Why teams must bond before they can build

Team building can bring out the best or the worst in a team.

Have you ever sat back and looked around the office, board room, a hired venue, sports field or decorated-to-theme conference hall and wondered how some people can respond with such enthusiasm to a team-building day or event, while others act as though they are sitting in a permanent fight or flight mode waiting in desperation for the lunch bell to ring? Some people look as though they are in a prison cell. The minute the doors are closed a look of sheer claustrophobia crosses some faces! One corporate team-building event I participated in many years ago involved running a few kilometres around a city competing against other divisions and teams in the organisation. I had an under 1-year-old baby at home. Needless to say, I was in no shape to run mentally or physically and did not converse with a soul the whole event and I was not alone in feeling uncomfortable.

Why do team-building-type events work for some teams and do nothing for others? Is there a better way to predict which of these events will be productive or counter-productive to team growth and offer a return on investment for business leaders? For many managers, the start of a new year is an opportunity to unite their team and forge bonds between members and themselves. This is an occasion for cementing the organisation’s vision and igniting a purpose deep in the heart and soul of each member of the team, but, is a team-building the best way to do this? During any team activity, some managers will be met with enthusiasm from their direct reports, eager to participate, share, play and compete. There will also be those who protest, sit on the sidelines, hesitant to participate, while others simply fail to appear at all. Physical exertion is not for some people in their private capacity never mind in the workplace with colleagues!

When team-buildings involve mental competition, sharing opinions and ideas or giving feedback, generally the same status quo from the office is observed in a team-building too. Unfortunately a few hours or weekend away at an off-site location doesn’t remove poor communication, hostility and a poor culture from the workplace. In fact, it can make it worse. With as much as 85% of the workforce disengaged (Gallup), for teams and organisations to bring their people on board mentally and emotionally, it will take more than a team-building activity. If this sounds familiar to you, and you are looking at ways to build a high-performance and actively involved team or you are on the receiving end of a team-building event feeling as though participation if forced upon you, you are not alone! Activities that make people feel physically or emotionally uncomfortable or take people away from family for extended periods of time are counter-productive for building bonds and relationships. Yet teams need to be built and developed.

Organisations with the strongest culture created platforms for their employees to build relationships. People want to work with others that they enjoy being around and it takes time to build these connections. To learn more about team-building and innovative talent acquisition, check out Origin Resources. An 85% workplace disengagement rate would indicate that a general apathy for true participation in team-building type events is the least of the organisation’s concerns. There are many factors that contribute to having an  engaged employee who feels fully motivated in the workplace:

  • Career development
  • Flexibility
  • Fair Pay
  • Learning Culture and Curiosity
  • Diversity
  • Transparency and Honesty
  • Autonomy
  • Inspiration
  • Communication
  • Reward and Recognition
  • Leadership

It is not only the responsibility of a manager or leadership team to create an environment that offers these for the team but rather each member of the organisation is accountable for maintaining an environment and culture that optimises engagement. This is not about where it all goes wrong but rather about building a team from the right building blocks for long-term results. There are many different ways that engagement and culture can break down, from poor leadership and decision making to inadequately-skilled people being placed in a role. Sometimes something as seemingly benign as communication mishaps can snowball into a complete erosion of culture and engagement. The critical question is- what can be done to build the trust, positive interactions, relationships, and make individual employees feel valued within a team? How can the most powerful unit of the organisation be firmly built up towards sustained performance?

Perhaps a more confronting and concerning question for any leader to ask themselves is ‘how do I get the existing people in my team to genuinely care and collaborate?’ It is possible to equip people with a new skill and even get them to perform for a short while, but it is impossible to get people to genuinely care when they don’t feel that they are valued or have a place in the team. Empty gestures are short-lived, willing actions fuelled by passion and authenticity is much longer-lasting. Team dynamics are driven by traits like communication, trust and feeling psychologically safe and these are built up over time.

Team Build or Team bond

What comes first the chicken or the egg? Bond the team or subject them to a team-building activity?

There are many reasons teams lack relationships and feel disconnected from each other or the manager, some teams are newly formed or practically strangers, some have stagnated over time and other distanced by stress or poor leadership. When they are thrust together in an environment orchestrated for a time-limited team-building event, this can bring out the worst in people and expose vulnerabilities. The same communication and attitude barriers remain. Those who felt isolated or uninterested still do. The status quo has not been questioned or shifted and the necessary uncomfortable conversations have not been had with the team. What does the team really want and need?

What does the team really want and need?

So why do organisations continually engage and invest in these types of activities when these activities have ‘zero effect in the office’. According to Kenneth Stålsett at NTNU’s Department of Industrial Economics and Technology Management, “For a team to grow and develop they need to partake in exercises and activities that are similar to the everyday workplace”.

Here are some team building facts:

  • Ideal team size 4-9 people
  • When teams bond they release oxytocin (a good and happy hormone)
  • Teams need a manager or leader
  • Conflict is good
  • Diversity is an asset

Team-building can be a productive activity but the purpose must match the program provided.

Team bonding before team building

Team building endeavours are focused on understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the team and how to navigate and optimise these to achieve a goal. There is, of course, an underlying assumption that all the basic team dynamic skills and technical skills already exist within the team? Team development or bonding, on the other hand, involves the team facing appropriate emotional, mental and social challenges over a longer period of time. Forging bonds in the team by breaking down the barriers that inhibit the development of connections, relationships and engagement. Structured activities that get to the heart of the team dynamics and how the team will work best. When bonds are built and there are common experiences, purposes and goals are shared, team culture and a set of behaviours are forged. From here, the team dynamics can build and there is momentum towards engagement and performance and individual satisfaction.

 “The general consciousness about the importance of employee engagement seems to have increased in the past decade,” says Jim Harter, Ph.D., Gallup’s Chief Scientist, Workplace Management and Well-Being.

Team progression from forming to performing requires many inter-personal skills. No team-building exercise can replace the process and time required and the individual investment needed to create relationships and a shared set of values that bond a team and promote performance.

Team development planning

When deciding what to do for the team’s development strategy for this year and beyond the best place to start is by asking a few questions:

  • What do you wanting to achieve for the team?
  • Is this a newly formed team or a mature and established team?
  • How well is the team working together at present?
  • What skills-both technical and non-technical skills (soft skills) does the team require?
  • Does the team have their own culture?
  • Has leadership been established?
  • Are the team bonded and have established relationships?

Inefficient skills cannot be stretched in the same way that relationships that do not exist cannot be relied upon for collaboration and support during a team-building or real-life challenge. Teams need to bond and develop before they can build towards a higher level of performance or innovation. The focus of a team-building is to test a team but what a team really needs is to develop and bond first. Walk before you run.

The best team development needs to be an experience

For relationship-focused and long-term outcomes teams will need a strong foundation first. The agility and resilience demands placed on teams require strong relationships between and engagement from team members. Teams also need to have a healthy surplus of emotional, social and technical skills and leadership to feel confident to perform and interact in the workplace and beyond.

A one-size-fits-all approach will not satisfy the learning and emotional requirements of an individual, team or industry-specific organisations. Investing in interactive group learning activities are effective ways to bond and develop teams. Use the team to develop the team. Make it fun, social and experiential but make it a platform for all members to participate equally. Getting an ROI on people investment takes time. Team development should build long-term connections, tease out discussions, curiosity and problem areas while creating the behaviours and building the skill sets required for long-lasting performance and individual satisfaction.

Isn’t that building a team?

Kylie De Klerk
Workplace Culture and Team Dynamics

If you are interested in learning more about Kylie and her workshops on Essemy, please visit this link.