The Truth about Teambuilding>


Stuck and Mislabeled

I was stuck.

As a karate black belt and occasional climber, I was undaunted by the telephone pole in the ropes course near Santa Fe, New Mexico. I am not a fearful person. There were hand and foot holds all the way up. People were on belaying lines, so even if I fell, I would be fine. When given the signal, I had practically run up the pole and maneuvered my feet to the top. As I began to straighten up, though, the pole began to sway. I froze, trying to get my balance.

Down below, teammates yelled encouragement. “Don’t be afraid!” they called. They assumed, naturally, that I was afraid of getting hurt.

No. I was not afraid of the physical fall, but of the failure it would represent. I was afraid of embarrassment.

Now, this was not news to me. I’ve been aware I hated embarrassment since adolescence. I had actively attacked it to the degree that little could embarrass me by that point. At work, I countered the tendency by forcing myself to use the words, “I don’t know.” That way I wasn’t tempted to rationalize an answer to avoid the embarrassment of looking ignorant, which could also lead to later embarrassment if that answer proved wrong. Instead I gained credibility by going out and getting the correct answers.

Atop the pole, facing the Sangre de Christos Mountains on a pretty day, I felt humiliated. It wasn’t rational, but it was there and it hurt. Meanwhile, I wasn’t learning anything about myself, nor about my coworkers. I already trusted them not to let me die here, but that had nothing to do with whether I trusted them to keep their promises at work. Nor were they learning about me. In fact, they were making inaccurate assumptions.

This was a “teambuilding” exercise?

I eventually stood up. I returned to earth upset and resentful, however.

Indoors, the facilitators took us through some trust exercises. Our open yet respectful debates in our regular meetings made clear trust was not a problem. Without our managers’ help, we had been using best practices to create high-performance teams by completely restructuring how we worked together, an effort taking months but reaping measurable results. I suspected our generally good boss had arranged the event because other managers had done so, and he felt it was expected by his bosses and peers.

“What we did was better,” I heard in some form from a number of people afterward. Most of my colleagues agreed it was fun to take a couple days off from the normal routines, though some complained it added stress by delaying time-sensitive work. They also praised the experience in the presence of the boss. In private, however, most called it worthless. It clearly had zero impact on the function of the teams. The good feelings of camaraderie exhibited at the event returned to the normal up-and-down levels almost instantly in the regular work environment. The only person who made any reference to the exercise in workplace discussions was the boss, and that didn’t last long.

When I went into management later, I was put through a leadership course that was pretty good, except it forced us to take the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory. My graduate school training in research methods identified a number of structural problems with the test. One of its results about me was flat-out wrong, according to any friend I told. It got right that I am an introvert by nature. Yet I make a living acting extroverted, meaning anyone who treated me like an introvert on the job would be making a mistake. I questioned how someone was supposed to remember the ratings of everyone else on a team (32 ratings on a team of eight, for example). And I knew from my psychology readings that humans are notoriously bad at applying abstract information learned in a classroom to a specific situation in the moment.

These and other teambuilding experiences shared a number of questionable traits or results, including that:

  • They attempt to address long-term issues using brief activities and discussions.
  • They do so outside of the work environment using nonwork issues, and thus do not address the environmental factors contributing heavily to those issues.
  • People told the boss they liked them while the majority dismissed their value amongst themselves.
  • False information was communicated about people individually or about working in groups.
  • No one measured desired behavior changes back at work to see whether the time and money were worth the expense.

These bad personal experiences obviously biased my thinking about teambuilding. Fortunately, I had exactly the right background to test both my own biases against, and others’ rampant in, the teambuilding industry.

A Myth Buster’s Background

As a technical writer in the mid-1990s, I was given an assignment that I realized would take a high level of cooperation within and among four different groups. I had been a manager before and was aware of the difficulties. But I had also heard about a new concept known as “self-directed work teams” (SDWTs) that sounded promising. So I began reading and taking some seminars, and trained four SDWTs representing those four groups of people. Their measurable results were astounding, completely turning the organization around according to outside auditors within two years. I became hooked on empowered teams, those allowed to make decisions for themselves that a manager usually makes.

There was a problem, however. A significant amount of what I heard and read about SDWTs did not match my reading of the psychology literature, and triggered my ex-journalist’s doubts about the sources of that information. I have a master’s degree from a top-ranked journalism school, also the world’s oldest, at the Univ. of Missouri at Columbia. Investigative techniques had allowed me to expose insurance agents lying about state insurance requirements, and unequal spending on athletes by gender in a local school system. That grad-school class on research methods taught me how studies and surveys are constructed to ensure the evidence scientists gather truly supports (or doesn’t support) the ideas they had. For book-length projects I had already gone through hundreds of scientific studies or books on topics as disparate as persuasion, lying, and romantic attraction. In doing so, I learned that popular beliefs about those topics often were inaccurate, and even experts could spread false information when they strayed out of their areas of expertise. My initial readings suggested that empowered teams fit a lot of the research around motivation and interpersonal relationships, yet teambuilding trainers were getting a lot wrong, too. These were the days of the “trust fall,” a useless feel-good activity that could not have any impact back in the office according to what psychologists knew about trust. Meanwhile it harmed teams by turning members off to any kind of “teambuilding”—even the kind proven to create long-term change.

After getting promoted to project leader and creating several other SDWTs, I went out on my own in 2000 by founding a training and consulting practice, TeamTrainers™ Consulting. Like any reporter, I wanted to know the truth. As a teamwork coach, I wanted to make sure I was teaching techniques proven to help groups of people produce the most work at the lowest costs and with the least conflict. I did what my training and experience taught me to do. I hit the library. By the time I was done, I had read more than 600 sources, most of them studies or based on studies.

Science versus Consultants

That story and the reasons I took that approach are detailed in the next section of this hypertext, “Why Scientists Know More than Consultants.” The short answer is that the scientific method is built to limit the impact of subconscious biases and unconscious irrational thinking common to all humans. Successful managers can only write their books about what worked for that person in one company in one industry in one market, or at most, a few of each. Change any of those factors, and their methods might not have worked. My goal was to find techniques that were likely to work in all organizations.

Teambuilding consultants have broader experience, but the vast majority do not measure the results of their techniques objectively. They rely on testimonials from clients who by definition are not objective observers, much less trained to gather and analyze social scientific data. Even when those techniques appear to work, they might not have worked for the reasons the client or consultant wants to be true, and thus would not work for someone else. I wanted techniques anyone could use to get the same results anywhere. Also, I came to realize that consultants tended to repeat what other consultants said, instead of what had been scientifically proven, sometimes in direct contradiction of the data-derived truth.

True, some consultants are scientists. However, most of those have deep knowledge in particular segments of the teamwork science and focus their consulting in those areas. I needed the information applicable to all teams that could only result from a wide-ranging review of the scientific literature.

What I learned was eye-opening. A lot of what I’d heard about teamwork was right. Too much, however, was wrong. I wanted to share some of the knowledge (and, of course, market my consulting practice). So in those pre-blogging days I started an e-mail newsletter, TeamResearch News. Every week I would send subscribers a short summary of a study I’d reviewed related to teamwork. Meanwhile, I wrote a 500-page training program to use in my work, which quickly gave any work group the structure needed to become a high-performing team. I called it The SuddenTeams™ Program because it could put in place a structure leading to traits scientists considered helpful in as little as three weeks of full time work. In 2009 I created a do-it-yourself version because there still wasn’t a book on the market that provided sufficiently detailed instructions. (Now it is, like this “book,” a free hypertext.) Meanwhile I was training hundreds of team members and leaders.

That year I also started Teams Blog, which took my newsletter concept up a notch, providing more detailed analyses of studies with a focus on information useful to a manager or team. To keep the concept from getting too heavy, I occasionally I threw in some personal stories or talks from interesting personalities, placed in the context of the science. I’m honored to say Teams Blog got some attention in the teambuilding world, and was cited both on the Web and in print as a source of information on teamwork science.

Because I hated the sales effort required to make a consulting practice stand on its own, it usually remained a profitable side business. It was also cathartic, giving me a chance to challenge publicly the misinformation with which other speakers and bloggers were polluting leaders’ minds. By 2014, my career had morphed into Agile project management and coaching (see “The Science of Agile Teamwork“), and I was basically doing all day long what I had started TeamTrainers to do part time. Wanting a better work-life balance, I let TeamTrainers go to pursue other interests.

It seemed a shame to let so much good information go to waste, though. Plus, I continue to see myths about teambuilding get repeated that were disproven decades ago by scientists. Thus I decided to convert a selection of the posts of Teams Blog into this hypertext. My hope is to prevent managers from getting misled into wasting time and money on the quick fixes promised by most teambuilding consultants.

The majority of those consultants are well-meaning but undereducated about science and thus mistaken. A minority I have met know what they sell does not work as well as creating team structures. I consider them frauds who place earning money above doing the right thing. Now that I no longer have anything to gain financially, I hope you have even more reason to listen to my take on The Truth about Teambuilding.

Other than the “Overview” at the start of each section, each remaining article in this hypertext was originally published as a blog post between 2009 and 2014. In a few cases I added information from other articles I wrote on the TeamTrainers site. I have made minor edits throughout to update time-based statements and removed references to TeamTrainers services or Web pages that are no longer available. Otherwise the information remains as valid, and I hope as valuable to you, as it was when published. The sad truth is, scientists know what techniques make teams more productive with less conflict. But too few teambuilders do, and few leaders actually do them.

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