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How to lead a successful team building exercise

Andrea O’Driscoll
24 February 2012 4 minute readShare

Done well, team building exercises can boost productivity and morale across your business. Done badly, they can leave your employees cringing with embarrassment. Andrea O'Driscoll looks at what makes a good one, and what to avoid.

Team building exercises have developed something of a reputation among the modern workforce. A recent article in UK newspaper the Telegraph cited a survey conducted by Vodafone UK and market research firm YouGov which suggests that workers find some organised team-building activities can be a waste of time, and at worst, are toe-curlingly embarrassing. The research among more than 1,000 British employees uncovered some excruciating examples of awkward team-building activities, including bikini-clad 'bed baths' and massages from colleagues, holding lingerie parties and eating locusts as part of a ‘Bush Tucker Trial’. But done well, team building exercises can help change employee behaviour and improve outcomes across your business.

The team that plays together...

So what makes for a good team building exercise? According to Philip Owens of Resourced Leaders, “Teams exist in different developmental stages, and a cookie cutter approach to team building often misses the mark. For example, teams in the first team phase (Inclusion) benefit from socialising and ‘bonding’ activities. Simple social get-togethers such as dinners or lunches serve as excellent inclusion-style activities. In the second stage (Control), activities should focus on problem solving and allowing the individuals to define where they stand in the group. Treasure hunts and team challenges (raft building, team sports, quiz nights) are some examples of ‘Control’ stage activities. In the third stage (Openness), activities should focus on self-disclosure, interpersonal dynamics and expression. Interpersonal activities, feedback and gratitude circles, or social service challenges encourage participants to expose more of themselves and are great activities to enhance openness and authenticity.”

Of course, the most important thing, regardless of what stage your team is at, is to ensure that any benefits gleaned from the exercise are transferred directly to the workplace. Philip Pryor, the director of Morphthink, has worked closely with the National Learning Institute and specializes in teams. He believes the hallmarks of a good team building exercise are that, “It must be relevant to what the team is experiencing in work and the learning must have direct application back to their workplace. This is the challenge with many outdoor team building exercises as, while they are great fun, getting the direct links back to work is sometimes a challenge. A good exercise mimics and then accentuates the current team dynamics so that people get a concentrated 'look' at how they work as a team and therefore what they would like to do differently.”

Most people agree that the more targeted a team building exercise is, the more likely it is to reach its objectives. It’s important to decide on a desired outcome before choosing which activity to engage in and to remain focused on that goal. Emily Jaksch and Sarah Hudson of the HR Gurus put it like this: “Team building exercises should be linked to an objective or outcome that the leader is trying achieve. If the exercise is simply held for the sake of some lofty attempt to build team morale it loses impact. There needs to be an underlying message or lesson, this could include “being accountable”, “managing conflict” or even “effective communication.” Secondly good team building exercises are designed to create a safe environment for people to learn, not only about themselves but about their team mates.”

Creating the right environment for team building is just one of the roles that falls to the leader of the exercise. According to Pryor, “The facilitator is there to create the right context for the learning, make sure people are able to see the purpose and aim of what and why they are doing the exercise, keep people safe and of course link the learning from the exercise to the workplace. They need to keep things internally consistent and fair; if people feel they are just been jerked around or manipulated they will switch off very quickly.”

Jaksch and Hudson believe that some of the most common mistakes made by the leaders of team building exercises are to over-emphasise their involvement and not allow the rest of the team the space to interact and not ensuring that the exercise is culturally appropriate to those taking part. “Common mistakes include the leader “taking over” or “railroading” the session, which defeats the purpose of the exercise which should be about bringing your people together to work as a team, learn about one and another and have fun! Another error is to use over the top American exercises that send Australian participants into melt down. Needless to say you need to ensure that the language and style of the exercise are specifically tailored to your audience. If you are working with blue collar employees, lose the over-the-top corporate jargon.”

Measuring the success of a team building exercise, and your role within it, can be difficult, but according to Owens the results can be self-evident. “Although it is difficult to measure the exact return on investment of such ‘soft’ activities, well-run team building exercises speed up the transition to an open, performing team, overcome challenges that the team are having and increase both the quality and quantity of outputs. I have seen teams go from fractured to over-performing in two days of facilitation and intensive ‘team repair’. New teams can become so much more productive sooner if team building is done right.”

Pryor agrees that gauging the success of an exercise is difficult. “It is hard. The initial measure is the how people feel about the whole experience after it’s finished. They should have enjoyed it, found it challenging and feel like they learned something. Getting changes to really stick back at work takes a lot more follow up and quality facilitation afterwards to get people to identify specific behaviours they will do differently.”

The possible rewards for your efforts, however, are an efficient, cohesive team that is focussed on its objectives and clear on how to reach them. Done well, team building can help people define their role within an organisation and motivate them to fulfil it to the utmost of their abilities.

How to lead a successful team building exercise
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Andrea O’Driscoll

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