Go to any nearly geographic location in the US where there’s a high density of medium and larger sized businesses and you’ll find at least one small business focused on helping these corporations with “team building events”. There’s a good chance that you are familiar with such businesses; they usually have some outdoor space dedicated to an obstacle course and have “camp counselors” who both help teams negotiate the obstacles and spark debate over various challenges the team is expected to accomplish. The courses are typically fun, the events challenging and the results for the team in the long term… well… inconsequential.
On closer inspection, this claim shouldn’t seem so surprising. Our desired results are clear, at least to us: We hope build a “better functioning team”. Often this means that we want to increase team cohesion through the fostering of shared identity born from shared experiences. The more we know each other, the better we can operate. The more time we spend together, the more likely we are to form a common identity and think of ourselves as a team. The more our team thinks of itself as a single (or common) team, the lower our levels of internal relationship conflict. The less relationship conflict we have in our team, the higher the level of team performance.
The key to creating long term identity lies in the plural of the word “experience”. A single experience simply will not foster long term identity for the team and will not produce the long term benefits we expect. Our qualitative research indicates that leaders must consistently reinforce this identity through any of a number of activities. One way to do this is to consistently reinforce (as in often – not once) team identity through shared experiences beyond the boardroom as in the case of an obstacle course. Leaders can also create this identity through the creation of a compelling vision that transcends the team – focusing the team on transformational activities greater than any individual or even the sum of individuals within the team. Such an approach also needs to occur repeatedly, as when leaders stop focusing on team identity development, the benefits of shared identity deteriorate.
Regardless of approach, identity must be nurtured over time if one wishes to harvest the benefits. Team building is a journey, not a destination.
Marty Abbott is a Managing Director of AKF Partners (www.akfpartners.com), an organization located in Fountain Hills, AZ that assists organizational teams resolve critical scale and availability issues by aligning organizational technology and product strategies with the needs of the business. He is also a Doctor of Management (DM) candidate at Case Western Reserve University and can be reached at email@example.com.