Team Building vs. Team Development

Last week I had another call from a potential client asking me to “come do team building” for their organization. I always take a breath when I get these calls and remind myself that we don’t all share the same definitions of terms around things that support our organizational cultures.

I have several questions that I ask when I get the “team building” calls:

  • Why do you believe that your work group/department/company needs team building? Are you rewarding your team for work done well? Did your boss say to do this? Are you experiencing a challenge or dilemma and you think this will solve it?
  • What are you hoping to achieve as a result of this time together? Is it to do something fun and blow off steam? To strengthen employee bonds? To solve a team dynamics issue?
  • What interpersonal and process dynamics are inhibiting team performance and cohesion? Do people throw work over-the-wall at each other with no regard for its outcome? Is there a bottleneck in work flow? Is one member of the team difficult to collaborate with?
  • Why now? When was the last time you invested in team development? How regularly and through what methods have you engaged in team development in the last few years? Has anything in particular brought you to this moment?

One of my earliest supervisors took our staff to the zoo for a day as a team builder. Her goal was to show appreciation for our hard work during the year and team bonding, and overall it was an enjoyable day. But it took me 2 days to dig out from under all of the work I missed while we were away, and it did nothing to help my colleague with 10-years of experience in our office consider anything that our younger, newer colleagues had to say in our weekly staff meetings. He still had all the answers and experience, this was still “the way we do things here”, and we all remained frustrated.

Team building is reindeer games, often without any real objective other than providing a common experience for employees. In today's work place, I don’t know of too many organizations that have the resources or the time for solely a team building experience.

While team builders have their place and can be useful for morale and maintaining cohesive employee relations, they won’t fix a team that is fractured or help 2 employees at odds suddenly find ways to collaborate. Team building is much more effective within the context of a broader team development program.

There are distinct differences between team building and team development.

Team building helps members get to know each other better, and become more personally and deeply acquainted. Characteristics of team building include:

  • A specific activity or event, but with a generalized purpose.
  • An intense duration of activity, running from a period of minutes to a day-long experience.
  • Short-term in action. They are typically run in isolation as “one-and-done” programs.
  • Generally superficial, non-confrontational and “light” in nature.
  • Designed to foster deeper relationships by finding commonality on a personal level.
  • The assistance of a professional facilitator (or at least a highly experienced facilitator from another team inside the organization) is utilized so all team members participate equally.

Team development helps the team grow and strengthen over time, and/or addresses general problem areas. Characteristics of team development include:

  • Targeting problems in resources, structures and processes; designed to foster corrective action and create permanent lasting change.
  • Highlighting and focusing on a specific impediment to team performance (i.e. “better communication”).
  • Being diffuse and on-going, as part of the team’s routine. Finding regular opportunities for continuous improvement.
  • Creating space to have difficult conversations and engage in constructive conflict.
  • Raising self-awareness and examining how each employee as an individual impacts the team (positively and negatively).
  • The assistance of a facilitator but then transitioning leadership into the team itself. Embedding a process that every team member can be trained to recognize, manage and have responsibility for.

Summarized another way: team building is fun, team development is real work. While both can be enjoyable and are essential for long term team health, team development provides a more methodical, change-oriented, and lasting impact to your organization.

Whenever I incorporate a team-focused activity into a team development workshop, I always state up front that everything I ask them to do has a purpose, and that it will be clear in the end. Group activities are carefully selected (or custom created) to address specific developmental needs within the organization. Activities/simulations directly correlate to the workplace, and are partnered with teaching, discussion, debriefing and time for questions and observations.

Let’s take a common team building activity — the raw spaghetti and marshmallow tower — and examine the learning opportunities that come from it. A straight team builder would split the audience up into groups and instruct them to build the tallest, free-standing, self-supporting tower. A winner would be declared (and perhaps prizes awarded) and then the agenda would proceed.

Within the context of a team development program, this team builder could also be used. But we wouldn’t build a tower with spaghetti and marshmallows just to see which team builds the highest tower. We build it to:

  • observe and discuss who planned it out vs. who dove right in
  • who built a solid foundation and played it safe, vs. who took a risk to emerge with the tallest structure
  • which groups persisted in the face of failure vs. who gave up
  • who simply followed directions, who didn’t follow them at all, and who got really creative and made it better than ever imagined
  • who in the group contributed and how did they contribute; who assumed leadership
  • who was quick to cast blame on others to explain their lack of success (who complained that their spaghetti was “defective” because it broke easily — yes, this has happened…)
  • who discounted someone else in the group and why; was it due to a perceived lack of expertise, a prior negative interaction, etc.
  • who provided a voice of positive reinforcement and appreciation in the group
  • which group utilized the talents and input of all members vs. who had members that were marginalized.

In a team building context we would most likely let the groups self-select their members. But as part of a larger team development program, we would intentionally pre-determine small group membership for each activity based on the dynamics of the organization, and structure those groups to provide maximum, lasting benefit back to the company.

So while I am always up for a company night at the ballpark, I’m more interested in having productive, healthy and supportive working relationships with my colleagues that contribute to the greater good. That ball game will last a couple of hours;

but a full-time employee will spend over 2,000 hours with their co-workers this year alone. At the end of the day, people want to enjoy where they work and who they work with.

After walking this caller through my philosophy, they realized they need something much deeper than simply throwing rubber chickens at each other or a company bowling night.

They have decided to make the wise investment to develop their team more comprehensively, and we are in the process of clearly defining and articulating their goals. Together, we will create a team development program to grow and strengthen their company, which will provide for the greatest, lasting impact on their day-to-day operations and the overall culture of their organization.

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