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What makes a high-value low-cost team? 7 answers from team expert Sarah Simpson!

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Freelance trainer, lecturer, writer and the owner of Dragontooth Training and Consultancy Sarah Simpson
Sarah Simpson: Freelance trainer, lecturer, writer and the owner of Dragontooth Training and Consultancy

1. In your new book “High-value low-cost team building activities”, you talk about the importance of building a functioning team. Why is it crucial for modern companies to focus on team building?

I am sure you will all have heard the phrase “we need to build the team” but if you ask people what this actually means you will either get a silent quizzical look, or a wide range of answers that might include “we need to all get on with each other” or “we need to be able to work better together”, but what does this actually mean?

We will all be familiar with Tuckman’s team formation (forming, norming, storming, performing and adjourning). So, team building in its strictest sense would look at the process of bringing a team together, developing roles and ‘norms’, leading it to high performance and finally debrief and feedback upon dissolution. However ‘team building’ in this context describes how can we ensure that individuals within teams and teams or departments within organizations work together in the most effective and efficient manner possible.

In many organizations today, staff are having to do more with less and this can lead to conflict, especially over resources (which include staff). Therefore, a proactive program of regular, well facilitated activities that have appropriate high quality follow up can definitely impact positively on the way; staff interact, their motivation levels, feelings of self-worth, their perceived value to the organization, retention rates and overall productivity.

I am certainly not suggesting that a ten minute game can ‘cure all ills’, but engaging teams in activities and giving them time away from their normal working environment allows issues to be explored in a ‘safe’, non-confrontational manner.

There are of course many critics of team building. Indeed many of us, including me, will have taken valuable time out during our busy working lives to take part in a so-called team building ‘game’. This may have been at best a welcome distraction from our normal duties but did it actually cause us to explore, think, discuss and plan how we could actually change our practice or way of working?

If team activities are well run and facilitated, the benefits to the modern company includes:

  • Time away from everyday work facilitates the gain of a new perspective and space to think
  • Opportunity for creative collaboration with colleagues who you may not interact with especially face-to-face , but with whom your job may rely or impact upon
  • Increased confidence and self-belief
  • Increase in productivity and efficiency – if correctly followed up
  • Learning can be greater if the environment is relaxed and away from your usual distractions – phone, email, interruptions etc.
  • Activities give people ‘permission’ to have fun without the presence of normal working boundaries (real or perceived)
  • You can gain a greater understanding of colleagues, how they think, what makes them ‘tick’ and what their skills are.
  • It is possible to come away with an increased sense that 1 + 1 > 2 (synergy)
  • Activities often produce an immediate desire to help others and increase co-operation (internal customer service). This can be further enhanced by follow up activities
  • If this activity is seen as beneficial and time well spent then any reluctance to participate in future events will be minimized

2. In your experience, what has been your best team building activity?

I hope this doesn’t sound evasive but I can’t really single out one activity. But the best team activities I have run have been those where:

  • Interaction is high
  • Staff are engaged
  • Learning outcomes are achieved in a way which is not forced, or seen as hard work
  • Activity debrief has resulted in a change of working practice

That said, anything involving an element of ‘mess’ and ‘risk’ is always amazing to facilitate….so, raw eggs work well! The debrief of these also holds a great deal of relevance in today’s economic environment. You can explore risk, process, procedure, optimism, pessimism, motivation, options appraisal and the range of verbal and non-verbal language demonstrated is endless.

3. Do you think there is an “expiration date” for teams or can teams that have existed for a long time still evolve?

Any team can of course stagnate no matter how old it is, but conversely any team can also evolve, grow and adapt.

It was Charles Darwin who said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change”

Pieter Willem Botha expressed this idea in a starker manner with “adapt or die”.

If teams don’t evolve they will be unable to respond to changes in the marketplace and will become unresponsive to the needs of their stakeholders. Long established teams can benefit from knowing each other and their interactions can be more automatic and therefore timely in nature. The increase in unwritten established norms can produce a highly effective team but without continual team ‘maintenance’ they can become stagnant. On the other hand newly established teams may still be vying for their position, may not have reached peak efficiency and established norms may not yet exist.

4. What makes a team a great team?

A great team is:

  • Focused not just ‘on the task in hand’, but also on the individuals within the team
  • Supportive of each other
  • Understanding of the contribution and expectations that members have
  • Able to take shared responsibility for reaching their goals
  • Able to recognize everyone’s needs – these might be characterized by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or Hertzberg’s Motivation – Hygiene Theory
  • Led by a leader that is congruent with the team, the task and the organization
  • Clear in its goals, strategic direction, place within the organization and overall contribution
  • Displaying high levels of trust, honesty and emotional intelligence (EI)
  • Able to recognize and show empathy
  • Displaying low levels of conflict. Remember conflict can have many positive benefits if it is managed well
  • Aware of and acts in accordance with the organization vision and mission
  • Perceived to have high levels of integrity and credibility by not only the team itself but those outside
  • Able to challenge each other without ego or power plays
  • Low on blame and high on accountability
  • Assertive and collaborative in nature. As opposed to being aggressive and uncooperative or submissive and avoiding
  • Open in its communication and active in its listening
  • Continually undertaking (Critical) Reflective Learning – What happened?, What does this mean?, What next? The process ensures redirection of negative elements and reinforcement of positive ones
  • Undertaking continual feedback. This should be; evidence based, focused on facts not attitude, specific, supportive, timely and discussion based
  • Able to recognize and deal with issues of poor or under performance quickly
  • Optimistic, not pessimistic
  • Comfortable with examining and evaluating goal success. Be that personal, team or organization

5. What are the most common challenges when it comes to team building?

The challenges are many and varied and fall into 5 categories:

  • Preparation – your activity should be well prepared, congruent with learning outcomes and not predictable
  • A slow start – everyone is different and some like to ‘get stuck in’ others prefer to take their time. The way you make up your teams can help here in breaking down barriers, encouraging conversation and putting people at ease. I find playing music during the activities helps in starting conversations and it removes any silence or the feeling that attendees are being listened to by the facilitator or other groups
  • Cultural considerations – this could be both organizational and ethnic. You should therefore be aware of; hierarchy, power and politics, symbols (for example uniforms) and activities that involve close contact with others. If you have a range of primary languages your use of slang or local phrases should also be used with caution and you can consider using translated instructions
  • Participation – there could be many objections that people put forward for not wanting to join in. These could include; embarrassment, they’ve done it before, they think it’s a waste of time or they don’t want to ‘get it wrong’. All reasons you need a great facilitator!
  • Inclusion of all – you need to ensure that all your attendees can take part so this might include you providing; variations for those with mobility issues, large print format, colored background instructions.

6. You also describe Emotional Intelligence (EI) as an essential part of team building. Why is EI so important when it comes to managing and building teams?

EI describes the ability to perceive, identify, evaluate and control our emotions. It is concerned with two elements of intelligence, namely understanding yourself and others. Your level of EI therefore affects how you: cope with work pressures, interact and respond to others, adapt to changing situations, demonstrate optimism or pessimism and manage interpersonal relationships.

We will all have no doubt experienced team members who are ‘emotionless’ or ‘like a robot’. These individuals can be hard to connect and share empathy with.

Ask yourself:

  • “how many times have you worked with someone you just didn’t like”? Or,
  • “have you ever worked with someone who you ‘clicked’ with”?

These feelings, interactions and how much we disclose to our colleagues all make up emotional intelligence. High levels of EI are associated with a small Johari hidden self-window.

If you need more confirmation of how important EI is then look no further than these examples from organizations who use this concept to recruit or develop staff:

  • The US Air Force saw recruitment savings of $3 billion per annum on recruitment costs
  • L’Oreal reduced staff turnover by 63%
  • American Express saw staff increase sales by 18.1%

7. There are a lot of things to consider when it comes to team building (e.g., goal setting, coping with change, pessimism). What should be your first step?

Oh gosh that’s a good question!

I guess this would depend on whether this was relating to a permanent team or short term task team (as in a project).

But, if I had to pick one thing on which so many others are built or underpinned it would have to be trust.

Features of a team that trusts each other are:

  • Higher levels of EI, honesty, empathy and trust
  • Blame and coverup are reduced
  • Critical reflective learning features strongly
  • Members can express their views and concerns without fear of retribution
  • An understanding that people will do what they say they will
  • No ‘hiding’ or ‘withholding’ of information as power
  • An increased sense of ‘safety’ and ‘security’

In simple terms, trust provides a solid foundation on which your team can mature and grow.

High Value, Low Cost Team Building Activities

To find out more about this topic you might want to read “High Value, Low Cost Team Building Activities”

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