Team building isn

Back to basics

There isn’t an employee in North America who at one time or another has not suffered through the indignities of team building exercises. There is this weird myth that if we can play Monopoly together without killing each other, then this will aid in our ability to work well together on a real life project. Unfortunately, team building isn’t a game.

Time and time again I hear people asking for team building exercises, usually with the added condition that it must be fun. There is seldom any description of what the problem is, no details on how the team’s performance is not meeting expectations, no explanation of what those expectations are, just a pre-determined prescription to a problem yet to be diagnosed. If doctors operated in this manner, we’d all object to being used as guinea pigs.

What is a team? A useful definition is comprised of three parts. The first component is a well defined goal. The second is an identified group of people who wish to jointly achieve that goal. And the third part is a shared understanding of the roles of each individual as they work towards that goal.

While simple, there’s still enough complexity here to keep any manager busy. Does everyone understand the goal definition in the same way? Does everyone really want to achieve that goal? And are everyone’s roles clear to everyone, not just the person with a specific responsibility?

On top of all of this, there is the reality that some goals are detrimental to the career goals of certain team members. Facing those realities, and balancing the books so all members benefit equally, will tax the problem solving abilities of the very best managers.

In this definition of team, there’s something conspicuous by its absence…nowhere does it say that the team members have to like each other, or even play well together. Although that type of team spirit is always a bonus.

If a team isn’t working well together, then look first to the definition and find out what part hasn’t been explained properly. Most of the time, teams that require a tune-up really only need refocusing on the task.

There are occasions when people just aren’t working well together because of either intentional or unintentional interpersonal conflicts. Occasionally the reasons people don’t work well together are extremely mundane.

A case in point? A severely dysfunctional team was fixed by privately and politely pointing out to an employee that closer attention to personal hygiene would make it easier for people to work with her. No rocket science involved, certainly no team building exercises, just a matter of uncovering the thing nobody was willing to talk about.

Before attempting to fix anything, finding out why it isn’t working as expected is a mandatory first step. Anyone facilitating a team building exercise before understanding, or even asking what the real problem is, is pulling a fast one.

Interpersonal conflicts can, and do, create dysfunctional teams. When that happens, it’s time for some deliberately targeted team building exercises.

Even with a well defined common goal and clearly delineated responsibilities, working with other people can be a bit difficult at times. Let’s use myself as a slightly (only slightly) exaggerated example. I’m an impatient, highly focused, one-task-at-a-time, get-the-job-done-now dedicated problem solver. Place me in the same cubicle with a laid-back, big-picture, task-juggling, next-week-is-soon-enough and oh!-isn’t-that-interesting-even-if-it’s-not-relevant person…and the sparks will fly.

Unless of course we’re both aware we have different styles of working, and that both approaches are useful at different times, and we both know we have to accommodate the other’s idiosyncrasies. If that’s the case, then we’ll work well together, even if we privately think the other is two knights short of a chess set.

If team members are having difficulty overcoming each other’s personal weirdness, (sorry, I meant to say work styles), then team building exercises designed to highlight why we’re different, and what we can do about it, can solve those problems. Exercises that focus only on playing together and having fun will do little if anything to solve real issues.

de Jager is a management consultant, speaker and sometimes, on a good day, a team player, contact him at