It seems everyone can get on board with the idea that building a team is an important, even critical, feat – a top-level responsibility for leaders and part of the job for every person at work. We’re working together to accomplish things that none of us could accomplish on our own. That’s why we need to be greater than the sum of our parts.
TEAM BUILDING: LOVED BY SOME, HATED BY OTHERS?
Building a team is universally recognized as essential. “Team building” on the other hand…
Team building is a concept that gets mixed responses. If very nearly everyone agrees that building teams is essential, then why do people so commonly groan, roll their eyes, and fill with a sense of dread when someone says, “Next month, we’ll be going to do some team building”? Why do some people want to run for the hills, even while others jump up and down clapping and can’t wait.
Over the years, “Team Building” has become a catch-all phrase used to cover myriad purposes and a whole heap of activities. It’s used to cover everything from asking everyone what superpower they’d choose if they could to ax-throwing, from margaritas at happy-hour to ropes courses and trust falls. The term team building has come to cover behavioral assessments, communication training, walks in the woods, boat building… There are countless stories of horrifying demands made on people in the name of team building.
The term gets such mixed responses because it covers such a broad range of activities from the tactically useful, to the benign, to the horrific.
BREAKING IT DOWN
If building teams is essential, then it’s time to rescue “team building.” To that end, let’s look at the multiple specific useful tasks we’ve assigned under that single term. While no single activity falls cleanly or exclusively into any one of the following categories (most span two or three), it may be useful to look singly at the functions “team building” activities are intended to serve.
- Team Insight: The better team members know each other individually, the better they tend to function. “What superpower would you choose?” falls mainly into this category. So do behavioral assessments like DiSC and Colby and the many others. These insights both enrich relationships and cohesion, and improve communication through increased tolerance of personal differences and communication tactics targeted to each individual’s preferences and strengths.
- Team Bonding: When teams feel connected to one another, and care personally for one another, the resulting trust makes the team function better. When people share experiences – especially ordeals – they bond. What’s the difference between insight and bonding? I can know details about you and the way you prefer to communicate without feeling closer to you. I can know intellectually that you prefer time to consider the variables before you respond to my question, and still not have the consideration of you to give you that time. Bonding makes a difference. Consider plane-crash survivors. They may know nothing about one another specifically, and they feel care and bonding to one another having survived the same ordeal. Ropes courses, trust falls, escape rooms, etc.
- Team Skill Building: Teaming is a skillset. Communication, collaboration, mutual support, teamwork… Some people are better at these skills than others. And growing the skills, gaining the tools, makes teams stronger and more effective. Training and practice in the skills of teaming fall into this team building function. Communication, collaboration, leadership, innovation… These are skills that different teams have to varying degrees, and which set the ceiling on a team’s achievement.
Some folks love the “what’s your superpower of choice” type of game.Trouble is, some people hate them. There’s no way around that fact. And it doesn’t pay to ignore it.
The fact that some people won’t like this activity is not necessarily a reason never to do it (though it might be a reason to make these exercises brief and infrequent). Two ways you might avert or at least diminish the negative impact of doing something that some won’t want to do:
1) Allow people to opt out – not from the exercise alone – but from the room entirely. Opting out when the focus turns to you is uncomfortable. Imagine we’re going around the room, each person sharing their chosen superpower, and it gets to Jack. Jack hates this game. It seems pointless (and scary) to him. So Jack opts out. Opting out of something that everyone else is doing at the very moment when all eyes are upon you is tremendously uncomfortable. It goes against our neurological wiring as social creatures. So imagine the discomfort Jack must feel in naming a superpower if saying, “skip me,” is even less uncomfortable. You can make this entire gathering optional. (This, clearly, has its own costs as well. It can erode belonging. People who choose not to attend an event because the event will likely feel uncomfortable for them nonetheless feel FOMO. They may not fear missing out on the event. They will likely fear missing out on the sense of belonging that results, on the opportunity to strengthen relationships, to be seen by leaders of the team and/or of the organization. They know there’s a cost to choosing not to be there.)
2) Own the fact of the discomfort like any good sales person owns the objection before the buyer can bring it up. Under this model, the exercise isn’t optional. It’s like a vaccine – brief discomfort for a lasting value. “Hey folks, we’re going to do a thing. The reason to do it is to simply gain further insight into one another. The better we know each other, the stronger our team. For some of you, this is going to be fun. For some of you, it might suck. You may think it’s pointless, or boring, or even painful. It’ll be brief. And then it’ll be done. And my experience tells me that in subtle ways, it’ll make us a stronger team forever.” At The Yes Works, we call this kind of straight-shooting that respects everyone’s experience, “Being Obvious.” When you acknowledge the truth of the situation, you gain the respect and trust of your team. By acknowledging their point of view, you’ve validated it, and people are therefore more willing to do what they may find pointless and painful without resentment. While the activity may still be mandatory, you give people permission to have their own experience while going through the exercise.. “Forced fun” builds resentment that obligatory activity may not.
Other forms of insight gathering like behavioral (personality) assessments are more universally accepted by the people on your teams. There are benefits of knowing that Mary wants time to consider all the implications before she speaks about the options while Jules thinks best by talking. And those benefits – more direct – are easier for people to see. There’s more willingness to engage in this kind of activity.
Introverts often feel overlooked and undervalued. These exercises often leave them feeling witnessed and justified. The whole team gets to look at one another’s tendencies and preferences and therefore make adjustments to their communication and collaboration to more directly fit their audience.
Conflict goes down, and the team gets more traction.
NASA sends astronauts out into the wilderness for a trying experience in which they actually have to depend on one another for their wellbeing. It’s an ordeal. And going through the ordeal creates bonds that NASA finds strengthen the team’s performance in outer space.
This can work for any group. Shared experiences, especially ordeals, can bond a group and build trust… IF (and this is a big if…) if everyone behaves in trustworthy and respectful fashion through the entire ordeal (or effectively and meaningfully apologizes for any and all breaches of trust).
If people behave in ways while going through an ordeal that compromise or erode trust, then the whole exercise will backfire. And it will backfire in a costly way that’s likely irreparable.
Ropes courses, puzzle rooms, paintball, wine-and-paint, group cooking lessons… These are a few of the activities leaders turn to for team bonding – some more ordeal than others, some not ordeal at all, really.
An advantage that NASA has over you and your team is likely how very, very selective they can be. NASA can be pretty well assured that each of the people on the team they put through an ordeal is already a well-integrated skilled communicator and collaborator. It’s the best of the best. The people who go through NASA’s wilderness ordeal are already the kinds of people you’d most like to have with you if you were to go through an ordeal.
Before you put your team through an ordeal in order to bond them, consider whether they’ve already got the skills and tools to navigate that ordeal with respect and tenacity. If they’re inclined to throw up their hands when considerably challenged, or to express frustration and contempt when things aren’t working well, then an ordeal-experience can do more harm than good.
In this case, it may be better to tend toward cooking classes and ax throwing instead of ropes courses and puzzle rooms. The weaker the team’s skill at teaming, the more likely an ordeal is to backfire.
Do not put a team through an ordeal if they’re likely to behave badly to one another, particularly if there is not a skillful and determined facilitator to turn the breach into a mended strength – and sufficient time for them to do that work.
Teaming takes skill. Teaming well takes a lot of skill – on a lot of fronts. And teaming is not just one skill, it’s a whole set of skills. And arguably, those skills are skill sets in themselves.
Communication is one such. It consists of actively listening to understand, validating the other’s point of view – even when you disagree, articulating what’s in your head so others can fully comprehend your intentions, knowing what and when to communicate, knowing how and when to ask questions to get more of another’s perspective… So many skills inside that one word: “communication.”
Collaboration is another skill set that includes all those skills inside communication, and more.
Leadership includes all the skills inside communication and collaboration, and still more – like taking risks and going first.
People often put all these skills into a bucket they call “Soft Skills.”
As Simon Sinnek rightly says, “There’s nothing soft about them.” These skills are hard. For one thing, they’re not easy. They’re hard. And for another thing, they’re not squishy and subjective. They’re “hard” in that way too. They can be operationalized and learned. In fact, that’s a lesson we can take from advances in AI. Soft skills (increasingly evidenced by computer intelligence) can be broken down into algorithmic operations. The algorithms used by people we say have good soft skills are more effective for succeeding with other people than the algorithms used by people we say lack those soft skills.
It all comes down to the programs we run in our interactions with other humans.
Contrary to popular belief, these are not innate skills: Either you’ve got them or you don’t.
They’re learned skills: Learned, and learnable.
And these skills can be broken down into strategic principles (like “listen to understand”) and tactical behaviors (like, when someone says something that seems not to make sense, ask “tell me more about that”).
Just as there are risks involved with putting a team through an ordeal together, there are risks in skill building and training as well.
You may be asking, “How can building skills backfire?”
First, not all guidance out there is good guidance. For instance, one skill set within communication is the ability to give effective feedback. And there are still people out there suggesting that the “Sandwich Technique” of feedback is the way to go.
It’s not. There are good reasons that the feedback sandwich has earned the nickname, “The Shit Sandwich.”
So, someone can learn to use the “Sandwich Technique,” and follow the protocol perfectly. They’ve learned the technique very well and implemented it deftly. And, instead of getting the desired effect – effective future behavior – they’ve likely had the opposite effect. They’ve potentially damaged the relationship and instead of changing behavior, they’ve likely driven the unwanted behavior underground where it’ll be harder to see and correct.
So, not all guidance is good guidance, and some of it is downright destructive.
The second way that skill-training can backfire – even if the guidance is sound, science-backed, and solid – is by being boring, insulting, or otherwise ineffective.
Training people – especially already competent adults – is hard. When it’s not done well, it can alienate. And when it alienates, you can end up with fewer of the strong teaming behaviors than you had to begin with.
For example, we’d all like to see less (a total end to) sexual harassment in the workplace. However, studies show that sexual harassment training tends to backfire, making men more likely (not less likely) to blame the victim. This is because the way most training is conducted leaves many men feeling targeted and alienated.
Nonetheless, it is possible to use training to decrease sexual harassment in the workplace. Those studies show that instead of doing explicit sexual harassment training, that training teams to communicate, collaborate, and build a sense of community together decreases sexual harassment and increases bystander intervention.
The approach to training matters a great deal to the outcomes.
YOUR TEAM BUILDING PLAN
Each of these three categories – team insight, team bonding, and team building – can be useful. When you spend time and effort on building your team up, the ROI can be massive indeed. You get more engagement, more alignment, more retention, more traction, more momentum as a company. And who doesn’t want that.
Heck, strong teams deliver strong customer experiences too – so it’s a compounding benefit.
Building an effective team is not a one-and-done activity. It’s not like building a bridge or a house. It’s not a matter of taking a blueprint, building a structure, and you’re done except for a little scheduled maintenance now and again. It’s more like gardening. Prepare the soil. Plant some seeds. Water the garden. Tend to the weeds. Occasionally add some fertilizer. Harvest some fruit. Rinse, repeat. Farm. Cultivate.
You’re a good farmer. So ask yourself…
How’s my team now? Is the team I have (in their current state) capable of getting us where we want to go? If not, it’s time to do some work, some culture engineering, some team building… some real transformation work.
You’ve heard it before… “What got you here won’t get you there.”
If your team is well aligned to the future you envision, then congratulations! That’s not easy. You’ve done some incredible work to have built a team like that. Make sure you continue to do your regular and routine farming. Very likely you are.
Happy farming, y’all!
Guest post by Aaron Schmookler of The Yes Works