Why Team Building Is Not a Sport

Unless your business is a sport

Spring is in the air and I can almost hear consultants and HR people planning this year’s team building events.

Maybe not this year. That’s one positive brought to us courtesy of enforced social distancing. (Not so long ago you, like me, might have wished for a bit of social distancing when forced to take part in another inane team building exercise.)

Well, maybe even this year. Never doubt the creative power of people who get paid to believe that one more group exercise will surely make you a better working-from-home-alone team player.

(If you love and miss team building exercises, unlike me, then stop reading. Else what follows will annoy you into wanting to do something about my morale. Like sending me on a team building exercise.)

Team Building Makes Me Nervous

Paddling together is great team work. (free public domain: clipart-people.com)

Team building exercises make me nervous. At best, they teach people how to do meaningless things together. At worst, they produce the opposite effect.

This happens when our focus is on team building instead of on a work-related outcome.

A focus on team building makes you want people who are good at liking each other and trusting each other and paddling well together. When you focus on outcomes, you understand that you need people who care so much about the outcome that they overcome their liking to deal with any member who is not performing.

Consider this example. A friend was once told to improve the teamwork between her staff and an important client by going river rafting together. In her own words: “Before, I thought he was an idiot. Now I know.”

So much for team building. What should have mattered was the work they produced together. Not whether they could paddle together.

The Hole Team Building Exercise

Inefficient team in action. (free public domain: clipart-people.com)

Advertising creative Norman Berry once explained that people don’t want a drill bit. They want a hole.

Remember this when you plan your next team building exercise. Then you will have a specific purpose in mind before you even think about whether your team needs sharpening.

It’s easy to be trapped into sharpening without thinking. Here’s why. The most visible result of poor teamwork is often inefficiency, whether in the form of wasted resources, wasted time or wasted effort. This is why we unthinkingly tackle team work from an efficiency perspective and end up trying to fix symptoms instead of causes.

Instead, look to the desired outcome of working together. A focus on expected results tends to uncover underlying causes, such as inappropriate systems, procedures, or management style.

Poor team work is a symptom, not a cause. Team work is the drill bit. Don’t focus on it. Focus on the outcome you want.

Business Is Not a (Team) Sport

The CEO as (sports) team leader. (free public domain: clipart-people.com)

I dislike it when sports teams are held up as models for business teams to copy. It is ridiculous for business teams to be like sports teams. And it can be dangerous. Here’s why.

Sports teams train for only one sport. Team members know exactly which sport they’re playing, how to play it and which rules apply. How simple.

Sports teams wear uniforms so that you can easily spot the competition. And they also introduce themselves as your competition before each game. How polite.

Competing teams agree to respect the umpire. Sports umpires are very visible, very loud and very strict. How reassuring.

Best of all, sports teams face only one competitor at a time, at a date, and place agreed on well in advance. How convenient.

In business, you do not have these luxuries. Therefore, I think sports teams should study how business teams do it.

Welcome to my side of the nonsense divide.