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How to Do Team Building the Right Way

Posted by Louellen Essex on December 5, 2013 in Leadership, Team Development

Countless staff members have been exposed to team building sessions gone awry. Some describe outdoor challenges designed to build trust that only served to embarrass those on the team who were not physically agile. Others have recounted incidents of poorly designed critical feedback activities resulting in hurt feelings and damaged relationships. Many have concluded that the activities had nothing to do with the work their group was actually doing. Bad experiences like these have resulted in widespread cynicism, which may be why your staff cringes when you mention “team building.”

So, why bother with it if so many undesirable results and bad attitudes may be lurking? The problem is with the method of execution, not the idea itself. Tending to the needs of your team with focused time and attention is good leadership. Follow these guidelines to ensure a successful team building experience for your group.

Do it for the right reasons.
Team building is best used in three specific situations. When launching a new team, time together to establish goals, roles, and ways of collaborating can jump-start the process. Engaging in relationship-building activities like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or DISC Profile, can help team members learn about each others’ preferred way of working.

Another time that calls for a team building session is when the group is stuck in conflict that results in dysfunction. Use your Human Resources partner or an outside consultant, as a neutral third party, to interview team members, summarize the issues, and set-up a problem solving agenda. Then, work through each issue, clarifying differences and creating solutions.

A third reason to gather the team together is for maintenance. If energy wanes because the group is a little stagnant, give them a boost. Acknowledge and reward team accomplishments and refocus on the importance of the group’s mission. Include group learning around a topic of relevance to the team’s work, building a common framework.

Make sure the focus is on the actual work.
Skip team-building games that have no connection to the real world. If an experiential activity is analogous to the work the team does, it may be appropriate. For example, I often kick-off a session I am facilitating with an activity that requires team members to work in small groups to complete a task. I watch carefully to see if they will initiate collaboration with other groups, which often they don’t. During the debrief, I point out my observations, then use them to launch a discussion of cross-work unit collaboration, the issue they are there to address. Spend most of the time, however, discussing actual situations the team is facing, creating a collaborative mindset. One relevant experiential activity is enough!

Make it safe for everyone to participate.
Carefully assess how much candor the team can handle. While it may be tempting to be open about interpersonal tensions, the team may not be ready, nor have the necessary skills. Specific conflict is often best dealt with outside of team building sessions, when a manager gives feedback and coaches individuals, or facilitates discussion between two individuals who are at odds. As a team matures, more openness may come naturally, as members feel more at ease with one another.

Write an action plan and follow-up.
Avoid the “so what” factor by ending team building sessions with a delineation of 2-3 action items the group agrees to implement. Assign dates by which each will be completed and who will take the lead in tracking progress. Then, follow-up to make sure the team meets its commitments.

Build team building into every day activities.
Team building shouldn’t be deferred to designated sessions alone. Use a segment of meeting time to, for example, cheerlead by reading customers’ positive comments about the team’s work, announcing the metrics that demonstrate a goal was just attained, or inviting team members to bring up issues for group brainstorming and problem solving.

By doing team building the right way, you will have your group eager to participate. Everyone will reap the benefits of increased collaboration, effectiveness, and productivity as your team blossoms through your guidance.

What have been your experiences with team building? What has gone well? What has not been effective?

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In these times of rapid change, leaders can never stop learning.”

Dr. Louellen Essex