Updated: Feb 18
“Stop Wasting Money on Team Building” a Harvard Business Review title screamed at me. “Most corporate team building is a waste of time and money” was the terse opening line of this article from Carlos Valdes-Dapnea. At this point my blood pressure probably (definitely) skyrocketed and my mind was already racing to provide an eloquent counterargument (more likely a sputtering aggressive beat-down) in response to this shot across the bow. Valdes-Dapmea then launched into a review of some flighty, wasteful and counterproductive team building baloney he had witnessed or been a part of in his corporate career. My blood pressure returned to simmer. Obviously compelling everyone engage in frivolous stressful activities in the name of team bonding was not going to fare well in the end. Clearly offering up an extremely novel activity (or “mandatory fun”) and hoping it would serve as a relationship building, collaboration inspiring touch point for ever and ever would fall flat as soon as it ended (if not before). Of course a heavy handed approach to a nebulous outcome isn’t the best recipe for anything of value. Yet somehow this seemed to be the known recipe for team building … yep, that would be a waste of time and money.
Valdes-Dapnea takes the long way around to get to his conclusion that strong relationships and trust are the outcomes for people who are dedicated and striving together - and these dedicated, striving people will collaborate productively when they are motivated to do so. Instead of a linear progression from dedication and striving to strong relationships and trust my experience has been that these elements are in a circular chicken-and-egg type of cycle. Who dedicatedly strives together with people they don’t trust? Who has strong positive relationships with people who aren’t dedicated (at least to the relationship)? The cyclical nature of these factors allows for many points of intervention to get things on track (or back on track) toward more productive team functioning. That intervention is called team development - not the (patently ridiculous) wishful bungling that often gets lumped under the term team building or the wanna-be inclusive but actually alienating “fun” activities that people often call team bonding.
Team development can directly take on any of the topics mentioned: trust, strong relationships, striving together, dedication, collaboration, motivation and more. Within the team development framework any of these outcomes are directly trained and cultivated leading to more functional and more productive teams. It’s not always as fun as watching a movie while floating in colorful inner tubes a pool with all your teammates but it will serve your desired outcomes better. Team development is the intentional effort to give you team the tools to be successful together. People feel delight when their skills grow toward mastery and the energy within teams revs up when the team skills develop. It can take effort to learn any new skill and the same goes for the practical skills cultivated through team development. Depending on which skills are the focus it can feel stressful or challenging or confusing. Some people approach authenticity with fear of rejection, some teams approach the power of collaboration with resistance born of mistrust and hurt egos (or hurt feelings). The strength of team development lies in the ability to simultaneously address both the needs of the individuals involved and the desired outcomes of the team.
“Why do they make choices that have such a terrible effect on the team?” “How do they think that behavior is ok with everyone?” “Why do they do things that make them such a pain in the ass to work with?” I’ve heard so many versions of these questions. All of them speak to problems that can be alleviated by attention to team development. (None of them will be erased by doubling your investment in booze for team “fun” functions.) There is a time and place for team celebrations - to relax and recreate - to enjoy each other’s company while doing something non work related in someplace dedicated to fun. Celebration is great and necessary for healthy teams and novelty can break static patterns for a moment but neither are equivalent to investing in team development with the intention to train better teammate skills and habits.
In the past 20 years I’ve spent developing teams I saw first hand that people want to be a part of high performing teams that function well even if that means extra effort on their part. When adequately supported people are willing to try new things like clear and direct modes of communication or taking on conflict resolution. Even when they may have shied away in the past,they can work to create an environment that is more healthy and productive. Positive teammate behaviors create great teams and great teams apply gentle social pressure to elicit positive teammate behaviors. I’ve seen team development shift teams from negative downward spirals aiming for total toxicity to teams that are productive and focused on the path of positivity and even hopeful. Teams that were pretty good (or didn’t even feel like they were limping along) became powerhouses generating and radiating pride in accomplishment and ownership of their destiny. While that faulty model of team building may not be what you’re looking for, team development is an excellent use of your time and money.
If you’re not sure where to start in parsing the mediocrity (or worse) of team building from the functional practicalities of team development drop me a line here. I’d love to talk with you about the specifics of what your team needs to get to the next level and how team development can take you there.