Teambuilding at Work

One good thing about the slow economy is that organizations are no longer spending money on extras such as teambuilding sessions. Those sessions typically come in two styles: physical challenges such as ropes courses or shooting rapids; or touchy-feely sessions where you’re supposed to confess your deepest, darkest secrets to your co-workers, and then hug and sing “Kumbaya.” Yech.

I hate both kinds of teambuilding. The physical sessions favor tall and strong athletic people. (I’m not tall.) The emotional sessions create an environment that I find inappropriate for work.

So, if you’d like to build your team, to forge your staff into a group of people who work together well, what do you do? Take a typical teambuilding session, remove the calisthenics and group hugs, and you’re left with a framework that you can apply to any team, anywhere:

  1. Define a clear, common goal that the group can accomplish only together and in a limited time.
  2. Set up situations in which the team participates in a variety of activities to achieve the goal.
  3. Debrief the activities so that people can learn from their behaviors, and can express the value other people bring to the team.

You can use any work problem as a teambuilding activity. Start with a small goal that you can accomplish in a one-hour group meeting, such as developing an audition for a technical candidate. An audition is a type of interview in which the candidate shows you how they work, by doing such things as writing a defect report or designing a fix.

At the beginning of the meeting, state the goal: Develop an audition for X position. Spend five to ten minutes brainstorming with your staff about what kinds of behaviors they’d like demonstrated in an audition. Narrow the list, if necessary, by asking grouping and elimination questions. Once you have the list, give the team ten to fifteen minutes to design the audition. If you have more than five people in your team, break into smaller groups to work in parallel.

(Check the time. Did your group need more time for one or more of these steps? If so, and you’re at the end of your one-hour group meeting, adjourn. People benefit from having more time to think about what they did and what they want to do next. At the next meeting, remind everyone where you left off and move to the next step.)

Next, evaluate the auditions. If you were working in multiple teams, have each team present to the others. If you have only one team, the team will evaluate themselves. Ask questions such as “What did you like?” “What are your concerns?” and “What are some alternative questions or tasks?” Some may rework their audition based on the answers.

Finally, have the teams practice the auditions. Choose an interviewer and a candidate. The rest of the team should watch silently as the candidate walks through the audition. At the end, the interviewer debriefs the candidate, asking questions such as these:

  • What stood out for you?
  • How was this activity for you?
  • What insights does this give you?
  • What is one thing you will do differently?

At the end of the exercise, you will have at least one audition for interviewing new staff. And you’ll have a team that has spent time working on a small task with a clear outcome, using a variety of activities. If you’d like to wrap up their learning, ask the debriefing questions again, this time focused on the team activities, not the audition.

There’s no reason we can’t practice teambuilding at work. But let’s leave the ropes courses and mushy songs for non-work activities—and don’t invite me.

© 2003 Johanna Rothman. This article was published in STQE, July/August 2003 P. 64.

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