Is “Team Building” Always the Right Prescription?

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Team building exercises might not always be the answer

I listen to a lot of sports talk radio on my commute to and from work.  Several times each year — especially now, with the opening of baseball season — the hosts will get into impassioned discussions about “team chemistry” and whether or not it adds up to wins and losses.  This got me to thinking about “chemistry” on management teams.

When a management team is struggling, inevitably the suggestion arises that a “team building” event is needed.  Is this always the right prescription?  It strikes me that “team building” efforts — besides often being half-hearted or poorly conceived — are frequently premature, and actually deal with the symptoms of a problem, rather than addressing the underlying issues themselves.

Symptoms and Examples

A few examples from my career:

Wallyball, Anyone? — When our division’s management team wasn’t quite jelling, they decided they needed to spend more time together … playing “Wallyball”.  (I’m told that this is an actual sport).  The only problem was … spending time together wasn’t the problem.  The fact that several members of the team weren’t skilled managers and were individually failing in their roles was

Wallyball may or may not soothe a team's ills

the actual problem — which no amount of “bonding” on a Wallyball court was going to fix.  After a few years, the under-performing members were eventually “counseled out” of the organization and the division’s performance (and that of the management team) took off.

We Need Another Retreat — A leadership team that I was a part of was somewhat divided — good work was happening in the corporate office and in the field offices, but not necessarily in coordination (or cooperation).  On several occasions, we tried to bridge the gaps with a 2-day strategic planning retreat.  We stayed at a nice resort, had lots of meetings (some led by expert outside facilitators), played some golf, enjoyed some delicious meals (steaks, cigars, cognac, the whole nine yards) … and never quite came together.

The underlying issue: the “corporate” folks would say things like, “We think up the big ideas — we’re the visionaries — and you guys (in “the field”) implement those ideas.” Hmmm … actually, the “field” people were at least as experienced and capable as the corporate folks, and — understandably — were quite put-off by being relegated to “just implementers.”  The problem wasn’t just with the words; the corporate group really thought they were smarter and more talented than “the field.” No amount of gourmet meals was going to change that belief.

Values, Not Lunch — The management team of a small business was struggling to manage internal operations. Changing the team’s name from “Operations Team” to “Management Team” — but without adding any authority or autonomy to team members — hadn’t done the trick.  It was decided that the two team members who were struggling the most working together needed to go to lunch more often.  After a few lunches, the idea was abandoned.  In truth, the core issue was that they had very different business values and widely differing views of the meanings of “excellence” and “good enough” — a gap that a friendly lunch or two or two hundred wasn’t going to fill.

Premature Prescription

Fair disclosure: I’m not fond of “try to build a perpetual motion machine using just these two twigs, some string, and a pencil” type of teaming exercises (I’d much rather see candid, professional discussion of the actual issues at hand).  That being said, I’m not opposed to team building events (quite the contrary).  I just think that they’re often premature — and trying to treat “symptoms” rather than the underlying “illness.”

In each of the cases cited above, the underlying issue was that team members didn’t respect or believe in the professional competence of fellow team members.  In the cases where competence truly was in question, no amount of team building was going to make under-performers capable and respected by their peers.  Until the team had the “right people on the bus,” to borrow from Collins, the issue wasn’t camraderie — it was competence.  Once that was dealt with (i.e., poor performers were counseled out of the organization), true team building (understanding of each others’ communication styles, etc.) could begin.

When have you seen team building exercises work well — and when have they failed?

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