What are the best – and worst – ‘team building’ activities that you have ever engaged in? And what made them work, or fail?
The idea for this Blog came about 30 seconds into one of my hourly planks.
We’re a small, tight-knit Communications team here at Ai Group, and of late we’ve instituted a new routine to improve our core strength: we all get down on the floor upon the hour, every hour, and assume plank position for a minute or two.
The benefits for my general middle-aged sense of wellbeing have been considerable. My dodgy back, my sloppy posture and the alarming slide in my form on the touch football field have each taken a turn for the better.
Even more pronounced, however, has been the upswing in our shared sense of camaraderie. We’re of vastly disparate standards of physical prowess, but when we’re down at ground level together trying to hold our form, we’re each pulling for one another to last the distance – and sharing the refreshing relief of a laugh away from our computer screens as well.
I can see all the Workplace Productivity Researchers out there rubbing their hands with glee. What a fantastic case study we would make if we could crunch the numbers on the boost this whole routine has surely given to our combined output.
As ‘team building’ exercises go, it doesn’t get much cheaper or less time consuming than this. So, statistical analysis aside, the return on investment has got to be pretty good.
For many big corporates, however, the concept of team building goes a hell of a lot further. According to the US Association for Talent Development, of the $164 billion spent by American companies on employee training and development in 2012, $46 billion went into the coffers of firms engaged specifically to provide team-building initiatives – that’s almost 30% of the training budget.
If you’ve been trapped in some of the classic team-building workshops, this probably seems like a colossal waste of money. Back when I entered the workforce in the 1990s, I frequently found myself in boardrooms, catching colleagues as they fell backwards towards me in awkward exercises illustrating the value of trust…
Since then, the team building industry has thrived, offering up activities that range from the ridiculous and the horrifying to the ones that really, truly don’t suck – but in fact seem equally ridiculous…
Regardless, the conviction persists that team building is the most important investment you can make for your people – but where can the money be best spent?
Given the aforementioned billions being invested into team building programs, you’d assume a mountain of research has been conducted into their power as a value-adder – but you’d be wrong.
Not surprisingly, however, CFOs have increasingly been demanding evaluations and evidence of bang for their buck, and researchers at the University of Florida responded in 2011 with a paper they aptly entitled ‘There’s a Science for That’.
The lead author, organisational psychologist Eduardo Salas, describes team building as “the largest human-resources intervention in the world”. In terms of the results it delivers, his key message is that team building approaches are most effective in situations where teams are experiencing “negative affective issues, such as a lack of cohesion… or process issues, such as a lack of clarification in terms of understanding roles”.
In other words, they work best in a situation where you need to fix something that’s broken, or at least a bit wobbly.
If you’re looking to foster the skills and knowledge needed to build teamwork from the ground up, more traditional team training approaches are likely to be more effective.
But as I’ve already suggested, there’s team building – and then there’s team building. It’s a funny old mixed bag of tricks. So if you’re heading in that direction, what type of exercises should you be doing (hourly planking aside)?
Stripping my exhaustive research back to the basics, the schools of thought can be summarised thus: one theory prioritises the morale-boosting properties of the pure bonding experience above any thinly veiled attempt to tie your activities back to lessons with practical application in your day-to-day business.
The other dismisses the folly of corporate ‘play days’ in favour of ‘real team building’, which requires “clear and specific business objectives”.
Clearly, there is some value to be gained from recreational experiences that simply break down barriers between staff members and develop their relationships outside of the work context. And supporters of this approach suggest that “activities that overtly aim to draw in leadership lessons or practical takeaways are less powerful”.
But how enduring are the benefits of once-off recreational experiences if you are not bringing back lessons or ideas that can be practised every day once you get back in the office?
Of course, games employed to get team members working towards common goals do not necessarily preclude the having of ‘fun’ – something that research suggests is an important catalyst for effective learning.
So, what’s your experience? What are the best – and worst – team building activities that you have ever engaged in? And what made them work, or fail? Is your team a monument to the success of bonding exercises? Or do you agree with Adelphi University Professor of Finance, Michael Driscoll, who described team-building exercises to Newsweek as “a management boondoggle – a waste of time”?
Please share your experiences by adding your comments below.