When team building is done right, organisations reap rewards in team effectiveness, leadership, and positive energy. This article looks at the important motivations behind team dynamics and why team building activities sometimes fail

Team building revisited: when team building is done right, organisations reap rewards in team effectiveness, leadership, and positive energy. This article looks at the important motivations behind team dynamics and why team building activities sometimes fail

N. Ravindran

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TEAM building isn’t merely something organisations do because it creates harmonious work groups, or is fun to do. It is a way to bring out the power of collaboration among individuals. It is a proven method for blending the talents, skills, and inherent creativity of diverse people. This collaboration is behind the strategic decision to empower the work groups to leverage skills, time, and resources for their own benefit and that of the organisation.

Much of the problem of making teams successful in the workplace stems from past perceptions of what teams are, and ignorance of the powerful principles underlying them. Teams are a formal way to actualise collaboration. Collaboration is at the heart of successful decision-making, but somehow this fact eludes many organisations. In teams, the sum total of collaboration is greater than what could have been achieved individually. To test this, think of some decision you need to make, then ask someone for his or her thoughts. If you want to really expand the possibilities, get several people together and ask them to discuss the issue. Then take notes. Later, look at your notes and see how many new facts and ideas have been added.

Thus, team building is a process of awareness building. It’s helping people to understand that they are greater collectively than individually. It is an understanding that most of our decisions will be better when some degree of collaboration is applied.

Factors Influencing Team Motivation

Focus or Purpose

Often when asked what the characteristics of successful and rewarding team experiences are, respondents almost always point to a clear purpose, focus, or mission. But further, for long-term motivation, it must be a purpose or mission that aligns with their personal wants and needs.

If the mission is clear, team members might be able to sustain motivation for the duration if they feel it is important. However, if it is a topic that is not in line with their wants and needs, their motivation to continue may diminish.

For instance, take the case of a group of information technologists who were teamed to streamline the process of IT-related server connections. Since they were all IT experts, it was assumed there would be great interest in working on a process that was frustrating users on the way it was designed.

About a month into the group’s work, they were having great difficulty maintaining momentum and focus. It was discovered that this was because some of the team members were analysts, others programmers, and some server technicians. Those not working directly with the server connections simply couldn’t be interested in the project.

Motivation in this case was lacking because the team’s purpose was not in line with some of the members’ wants and needs. So one strategy with a lethargic team might be to stop the process, re-visit the team’s purpose or mission, and see if there’s alignment on it. Even with a team that seems well, recheck once in a while to ensure everything is as it should be.

Challenge

Human beings are gregarious but as with most social animals, they succumb to a survival mechanism called fight or flight syndrome. When presented with a challenge, our defences are alerted to move us to action–either to run away from danger or address it directly.

Many people will say that their most rewarding team experiences resulted from some sort of challenge. Most have heard or come across seemingly mediocre groups that responded to a challenge with heroic success. In most instances, the challenge itself was the motivator.

In the workplace, these challenges occur occasionally. Teams are not presented with stimulating challenges every day. So the question is how to provide challenges to the team at more frequent intervals. An additional criterion for a challenge is the level of difficulty.

If a challenge is too difficult, team members may give up before they start. However, the same result may occur if the members perceive the challenge as too easy. Little energy is required to accomplish something so easily obtained. So for ongoing teams, periodic stimulation in the form of a worthy challenge is another method of maintaining motivation.

Camaraderie

Another factor that emerges from queries about successful teams is camaraderie, meaning comradeship, fellowship, and loyalty. The people on these teams genuinely like each other and work hard to develop and maintain their relationships. Successful teams tend to address both the technical needs and human needs. The groups are well balanced in both technical and human skills. They are equally competent in the work they perform and highly functional in their interpersonal relationships.

Team members seem to understand that it’s a lot easier to support your team member when you have a good relationship. This kind of relationship building is open and involves direct communication, frequent praising of each others’ contributions, and mutual support.

This is fine for teams whose members like each other, but what if they don’t? Much of the time we like or dislike someone, it relates more to how well we understand them. And since our formal training has not addressed this, most of us enter adulthood ill-equipped to deal with the myriad of personalities, temperaments, cultures, values, beliefs, ideologies, religions, and idiosyncratic behaviours of those we meet

A way to break down these barriers is to expand one’s understanding of team dynamics. But don’t overlook the simple solutions. Designing an off-site activity for the team, sometimes just to play together is a powerful way of building camaraderie.

Accountability

In general, accountability stimulates people and teams. Having ownership of an identifiable outcome is a long-held principle of motivation in groups. Implied in this concept is the understanding that the accountability comes along with authority to make the necessary changes. Teams that have both the accountability and authority tend to maintain motivation over longer periods of time.

But if the consequences of error or failure are too great, accountability can be a demotivation. If the organisation, for example, has a history of punishing people for their mistakes, then the giving of accountability is viewed negatively. The short-term performance may be good, because fear is a motivator, but long-term motivation will suffer. It is difficult to sustain high performance when energy is being sapped by fear.

Development

Personal and team development can provide another basis for sustained motivation. When people feel they are moving forward, learning new concepts, adding to their skill base, and stretching their minds, motivation tends to remain high.

Personal growth adds value to the individual, enhancing self-esteem and self-worth. Accordingly, team members and leaders should look for opportunities that help add knowledge and skills.

Guidance

A good leader can be a catalyst for motivation in the short term, but the best leaders create the conditions for the team to motivate itself. Good leaders inspire teams to accomplish even phenomenal tasks. But the charismatic leader that can be so effective in the short-term may not necessarily sustain motivation indefinitely.

Motivation is inherently intrinsic, residing within oneself. Therefore, if one depends continually on another for their source of motivation, eventually it ends. Thus, good leaders have a knack for helping others see the best in themselves, providing the stimulus for self-actualising behaviours.

A team whose members are aligned with its purpose, feel a challenge in their task, have a strong sense of camaraderie, feel responsibility for the outcome, and experience growth as a team and in their personal lives, will tend to sustain motivation over the long haul.

Matching Needs to Training

Business growth and restructuring has fuelled a major drive for organisational change. Yet many new teams have underperformed usually because when they were formed, too much focus was given to their “task” rather than how they would operate as a team.

All teams have different characteristics based on their make up. The key to good team building is not to drill teams to perform in a certain way but provide a structure and facilitation to help them to discover their potential. This enables teams to take responsibility for their own performance and to establish methods of reviewing their processes at work.

Today’s complex and demanding business environment often requires a matrix management approach whether it be formalised or not. This can place a great strain on individuals and teams and thereby compromise their effectiveness unless managed effectively.

When team building is done right, results include stronger relationships between team members, an elevation in team spirit and morale, an improvement in critical team skills such as communication and trust, and adding momentum in moving a team towards a common goal and a shared vision.

Many business professionals have very different pictures of team building; negative images of programmes that lacked relevance and appropriateness. Why is it that when it comes to teambuilding, experiences are either great or a deemed a waste of time? There appears to be a lack of middle ground.

This may be the result of a few key questions that are often neglected during the programme selection process–the make-it-or-break-it questions whose answers every client and every teambuilding provider should be absolutely clear on before the programme is developed and delivered. These can be covered in the following:

Suitability

These days, the word team building covers activities ranging from workshops that guide teams through in-depth physiological profiles, to heading out into the rough for an energetic search and rescue simulation. As a result, a company’s team building vision sometimes doesn’t line up with the provider’s experiences.

All too often, senior management teams with clear objectives of strategic team development end up spending their valuable time learning what items to take from a “plane crash” to survive in a “desert” in a resort recreation hall. Sales conferences with groups of energetic professionals, eager to spice up the agenda with an enjoyable relationship-building event, end up in an indoor theory-based workshop that is irksome.

Organisations need to ensure that team building providers know the nature of their unique business, and the details of the group, like age range, seniority, ability level, and provide an experience that aligns with this uniqueness.

Pragmatic Outcomes

Results from effective teambuilding can range from a fun and memorable experience that builds team spirit, to strategic sessions that result in goals and accountability. Because of this huge difference in outcomes, it is critical that organisations and team building providers are clear and realistic about their outcome expectations.

For example, if a group has a day to spend on team building, a lot of great things should result. But it is impossible to go beyond raising people’s awareness and strengthening relationships in this type of a time frame, and expectations that go beyond this are bound to be let down.

Before the programme is picked, both client and provider must be clear on the outcomes that are expected from the experience, and how they will measure if and when that outcome is achieved.

Experienced Facilitators

Even after ensuring that the programme is both appropriate and the outcome expectations are realistic, the impact of the experience will be limited if the facilitators cannot deliver the experience or establish a healthy rapport with the team.

Often senior leadership teams get lectured on high performance by facilitators with little business acumen. At other times, groups that could strongly benefit from a fun, motivational, and adventurous team of facilitators, end up with intellectual overkill.

While it may seem that getting an effective team building programme is a lot of work, it doesn’t have to be. Most reputable team building programme providers will already know the necessity of getting answers to these questions, and one or two conversations about the desired outcomes and measurements can often give you the reassurance you need that your teambuilding choice will be a winning one. –N Ravindran

COPYRIGHT 2008 Singapore Institute of Management

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning