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When team building goes awry

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HC Online | 25 Nov 2011, 12:00 AM Agree 0
HR regularly allocates large budgets to corporate team building activities, and has big ideas on how to host the perfect activity.
  • Mike Symonds - Interactive Events | 25 Nov 2011, 04:18 PM Agree 0
    What a great article. Having run fun team events for thousands of corporate clients we realised pretty fast what a team bonding event should be about.

    It needs to be fun, easy to participate in (no excluding people based on their physical, mental or emotional limits)and interactive (most people need to be engaged most of the time).

    We find that no matter the group there will usually be one or two who aren't that keen to participate. What works best is to frame the event as a challenge by choice. If something doesn't rock your boat, take a half step back, watch everyone else have fun and then step back in when you are ready.

    It is scarey really. I recently had a call from a potential client who wanted to run an activity that would 'scare' her staff. Because she felt that would help them bond more. In the end I refused to even quote or suggest a suitable activity.
  • David Jacobson - Founder, TrivWorks | 26 Nov 2011, 09:46 AM Agree 0
    Thank you so much for referencing my recent blog post re: "What The World's Worst Team Building Event Looks Like!" It is indeed an all too common occurance, and I am so glad you are bringing the subject to light.
  • Michael Boehm BCom MBA | 28 Nov 2011, 10:10 AM Agree 0
    My recollection of an excellent team building / bonding experience was some many years ago in my old Artillery unit. It was an exercise that required the team - the gun crew - to manually handle a field gun (know by civilians as a cannon) through the bush, up a hill, and into position. The task was relevant, as was the “team” i.e. folks who usually work together, not a random number of people cobbled together to form a team. The task was extremely difficult but within scope of expectation of the occupation. The key points in the experience were the relevance of the activity, and the team. Unless there is relevance, participation will be poor, and the activity will be found to be boring except for the few that are easily amused and appreciate a day away from work, and the company can check off the “to-do” list. This is the “check box” mentality, for those who engage in team building exercises without understanding the concept or having the experience to deliver such an exercise - as identified in the article. I believe the idea of what constitutes "team" is little understood. A "team" is not a random number of people allocated or assigned as a team. This kind of grouping results in little more than a mob led by the loudest / strongest; with participants contributing only that which is sufficient to deflect attention or barricade against attention from the other team members. Worse yet, there appears to remain some who believe that team activities result in natural leaders emerging; some reality TV shows infer such a flawed view. The unfortunate reality is that teams assembled randomly perform only at the level of "competence" of the team leader; in this case the loudest or strongest (sometimes the bully mistaken as a natural leader).

    A "team" is in fact a carefully orchestrated and manipulated number of people who are carefully selected for their skills set and disposition so that the right dynamic occurs between members resulting in peak performance of all members in attaining a common goal. A related point with respect to the topic of teams, team leaders and leadership is the often discussed and delivered – leadership training including defining what a good leader is, the traits of a good leader, and considering whether a leader can be a manager and vice versa. It is time we dispensed with our obsession regarding traits of good leaders, as similar traits can be identified in leaders with dark histories as much as those we admire. The better deliberation is to consider the question “What is the difference between a Manager and a Thug?” The answer is, that both are capable of achieving similar targets, but only one leaves a trail of irretrievable damage. This point with respect to teams translates thus – a poorly formed team and team building / bolding exercises also potentially result in irretrievable damage.
  • Bernie Althofer | 28 Nov 2011, 02:45 PM Agree 0
    Team building exercises can be one way of further alienating some workers. A decision is made to have 'team building' exercise off site. The first the workers know is when they get an email or some other form of communication. They they have to reschedule their personal life and this can create additional angst.

    When the dust settles, the workers arrive at the location and find that 'management' are not part of the team exercise, so everything starts to go down hill. When the team building exercise is finished, the workers drag their feet back to the workplace.

    So, what benefits were achieved? If people still have to drag themselves off to work, resent the management and the workplace, the exercise was a process in futility. As the article indicates, the whole process has to be carefully managed.

    Before decisions are made to have the team building exercise, questions have to be asked such as "Why is a team building exercise important?" If if is because there is conflict between two people, then a team exercise is not going to fix it (I have seen such a process happen and it managed to create considerable resentment from those involved in the conflict).
    "What systems or processes need to change to help the team perform?" In some cases changing management or communication processes or practices are the main contributor towards workplace conflict (used as the reason for team building).

    Unless some very good ground rules are established about how the exercise is to function, the reason for the exercise and the outcomes expected, I would suggest that little is going to change in the workplace unless the work environment is also addressed.

    Sometimes, you have to ask the question "What is your vision of a team?" Depending on the process one uses, one can be surprised about what people believe. Of course, there are other questions that need to be asked in a structured workshop. The important part is explaining the process.

    If you are the facilitator of such a workshop, it is important to get management buy in as the results can be threatening to some managers if they are not involved in the process. There can be some advantages as management may find out that the workplace is not what they have been lead to believe it is.

    Get the process right, explain the process and get involvement - no silly games, no counterproductive behaviours e.g. bullying, sexual harassment, and make sure that the time allocated is used productively.

  • Kate Connellan | 28 Nov 2011, 07:23 PM Agree 0
    I can definitely relate to the authoritarian manager who insists talk centres strictly on what’s wrong with the team. I had an OHS guy who decided he would give the HR Manager's role a go. In our first team building event we had to do an exercise where we all nominated a behaviour we would Stop, and a Behaviour we would start. After listening to all of us admitting our failures he said "I'm going to STOP making excuses for all of you and START holding you all accountable" - it absolutely epitomised what he was all about!!
  • Bernie Althofer | 30 Nov 2011, 04:29 PM Agree 0
    There are times when the manager is expected to 'sort out the mess'. This can be extremely confronting for all involved and can result in allegations being made.

    Imagine a workplace where rumours abound that all the workers are basically 'swanning around, reading the papers and drinking coffee.' A new manager comes in to address the rumours. No outside help is allowed even though the manager thinks there could be some advantages.

    The manager also thinks that a staff meeting to outline the rumours is a good idea where they can ask for assistance from the workers and even suggests that given the complexities of the team, that it might help if every knows something about Myers Briggs.

    The idea with this thought is that if the manager and the workers understood what 'types' worked well together and what 'types' did not, strategies could be put in place to address these issues.

    Despite the majority of workers being supportive of this approach, all it takes is one worker who feels threatened that they are being asked to be accountable and responsible to throw a spanner in the works.

    A manager who attempts this course of action without understanding the lay of the land and gaining support from more senior management is on a hiding to nothing. It is even more disheartening when the manager is covertly targeted for wanting to understand the issues creating conflict in the workplace. In some workplaces places, managers can be put in the insidious position of being the 'lame duck manager' simply because one or two workers have managed to garner the support of more senior managers and any threat to the way they 'do business' e.g. the unwritten ground rules, makes the new manager the target.

    The only option left to the manager is to document everything they have tried, report that to senior management and then leave. Would an external facilitator have made a difference? Perhaps, but it would have been extremely difficult given the entrenched culture that existed in the particular workplace. It would have been difficult because the facilitator and the senior management would not have able to agree on the scope, but the facilitator would have realised the situation as soon as they started the 'team building exercise'.
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