Team building is so 1990s

 Team building programs are outdated, largely irrelevant and do little – if anything – to serve organisational outcomes.

If that sounds a little crazy coming from a Director of a company whose products include team-building let me expand.

To bring it down to basics, team-building programs are designed to take people out of their usual environment, get them active – and interactive – and give everyone a fun time. It can be as simple as going ten-pin bowling or go-karting, or something more substantial such as “Hollywood Blockbuster” where everyone gets dressed up and makes TV commercials about their organisation.

But if you ask about return on investment (ROI), this level of program (if you can even call a half- or one-day event a program) is not going to provide it. When organisations start fulminating   about team-building and what they are seeking to achieve from such a session I would ask them to STOP. THINK. I mean REALLY THINK.

If the desired outcome of a team-building program for a group of your employees or managers is to have fun, and only fun, then go ahead and fire up the go-karts!

But it your team is facing some challenges and is not performing to its potential then a team-building program is a very poor investment of organisational funds.

There has been a huge shift by best-practice businesses over recent decades towards building the Behavioural Sciences into key areas including Safety, leadership, innovation and organisational culture. That’s why team-building sits within Experiential Learning programs that deliver Leadership Development, Cultural Alignment, Team Effectiveness and Coaching & Mentoring.

For performance to increase there needs to be a growth in awareness and understanding around core behaviours, and attitudinal shift. This only comes by providing an environment in which participants are allowed the space and time to reflect on, and understand, the primary drivers – both individual and team-based – of our behaviours. Only by reflecting on what we do and why we do those things, and then developing a deep understanding of those dynamics, can there be substantive and sustainable change in the effectiveness  with which individuals and teams function.

These are outcomes that weave long-term improvement into the fabric of an organisation, empowering and informing individuals and teams about why they are part of your business and how they help deliver against the short- and long-term objectives that let’s face it, are the reason that everyone is turning up to work every day.

I also want to make it clear that being engaged, inspired and feeling a sense of personal satisfaction is a deliverable with any Experiential Learning program so no one is going to miss out on their quota of fun . It’s just that there will be more value and long-term benefits both to the organisation, managers, team and individuals.

Even if the desired outcome of a simple team-building event is to “improve team morale” – one common reason we are given when an organisation seeks out this basic service – such a program is never going to create a substantive and sustainable change, or even one that goes outside the parameters of the actual event. How can it? The depth of purpose and the required structure to support ongoing change is not in place.

Team morale is a complicated phenomenon, and there are many factors which contribute to and undermine it. These include alignment to organisational purpose, clarity of communication, established career development pathways, ongoing performance review, ability to manage conflict  and so on and on and on. I am sad to report that three hours of ten-pin bowling will not even start to address any of these challenges.

In an increasingly competitive marketplace and as the pace of change only accelerates, the  businesses that survive and thrive are going to be those that develop a strong ability to learn fast, adapt to market changes and facilitate the challenge of multiple and often competing demands.

These are complicated challenges and can only be addressed by robust programs that span a period of time and build desired skills, attitudes and understanding into your operations. These programs are not a “quick fix” – they are far more  intricate and harder to design than simple team building, and require high levels of skill to facilitate.

As a result they are more expensive than an afternoon of ten-pin bowling or even the more “dressed up” team-building events, although these can actually be quite costly in themselves especially when you take into account the fact that you are losing valuable team working hours while not actually gaining any benefits that extend beyond the event.

The upside is that while it costs money to deliver the type and level of program that will make a real and sustainable difference to your business, your organisation gets a real return on investment in both financial and subjective terms.

It is on the record that having a High-Performing Workplace rather than a Low-Performing Workplace generates substantial benefits at many levels – not least of which is financial performance and productivity.

The Leadership, Culture and Management Practices of High Performing Workplaces in Australia: High Performing Workplace Index, which was commissioned by the Society for Knowledge Economics, shows clearly that HPWs perform significantly better than LPWs in key areas as outlined above, as well as innovation, leadership, employee commitment, job satisfaction and customer service. The research drew on data from 5661 employees in 77 organisations and The Financial Review published a substantial report on it late last year so I invite you to take a look.

Add to this the data from the most recent Gallup poll of 1000 working people in Australia which shows that 79 per cent are not engaged and it shows how important it is to get real results (ROI) from your team training. In fact, Gallup put a figure on these statistics, as reported in the Financial Review – this disengagement and resultant stifling of productivity costs Australian business $33.5 billion a year.

While as a facilitator I try not to give advice, in in this case I just can’t help myself. So here are my tips before you book a team-building program:

  • Be very, very clear on exactly what you are seeking in terms of outcomes from the program. Don’t delude yourself that a half-day team building program is going to address deep and complicated issues that the team or broader organisation may be facing.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask. If you are not sure about where your team is right now, take the time to do some honest reflection and to seek guidance Also understand that part of a best-practice Experiential Learning approach is to undertake a baseline check to identify exactly is required. You may be surprised to identify areas of potential improvement you may not have even considered. By having the courage to identify the real challenges you will get the results – real outcomes – you want. While this reflection may present you with a much more complicated set of questions than those you started out with (how can we have fun and build team morale?) it is the answers to these questions that are going to support ongoing improvements to organisational effectiveness.
  • Don’t ask your Executive Assistant or other administrator to “do some research on team-building programs”. It is unlikely that they have sufficient in-depth awareness and understanding of the challenges being faced by a team, or the required outcomes. Sure, get the EA or PA to find some names but only a person in a leadership role with knowledge of the “big picture” and awareness of the needs of his or her team can really work with the provider to identify the best type and level of program for the desired purpose.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask and dig a little deeper. If you start off thinking about dressing up and a fun day out but really want innovation, leadership, empowerment and a strong team spirit with everyone walking in step towards a single goal, don’t waste your money on that half-day session. Instead, go for a program with clear and practical outcomes that deliver you real value for money, are relevant to your objectives and are in line with today’s business expectations.

Having said all of the above, if you are still thinking about team-building because you just want people to have fun and think it might help morale, book those go-karts now.

To find out more about True North Learning’s range of Team Effectiveness and Team Building options click here:

Conflict strikes most individuals, teams and organisations at some time. For most it brings about feelings of stress, anger, frustration and so on.  It often results in blocked communication, lack of ability to understand others perspectives and relationship breakdowns. But can conflict be useful? Can it be a solution as well as a problem? The more we can understand the types of conflicts, stages they are at and even underlying causes, the greater our ability to see the benefit in conflict.
Seeing the benefits of conflict can be in part attributed to our ability to manage it. These five tips may give you the ability to manage a conflicting situation enough to see the good that can come out of it.
  1. Attempt to address conflict as early as possible: there are usually a number of steps and escalation signs before conflict becomes overt eg a bad mood or “vibe”, poor productivity, office gossip. Generally the earlier we address the issues the less complicated and destructive conflict is and the easier it is to manage.
  2. Create a safe and confidential forum for workplace conflict to be resolved: what can undermine the resolution of conflict is if those parties having the conflict don’t feel safe or fear being labelled or scape-goated. Creating a safe and confidential forum, and reminding both them and ourselves that their view points and experiences are valid (not matter how diverse it may be) supports the resolution process.
  3. Be aware of the power dynamics within the workplace: one of the biggest causes of workplace conflict is a lack of awareness of power dynamics. For example the power differential between a manager and staff member. This might make it more difficult for the staff member to speak up in disagreement. If this disagreement “festers” for long enough it can create conflict. The solution is not about making the power differential equal, but more about being aware of it and its potential implications.
  4. Think systemically: while there is usually a personal aspect to workplace conflict there is often a systemic or cultural aspect as well. Think about how open the team or organisational culture is to having honest and direct conversations. Does the leadership model and encourage these behaviours? Is there are formal feedback structure in place to create role clarity and clear expectations? The more we address these cultural and systemic issues the more we reduce the “fertile ground” for conflict to occur.
  5. Build your own capacity to deal with conflict: most of us hate dealing with conflict. And for most of us this aversion to conflict comes from childhood conditioning and the way conflict was handled (or not handled) by our parents and adult role models. The more we can work with our own issues and find the “talents” that we developed or were force to develop whilst growing up, the more capacity we have to address conflict in a proactive and effective manner.
To find out more about True North Learning’s conflict management and conflict resolution services click here: