then you will be able to start working on a
|Does your board evaluate the staffs
The board of
the ABC Agency feels it needs Team Building because board members bicker all
the time and don't accomplish much. Taken at face value, one would assume the
goal of Team Building is that the ABC Board work better together.
Now they're at the
heart of it. The board does have a problem - NOT that they bicker, but that
they don't understand their role within the organization, and don't really know
what they are supposed to be doing. Maybe that uncertainty is making the group
feel ineffective, or maybe the board members secretly feel like they are
wasting their time. It would certainly make sense that this would lead to
| By asking "What is this bickering stopping us from doing?" the
ABC board might note that the bickering was keeping them from doing their job
effectively. When asked "Why is it important that the board do its job
effectively?" some board members might smile shyly and admit that they really
don't know. Now the board can begin talking about their uncertainty about their
role in the organization, and how they don't really know what they're supposed
to be doing. By asking "How is this keeping us from better helping the
community?" the discussion can lead the board to realize that if they don't
know what their job is, they can't do much to make the community any
Now that their real
problem has been uncovered, they can determine ways to address it, whether that
is board development work or training, or a myriad of other approaches. The
result is that the board comes out stronger, with a purpose, a role, a
|Uncertain about the role of your own
If this sample
board had gone through Team Building to solve their bickering, they might
respect and trust each other, and they might even work better together for a
while, but they still wouldn't have fixed the problem. And chances are, the
minute an emotionally charged issue arose at the board table, they'd be back at
their old behaviors.
Executive Director at the Save Our Schools Organization thinks the staff needs
Team Building because the various divisions are constantly warring over
organizational turf. Taken at face value, one would assume the goal of team
building might be to increase productivity and stop wasting the time of both
the team AND the senior management that must negotiate the truces to these
Again, the heart of
this problem is NOT that folks are at war, but that there is no cohesive
organization-wide understanding of how to best serve the community. It might be
that there is no plan for how the organization will do its work, or if there is
a plan, that it doesn't have buy-in across the various departments (perhaps the
plan had little input from those departments individually, or there were no
joint planning sessions between the various departments).
asking "Why is this important?" they might see that these wars are jeopardizing
everything from donor trust to Save the Schools' ability to serve its mission.
By asking "What is this stopping us from doing?" it might become clear that it
is not only stopping them from serving the current mission, but stopping the
organization from taking the dramatic leaps forward that are only possible from
a cohesive integrated group. By asking "How is this keeping us from better
helping the community?" they would have the opportunity to see that the
community isn't getting anywhere near what it could be getting from the
organization, all because of these wars.
With this diagnosis, the organization can work to create
systems and mechanisms whereby they can best provide service to the community,
both now and into the future. The solution may be an organizational planning
process that involves all the departments and looks for big picture effect on
|For a step-by-step approach to such planning
Again, these are
not the kinds of deep-seated problems that could possibly be solved by
team-building exercises, no matter how well the staff suddenly started to get
along. The wars are just the symptoms.
We have seen both these situations, and watched as years of trying to
get everyone on the same page has failed. By constantly asking "Why does this
matter? Why is it important?", and diagnosing the real problem, organizations
can stop continually treating the symptoms, only to have them return again and
again. Instead, they are able to find solutions to the real problems holding
Vision and values and
strategy - those are the things that will move your organization forward as a
team. Follow the big picture and get to the heart of why you feel you need team
building, and you simply won't need it. You may find you need other types of
assistance, but at least none of your group will have to worry that when they
fall backwards, there won't be anyone there to catch them.
Two weeks after
putting the final touches on this piece, an article appeared in the Wall Street
Journal that made me smile. It seems that in the spring of 2001, the E Commerce
Group began thinking about taking their staff on a team-building retreat. E
Commerce had almost tripled its staff, had hired 8 managers, and started having
weekly management meetings that everyone hated. The COO was quoted as saying,"
So we thought maybe we'll go to the country for a weekend and hire a
team-builder and play games like falling into each other's arms." (I'm not
making it up - he really said that! Check out the front page of the Marketplace
section on 10/23/01.)
article goes on: "Then came Sept. 11. Suddenly, there was no time for games. As
in numerous other companies, the managers at E Commerce had to learn their
lessons in team-building in a real crisis - and it will change their company
culture forever." The company founder and CEO learned to delegate more, while
employees pitched in to do work not normally assigned to them. The founder was
quoted as saying, "This crisis broke down the barriers."
The article continues: "Employees have had to
communicate more directly with one another. 'In the past if a person in one
department needed help from another department, he went first to his manager,'
said the CEO. 'But now people are going straight to the person who can fix the
I smiled because the
crisis made them address the real issues. Falling into each other's arms would
never have made the CEO delegate more. And it never would have broken down
inter-departmental walls and managerial egos to immediately make it ok to
circumvent established communications channels.
They fixed the real
problems. And you know what? The team is working just