The Sun is Out, The Sky is Blue, Surely A Team-Building Day is Due?


May 19th, 2016

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shutterstock_178085396Any of us who have worked in anything but the smallest of organisations for a number of years are likely to have experienced all sorts of team-building initiatives. Bowling and beer, Belbin profiling, summer away-days with obstacle courses (loved and loathed in equal measure) – I’m sure you can add to the long list of methods that are used in the pursuit of building teams.

When we hear “we need a great team to deliver this” why do we feel compelled to use such methods – other than a genuine desire to let off steam away from the work environment? If you reflect on the times you have been part of a high performing team, and the times you have been part of a poorly performing or even dysfunctional team, you will know why: poorly performing teams (that don’t engage us, that don’t make the most of our talents, that have hidden agendas), are as frequent as high performing teams (that inspire us, that openly discuss disagreement, that are based upon trust). Research supports our experience: Martin & Bal (2007) found only 53% of teams exceeded organisational expectations; Our Management Agenda 2016 research found that maintaining staff morale and engagement in teams is a key challenge for managers and leaders.

Unless we’re out to sabotage a project, none of us intend to create or be part of anything but a high performing team. So why is it difficult? Although we evolved as social animals, our education and work systems mostly reward individual performance (to a greater or lesser extent depending on how individualistic or collectivist the culture is).  Exams, degrees and jobs are given to individuals; star players are transferred from one sporting team to another; management boards reward or oust CEOs depending upon company performance. This ingrained individualism means as much as we may want to be part of a team, it can be difficult for us to truly trust our aspirations and success to others.

So what can you do to move beyond team-building initiatives, to establish and sustain long-lasting highly effective teams?

Group or Team?

How do you define a team? How do you differentiate a team from a group? And how often do you consciously decide a team rather than a group, or vice-versa, is the best vehicle to work on a particular challenge?

de Vries (2011) reminds us there are key differences between a group and a team. A group is “any number of individuals who form a recognisable unit”. A team is a specific group of people (ideally 5-12) with “complementary skills and abilities … who are highly interdependent geared towards achievement of a common goal … for which they hold one another mutually accountable”.

All the elements within de Vries’ definition are needed to build a high performing team. Of course teams can be larger than 12, but with the difficulties of meeting (physically or virtually) and of having genuine dialogue, large teams are likely to split into sub-groups. Of course teams do not need to start out with every single skill needed to achieve the goal, as they will learn along the way, but some minimum combination is needed at the start. And of course teams need a goal, but a high performing team is driven by a common goal, shaped by a common purpose, rather than a goal that has been imposed upon them, which will then be used by members to judge progress.

These elements illustrate some of the effort that is needed, from all members, to build and maintain a great team. Just because we all value behaviours that we associate with teams (such as support from colleagues and having our ideas listened to) does not mean a team is always the answer to a complex challenge. A group with team-working behaviours may be good enough.

Purpose and Goals

A common purpose and goals does not mean a leader cannot propose a ‘starter for ten’ to stimulate debate and discussion within the team. But collective team ownership of purpose and goals will only come when each member has made a contribution in shaping them, and when disagreement is aired constructively rather than brushed to one side. Katzenbach & Smith (1993) in their classic work “The Wisdom of Teams” argue that purpose and goals are reciprocally important: purpose gives team identity and meaning, whilst performance goals measure progress and allow accountability.

This may all seem superfluous when a team is tasked with “doing what you did last time but faster and cheaper”. But with debate and discussion a broader purpose and goals may evolve to include elements related to customer satisfaction, product innovation, or development of team members.

Getting the Basics Right

John Adair’s classic model of Action Centered Leadership (1973) is just as relevant now in reminding us that team leaders need to balance their attention between task, team and individual (whether the leader is an individual with that job title or when leadership is shared amongst team members). The tasks will be derived from translating purpose and goals into deliverables, timescales and measures of success. The team will agree on their approach to communication, decision making, problems solving, conflict resolution and overall culture. And each individual is likely to be motivated by their own personal mix of autonomy, mastery and purpose (Daniel Pink 2011), that leaders need to understand and respond to.

We all instinctively know how important it is to balance task, team and individual, but doing so when we are juggling multiple priorities in our digitally enabled ‘always on’ organisations can be difficult. Sharing responsibility for monitoring the balance between task, team and individual can help create the mutual accountability essential to high performing teams. And in a positively reinforcing cycle high performing teams will have an approach that keeps these three key areas in focus.

Getting to Know One Another

Given a key element of high performing teams is complementary skills and abilities, new teams often spend time getting to know one another at this level: they identify who has relevant experience, assign roles and responsibilities, and then start work. But more is needed if you want to build interdependence and trust amongst team members.

Getting to know one another does not require off-site events or expensive psychometric tools – although some commonly used and properly researched tools such as MBTI or FIRO-B can be useful to examine preferences at work. Instead it is about recognising each of us as individuals and human beings, as well as members of a work team. For example:

  • What are my strengths and how can I best use them in this team?
  • What are my overplayed strengths and how might we mitigate them in this team?
  • What really motivates me about this goal, and how can I share that excitement with others?
  • What might disengage me about this goal, and how can others support me with that?
  • What is going on outside of work that is useful for others to know?

There are no right or wrong answers to such questions, instead the conversations they prompt allow us to really get to know the people we are working with. Some of us may feel nervous and uncomfortable about these kinds of conversations, which require us to take a risk and show our humanity and vulnerabilities. As Brené Brown (2012) says “courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen”. Moreover these kinds of conversations are tricky when team members are scattered across the globe, or even members of a different organisation who are supplying an outsourced service.  But allowing individuals time and space to really get to know each other, with role modeling from any of you in a manager or leader role, can start to build truly strong team relationships.

When to “Team-Build”

The quick, but nevertheless correct answer, is always. I have a suspicion that this is often different to what we actually do, and have been guilty myself of spending lots of time “team-building” when establishing a new team, and the rest of the time presuming it’s fine until something happens to suggest otherwise. Inevitably teams will spend more time getting to know one another, and agreeing purpose, goals, and approach, at the start of their time together. But high performing teams continually attend to and revisit these areas.

So let’s ditch the phrase “team-building”, which suggests it’s a separate activity from the task at hand. Instead let’s keep the question “we are a team, how can we be a higher performing team?” in our minds and in our team discussions as often as possible.


(A version of this article first appeared in ICAEW Finance & Management faculty People & Skills special report March 2016).



Adair, J. E. (1973). Action-centered leadership. McGraw-Hill.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin.

de Vries, M. F. K. (2011). The hedgehog effect: The secrets of building high performance teams. John Wiley & Sons.

Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (1993). The wisdom of teams: Creating the high-performance organization. Harvard Business Press.

Martin, A., & Bal, V. (2007). The state of teams. A CCL Research White Paper. Center for Creative Leadership.

Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Penguin.