If you’ve ever spent an afternoon taking a leap of faith—literally—into your co-workers’ open arms or traversed a treetop ropes course with the rest of your helmet-clad colleagues, congratulations! You managed to survive the seventh circle of team-building hell: trust falls.
Even if you haven’t participated in a trust fall exercise or obstacle course, you can imagine the amount of teeth gritting and forced smiling it would take to muscle through this kind of corporate-mandated “fun.” And while business leaders’ motives for arranging such exercises are typically justified—perhaps their organization has experienced a period of rapid change, for example, or two departments recently merged but have yet to coalesce—the methods often used to manage these changes are questionable.
When it comes to enhancing team effectiveness and fostering trust among teammates, ropes courses and trust falls yield little, if any, results. At best, they act as a brief distraction from the daily grind. At worst, they threaten to undermine true progress that leads to meaningful change.
Team-building activities come in many different flavors, from the juvenile (think scavenger hunts and escape rooms), to the extreme (white water rafting, anyone?). While the exercises themselves may vary, they all have a shared objective: to build rapport and encourage collaboration among teammates.
The problem is, most participants have a distinct aversion to these activities for a number of reasons. For one thing, team-building exercises tend to be perceived as embarrassing, patronizing, and downright corny. They fail to establish new connections among employees, and can even wind up alienating team members and reinforcing norms or cliques. Simply put, forced fun is really no fun.
Off-site excursions also require time—time that many employees would rather spend, you know, doing the jobs they were hired to do. After all, very few bosses are willing to waive deadlines in the name of team spirit, so not only are employees required to participate, but they also have to hustle in order to complete their tasks on time—all for the sake of staggering through a three-legged race with Karen from HR. This is hardly a prospect most adults would jump at (no offense, Karen).
A lack of fun is one thing, but a lack of results is another. Regardless of their intentions, team-building activities simply aren’t capable of translating complex concepts into lasting change. Research reveals that whatever breakthroughs are achieved in the moment tend to be short-lived, and that these exercises have zero impact on a team’s ability to problem-solve once everyone is back in the office.
This reality resonates with employees, too. A study of over 1000 participants discovered that, “while 66% of workers surveyed had been made to do some form of team-building activity, more than half (54%) didn’t feel that doing more would help them work better with their colleagues.”
The survey also concluded that high-adrenaline activities, such as rock climbing and bungee jumping, are considered the least effective forms of team building, followed closely by trust falls and other trust-based exercises. Long study short, unless they’re training to be professional stuntpeople, it’s probably best to keep your employees on the ground, and off the side of a mountain or stuck up a tree.
If it’s going to stick, team development has to be more than a box that leadership checks off a list. These events can’t be used just as proof that efforts are being made to boost teamwork, especially when deep-seated issues fester beneath the surface. When serious issues are afoot, wasting a workday on a scavenger hunt just feels like salt in the wound.
Real change happens when employees are emboldened to collaborate openly in their day-to-day roles, which is why team building should be addressed in a setting where work actually takes place. Leaders should make team building less about metaphorical riddle-solving, and more about real-world problem resolution. These lessons can be taught through experiential learning that occurs in the workplace.
It’s best to begin by gaining an understanding of the team’s strengths and opportunities for development—after all, how else would you know where to direct your efforts? There are dozens of factors that influence team performance, and it doesn’t make sense to try to fix everything at once. Comprehensive team assessment tools like the AIIR Team Effectiveness™ Survey will clearly and powerfully illuminate the most pressing team issues, helping you focus on what requires improvement to ensure you make the greatest possible impact.
Once you know what your team needs to work on, you’ll need to encourage open dialogue among co-workers. Every good business leader knows that communication is key, but few are able to make the move from theory to reality. Whether it’s a weekly team meeting or recurring open forum, encourage discussions where honest feedback is given and received across the team. It’s wise to establish a set of “ground rules” before getting started to define parameters and ensure all participants feel comfortable expressing their ideas. Pixar’s braintrust meetings are a case study in how a few solid rules can unleash productive discussion.
As employees begin to see that communication is a priority, issues ailing the team will start to surface, allowing you to more efficiently identify and diagnose them. At this stage, it’s important to nurture productive discussion that gets to the heart of the matter. When employees feel empowered by leadership to voice their views, the path to a mutually beneficial resolution becomes easier to navigate. That’s something ropes courses and trust falls simply can’t replicate.
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