When we hear about team-building, it’s often in the form of cringe-inducing exercises like trust falls, athletic events like rope-climbing that many people dread, or other practices that can easily cross over into violating people’s comfort and even dignity. (Read about 10 of the worst team-building exercises we’ve heard of here.) So what are you to do if you’re a manager looking for a way to build a sense of team on your staff?
First, ask yourself whether team-building is really what’s necessary. Managers sometimes turn to team-building to fix communication, cooperation, or morale problems, but it’s rarely the right solution for those kinds of challenges. Those types of problems usually require a solution at the management and systemic level; an afternoon playing paintball or doing ice-breakers isn’t going to mend management challenges. And in fact, introducing team-building in those contexts can actually make the problems worse, because employees will be frustrated that they’re being asked to spend their time on activities that read as frivolous while the real issue goes unaddressed.
But if you’re sure that cultivating more of a sense of team and unity is truly what your staff needs, then think about team-building through measures like the following:
- Creating ways for your team members to get to know each other better, without violating anyone’s privacy or dignity. This means remembering that what’s fun for some people (like public performances or athletic competitions) is misery for others. Look for things that are voluntary and low-key.
- Creating opportunities for team members to get a deeper understanding of each other’s work. People don't always have a good sense of what their colleagues are working on or what value they’re bringing to the organization, and increasing that understanding can make people appreciate their team members in new ways. But be careful – the solution to this isn’t to institute lengthy staff meetings where everyone recites a list of what they’re working on (which tends to just put people to sleep or make them antsy to get back to work). Instead, try using your role at the hub to spot opportunities to share information or connect people.
- Creating ways for team members to have meaningful input into the direction of the team. This doesn’t mean that you should open up every decision to a vote, but rather you should seek out and truly welcome people’s feedback into strategy and process, as well as whatever problems you’re grappling with at any given time. In fact, many artificial team-building exercises are built around group problem-solving, like having to solve a maze or build a balloon castle; skip the artificial activities and delve as a group in real-world problems your team is facing.
- Establishing rituals. Any positive, shared experience can become a ritual. For instance, you might start holding optional monthly brown-bags about interesting developments in your field or start doing champagne toasts after major projects finish (with non-alcoholic alternatives available for those who prefer them).
And for anything you’re doing with the intention of team-building, ask yourself: Specifically how is this going to help our team get better results? If you can’t answer that, that’s a flag to rethink the plan.