Five Steps to Make Sure Your Team Building Is Not Wasted Time


We get a lot of requests to do team building.  Often, after initial conversations with the client, traditional “team building” is not what we end up delivering.  At least it’s not all of what we end up delivering to help the team become stronger.  Our first step is to learn more from the team’s leadership about what they hope is different or improved following the team building event. Put simply, what is the goal for change?  Many leaders want a behavior change on their team, but the leader is a big part of why the team operates the way it does.  Leaders who fail to consider this start looking for a quick fix – a one day event that will improve the communication, the attitude, and ultimately the performance of their people.  Those don’t exist.

Here’s why.  Immediately after the team building event, everyone will return to the same culture, the same leadership, the same stresses, the same biases, the same stuff.  We may see a bump in morale, a few people may even grab drinks after work or friend up on Facebook because of relationships they formed at the event, but generally, there is no lasting change. Even if the team does have some new outlook on how they should operate, a new perspective on how to communicate with each other, or even new goals, unless the culture back at work changes, eventually people return to the status quo.  I know that sounds pessimistic but candidly, I’ve seen it enough to believe that without some other catalyst, whatever changes get inspired or started at any “event” are short lived.  For any of those changes to be sustained, there must also be a change in how the leader of the team operates.

If you want your team to improve performance, communication, or teamwork, and you are going to engage them in any sort of learning or team building event, here are 5 things that you must do as a leader to be certain there is some kind of sustainable change following that event.

Crystalize the Learning

Pull the team together and talk about what was learned, discovered, how we are thinking about things differently, our biggest ideas, and all the things that we took away from the event that are fleeting unless we revisit them.  Doing this together in an interactive format causes us to experience the event again and reinforces the learning.  We get to see the experience through the eyes of others and it helps us transition the event from a short term event to a collective growth process for the team.  Make a visual list of what we learned together and how we look at things differently.

Create a New Destination

We have to begin any change with a choice about what the new destination looks like and feels like and why we want to go there.  The team must now decide what they want to be different because of what they learned and why it’s worth working for.  Change is not easy and it’s especially hard (okay, probably impossible) if we don’t care all that much about the outcome.  We have to not only articulate what should be different, but also why we care about that new place enough to get there in spite of the challenges ahead. We must clarify what will be better for us, the team, and the business if we make this kind of change happen.

Remove the Roadblocks

We have to identify and remove the things that are in our way as we move toward the new destination or new behaviors. Sometimes management is the biggest roadblock and this is where leaders need to take a hard look at how they should lead differently so that change has a chance.  If we are saying we need to communicate more candidly, and the boss keeps shooting the messenger, change won’t happen.  If we say we need to be more customer focused but the boss keeps asking for more reports and administrative work, change won’t happen.  If we say we need to be more innovative but the boss thinks strategy and ideas should come from the top, change won’t happen.  If we say we want to be more solution oriented but the boss thinks their solutions are the best, well, you know the answer.  If they want people to perform more effectively as a team, leaders must collaborate, empower, support, coach, and listen more than they tell, instruct, strategize, reprimand, micro manage, and overpower.  That wasn’t necessarily true in the manufacturing world of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, but it is in the thinking, adapting, innovating, and engaging kind of work that most teams do today.

Immediately Address Backward Steps

We will mess up.  There is a strong pull in human behavior back toward familiar habits and patterns.  We took years to develop how we handle conflict, have conversations, what we embrace, and what we run away from.  These things won’t shift overnight or be easy to change.  What’s important is that we don’t allow our team to slide back and pretend nothing happened.  We must all get comfortable with calling ourselves and each other out when we agree to work one way and then go back to our job and do something very different. And we will.  Not because we intend to or because we are working to sabotage the change, even though others may interpret it that way, but because we are human.  Without this collective accountability, we have no shot at supporting each other through a change, especially one with any degree of difficulty.

Celebrate and Support

Just as we need to call it out when we slip back, we need to call it out when we move forward too.  This is a big deal.  Most teams aren’t successful at change.  Research tells us that about 80% of the attempts made at organizational change fail miserably.  When we make progress, it should feel like progress.   There should be a level of excitement and acknowledgement because we, together, just did something difficult and something that matters for us.  If that’s not how we feel about our early successes, we will pretty quickly decide that maybe this journey isn’t all that important anyway, and when we decide that – the change is over.

It’s never just the team.  It is always the team and the leader.  If we are going to use team building as a way to help us improve our success then we must change in both places and we must have a game plan that helps us articulate and understand those changes.  When leaders decide their team needs fixing, we are already starting in the wrong place and change has no shot.  When leaders decide that they need to lead more effectively and also support their team in achieving more of their potential, we start in a place that has real promise and may just set us up for incredible success.

Leading Through Influence

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