Is team building really a good idea?

With the arrival of spring and the end of sanitary restrictions comes the desire to get together, celebrate successes, motivate and reinforce cohesion, if possible outside the usual company framework.

The first idea that comes to mind is often the organization of a team building event. This semi-professional, semi-fun format has more or less always existed, but it really developed as a heavy trend in the 1960s and 1970s. We therefore have several decades of hindsight on this practice. And yet, do we always use it wisely?

If you are a manager, director or entrepreneur, should you offer team building to your teams? What do you expect from it? Do you see it as a way to improve the functioning and cohesion of your team?

These are questions that can cause a lot of ink to flow, for several reasons:

  • There is always the famous chicken and egg dilemma: for a team to function, should we focus on personal bonds first or on operational and organizational aspects first?
  • Team building events polarize a lot: on one side, we have the ultra-optimists (the candids?) and on the other the resolutely anti team building (the cynics?).
  • Taking stock of a team building is not an easy task since the initial objectives and intentions are often vague and the post event chatter often sounds the same "it was great, let’s do it again, can't wait for the next one , I loved it, thank you”.

We will first confront the candid and the cynical, at the risk of deliberately falling into caricature.

Then we will try to share a few tips that can easily be implemented to make the most of team building events.

Team building: for or against?

team building pros and cons

A benevolent look at team building

Heard in corridors: "It's common sense, we work all year round like crazy, we need to decompress and strengthen cohesion, let's organize a team building event. In addition, teams love it, it's really a great reward, and if you can travel or do an unusual activity, it's even better...".

Team building combines several interesting notions: the importance of interpersonal relations at work, the need to create spaces for informal meetings, to get to know one's colleagues in order to develop empathy and cooperation, and to put things into perspective by taking time to breathe.

If these are the objectives, is a team building event really to be preferred to an afterwork event, a bbq lunch, a sports session, or a fun event such as a cooking workshop?

Team building, at the crossroads of professional and personal spheres

We feel that the border is very porous between professional and personal aspects of team building. This is something to think about when you've worked hard to arrange childcare for your young children to go to the said seminar that takes over the weekend and when you return to work on Monday and are struggling to deal with the backlog of tasks, while nursing your sprain/cold/hangover and keeping a low profile at home where your partner will have managed everything during your absence.

Here are a few questions to help you find the limit between personal and professional: is the team building event compulsory or not? Set during working hours or outside? During the week or the weekend? What activities are scheduled? How long is the getaway? Are there any working times scheduled? Has the management team planned any communication?

The line between professional and personal is very porous when it comes to team building, and to put it simply:

If it falls more in the nature of informal meetings and volunteering, outside working hours, we are more in the field of personal activity, even leisure.

If the scale tips on the other side, it is a professional event. It is precisely this mixture of genres that the cynics criticize.

When team buildings are misused: cynical criticism.

In an attempt to remain perfectly neutral, I will quote third parties who have conceptualized team building and more broadly the functioning of organizations.

Let's first listen to the sociologist Danièle Linhart who explains that seminars aim to recreate collective energy, but an ad hoc collective energy, which is interesting for the company. The staging of affective, emotional and intimate dimensions are done to the detriment of professionalism. She even goes as far as to see in these team bonding events a way for companies to “create the conditions of docility and conviviality”.

For Christophe Dejours, also a sociologist, seminars and team buildings are akin to "playful devices, marked by puerility and infantilism. They are regressive. They are a powerful way to prevent mature conversations".

“The strategy of infantile regression is a prefabricated method, ready to use, provided for in the organization of work itself. He speaks of "a psychic ready-to-wear designed, introduced and offered by management". In short, “games and bread”! - The Choice, Suffering at Work is not Fatality.

As for Arnaud Tonnelé , he stresses about risky or sensational activities, which can sometimes be offered as team building, as they increase the peer pressure of the group on everyone. Finally, “where team building should create trust and cohesion, it creates mistrust and fear. The team paradoxically becomes a dangerous place since you can't really express yourself there.” Scenario: is it better to go tree climbing while fighting against vertigo, or to stay on the ground distributing bottles of water to brave athletes? - 65 Tools to support individual and collective change

But then what to do?

How to give team building back their former glory?

🔮 Include team building in an wider strategy

There is a lot to be gained by including team building activities in a more global strategy.

For example, do you know how to observe and analyze the dynamics of your team (interpersonal links, modes of operation, etc.)? In my opinion, this is an interesting prerequisite before committing costs and time to the organization of an isolated team building.

Team building, from a strategic point of view, has above all the function of strengthening ties in a large group, of reinforcing a feeling of belonging in particular.

However, imagine that the initial analysis of team dynamics has brought to light, not a collective bonding issue, but an interpersonal conflict or suffering related to an overload of work.

Quick looking forward exercise: by going on a team building activity or seminar with overworked colleagues or people in conflict, there is a risk of a really uncertain result... In particular, a team in which people have no ties will not go from 0 to 100% in bonding because they have spent half a day out of the office.

Back to strategy. Once the initial analysis of the major and priority needs of the team has been carried out, why not establish an action plan, which could possibly include team building activities if it corresponds to a specific objective and intention, alternating with other formats (meetings, workshops, training, role-playing or simulations, etc.) also adapted to the issues targeted?

🧭 Identify the goal of a team building event and share it

This stems from the strategy.

If it’s your budget, you want to make a profitable investment. Spending time and money on isolated, unprepared, uncontextualized team building activities is a shame... Include the "team building" element in a more global strategy with a clear intention, and the investment of all your resources (human, financial, time and material) can quickly become very relevant.

On D-Day, the intention in which the team-building is carried out will be transmitted to the teams by taking a step back and verbalizing goals for the team.

Even designers of lego-type business games, board games, and role-playing games, explain that "playing for playing" is of little interest. The objective underlying the choice of game is paramount. The game makes it possible to take a step back from the problems of everyday life in a secure framework, to then return to it through a playful experience. The transition to the explicit, as Arnaud Tonnelé indicates in 5 Tools to support individual and collective change, is this time of hindsight, reflection, questioning: "How does what we have just done together tell us something about the team? of our operation? What does this tell us about the way the roles between us fit together, how decisions are made (or not)? ". This transcription also makes it possible to better anchor and consolidate new learning or behavior.

🤝 Distinguish co-presence from cooperation and cohesion

team work

To promote cooperation and cohesion at work, "the coffee machine is not everything". I borrow this expression from the researcher Suzy Canivenc, who unravels certain shortcuts countering the co-presence of all kinds of so-called natural virtues.

No, it is not enough to gather around a coffee machine, nor is it to leave in the same coach for an excursion between colleagues for cooperation and cohesion to take hold. It would be known if it was true.

More seriously, all companies confronted with these face-to-face / remote / synchronous / asynchronous questions are now fairly uniformly tending towards the same conclusion: "together at the same time in the same place, why not, but with what intention, with what objective, for what? ". Conversely, coming to the open space to be one meter away from your colleagues, each under their helmet, is more like synchronized absence than fertile co-presence.

⚙️ Reintegrate team building into a routine

Routine may seem unglamorous to you.

But building a team is a progressive, daily, continuous effort… a routine in short!

Without forgetting that very often, before "building" a team, you should already be careful not to "destroy" it! Team destroying 364 days a year and team building 1 day a year would really be the magic recipe for going into the wall.

To build and support your team on a daily basis:

🙌 Accept spontaneous initiatives
There is not the “true big expensive and distant annual seminar” on the one hand, and the spontaneous initiatives around a few croissants on the other.

🎯 Set up a system of collective objectives and recognition
Today we hope that a team works and "plays collectively", yet it is generally individualistic solutions that are used: individual assessments, individual coaching, training, salary grids... Reintegrating team building into a routine would aim to put in place value the sources of performance and fluidity found in the teams, considering them as a whole that is more than the sum of the parts.

🏗 Build your team on solid foundations
Building your team on a daily basis means knowing how to give it a reliable, clear, virtuous ecosystem, composed in particular of several elements:

  • Legible governance,
  • Clear roles and scopes,
  • A common vision and objectives,
  • Flows of circulation of information that are understandable, accepted, fruitful, shared,
  • An ambitious managerial strategy (trained managers, in support of their teams, aligned with collective objectives, etc.),
  • A human resources policy allowing the team to be built, from recruitment to onboarding, including the remuneration policy, the organization of regular interviews, career and skills development, training, etc.

These elements have a priori nothing to do with a team building, but they make it possible to build a solid, committed, efficient team, simply by starting with its foundations.

😇 Take care of your team regularly without waiting for a crisis
We do not tackle the ascent of Everest once a year when we take our car all year round to do 100 meters.

In the same way, the annual seminar will have a very bitter flavor if the long-awaited annual interview has been postponed 3 times, then botched.

So be sure to maintain the regularity of your team building actions. It is not time wasted, but time invested.

To conclude: team building activities, more or less?

Playful team-building once a year has been practiced for decades. It may allow you to decompress. It will not really be able to fulfill other objectives if it is not integrated into a more global strategy for improving team functioning.

So why persevere with this isolated team building format? This is what the Palo Alto school calls “always more of the same thing”. "We have done everything, we now do two seminars a year, with more activities, further, longer, and in addition we no longer work a single minute during this time", yet the team does not work, does not don't function as a collective…

The supporters of the Palo Alto school would then propose to try something else, or at least to stop doing more and more of the same thing. And why not strategic, regular, long-lasting team building, which may or may not include “team building” times?