Some Insights and Ways to Develop Effective Teams

When you hear the phrase team building, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Without a doubt, this question generates a lot of different ideas and responses from people. We usually like to put this out there right up front in our programs, but a lot of times those responses aren’t so…positive. For many, their instinctual response to hearing the term mentioned in their office is either an eyeroll, or a forced smile with a look of – let’s be real – dread. We’ve also seen a few wide-eyed “Oh, brother!” moments in our time. 

We get it. There’s quite a bit of negative stigma attached to it. I mean, all you have to do look at the media. If you’ve seen The Office, I doubt you’ve been able to forget this infamous fire-walking exercise gone wrong

Or, remember this “death-defying” scene from Pitch Perfect 2? At least this one looks somewhat enjoyable with the music playing over it. 

The truth is that whether it’s from the media portrayals, or from past experiences, there’s a lot of misconception about what it is. People often associate team building with trust falls, sitting in a circle singing kumbaya, and other cheesy exercises like lap sit. If you want a good laugh, give the term ‘trust fall fails’ a YouTube search. 

Do these exercises really count? Absolutely not. Why? Because team building is all about results.

Table of Contents

THE WHAT

What is team building?

  • The Importance of Relationships
  • Relationships as the Foundation
  • What is the main purpose?
  • Informal or Formal?
  • Curriculum-Driven or Experience-Based?

THE WHY

Why is it important?

  • The Research
  • Trust, Networks and Innovation
  • Resilience and Well-Being
  • Corporate Social Responsibility

THE WHO

Who needs it?

  • New and Existing Teams
  • Learning Organizations

THE WHEN

When do teams need it?

  • Practical Timing
  • Throughout the Stages of Group Development

THE WHERE

Where can it take place?

  • In-House or Off-Site?
  • Consider the Provider

THE HOW

  • How do you build a team?
  • What makes a successful team building activity?

What is Team Building?

In the most general sense, it encompasses anything that you can do as a team to make it more effective. So why don’t lap sits and team games count? Because – as you and I should both know – the truth is that exercises like those do very little to make your team more effective. 

If we dig a little deeper, though, you’ll find that team building targets one specific component of teams that is absolutely foundational to their performance – team relationships. 

The Importance of Relationships 

We’ aware that we’re making a big claim here when we say that relationships are fundamental to team effectiveness, but let’s consider the evidence. We’ve covered the research in our past blog posts, so instead of listing all of the evidence that supports our claim here, we’ll simply direct you to those posts, where you can find the direct links to the sources. 

First, Google’s two-years of research into their teams led to their discovery that ‘psychological safety’ (i.e., whether teams feel interpersonally safe enough to take risks) was the fundamental predictor of whether their teams would succeed. Similarly, best-selling author and business guru Patrick Lencioni’s model of team performance emphasizes trust as the foundational element of high-performance teams. The one element that is even more foundational to both psychological safety and trust are relationships. Strong, connected teams built on positive, trusting relationships are the key to high performing and resilient employees. 

Relationships as the Foundation

Having said that, while relationships are the foundational element of team performance, it is, by no means, the only element that teams need to be effective. HR practices, compensation structures, internal incentive programs, leadership competency, and skills competencies, among other characteristics, all play a role in determining whether a team succeeds. Nevertheless, positive relationships between colleagues within an organization, regardless of position, are fundamental to every other part of the team performance equation. As we say all the time here at Summit, members of high performing teams and organizations do things for each other not because they have to but because they want to. 

In short, it encompasses anything we do with our teams with the objective of enhancing performance by building relationships. The main goal of team building events, therefore, is relationship-building, which will be further discussed in the next section. 

What is the Purpose of a Team Building Event?

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” – Plato 

The point of  team building then, in short, is to give team members a chance to initiate and cultivate relationships within new teams, or to strengthen those relationships within existing ones. Of course, the relationship development within teams can occur organically, but the point of an event is to accelerate that process. 

By taking teams outside of their usual workplace context, events can give everyone a chance to see their teammates in a new light. They offer participants an opportunity to face some low-stakes challenges together and succeed, which can be a massive morale booster, especially for new teams. A well-run and properly designed event is also an enjoyable, fun and impactful experience, which can serve as the glue that holds teams together during challenging times. Ultimately, delivering a successful and engaging event sends the critical message to teams that the company cares about their well-being and workplace connectedness. 

Informal or Formal? 

Events can take one of two forms: informal and formal. Informal events include experiences like dinners and light social events, such as golfing or bowling. While they do provide the opportunity to network and build relationships, it’s hard to guarantee that informal experiences would produce the results that we want them to. These experiences often lack intentionality, and don’t come across as immensely purposeful.

Formal events often utilize external facilitators, and they are intentionally designed to achieve specific objectives, including relationship-building, fostering communication, and enhancing trust. Well-designed and properly delivered events are professional, intricately planned, and engage everyone. A major advantage that formal events have is that even those involved in planning the offsite event (which is often where many events are held) can participate. Formal events, though, can still go awry, so you want to make sure that those facilitating your event are professional and have a significant amount of experience.

Curriculum-Driven or Experience-Based? 

One last consideration for team building events is whether they are curriculum-driven or experience-based. Curriculum-driven events usually take the form of a workshop, and they often focus on developing a specific team skill or competency. An experienced-based event, on the other hand, will use a theme-based or scenario-driven team challenge to provide participants an environment and opportunity for guided interaction.

To summarize, the purpose of events largely revolves around relationship development, though many also aim for the secondary objective of skill development. They can either be informal or formal, and curriculum-driven or experience-based. 


THE WHY

Why is Team Building Important?

This really is the ultimate question, isn’t it? 

There are a lot of ways we can answer this question, but let us start by turning to academic research to give us some insight. 

The Research 

In 2009, seven researchers from the University of Florida published a report in the Small Group Research journal based on their comprehensive analysis of 20 separate research studies on team building programs. Together, these studies examined 1,562 different teams. 

They grouped the outcomes of these programs into four categories: 1) cognitive (e.g., declarative knowledge, teamwork competencies), (2) affective (e.g., trust, team potency), (3) processes (e.g., coordination, communication), and (4) performance (e.g., volume of sales, productivity). After analyzing their data from all 20 studies, they concluded that these programs had a positive and moderately strong impact on all four categories of outcomes (i.e., cognitive, affective, processes, performance). 

In other words, the research supports the assertion that team building can significantly benefit teams’ knowledge and competencies, their trust in one another, their ability to function effectively, and their performance. All of these outcomes – as you know – are critical components of high-performance teams. 

Trust, Networks, and Innovation

Beyond this research, team building is also an important piece in cultivating relationships in teams, which is the foundation of psychological safety and trust, as we’ve previously discussed. 

Team building events – especially those that include teams from across the organization – also play a key role in cultivating organizations that have strong networks. There has been some fascinating research that suggests that it is the networks and connections between employees in a company that gives rise to innovative ideas and strategic collaboration that significantly impact companies’ bottom lines. It makes sense – as you may have experienced for yourself, often the most innovative and creative ideas and solutions to problems come from informal conversations with our colleagues. Creativity is rarely an outcome of team building that most think of, but if run properly and with intention, programs can have the power to spark creativity and innovation. 

Resilience and Wellbeing 

Another often under-recognized reason that team building is important for organizations is its impact on teams’ and employees’ resilience and well-being. Actively disengaged employees cost the United States up to $550 billion in one estimate, which works out to approximately $1,700 per American citizen. To fix this issue, we’ve seen companies around the world beginning to value and invest in employee wellness programs in recent decades. Yet, connectedness and social relationships – critical pieces of employee well-being – often get neglected in these programs, which largely emphasize physical well-being. 

What companies often forget is that it is the social relationships at work that help employees create purpose, stay resilient, and sustain high-performance, especially during difficult times. Consider this interesting study, which brilliantly illustrates the role that camaraderie can play in elevating resilience and the ability to push through difficult times. 

Corporate Social Responsibility 

Finally, many organizations often don’t realize the potential that team building events can have as a way of practicing corporate social responsibility (CSR). Though not all programs include elements of corporate social responsibility, the ones that do can tremendously impact participants and organizations. 

According to one study, 2 out of 3 millennials won’t take a job if a potential employer doesn’t have strong corporate social responsibility practices. Beyond demonstrating to employees that organizations value and are willing to invest in their well-being and connectedness at work, team building events can also serve as a way of establishing corporate social responsibility as a norm within the company’s culture. 

Alright, so we recognize that this is a lot of information, but to wrap it all up for you, TB events are important for six main reasons: (1) they cultivate the key elements of high performing teams, (2) they cultivate psychological safety and trust, (3) they build connectedness, which, in turn, (4) can be a source of innovation, (5) they promote resilience, and finally, (6) they can establish corporate social responsibility as a cultural norm. 


THE WHO 

Who Needs Team Building?

The short answer is – all teams. Small teams, big teams. Office teams, remote teams. Marketing teams, sales teams…you get the point. 

But here’s our longer answer…

New and Existing Teams 

Given the outcomes that we discussed above, any team that needs to develop those specific outcomes should consider team building. 

Existing teams may want to re-establish, or strengthen, interpersonal relationships and trust. While, for new teams, within which social relationships, trust, and psychological safety have yet to be developed.

Learning Organizations

Most importantly, the organizations that need it the most are the ones with a learning-oriented culture. These are the ones that are eager to learn and grow, and strive to empower their employees to constantly improve their ideas, strategies, and work. 

Organizations with a learning-oriented culture share and co-construct ideas, engage in constructive and healthy conflict, are reflexive and self-aware, learn by doing and activity, and value intentionally seeking various perspectives. 

These are also the organizations that thrive in the rapidly changing and constantly evolving world of 2020 and beyond. 

These organizations value learning and growth and recognize that interpersonal relationships within the organization and its teams play a huge role in facilitating their innovation and adaptability. For this reason, it is the organizations with this learning-oriented culture that will benefit from, and therefore need, it the most. 


THE WHEN

When Do Teams Need Team Building?

Building a team is a continuous process. Unlike physical structures, teams are dynamic and constantly evolving, so they require continuous building and growth. 

Practical Timing 

So, practically speaking, and as a general rule of thumb, informal building (e.g., team dinners, socials, etc.) should be occurring every month or two, while formal building should be occurring monthly, quarterly, or bi-annually depending upon the stage of the team’s development and the development goals. 

Throughout the Stages of Group Development 

Team building should also be taking place in every stage of a team’s development, though for different reasons. Let’s take a look at Tuckman’s stages of group development, and consider why it is necessary at each stage. 

In the forming stage, team members are excited to be on the team and eager to begin working together towards the goal. Yet, there may be some level of anxiety regarding their place on the team and whether they fit in. The most important goal during this stage is to set clear goals, guidelines, and roles within the team, and to build trust. Consider starting with an enjoyable kick-off event within which team members can get acquainted with one another and to begin cultivating psychological safety. It also serves to help teams identify their vision, mission, values, goals, roles and responsibilities.

In the storming stage, team members realize that their team may not live up to their early expectations, and problems and feelings of frustration begin to emerge. Team members are actively trying to figure out how the team will respond to differences and conflicts, and arguments may occur. The most important goal in this stage is for the team to re-establish and clarify their objectives, roles, and tasks, and to develop the skills they need to manage the issues at hand, whether it’s conflict management or communication. During this stage you will need to specifically emphasize skill development and will likely require an external facilitator that is not directly involved in the conflicts of the team. 

When teams successfully navigate the storming stage, they’ll enter into the norming stage. Norms and expectations have been better adapted to the team’s unique situation, and members become more comfortable with sharing their “real” thoughts and ideas. If navigated successfully, it is within this stage that psychological safety emerges, and communication becomes more open. Now that team members have become more comfortable with one another, you should emphasize the development of self-awareness, encouraging team members to further iron out any kinks in their team’s performance. 

When the team reaches the final two stages of their developmental cycle (i.e., performing and adjourning), they’ve “found their groove” and are confident in their ability to achieve their goals. During this stage you should be emphasizing celebration, giving members a chance to recognize their accomplishments and acknowledge their contributions. 

So, as we’ve seen through the lens of Tuckman’s theory of group development and team building is necessary at every stage, from formation to termination. The way it will look and its specific goals at each stage, though, will be different. Understanding the nuanced differences in the way that team building should look at every stage is the key to finding and delivering a worthwhile and impactful experience that resonates with your team. 


THE WHERE

Where Can Team Building Take Place? 

While most people think of corporate team building as taking place in the office, the truth is that it can take place just about anywhere. In our more than two decades of working with clients from various sectors, we’ve facilitated our programs both indoors and outdoors, from Europe to South America, from parks to recreation centres, and from offices to warehouses. 

In-House or Off-Site? 

In general, though, it can take place either in-house, online or off-site. There are pros and cons to both options. While running a team building event in-house would be cheaper, it would allow for more distractions and interruptions. You also run the risk of losing different members of your team at various points to phone calls or urgent tasks, and the entire event may be limited in its impact and memorability. 

Programs run off-site are often delivered as part of larger events in hotels or conference centres. We deliver many of our events at Summit during larger off-site meetings, and have found them to be hugely impactful for our clients. While they are more expensive and require more logistical planning, they are likely to produce greater value and allow you more access to professional services (e.g., setup, A/V). Also, it’s always beneficial to get teams out of their regular environment, as this gives them a chance to connect on a more personal level and work together in a different context. As companies across North America know, offsite events can provide a significant boost to the company’s morale and productivity that can often last as long as several months, and team building programs can take these offsites to a whole other level. 

Consider the Provider 

When you’re looking to run a an event at a hotel or conference centre, however, it’s important that you consider a provider that has the experience to know how to work well with the venue to deliver an outstanding program. Companies that have sufficient credibility and experience know what issues to anticipate and mitigate when preparing for an event at various venues, which then allows you to trust that they would be able to deliver the experience to your team without issue or disappointment. 

Some companies may even have long-standing partnerships with your venue of choice. Choosing to work with those providers will undeniably save you a lot of stress, making your event planning process significantly more streamlined and efficient. Companies that are familiar with your venue will also know how to take full advantage of its facility, and would be able to recommend options that are best suited to what’s available. 

Overall, there are a few questions you have to consider when thinking about where you’d like to host your event. First, would you rather host it in-house or off-site, and which one would best suit your team’s context and needs? Then, you should be considering the level of experience that the team building provider has with working with different venues. Do they have the professionalism, credibility, and experience to deliver an outstanding program for your team while making full use of what’s available at your venue of choice?


THE HOW

How Do You Build a Team? 

Truthfully, this is a big question that many authors and researchers have tried to answer in their work over the past few decades. Although there’s a lot that can be said in response to this question, we won’t try write a novel here. Instead, we’ll boil it down to what we believe are the foundational elements of team building based on our experience here at Summit. 

Leadership 

Ultimately, our experience has taught us that it all starts with the leader. Effective leaders create an environment that fosters and promotes trust, communication, and strong interpersonal relationships. Leaders shape and determine the culture of the organization and team – whether they recognize it or not – so building an effective team starts with a leader that values and recognizes the importance of relationships and trust. Even the best team building event or program can’t help a team if their leaders haven’t created a culture that has the right values to promote high performance. 

Experience

We’ve also learned here at Summit that the most effective way of building a team is through experiences. Education and discussion are both critical parts of cultivating the knowledge, skills, and awareness that are required of high-performance teams, but when it is devoid of experience, they can be easily forgotten or tossed aside when real challenges emerge. It’s experiences (impactful and well-delivered ones) that bring what’s being taught to life and allows participants to practice directly applying what they’ve learned. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but an experience is worth a thousand pictures. 

A Deliberate Process 

Finally, remember that team building is an intentional, deliberate, and continuous process. Teams are fluid and constantly evolving, so each team will face different challenges, have different needs, and require different interventions. The key to building an effective team lies not so much in following a specific formula or twelve step plan, but in being fully in tune with what’s going on in the team and having a plan to address its needs. Ultimately, being aware and in tune with the team requires intentionally built relationships and meaningful conversations, so once again, it all comes down to relationship.  

How Do You Plan and Deliver a Team Building Event? 

Delivering a successful event requires several key considerations. Based on our years of experience, here are nine things to keep in mind when planning and delivering a team building event:  

  1. Know what’s needed.

Be aware of your team’s needs, and what stage of development they’re in (see When do teams need team building?). Team building can come in many different shapes and sizes, so there are various formats and types that you can consider. For instance, events can be:

  • Formal or Informal 
  • Professionally Facilitated or Self-Run 
  • Social or Developmental 
  • General or Focused 
  • Taking Place Indoors or Outdoors 
  • Creative or Philanthropic
  • Etc. 

Ultimately, you need to pick a format that best addresses the needs of your team.

Regardless of the format, an event should include a variety of elements to keep the experience fresh and engaging, and to appeal to different learning and participation styles.

2. Know your audience. 

This can concern the level of physical activity or the theme and type of activities you select. Not everyone has the same level of physical fitness, and if your activities and team challenges are too difficult, you may be setting people up for failure. Also, consider if the activities are appropriate for an adult audience. Many people have a low tolerance for games that are too ‘silly’ or ‘juvenile’.

3. Remember, price is ONE factor, not the ONLY factor. 

In most cases you get what you pay for, and this relates to the team building company you select, the venue and the catering. If you don’t have an appropriate budget to put together a quality event, you may be better off banking the money and trying again when you have a larger budget. A poorly done event can do more harm than good. There are many informal and self-run events that you can do with a small budget such as bowling or a pizza party – just don’t confuse these with the value a professional team building program can offer. 

4. Start with the objectives. 

What would you like, and what do you need? Are you looking for a motivation session, learning and development or a reward for great performance? Conduct a needs assessment to help you determine what will be best for your team. As Stephen Covey said, “begin with the end in mind”. If you know why you want to run a team building event and what you want it to accomplish you can build it accordingly. Do you want it to be a fun, motivational event or a learning experience? Do you want to influence a specific behaviour or theme? Without this you are just rolling the dice. 

5. Plan it for everyone. 

Take into account people’s abilities, interests and fears. A great event allows everyone to participate in a meaningful way. Challenges that appeal to all learning styles and ability levels are fun for everyone and will allow everyone’s strengths to shine within the team.

6. Go offsite!

A change of scenery can add instant energy and fun to a team event. It also gets people away from their desks and the normal daily business that, though important, becomes a distraction in this case. Many conference facilities can provide a full range of services including partnering with a trusted team building provider. If the budget doesn’t allow for an additional venue, there are also a number of cost-effective options such as city parks or public spaces that may have suitable facilities. 

7. Make it meaningful. 

There is a great benefit to combining your team building with a meaningful activity or donation to a charity.  Your company and your staff team can demonstrate their shared values by making sure your event has an element of giving back to the community.  Ask your team building provider what charities they are partnered with or how their events can be combined with their annual giving. 

8. Make a realistic time commitment. 

The amount of time invested should be proportional to the objectives of the event. If you are looking for significant learning and behavioural change, a one-hour session will likely not do it. Conversely, six hours of ‘Corporate Olympics’ is more than most people can take. We find that 1 ½ -3 hours is a good time frame for a quality team building program focused on relationship development, light learning and motivation. If you are looking for more in-depth learning and development such as a training workshop, you need to invest at least a half-day and better yet, a full day. 

9. Consider getting some external help. 

Again, see point #2. If team building is not your specialty, it may be wise to leave it to the experts. As we said earlier, it is not rocket science, but it can, and has, been done REALLY poorly. Carefully consider your ability to design and deliver a high-quality program based on your skill set, while also trying to keep up with your day-to-day work tasks.

How Do You Know if the Team Building Event is Successful? 

One concept that we like to ask our clients in our training programs is how they would like their company or product to be seen, experienced, and talked about (SET), and we believe that this success measure can also be applied to assessing team building events. You’ll know that your event is successful if it is seen, experienced, and talked about in a positive light. 

Second, you need to be considering your return on investment. It’s important to connect with team members that have participated in the event to see if they have learned something that’s of value, or if they have developed any new connections or networks that will be of value to them moving forward. Observing whether there has been a change in your team’s dynamics and culture may also be a good way of examining whether the event has been worthwhile. 

Beyond that, here are 10 questions that we believe should be answered when assessing whether a team building program was successful: 

  1. Was it fun?
  2. Was it engaging for everyone and inclusive? 
  3. Was it appropriate to the participants? 
  4. Was it memorable? 
  5. Did new relationships form during the event? 
  6. Did existing relationships become strengthened from the experience? 
  7. Did it energize the group? 
  8. Was it delivered in a professional manner, devoid of any major hiccups? 
  9. Was it delivered within an appropriate amount of time? 
  10. Did it create any kind of value for your team? 

Ultimately, the most important success measure lies in question 5 and 6. If new relationships were formed, or existing relationships were strengthened, then you know that the event has been a success. 


CLOSING

We hope that this resource has been useful to you, and that it has shed some light on the reality of team building, which has often been subject to confusion and misunderstanding in the past. 

If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’d be more than happy to talk to you about any potential questions you may have.