The Tug of War Over Teambuilding

Paul Nolan

 “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation.”

The statement above, or rather an iteration of it, was first published in a pamphlet in 1670. Over the centuries, it was recycled, rephrased and regurgitated until it somehow became misidentified as a quote from Plato. Corporate America cares little about the true source or even the original phrasing of this tenet, but it does embrace the concept that play can be an effective means of developing individual work-related skills while building esprit de corps.

Companies have incorporated play (aka teambuilding) into a broad range of employee training and retention strategies. It’s not a stretch to state that nine out of 10 people in today’s work force have been exposed to some form of teambuilding. It is used during onboarding, downsizing and everything in between. It is frequently done away from the workplace in attempt to capture workers while they are in a different mindset. Teambuilding events often are a centerpiece of group incentive travel programs.

Mixed responses
How one reacts to the term depends in large part on his or her own experience with it. For many, teambuilding elicits groans because the exercises they have participated in have been puerile and unrelated to work.

“My personal experience is that it was always forced, cheesy and produced dubious outcomes, if any,” says David Jacobson, a former event planner who founded his own teambuilding company — TrivWorks — in 2009. The company stages customized trivia contests for corporate groups.

How do trivia contests build skills that transfer to the workplace? Jacobson says he completes a deep dive into each company’s culture and works closely with company representatives ahead of time to develop clear objectives that can be built into the overall experience.

Defining clear goals and sharing them with all participants is essential. “Teambuilding may be the wrong word for it,” says David Adler, CEO and founder of BizBash, a Web-based source of information, innovation and insights for meeting and event planners. “Teambuilding is collaboration training more than teambuilding. It’s about how you turn a community into a tribe.”

“It’s important, if you’re really going about teambuilding in an authentic way, that you’re honest with people — that they understand they are not just there to play a game,” adds Mike Veny, a New York-based musician whose company, Unleash Your Groove, builds team exercises around percussion games.

Adler also recommends taking the “team” out of teambuilding at some point during every exercise to create time for self-reflection. “Adding time to discover not only how you team build, but how you act with yourself is critical — just asking, ‘What are you thinking about at this moment? What are you feeling? How would you like to change?’ ”

Competitive fun
Samantha Crosby, chief marketing officer for Tyler Technologies, a provider of enterprise software to state and local governments, says teambuilding has been part of her management approach since she joined the company eight years ago, and even prior to that when she worked at Dell. Crosby leads a team of about 50 marketing-side employees. She builds teambuilding activities into an annual offsite and develops additional exercises for smaller groups throughout the year. Competition plays a key role in most of her activities.

“As a general rule, I try to look for opportunities and events that will challenge the individuals and really force them to use their collaboration skills and their problem-solving skills in a unique way,” Crosby says. “Some of the best teambuilding activities will take people out of their comfort zones and put them in an environment they are not familiar with or not used to. To me, that’s the real purpose of teambuilding. It’s really about pushing them to learn how to more effectively communicate and learn how to collaborate with different personality types to problem solve.”

One successful teambuilding activity Crosby put together recently mimicked the reality TV competition “Top Chef.” While at an offsite in San Antonio, she split her group into smaller teams and used the commercial kitchen at San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Each team had to plan out a meal using specific ingredients available to them in a common pantry and refrigerator. They had a limited amount of time and could only send one person to the pantry to collect ingredients.

“The key here is when you are faced with a project where you’re not given a lot of information, you have to deal with a lot of ambiguity, ask the right questions and gather the right information in order to finish the project,” Crosby says. “I think that directly correlates to people’s work environments. You see how quickly people can adapt, how they can problem solve and how they can look for direction or clarity when it’s not presented upfront to them.”

Crosby conducts a debriefing immediately following these teambuilding exercises to see what the participants liked and didn’t like and plans the next event accordingly.

TrivWorks’ Jacobson also feels that competition among co-workers can be especially bonding.

“I’ve done this for every type of industry you can imagine, highly competitive finance workers and lawyers, to nonprofit workers and others you may not consider to be highly competitive. Once these events get started, people get into it. They just want to win. It taps into something. They love the energy of a lively, good-natured contest.”

Crosby says even when competitions aren’t planned during Tyler Technologies’ annual excursion for top salespeople, a challenge inevitably breaks out. “Every year, someone seems to organize a beach volleyball game or golf tournament.”

The search for ROI
At some point, it’s natural to want to determine return on investment of teambuilding investments. Surveying participants after every exercise and encouraging them to be blunt will provide valuable insights. In some respects, states Dan Graham, CEO of Austin, Texas-based, teambuilding is a leap of faith.

“It’s a tough question to answer as ROI is, in a sense, incalculable,” Graham wrote in an Austin Business Journal article published earlier this year. “The experiences, moments, learning opportunities and growing pains that occur during team building events are not something that you can put a number against. However, the culture that is championed and reinforced through this kind of bonding is one that can translate to huge, long-term ROI over the entire company. Culture promotes positive retention and collaboration. In turn, positive retention and collaboration promotes efficient and effective workflow, and efficient and effective workflow promotes growth and scalability.

“When you take the time to build your team’s interpersonal relationships you’ll find the result is really something immeasurable, but immediately noticeable,” Graham continues. “So forget the spreadsheet, get out of the office and start fostering that emotional growth.”