Make the Most of Team Building

By Nancy Hatch Woodward Mar 3, 2008
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There's no end to the creativity of team-building exercises—from solving abstract puzzles to donning inflatable sumo wrestling suits. But while these activities can be fun and interesting, they'll have little value unless you target them to the goals of your team. Let's say you have a problem that started a while back but was never addressed. An open, honest discussion over lunch or coffee may do the trick. Or if one group member is causing the problem, removing him might suffice. In the case of a problematic team manager, additional training or a coach might suffice.

Determining whether team building is appropriate to your problem is just one reason why you have to establish the goals of a team-building exercise before you launch one. Teamwork training centers on developing skill sets that enable participants to collaborate better or to learn how to handle difficult situations that may have arisen. Training may include instruction on better communication, managing conflict, or understanding the skills and talents that everyone brings to the table.

It's serious business, says Laurie Hastings, manager of the HR planning, learning and development group at Altera Corp., a technology company headquartered in San Jose, Calif. "We offer fun activities for our employees throughout the year," she says. But actual team-building activities are much more "focused, strategic and committed to seeing teamwork becoming integrated into our day-to-day work."

Such strategic team-building efforts start with a full assessment of the team's needs. Ask yourself:

  • Do you want to bring together cross-divisional employees for a long-term project and get them off on the right foot?
  • Do you need to increase open communication and relationship building?
  • Are participants actually hostile and mistrustful toward one another?
Training that focuses on cooperation between departments is one of the most requested teamwork-building programs. Others most requested are: communication skills development; working on trust issues, especially when there has been a merger or acquisition; improving feedback; and dealing with office politics.

For Bobbi Kaylor, HR manager of Dabico Inc., a company in Costa Mesa, Calif., that provides ground equipment for airports, the problem centered on the growth of the company's workforce, which had employees going in too many directions. While teamwork proved worthwhile within individual teams, there was little interaction among the teams themselves. People had become comfortable in their groups and weren't reaching outside for ideas and ways to collaborate. They needed to be exposed to people on other teams and understand that each person and group had something to bring to the table.

The success of team building also relies on tying the activities to the team. Keep in mind:

  • The personality of the group and individuals. Engineers may be very happy in a classroom setting, but customer service representatives probably would prefer something more exciting. Dabico Inc. used a classroom setting for its first team-building exercise; the next time around, employees went for a scavenger hunt in Laguna Beach. Why? "When people are stuck in classrooms all day long, the first half of the day before lunch is very effective," says Kaylor, but "after lunch, they have a tendency to kind of zone out."
  • Age and physical abilities of members. You don't want employees to be fearful of the activity or to have to disclose a physical limitation. James T. Taylor, president of Teambuilding USA, says his company and many others are no longer offering programs that are physically demanding. "You have to pay too much attention to people who are overweight or may have heart conditions," he says. Instead, they focus on activities that are psychologically challenging.
  • Size of group. Large groups are better suited for recreation/reward types of activities, says Angie Seehan of Adventure Associates. Smaller teams are more effective for exercises that concentrate on developing deeper skill sets, such as conflict resolution or leadership stages.
  • Education and experience levels in the group. What you plan for senior executives may be quite different in content and style from what you would devise for a lower-level team. Usually it doesn't matter how long the group has been together, but it can be easier to diagnose the problem in groups that have worked together for some time, says Steven H. Carney, owner of Power of We Consulting. "They know who the better players are and who needs skill development or coaching."
  • Budget. The costs for teamwork-building events can run from $50 to thousands of dollars per person. Costs depend on location, length of program, type of activity, and whether your vendor is local or out of state.
  • Time allotted. A half-day program is just going to scratch the surface. Full days are better for addressing a specific team dynamic, and retreats work best when working on strategy or trying to develop individual leadership or communication skills.
Hastings stresses that a key element of a team-building exercise is tying it back to the business. Make sure, she says, that the exercise supports and aligns with the business goals and priorities. In addition, Hastings also recommends the following for getting the most meaningful results for your team:
  • Customize the activity so it meets the specific needs of the group and the company. Then measure its effectiveness by how well the designated goals were met.
  • Be part of the activity. You should be there with the team, not out on the golf course.
  • Make it part of employees' performance reviews, i.e., whether they have put into practice the skills they presumably learned during the training. For example, are employees now bringing a wider variety of co-workers into project planning?

Nancy Hatch Woodward is a freelance writer based in Tennessee and a frequent contributor to HR Magazine.

Terms of Use: © 2006 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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