You’re clutching the top of a rock face with a harness around your waist. The only thing holding you up is a ½-inch-thick rope. The guy on the top of the cliff is telling you you’re next to “go down.” You look toward the ground and see that the person holding the other end of your rope is the same guy who just last month stole all your pitch ideas and then took credit for the big sale. You think of your kids and hope for the best as you let go.
Have you been in this situation—or one like it? Have you been on a team with major trust and conflict issues where the team leader has tried to cure you with a two-day team-building band-aid? If the teams I talk to are any indication, the majority of teams try one of these feel-good tactics before getting serious about improving their effectiveness. Unfortunately, these outdoor adventures tend to make team members more cynical. They also reduce the credibility of genuine attempts to build team effectiveness.
Watch out for these warning signs that a team-building approach is all sizzle and no steak:
1. The team builder doesn’t ask what your company does.
If you’re not talking about your business while planning the session, don’t do it. Your team won’t be effective unless you’re all aligned to a common goal. If your team’s mandate isn’t clear, you’ve got to work on that before you do anything else.
2. The program aims to build trust in a half-day.
If the team builder promises that people will leave trusting each other, don’t do it. Trust is complicated. To truly trust a colleague, you’ve got to believe in their competence, then come to trust in their reliability, and finally decide you can trust their motives. If you’re not convinced that Sally is a good Marketing Analyst, you won’t feel differently after you white water raft together.
3. They’re willing to plan and execute in 4 days.
If the approach doesn’t include talking to your team beforehand, sharing the themes and getting the team to buy in to the agenda, it’s not going to fix a team that’s broken.
4. They don’t warn you it’ll get worse before it gets better.
When you’re doing your spring cleaning, you have to take lots of stuff out from under the bed and the back of the closet before you can sort it and neatly put it away. Building team effectiveness works the same way. There will be some chaos on the path to order.
I like team activities. I’ve done my fair share of drumming, bike building, and adventure races. But don’t confuse fun team activities with strategies for building team effectiveness.
Team activities are great in a couple of situations. First, with new teams—where members need to get to know one another and create some shared experiences. Second, with healthy teams—where the members enjoy each other’s company and need some down time.
But these activities can be downright treacherous when there are issues on the team. Best to invest that time and money in some serious progress on building alignment and improving the team dynamic.