Team Building: Does It Work?

Corporate Team Building Games

What is team building, and does it actually work?

Alright, so in an attempt to present dry research findings in a way that wouldn’t put you to sleep, I’ll tell you a short little story of my imaginary friend, Carrie. It’s a little silly, but bear with me.

Carrie was pondering the question of whether team building actually works as she skimmed a Forbes article on teams at the end of her workday. She is a mid-level manager at a local branch of a public bank, and was recently put in charge on managing a newly put-together task force. She’s still relatively new to her position, and had little experience with managing small teams, but she was determined to help guide her team towards excellence. Carrie knew that organizations are increasingly moving towards collaboration and team-based structures, so she knew that she had to figure out how best to manage teams if she wanted to move forward in her managerial career. She had heard from her mentor that hiring a team building company to come in and deliver programs to help the team gel was a really worthwhile investment, but she had her doubts. Every time she thought of team building, she thought of Michael Scott’s ridiculous antics on The Office. It all just seemed like fluff…

But there was something about team building that fascinated her, and she wanted to figure out if it was actually going to help her team work together better. She’d heard anecdotes and stories from her friends and colleagues, but something inside her told her that that wasn’t enough. Her mind took her back to a research methods class that she took in college for some reason, and it got her wondering about what research said about the effectiveness of team building programs. So…she did some digging.

That night, she spent a few hours browsing through some research studies that have been done on team building, and came across a 2009 article on a study conducted by Cameron Klein and his associates. It was a meta-analysis, which she remembered as a strategy that researchers used to combine the findings of multiple studies. Carrie knew it was complicated, but she also knew it was powerful – the findings of meta-analyses are more trustworthy than that of any single study.

This 2009 study looked at four potential outcomes of team building programs: (1) cognitive (e.g., does the team understand how to work together?), (2) affective (e.g., does the team trust each other?), (3) processes (e.g., can the team members communicate with one other effectively?), and (4) performance (e.g., how productive is the team?). A big issue on Carrie’s team was that although the members were among the top performers at the branch, their meetings were awkward. They didn’t seem to feel comfortable with one another at all, and she couldn’t figure out why. She jumped ahead to the Results section of the article, and what she found gave her some hope. Apparently, their data analyses found that team building programs seemed to impact affective outcomes more so than the other outcomes that they studied. The most important finding from this study for Carrie, though, was that the authors found that team building had a positive impact across all team outcomes that were measured. Alright, so maybe this team building thing was worth a shot…the research seemed to support it!

The next question she wanted to know was what kinds of team building programs would give her the most bang for her buck. She scrolled down the article, and found that the researchers also looked at which components of team building programs would impact participants the most. They studied four common aspects of team building programs, including goal setting, relationship building, problem solving, and role clarification. The results seem to tell her that goal setting and role clarification were the two most effective components of team building programs, so she knew that whatever program she would decide to invest in had to have at least some aspect of goal setting and role clarification.

AAAAND…scene! Carrie’s story is my goofy way of telling you that the most recent and comprehensive study on whether team building works found that it, in fact, generally does. It seems to be most effective in fostering trust and communication (among other team processes), and goal setting and role clarification are two of the most important aspects of these programs.

But…the authors also warn that, “not all teams will benefit from the same team building intervention” (p. 215). When deciding on which team building program to invest in, it’s important to ensure that it’s specifically tailored to your needs and goals. Although research can tell us whether programs are generally effective, it’s important to remember that every team and situation is unique. These findings can, and should, give us comfort that team building is a worthwhile and safe investment, but we should also be careful that the program that we invest in fits our specific needs.

Connect with Summit Team Building today to learn about the ways that we can tailor our programs to help you achieve your unique goals for your team!

What does empirical research say about the effectiveness of team building? Does it actually work? According to the most recent and comprehensive research study that has been done on this topic so far, yes, it generally does…but it’s a bit more complex than that. Using a sophisticated data analysis technique called meta-analysis, Cameron Klein and his associates collected and statistically compiled the findings of 20 separate research studies (looking at 1562 teams) on the effectiveness of team building programs in 2009.

The studies that were included in their analyses assessed four categories of potential outcomes from team building programs: (1) cognitive (e.g., declarative knowledge, teamwork competencies), (2) affective (e.g., trust, team potency), (3) processes (e.g., coordination, communication), and (4) performance (e.g., volume of sales, productivity). Also, these studies looked at four common components of team building programs, including goal setting, relationship building, problem solving, and role clarification. After analyzing their data, they found that team building had a positive and moderately strong impact on all four categories of outcomes that they looked at. More specifically, though, they found that process-related and affective outcomes were most improved by team building programs. Interestingly, they also found that the goal setting and role clarification components of these programs had the largest effect on participants. Finally, although they found that teams of all sizes benefited from these programs, large teams seemed to benefit the most.

Ingredients for High Performing Teams: #2, Dependability

Dependability matters in team performance – no surprise there. We often think of people’s dependability, though, as an inherent trait…so the important question is this: can we foster dependability in our team members? If so, how?

We’ve all been there – stuck in a team with members who seem to be living on another planet. They show up late to every meeting, never follow through with their promises, are never prepared, and they never seem to be able to find any of the documents they need. They text their way through every meeting, and information seems to go in one ear and out another. They justify their lack of punctuality and organization by referencing the 2013 study that found that those who have messy desks tend to be more creative and produce more fresh insights. Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Thomas Edison all had messy desks, they’ll tell you, so you better not be judging them.

Dependability seems to be something that we often take for granted in teams – until we don’t have it. So it should be no surprise that Google’s Project Aristotle identified dependability as the second key characteristic of high performing teams. Their top teams have members that set and achieve goals regularly and efficiently, follow through on their promises consistently, and produce work that’s always thorough. These teams are significantly more effective and efficient – it’s not hard to imagine why. If you can’t depend on other members of your team, you can’t trust them…and as I’ve explored in the past few posts, you can’t have an effective team without trust.

A big piece of have teams that are dependable is having members that are conscientious. Conscientiousness is one of the big five personality traits that describes the extent to which people are able to stay organized, responsible, and focused on their goals. There’s a good amount of research that has identified this personality trait as being fundamental to success throughout the lifespan. For example, a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health found that conscientious men earned higher salaries.

The issue with looking at conscientiousness as a personality trait is that it comes with an assumption that it’s not completely malleable. While conscientiousness may not be something that we can immediately manipulate in our team members, dependability seems to be more of a characteristic that we can actually foster in our teams.

To develop dependability in teams, Google recommends that we clarify roles and responsibilities for team members, and to “develop concrete project plans to provide transparency into every individual’s work”. This didn’t seem too helpful, though, so I decided to ask the team building experts here at Summit, who have had decades of experience in the field, to tell me how they thought we can develop dependability in teams.

“I think it’s all about positive reinforcement,” said program director Claudia Valle. When we show people the power of being conscientious and dependable, especially when we’re in leadership position, we’re modeling the behaviour we hope to see in our team. Plus, when we add in rewards for team members who are embodying dependability, we begin to create a culture that motivates team members to align their own behaviors with this ideal.

Mary Barry, who has been building top teams for more than 15 years, talks about the importance clear expectations. One of the key components of team building programs is creating a “group agreement”, where members of the team openly discuss the ideals, values, and expectations that all members can adhere to. This is a powerful process that allows us to clearly identify group norms, and reinforce dependability as a trait that all members know they’re expected to embody.

Laurie Warkentin, Summit Team Building’s newest program director, identifies ownership and belonging as being a key influence in team members’ dependability. When team members feel like they, and their efforts, genuinely matter in the group, they’re more inclined to put forth more effort, follow through on their promises, and take ownership of their work.

So fostering dependability in teams seems to be more complex than simply clarifying roles and developing concrete plans, as Google suggests. We need to model dependable behaviour, establish clear expectations, and ensure that team members know that their choices and efforts matter.

Psychological Safety: Another Reason Why Trust Matters

Google Studies High Performance Teams

Google calls it Psychological Safety. Patrick Lencioni just calls it Trust. Really, they’re two sides of the same coin, but the point is – trust matters.

In my previous post, I reviewed some research conducted by Google that identified psychological safety as the most fundamental characteristic of high performing teams. After writing the post, I got curious about the relationship between psychological safety and another big word in research on teams – trust. Do these two ideas essentially describe the same thing? If not, what’s the difference?

According to Amy Edmundson, psychological safety and trust aren’t the same thing. While psychological safety focuses on team members’ beliefs about group norms and how they’re viewed by others in the group, trust focuses on beliefs that team members have about other. In essence, psychological safety describes people’s perception of the larger group environment, while trust describes people’s perceptions of each other.

Let’s be honest, it’s a very minor difference. While the distinction may be important for researchers trying to assess the different components of teams, for the rest of us, it’s really two sides of the same coin. At the end of the day, what both of these ideas suggest is that team members’ perception of whether they can trust other members of their group is critical to their performance.

Like I reviewed last week, Google suggests that this is because teams where members trust each other are better able to support each other, tackle tough issues openly, and embrace diverse skills and perspectives. Interestingly, in his work on team trust, Patrick Lencioni provides a complimentary perspective on this issue.

Like Google, Lencioni also sees trust as fundamental to team performance. When team members trust each other, they’re not afraid of conflict, so they are able to have unfiltered and passionate debates about their ideas. When team members are able to honestly talk about their ideas, they’re able to generate plans and strategies that they can all buy in and commit to. With all members buying in, you end up with a culture where it’s normal for team members to keep each other accountable, and take full ownership of their results.

Lencioni’s perspective gives us an even deeper understanding of why trust matters in teams. But the more important point that we can take away from this is the fact that Google and Lencioni’s work both ended up essentially coming up with the same conclusions. Google spent millions of dollars and two years on their project, and Lencioni has worked with thousands of different companies before proposing his model. This underscores exactly how fundamental trust is for team performance.

So the truth is – trust is powerful.