Stop trying to build teams in the woods


The first task given to the attendees of a recent team-building seminar was to go out into the nearby woods on a treasure hunt. I heard about it from one of the disgruntled ‘treasure hunters’. Suffice it to say he was not best pleased by the request to search through damp undergrowth on a frosty December morning. Nor was it clear to him how this would improve the performance of his team of auditors and analysts. It wasn’t clear to me either.


Organisations like his, all around the world, are desperate to get more out of their teams. They want them to communicate more, to co-operate more, and to achieve goals more effectively. Team members, too, want a more rewarding experience of teamwork. They want the team to be friendlier, and they want the group to exercise more control over the individual members.


All the above-highlighted objectives precisely describe the traits of a cohesive team. I imagine the goal of the treasure hunt was to instil this spirit of cohesion into the group by charging it with a task that could only be completed successfully if the group remained together. Indeed, the winning team was precisely the one that managed to follow all the clues, and reach the end of the hunt, without members bailing out because of the cold, the damp, or the tedium.


Such team-building adventures are very common in corporate development programs. Intuitively, it seems plausible that team members’ mutual bond will be strengthened if they spend the day climbing rock faces, building bridges, wading across muddy rivers at five in the morning, or catching each other as they fall backwards. Sadly, however, there is little evidence that such exercises encourage cohesion among business professionals or, if it does, that these teams remain cohesive once they get back to their desks.


Yet, scientific research has identified some reliable correlates of cohesive teams, all of which seem to be ignored in these exercises. These are:


Group size – smaller groups (less than 8-9 people) are more cohesive than larger groups. Admission process – people are more committed to a team when admission to it has been onerous (think about fraternity admission). Liking – teams are more cohesive when members genuinely like each other or at least perceive some mutual similarity. Shared outcomes – If the entire team rises and falls equally as a result of the outcome of their work, the cohesion is greater. Past success – past success breeds future cohesion.


Obviously, the final factor cannot be influenced in a team-building seminar, but group cohesion can be fostered by modifying any or all the others.


For example, admission to a team can be made deliberately more difficult. Even though there might be no organisational need to expose a candidate to an additional trail-by-fire, the result will be a more committed team member. Similarly, one can set limits to the size of a work group. And, although one cannot force group members to like one another, one can prevent them from detesting each other by setting rules for appropriate language and behaviour.


The closest the so-called team-builders come to targeting an important correlate of cohesion is in their focus on shared outcomes. The team members in the treasure hunt, for example, shared equally in the success or failure, but treasure-hunting is not their day job. Clearly, if you tie team members to each other with a rope and ask them to climb a rock face, they will be cohesive; they will co-operate and communicate, be supportive of each other, and dedicate their full combined energy to the completion of the task. Once they get back to the office, however, the rewards and punishments of business outcomes might no longer be shared equitably. If this is the case, the earlier cohesion will simply evaporate.


This is the principal shortcoming of off-site team exercises. They neglect to recognise that what is needed is not cohesion per-se, but cohesion around the work task. The secret to great teamwork is not to be found in the forest dew, but back at the office in the team construction, the work process, and in the distribution of payoffs.


 

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