The team-building paradox

Hands together

Don Warrick, College of Business, Colorado Springs Business Journal

How skilled a leader is at building high-performance teams is important to their organization's competitive advantage.

Problem: My organization is built around teams and teamwork. However, if we are completely honest with ourselves, most of our teams are not functioning at a high level. None of the leaders in our organization have training or background in team building. How can we become better at building and sustaining high-performing teams in our organization?

The team-building paradox

How skilled a leader is at building high-performance teams is important to their organization's competitive advantage. The payoffs of teamwork are well studied. Teamwork can significantly improve performance, effectiveness, efficiency, unity of purpose, communications, morale, job satisfaction, innovative thinking, quality, speed in getting things done and loyalty to the organization. While we readily see the value of teamwork in sports, teamwork is just as valuable in organizations of all types and sizes.

The irony is that while almost everyone believes in the value of teamwork and leaders passionately preach and emphasize its importance, research indicates that most organizations do little to build teamwork.

Experiential versus action team building

If you ask leaders what comes to mind when they hear the term "team building" they often say that it refers to a series of experiential exercises, often facilitated by an outside consultant or organization, that will build teamwork. Team-building exercises may include trust walks or trust falls, problem-solving and decision-making activities, a ropes course or Outward Bound type of activity, scavenger hunts or something of that nature. Experiential learning can have an important purpose in team building in that it can be used to produce camaraderie and introduce people to concepts about teamwork.

There is little evidence, however, that experiential team-building exercises actually build high-performing teams. Building high-performance teams and teamwork requires an approach known as action team building, which may include some experiential exercises, but focuses mainly on doing what it takes to build high-performance teams and teamwork.

In building high-performance teams, there are at least five critical elements to address:

  1. Prepare leaders to lead: High-performance teams need skilled leaders who are committed, and who know what it takes, to build them.
  2. Develop capable and committed team members: Team members need to know what they need to do to be successful; to be trained in the skills needed to be successful and to be held accountable for being team players.
  3. Establish team norms: Norms are standards or guidelines that team members agree upon and practice.
  4. Structure the team for results: Teams need to have a clear vision (aspiration for the future), a meaningful mission (the purpose of the team), compelling goals (goals that are few, understood and motivating), effective processes (procedures for making decisions and getting things done) and the right people in the right roles doing the right things.
  5. Continuously improve the team: The team needs to take time on occasion to continuously improve processes and results, and to address issues that would make the team more effective. For organizations to become skilled at teamwork, they need to build teamwork at the top, within teams and between teams.

Action steps

There are a number of actions that leaders can take to improve teamwork. For example, they can:

  1. Complete the adjacent questionnaire. Have people answer the questions to find out how effective your organization is at teamwork and building high performance teams.
  2. Gather additional material on building high-performance teams and teamwork. Become well informed on the characteristics of high-performance teams and on what it takes to build them.
  3. Develop a plan for building high-performance teams and teamwork. Appoint team-building and teamwork project groups to develop and implement a plan for building teamwork within and between teams, and if needed, also appoint an internal or external expert to help facilitate and guide the process.

Don Warrick is a professor of management and organization change and president's teaching scholar in the College of Business at UCCS. He is the author or co-author of nine books and more than 90 articles, book chapters and professional papers. He is an award-winning educator and consultant who has worked with many Fortune 500 companies and organizations of all types and sizes. Contact:  

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