Do Team Building Activities Actually Work?

How do these team-building activities improve collaboration in the workplace? Are they really as effective as they purport to be?

In this video, I explore why team-building activities may not necessarily improve collaboration in teams or within the workplace—and what you can do instead.

Team-building activities can be fun: scavenger hunts, obstacle courses, cooking or art classes, and even activities that mimic reality TV game shows. These can bring out unique skills from employees and allow one to see a different side of their co-workers.

In order to cater to demand, there is an entire team-building industry across the globe—and even here in Australia. And I have to admit that some of the activities they offer are fun and one-of-a-kind, as kendo and samurai classes, mountain climbing and sailing experiences, or themed scavenger hunts. These are just some of the activities they offer for team building or team bonding.

But given their costs, how effective are these team-building activities in improving collaboration within employees?

Do team-building activities work?

There is currently no hard research to support that these activities improve collaboration in the workplace. The problem is that while these activities may bond people through shared experiences and emotions—they do not last long enough to hold up under the day-to-day pressures at work.

One reason is because they do not really mimic what happens at work—they do not represent the routines that employees face on a daily basis.

Furthermore, one activity alone does not change the office dynamic. It takes sustained and recurring efforts to do that.

There are also other factors that may be preventing employees at work to collaborate effectively: unaddressed conflict, role confusion, bureaucracy, inexperienced leaders, learning gaps, just to name a few.

Why don’t they work?

Perhaps the long-term study conducted in Mars, Incorporated, the American global manufacturer of confectionery and pet food can help us understand why team-building activities don’t work.

The company wanted to improve collaboration across their organisation but was stumped when they realised that employees were not collaborating as closely as they wanted them despite providing support and following best practices. And so they sought to understand why this was happening.

What they found out changed the way they view collaboration. Most collaboration studies and best practices claimed that collaboration begins with trust and relationships—when you build trust amongst employees, collaboration will naturally follow. While trust is an important factor in collaboration—it is NOT, however, its defining factor.

The problem was that most employees viewed collaboration as a vague concept—and merely a tool to get something done. It is viewed as something important but not essential for their work.

The idea of collaboration is this: If Ted, Dan and Bill—all outstanding sales employees—put their heads together or collaborate, perhaps they could potentially sell more product.

But what the Mars, Inc. study found out was that what made Ted, Dan and Bill outstanding employees was their individual motivation to do better each time and relying on their own selves to get the job done. So, instead of depending on each other and working together—they went about their work individually to sell more product and get the job done.

They found out that Mars, Inc. had a bunch of very competent and highly motivated employees—and it was this internal motivation that was preventing people from collaborating!

What to do instead?

The key was to change mindsets. To do this, Mars, Inc. had to focus on what motivated each employee.

1. Define what collaboration is

The first step was to define what collaboration is—that collaboration is not merely a tool to get something done but a goal to be achieved. People would collaborate more if they were held accountable for it.

2. Reinforce the collaboration goal

The next step was to reinforce the collaboration goal with making teams understand why it was important. Each collaborative team member was tasked to come up with an answer to the question: Why is your working together, as a team, more valuable than just the sum of your individual efforts?  Why should we collaborate as a team? What good will it do for us?

This step was crucial to getting everyone to buy into the idea that collaborating was not only useful to the team but also crucial for their performance and growth. To get people to work together, the team had to figure out why and how that would actually improve results.

3. Identify roles and tasks

The last step was to identify roles and tasks. Specifically, what work, which specific tasks, would require collaboration to achieve those results? This step took the most time to do. Many assume that when teams collaborate, they give up control over results. But this step provided a way to define and measure collaborative efforts. For highly motivated individuals, this was very important because it made clear who was accountable for which tasks and determined how much they were accountable for.

The end result? The team that the study focused on grew 33% overall—with the primary brand in their portfolio growing by 60%.

In sum, team-building activities may be fun, but they may not produce lasting results. It may do your team of employees better by making them define what collaboration means to them as a team and how this will help achieve your business goals as a whole.

If you are interested to know more about what a business has to go through when facing exponential growth, you can download the first chapter of the book, ”$20K to $20 Million in 2 Years” absolutely free here. The chapter talks about the differences between a good and a great business and puts out questions that make you consider how you can turn your business from good to great.



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