Team building gets a bad press. Too many of us have experienced badly run team-building awaydays and events. You may have spent the day skulking around trying to avoid saying what animal you would be in another life, or working out how to get everyone across a metaphorical swamp (even though there was always one person you would have liked to have left firmly embedded in quicksand!).
Too often, these team-building events only expose the schisms within teams, and do nothing to bring people together. However, done well, team-building can—and should—be an ongoing part of any group’s way of working.
This page explains what you need to consider when planning any team-building activity.
What is Team Building?
Team building is any activity designed to improve the way that a team or group works together.
The word tends to be used for big, set-piece events and awaydays. However, any activity can be part of team-building, including a regular team meeting, an informal group chat over Zoom about pets, a full-scale workshop or a social event.
In fact, the best team and group leaders are constantly undertaking and supporting activities to help their team work better together.
In other words, team building, done well, is simply something that should be embedded into everyday team working. Team leaders who do this tend to do two things very well:
They know their team well—and help them to get to know each other
Good team leaders take time to get to know their team members.
They know about issues at home and work, and they also know how people like to work.
They build trust by sharing information appropriately, so that team members feel able to share information with them. It can also be helpful to use tools like Myers-Briggs Type Indicators and Belbin’s Team Roles to give people more insight into themselves and others. These tools also give people a shared language to talk through any misunderstandings or difficulties working together.
Time spent chatting at the start of team meetings, or informally as people arrive in the office or make coffee, can also help to build relationships. Social events may be helpful in this—but it is important not to force these.
They set and communicate clear shared goals and objectives
One of the most important aspects of working in a group is to set and articulate clear goals and objectives for both individuals and the team.
It is also important to maintain the focus on these goals by communicating them clearly—and reminding people about them regularly. Good team leaders make these a regular part of team interactions by discussing progress towards the goal, and measuring any proposed activities against whether they will help achieve the team goals.
There is more about this in our page on Strategic Thinking.
Formal Team Building
Sometimes, however, it may be helpful to consider an exercise that will be overtly and formally labelled ‘team building’.
Why Are You Considering Team Building?
The first aspect to consider is why you want to do any kind of team building.
If the answer to this is ‘because everyone does’, or ‘because I ought to’, then things are simple: don’t.
Our page on facilitation skills explains that the first step in any facilitated intervention is to work out why: what is the objective?
For team building, try to go beyond the simplistic ‘the team isn’t working well together’ or ‘we have a lot of new members’. Instead, dig down into what you really want to achieve through team building. In particular, what are the gaps in your team and/or its members that you feel an activity could fill?
Another way of thinking about this is to ask what problems or issues you are seeing within your team. For example:
Do you feel that team members need to know each other better to build trust?
Is there any overt or covert conflict that is damaging the relationships within the group?
Are there any communication difficulties within the group?
Does the group as a whole lack a key skill, such as creativity?
Are you seeing problem behaviours in particular team members or groups?
Once you have the answers to these questions, you can start to look into what type of activities might be helpful.
In choosing activities, it is also useful to think about the everyday work and work patterns of your team. Ask yourself what kinds of work your team does and how they relate to each other.
Does your team need work closely together and rely on each other to complete work, or do they simply work side-by-side on independent tasks?
What skills do they need collectively and individually?
How much do they need to understand each other’s jobs?
How much do they need different skills from each other? Are there common features of all their jobs?
Ideally, choose activities that will fit with your answers to these questions, as well as with what you want to achieve from the activity.
For example, if you want people to get to know each other, and everyone needs very similar skills, have an activity that helps them to talk about the skills required, and identify gaps in their own skillset. Examples might include making a model of an ‘ideal team member’ with only balloons, different-shaped post-it notes, scissors and sticky tape.
If they need to work closely together and rely on each other, carry out an activity that requires this type of work. Examples include ‘escape room’ games, or logic puzzles where each person holds a different piece of information, and the group needs to put them all together to solve the puzzle.
If you want your group to know more about each other, find a way to get them to share something unusual about them. You could use a formal tool like Myers-Briggs, or you can use something simpler like ‘Two truths and a lie’, where everyone in turn makes three statements about themselves, one of which is a lie, and the group has to guess which is which. Another useful game is asking everyone to draw a picture of their ideal animal or bird, or their favourite place in the world, and then saying a bit about why.
Top tip! There’s no need to reinvent the wheel
There are many, many team-building exercises and games available, both online and in books. Experienced facilitators will almost certainly have many at their fingertips.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel, or design your own tasks (though you can if you want to do that).
Once you have decided what type of task you need, you can simply go looking for something suitable.
Remember, too, that debriefing is important after the exercise. It doesn’t have to be immediate—and, in fact, for some people it may be better to give them time to reflect. However, everyone is likely to learn more if they have a chance to talk about what happened, including what went well and badly, and think about what they learned about themselves and each other.
Case study: unexpected lessons
Marie and Darrell, two experienced facilitators, offered to put together some activities for a team-building event for their new team. They were given the brief that the activities should encourage people to get to know each other, have some fun, and share a bit of information before everyone went out for lunch together.
After some discussion, they decided not to use any formal tools or surveys. Instead, they used simple but tried-and-tested activities, including creating a model of an ideal team member, ‘two truths and a lie’ and drawing your ‘ideal animal’. They agreed that there should be nothing too testing, or anything that might embarrass anyone. Additionally, nobody should be asked to give too much away if they did not wish to do so. As the event was part of a social, it should be fun, not challenging.
Afterwards, Marie reflected on what she had learned.
“I thought the activities went very well, and we all got to know everyone a bit better. The thing that astonished me, though, was how much information people were prepared to share. I mean, we hardly know each other! I was being really careful about what I shared, until I know whether I can trust people, but some people shared really quite deep things about themselves. I think what I have most learned—again—is just how different we all are!”
Sometimes, it seems, the most useful lessons are unexpected.
A Final Word
Choosing team-building activities that relate closely to both the needs of your team and the actual work that they do on a daily basis means that the group is more likely to feel that the exercise is useful.
There is little worse, especially if you are busy, than spending a day out of the office doing something that feels useless—especially if it’s no fun either!