Being a manager isn’t easy. Along with ensuring the team delivers, you are also expected to make sure that team members get along well and are happy as part of the team. Team building activities are often recommended as a solution to keep the team’s satisfaction high. Since everyone seems to be partaking in team building activities, and teams expect them as par for the course, you might see this as a potential option for your team. But before investing in team building, there are a few important questions that we will try to answer in this summary: Do team building activities have any impact on the team? What’s the difference between an effective team building activity and one that’s just a waste of time?
What is team building?
While everyone talks about team building, what it means isn’t always clear, and that makes it difficult to study its effectiveness. Researchers who study the topic show that there is no such thing as one definition of “team building”. Instead, the term refers to a category of interventions aimed at teams. What these interventions have in common is:
Team building interventions might sound similar to teamwork training, another type of intervention aimed at helping teams work better together. However, the two are different; teamwork training is:
For more information on teamwork training, including benefits it has and how to make it more effective, check out our previous evidence summary.
Which of these two is right for your team? If you know the specific need of your team and you want to provide focused support to meet that need, then teamwork training may be best. However, if you’re looking for an intervention to improve the general functioning of the team and to raise team members’ satisfaction, then team building might be better.
What’s the evidence for team building?
So now that we know what team building is, let’s understand the evidence. In 2009, researchers from the USA published a meta-analysis based on data from over 1500 teams. The meta-analysis investigated the effects of team building on different aspects of the team:
What is team building good for?
The meta-analysis showed that people who participate in team building feel more positively about their team. This positive feeling is manifested in certain ways such as more trust for their fellow team members, more satisfaction that they’re part of the team, and more confidence that the team will achieve its objectives.
Furthermore, teams that go through team building sessions have better interactions: they communicate, coordinate and manage conflicts better. These processes are key in accomplishing the team’s task.
By now, you might think “team building is great!”. However, team building didn’t significantly improve team performance. Despite better communication and more trust being associated with enhanced team performance, team building itself doesn’t bring any considerable direct benefits in terms of performance. The reason for this might be that performance depends on other factors besides how the team interacts, such as team members’ competence or managerial support.
When does a team building session work best?
Within team building interventions, some are more effective than others. What seems to make a difference is the aim of the session: team building activities focused on setting goals or clarifying roles bring the most benefits. Setting goals refers to defining both individual and team objectives, and planning what actions to take to turn the objectives into reality. Clarifying roles means team members discuss what is and isn’t within their own responsibility and they understand their duties better.
On the other hand, team building activities focused on improving interpersonal relations or solving existing problems bring slightly smaller, but still relevant benefits. Improving interpersonal relations sees team members work on their trust in each other and building connections on a more personal level. Solving problems means identifying what doesn’t work in the team and planning on what to do to improve the situation.
Besides the focus of the team building exercise, the team size can also have an impact on how effective such interventions are. When looking at large teams with over 10 members, the researchers found that these teams benefit much more from team building than smaller teams (with less than 10 members). The reason for this is that bigger teams might have more challenges to face than smaller teams. This leaves more room for improvement in the way they work, and team building activities supply some of the help that’s needed to function well together.
Takeaways for your practice
Team building is an effective intervention if you’re looking to improve the general functioning of your team. It is an activity that’s less formal and more fun than teamwork training, but if it follows an objective, it makes team members feel better and interact more effectively with each other. To gain the most benefit from team building, here are a few ideas:
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Klein, C., DiazGranados, D., Salas, E., Le, H., Burke, C. S., Lyons, R., & Goodwin, G. F. (2009). Does team building work?. Small Group Research, 40(2), 181-222. DOI: 10.1177/1046496408328821
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