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Make the Most of Team Building-HR Magazine

HR Magazine, September 2006To provide the greatest value from team-building exercises, HR must select the right fit for the teams problems.

Team-building exercises vary from the serious to the absurd. From solving abstract puzzles to donning inflatable sumo wrestling suits, there is no end to the creativity of such efforts.

While they may be fun and interesting, many team-building activities can be of little value if they are not planned and selected with care. Worse, they can be dangerous—to the employee and to the company. In 2001, a dozen Burger King employees burned their feet attempting a fire walk as part of a program for building marketing teamwork. And earlier this year, an employee of security systems contractor Alarm One in California was awarded $1.7 million in damages and compensation in a suit in which she claimed she had been spanked on the job as part of a camaraderie-building exercise.

Aside from those extreme examples, team-building exercises can be beneficial to employees and companies. In particular, such exercises can help managers and employees develop interactive skills and learn how to collaborate and communicate effectively, says Steven H. Carney, author of The Teamwork Chronicles: A Startling Look Inside the Workplace for Those Who Want Better Teamwork (Peak Performance Press, 2004).

While teamwork-building events can be useful, the trick is separating the hype from the reality and realizing the limits of what they can actually accomplish.

What Is the Mission?

When considering a team-building exercise, the first step is to figure out what goals you are trying to achieve. “Most of the time, people asking for these activities aren’t interested in real teamwork building,” says Doug Staneart, president and CEO of the Leaders Institute, a leadership training and teamwork provider in Fort Worth, Texas. “What they really want is entertainment—something they can use either to break the monotony of more serious meetings or to reward employees.”

Indeed, there are many programs that pass for teamwork building, but a lot of them are more like a “vacation in an artificial environment,” says Carney, who owns Power of We Consulting in Denver.

Real teamwork building is about developing skill sets that enable participants to collaborate better or to learn how to handle difficult situations that may have arisen in the team. The training may include instruction on how to communicate better, manage conflict, or understand 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. Are you hoping 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? Teamwork building can be used for all of these situations and others, but HR needs to prompt managers to get down to the core issues.

“Managers tend to come to HR with some kind of vague appreciation of what we used to call, in the organizational development days, a ‘felt’ need”—a need that a manager knows exists but has not yet defined, observes Roger Manley, professor of management and organizational psychology at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne.

“That’s when HR needs to be more diagnostic and tie them down,” he adds, by asking: “What do you mean? How does that behavior show up? What is negatively affecting your team’s performance?”

HR also may want to interview the members of the team to determine what is really going on, not just what appears to be going on.

At Altera, HR is proactive, with the employee relations manager usually suggesting teamwork-building skills development to the team leader. HR also encourages managers to talk with their employees. For example, Anna del Rosario, director of corporate communications, asked her team members to identify their weak spots and say what skills they wanted addressed.

Smaller companies may wish to use the services of a teamwork-building vendor or of a consultant who specializes in this type of training. There are myriad assessment tools available, from short questionnaires to complex, comprehensive tests. In addition, there are numerous web sites that offer free or low-cost assessment tools.

How extensive you want the assessment to be depends on your goals and your budget. If the problem can at least be addressed, if not resolved, through as little as a half-day workshop, a quick, easy, low-cost assessment tool should be enough to provide an overview of what needs to be done.

“If you are designing a half-day program, you don’t want to spend $20,000 on assessments,” Staneart advises. Spending on an assessment depends largely on the seriousness of the problem and can range from virtually nothing—using a free online assessment—to as much as the budget will bear.

Melissa Williams, practice manager at Specialists in Pain Management in Chattanooga, Tenn., says she benefited from the assessment help her provider offered. She believed teamwork-building exercises could help her employees, but she really hadn’t diagnosed the problem to see what specific skills they needed to focus on. “We had seen a lot of growth and had been in constant transition for over a year, so my first thought was just to have something fun that would help us get to know each other on a more informal basis,” she explains.

It wasn’t until her vendor helped her conduct a more thorough assessment that she saw how and why the relationships in the group had been breaking down and what competencies would help them address the problems.

Bobbi Kaylor at Dabico Inc., a company in Costa Mesa, Calif., that provides ground equipment for airports, found it relatively easy to decide what to focus on, but she had been laying the groundwork for several years. The company’s workforce had grown, and people were going in too many directions, says Kaylor, the HR manager.

Teamwork proved worthwhile within individual teams, but there wasn’t much interaction among the teams. People had become comfortable in their groups and weren’t reaching outside for ideas and ways to collaborate, Kaylor says. They needed to be exposed to people on other teams; they needed to understand that everyone has something good to bring to the table.

According to Staneart, training that focuses on cooperation between departments is one of the most requested teamwork-building programs. The 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.

Selecting a Vendor

There are three types of companies offering these services, says James T. Taylor, president of Teambuilding USA in Highland Village, Texas. Providers in the first group are the “fun and games” outfits that deliver group outings—enjoyable times together for co-workers.

In the second category are management consultants who generally conduct internal teamwork-building exercises as a small piece of a larger organizational development initiative.

The third type consists of “true” teamwork-building companies. They provide activities similar to those offered by the first group, but with a difference: They include a professionally facilitated debriefing that ties what participants have learned back to their actual workplace dynamics and practices.

The skill of the facilitator is key—even more important than deciding which type of activity to engage in. (Selecting an activity still should be taken seriously, though. For tips, see “ Finding the Right Activity”.)

“One of the biggest mistakes HR managers and others make is that they focus on the activity instead of on the facilitator’s skill set,” Taylor explains. “That’s understandable; it’s where the glitter is. But the real value is how well the facilitator walks the team all the way back through the process, so they can apply it to their workplace.”

Hastings too says 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 recommends other tips 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.
  • Ensure you have leadership presence in alignment with the activity. The manager should be there with the team, not out on the golf course.
  • Make it part of your managers' and employees' performance reviews. The basic question is 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? Are managers soliciting employees' opinions more often now than they used to?

Bringing It Home

No matter how great the activity, the time and money spent will be useless if employees don’t take the lessons they’ve learned back to the workplace. You can’t accomplish much in three-and-a-half hours with 20 people, says Angie Seehan, marketing director at Adventure Associates in El Cerrito, Calif. The best you can hope for is to get participants to understand each other a little better, she says. You may even see a couple of individual or group insights arise, but improving working relationships and styles can take months.

Carney agrees that employers shouldn’t expect instant results and a transformed workplace from a day or two of workshop training. “It’s a constant process of refinement toward a team culture,” he says.

Williams followed up her teamwork building by receiving additional training from the vendor on how to oversee staff meetings—a problem identified during the team-building exercise. At Dabico, employees are now encouraged to speak up more in their team meetings. In addition, every four months the company holds some type of fun activity for its entire workforce, with a little teamwork-building reinforcement added in.

“I’ve been at Dabico for 17 years now, and it used to be a real nightmare working here,” Kaylor says. “We had major issues with people not getting along. Today, people get along extremely well. I’ve seen the respect and consideration really grow for people as individuals with different opinions and viewpoints. It’s changed everything. Now, if we go too long in between events, our employees have no problem reminding us it’s time for another one.”


A team-building exercise has a business purpose, of course, but it doesn’t have to be all business. It can include some fun as well.

For example, the exercise for Williams’ group was held at a mountain lodge resort, and it was designed for serious teamwork building as well as to be a reward for employees.

“The activities were great,” she says. “But the most helpful part of the daylong workshop was reviewing what we had learned. The facilitated sessions made us aware of some conflicting areas we hadn’t recognized or addressed before. But by the time we finished, we had fixed a number of issues without people even realizing it.”

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

Web Extras

SHRM white paper: The HR Generalist's Guide to Team Building
Web site: Power of We assessment tool
Web site: Adventure Associates assessment tool
Web site: Questions to ask when selecting a team-building company


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