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Is Corporate Team Building a Waste of Time?

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Is business team building a waste of time? It's a question executives consider whenever there is a downturn in the economy or a decline in a company's revenue. The short answer to this question is "it depends."

Team building used to refer to a structured process through which facilitators guide teams in order to boost team performance and achieve specific business objectives. Unfortunately, the term has been hijacked somewhere along the line to refer to corporate play days or events that are strictly recreational. Do a search for team building in Google or #teambuilding on Twitter and you'll find references to everything from bungee jumping to going out after work for drinks. Increasingly, the term team building is being used to refer to any activity in which co-workers participate.

Is There Value to Team Recreation?

I have nothing against having fun. A company where no one ever laughs or gets together for informal relaxation would be a very dreary place to work. Recreational team and corporate events can help companies:

  • Celebrate successes
  • Boost team spirit
  • Reward top performers
  • Mark holidays and pivotal dates in a company's history
  • Build a closer relationship with clients in an informal setting
  • Provide an outlet for stress after a challenging quarter or year

Team recreation is important for organizational health but it's not a substitute for real team building.

When companies try to pass off recreational and social activities as "team building" then yes, it's a waste of time. That's when eyes glaze over and team building get a bad rap.

What does real team building look like?

First, business team building has a context. It's related to an organizations goals or objectives. Most businesses aren't country clubs or recreation centres so their primary mission is not to provide entertainment or social activities for employees. Real team building aims to move the yardstick and give team members tools and strategies to work together effectively, make better decisions and resolve business issues.

Should Team Building be Fun?

My bias is "yes," team building usually is more effective when the "fun factor" is built in. If participants are relaxed it's much easier to break down barriers and improve interaction.

I like to compare balanced team building to a balanced meal. It's possible to have a great meal without dessert. A dinner is so much more enjoyable when it's topped off with a great dessert.

A word of caution is important. If a team is experiencing a high level of conflict, it may not a good idea to kick team building off with a social activity. Team members may prefer to first spend time identifying their concerns and getting assurance that the time invested in team building will be geared towards generating tangible solutions. A pre-briefing the day before or a week before team building takes place can be helpful in relieving anxieties and setting the stage.

Key Ingredients for Effective Team Building

Real team building has specific business objectives and executive level sponsorship. Key ingredients for effective team building include:

  • A briefing by the CEO or another executive to communicate objectives and identify the desired benefits of team building
  • A briefing by the facilitator (internal or external) to draw parallels between team building and the situations team members face on a daily basis
  • A facilitated debriefing to give participants an opportunity to reflect on the tools and strategies they have picked up through team building and how they will employ them when they return to work
  • Business application exercises through which participants can use what they have learned within the context of specific business issues, challenges and opportunities

Highly Recommended Team Building Elements

As the President of Executive Oasis International, a consulting firm that has been designing and facilitating executive retreats and team building since 1996, I have found that while the following elements are optional, the effectiveness of team building can be greatly improved if team building also includes:

  • A facilitated business simulation that draws parrallels the the real world and helps participants make sense of complex or highly dynamic situations
  • Recreational team challenges to help team members relax and get to know each other better
  • Brainstorming and problem solving exercises
  • A team project that gives teams an opportunity to experience their first success with their new strategies

Benefits of Team Building

Team building can be a powerful vehicle for tapping into the collective wisdom of employees and taking organizations to the next level. Effective team building can be used to:

  • Break down silos
  • Enhance communication
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Resolve issues and problems
  • Improve cross-functional teamwork
  • Win support for new business initiatives
  • Generate ideas for new services, products and target markets
  • Identify new uses for existing products (think of how Post-it Notes have evolved based on suggestions from employees

As long as strictly recreational activities are marketed as and substituted for "team building," these benefits will never be realized. Instead, team building will seen as a waste of time. It will continue to be perceived by executives as a discretionary expense that adds little value and that can easily be eliminated every time there is a dip in corporate performance.