At some point in your career, you’ve probably participated in team-building exercises that made you wonder, “What’s the point?” Maybe they were useless group activities that everyone mocked under their breath. Or maybe they were inconsequential events with colleagues that, while fun, didn’t change the way anyone interacted in the workplace.
Team-building activities don’t have to be this way. They can improve a team’s productivity and efficiency. The key is to approach team building strategically. To do that, you have to know what it means to build a team and how to measure a team’s performance.
What It Means to Build a Team
It would be nice if building an efficient and productive team required no more than hiring skilled workers with agreeable personalities. Unfortunately, teams don’t work that way. Like any successful relationship, team relationships take thought, effort, and compromise. Each person has their own manner of doing things, their own preferences, their own values, and their own strengths and weaknesses. One member of a team might value deadlines and prefer to get work done in a timely fashion. Another might value quality over speed and prefer to take extra time to get things right. If these differences are not acknowledged and addressed, conflict and frustration inevitably ensue.
The purpose of team building is to get the people on a team to work well together. More specifically, team building teaches team members about one another so that their differences serve as a basis for collaboration and innovation instead of conflict and frustration. It’s okay to have social events without much formality or structure, and these can be helpful for team building simply because they allow people to let down their guard and get to know their co-workers on a more personal level. But more structured activities will get you closer to your goal.
Knowing What Activities Are Best for Your Team
When you plan a team-building activity, first take note of who the people are on the team. You’ll want them engaged in a task that brings out their individual work preferences, habits, values, and strengths. Teams with money to spend might opt to participate in some professionally organized game in which their behaviors are observed, but you don’t need expensive elaborate set-ups to see and assess your team in action. You could have them design a fun, informational poster about their team, discuss what superpower would be most beneficial for their job, plan a ten-minute tour of your workplace, or collectively role-play their response to an upset customer.
It’s important, however, that the activity not be part of their work. Employees doing work need to focus on getting the work done and doing it well, not on getting to know one another. Work has its own purpose. Treating work itself like a team-building exercise would be like treating a performance as if it were a practice.
Giving Purpose to Your Team-Building Activities
When the team members are engaged in a team building task, pay attention to the behavior of each person. What differences are at play? Has someone tried to do all the work themselves? Is anyone keeping a close eye on the time remaining to complete the task? Is someone delegating? Is anyone raising objections to what’s been proposed or what’s being done?
When the task is done, you will all have seen the different ways that each person behaved. Now it’s time to discuss those differences. Ask each team member to explain why they did what they did. Then ask them what they learned about one another. Finally, have them discuss ways in which their differences could be beneficial or harmful to their work as a team.
After you’ve talked through their behaviors and your team members better understand one another, it may be time to make some changes based on what you’ve learned. Let’s say you had someone who took it upon themselves to monitor the team’s progress with a constant eye on the clock. This person may have underutilized project management skills. Perhaps they would be good at keeping the team on track with various projects. Or suppose a member of your team displayed creative thinking and problem-solving skills you had no idea existed, perhaps because their job duties don’t typically require those skills. Consider how those skills could be used within the team. What workflows make the most sense given everyone’s strengths and weaknesses? What conflicts exist on the team? In what ways could they be resolved?
Making It a Team Effort
The best team building, though, doesn’t come from on high. If you try to impose new workflows on a team that require them to be more collaborative, and the members of the team don’t want to collaborate more, you’ll get pushback and likely make the team function more poorly. Forced to work together more, they’ll argue more about the way they want to do things.
Before team-building efforts can be successful, the workers on a team must want those efforts to be successful. They need to be willing to disagree and debate in good faith, compromise when needed, and balance out one another’s skills. A proven way to engage employees in team building: put them in charge of it. Let them plan their team-building activities and decide how best to incorporate what they learn into their workflows. Give them the freedom to be creative and build up one another. Trust them and encourage them to trust one another. After all, team building must be a team effort.
"...team building teaches team members about one another so that their differences serve as a basis for collaboration and innovation instead of conflict and frustration."
Any team-building effort requires time and resources. In other words, you’re paying for it. You therefore should be able to determine whether such efforts were worth the cost. A vague feeling of improvement is not sufficient – especially not when the fruits of team building can be measured. Before, during, and after team-building activities, you should be recording and analyzing metrics pertaining to team efficiency and productivity. Did the team meet its goals? Look at the key performance indicators that make sense for your team. Production, morale, and retention are good figures to examine. Definitely measure whether the team has been able to get more work done in less time.
Keep an eye on the numbers, account for other variables, and be willing to try new team-building activities or rethink your team-building strategy.
Making it Happen
Before you get started, remember that you’re not just building any team, but the team you have. Your goal is to help the people on this team understand one another better so they’ll be better able to collaborate. So, begin by considering what you already know about your team and brainstorming activities that will require their collaboration, communication, and compromise. When they do these activities, observe their behavior and discuss it with them afterwards. If you learn anything that could improve the team’s workflow, consider giving it a try, and then pay attention to the team’s performance metrics in the weeks that follow.