Step away from the Lego – Why classroom exercises don’t add up to team building

The best way to train your staff to really work as a team, so you’re tackling the real issues you have as a leader. Kate Mercer explains…

Who do you call if a pipe is leaking? A plumber, right? You don’t call an electrician. And when he turns up, you don’t expect him to build a hypothetical model of the structure of your pipework and work on that, leaving you to sort out the actual problem yourself. You expect him to get stuck in and repair the pipe – don’t you?

Yet this is exactly what business leaders often do when tackling the issue of building their teams. They may be faced with problems like:

  • People not cooperating with each other so information and problems fall through the cracks
  • Team members not doing what they say they will do, so every meeting is exactly like the one before and you never seem to get any further forward
  • Job roles intersecting badly, so they either overlap, causing people to tread on each other’s toes, or leave gaps so things don’t get done
  • Gossip, blame, excuses and finger-pointing in the team

And where do they go for a solution? To one of three places:

  1. Activity-based ‘team building’ events, such as outdoor activities (nothing like dangling someone off the end of a rope to improve communications in the office!)
  2. Classroom-based ‘team development training’ where a number of games, role-plays, case studies and exercises are used to enable the team to analyse what’s going on
  3. Social activities, like away days, group outings and meals together (in the hope that if people get to know each other better, the problems back on the job will miraculously evaporate)

What’s wrong with that, you might ask. You’ve probably had to sit through your fair share of freezing cold outdoor team building, toe-curlingly embarrassing training exercises, and stilted social events. It’s their turn now, surely? Anyway what’s the problem with these, and what’s the alternative?

What’s the problem?

Well, think back to the issue of calling in the electrician when your pipes are leaking. You don’t need an electrician; you need a plumber. Your team is, in some respects of its behaviour, dysfunctional. Calling in the outdoor pursuits specialists (option 1) isn’t going to solve the problem. Likewise, music-making, drumming, cookery or any other creative alternatives fall into the same trap – you don’t need a cook, a florist, an artist – or an electrician. You need a plumber.

‘Ok’, you might naturally think,’ then I’ll approach a trainer who’ll run a day on teams and how they work, including lots of sexy, entertaining, creative ideas for getting the training across (option 2 above)’. Your team, depending on its members’ tastes, may or may not enjoy building Lego towers and creating models out of drinking straws and vegetables (all examples in this article are available out there!), or doing case studies and role play exercises, but there’s one huge problem with this approach.

There’s a huge gap between operating as a team completing a jigsaw puzzle in a classroom, and functioning effectively, collaboratively and tolerantly back in the real world of your workplace, with all its history, unresolved issues and limitations. It’s called the learning gap, and though it can be bridged to some degree by skilful facilitation, wouldn’t it be better to arrange things so there was no gap at all?

The same problem applies to arranging social events (option 3), with the additional problem that you are now placing too much expectation on a simple social event. Individuals will feel they have to attend and to mind what they say and do, and you will expect things to improve back at the office. Your staff will end up resenting the expectation and you’ll end up resenting the fact that you spent all that money and nothing changed. Not all work colleagues want to socialise together – and it’s not essential. If you want to build a team, do team building.

So what’s the alternative?

The alternative is to find a proper team development specialist, who knows how to address issues between people head on, in a series of natural, real conversations with the whole team, and you, in the room. Expect this person to ask lots of questions of you and the rest of the team in setting up the process.

You also need an activity for the team to work on together, or there is no reason for them to be a team. But run a mile if your facilitator starts talking about exercises, case studies or games. How about activities you should all be working on together anyway – like developing your strategy, creating your business plan for next year, or clarifying your roles and how they intersect with each other?

Using real work tasks in this way, with skilled facilitation, team members learn how they communicate, operate in meetings, collaborate to get things done and make decisions – and all the time they are achieving useful results because they are working on real tasks.

You may worry that your team and you will find a pared-down process like this boring, but in years of running such events, we have yet to find a group of people who don’t find it fascinating. People love talking about themselves and their issues anyway, especially if the result is real changes in behaviour, and results which stick over the months and years following the event.

And that’s what is really important at the end of the day – not getting to know each other better (though it’s great to do this), not being entertained (though we all like to have fun), and not a better level of understanding of team dynamics, interesting though this might be.

What’s really important is results: real changes in behaviour, so people make promises they mean, and deliver on them. So the finger pointing and complaining stops and people work together to invent lasting solutions that stick. And so work begins to run smoothly and organically and be a source of pleasure and satisfaction in its own right.

Then, if you all want to, by all means go off for the weekend. Engage in whatever activity turns you on, and have a slap up meal at the end of the day – you’ll really have something to celebrate.

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