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Teambuilding, Real and Not So Much


The Familiar History of Teambuilding

Any dip into history reminds me how poor we humans are at learning from the past. An article I came across on the history of teamwork by consulting psychologists Skipton Leonard and Arthur Freedman in Consulting Psychology Journal proves the point. So many of the lessons I have tried to get across to companies have been known to work for decades, yet remain largely ignored by “teambuilders” and many managers.

Prior to the 1800s, “With the exception of music (i.e., orchestras) and the theater, there are few examples of the high levels of specialization of labor, interpersonal communication, integration of effort, cooperation, and problem solving that characterize modern teams,” the authors write. I smiled when I saw that. My first introduction to project teamwork came as a backstage “techie.” For the record, I wasn’t doing that prior to the 1800s.

Otherwise, the “work environment” was a line of orders from the king down, along with jostling for power by everyone who wasn’t trying simply to survive. Only in families was there some level of cooperation and division of labor, though again one spouse or the other usually ruled. That said, “Researchers who have studied group dynamics in the past often note the parallels with family dynamics…” Leonard and Freeman write.

In 1897, French sociologist Émile Durkheim made fairly accurate predictions about group norms—informal rules people naturally create, usually without knowing it, as they do things together. Freud touched on groups as well, but the authors credit American psychologist William McDougall as the first “teambuilder,” based on his 1920 book The Group Mind. He offered five bases for better group effort, the psychologists write:

  • “continuity of existence…”
  • “development of an emotional relationship to the group as a whole by defining the nature, composition, functions, and capacity of the group”
  • “interaction… with other groups similar to the group but differing in some key aspects”
  • “traditions, customs, and habits that define the relationships between members”
  • “a definite structure…”

Let’s stop right there. All of this perfectly matches what I teach about improving productivity through formal team structures, as in The SuddenTeams™ Program. It is backed up by decades of subsequent research after McDougall. None of it matches what most “teambuilders” force work groups to do. And most managers still refuse to address these needs 100 years after McDougall first wrote about it. (Okay, rant over.)

The middle of the last century saw the growth of “social psychology,” so-called to differentiate it from the previous focus on individuals or pairs of people. What we now call social norms, groupthink, and peer pressure were first identified. A center for group dynamics research was founded around 1946. (The center’s Web site disagrees with the authors on the date.) That year, founder Kurt Lewin and his students also hosted “a conference on intergroup relations focusing on racial and religious discrimination” sponsored by a state agency and diversity groups. It attracted a number of people who would later be important researchers in the teamwork field, including names that appear in the SuddenTeams bibliography. It may well have been the first use of the participatory training style so common today, and Leonard and Freeman say it was the birth of the field of group dynamics.

In another theatre reference, they write that Lewin conducted “shop-floor group meetings in a pajama factory (the play and then the movie ‘Pajama Game’ reputedly were based on these experiences).”

Lewin was involved in the founding of the National Training Laboratory (NTL) in Bethel, Maine, but died before he could participate in its first conference. The idea of “training groups” (“T‑groups”) began there. These, too, looked a lot like modern facilitated trainings (versus lectures) and presented the first diversity trainings. Many future teamwork researchers passed through the NTL. “Leaders from educational, religious, community, and business organizations came to Bethel each summer for several intense weeks of training aimed at improving… their effectiveness as individuals and change agents in society and organizations,” the authors write. “Bethel converts returned to their institutions and introduced flip-charts, innovative seating arrangements, and programs that balanced theory input with experiential learning modules.”

Ideas prevalent today moved from the lab into businesses. “Herb Shepard and Bob Blake, in their work with an Esso refinery, developed a managerial grid based on structured, leaderless groups in the late 1950s and called their approach ‘organization development'” (OD). I had to bite my tongue a few years ago when an HR person called self-directed teams “passé” as if they were a recent fad.

The upheavals of the 1960s in the U.S. caused a cynicism about the possibility of large system change. Social psychologists focused more at the small group level where change seemed reasonable, the authors write. Researchers began to note the effect that job tasks had on organization (instead of the other way around), and developed a “sociotechnical” approach to OD that recognized how tasks, technology and organization evolve together.

“By 1972, the necessary theory and methodologies for practical, large-scale teambuilding programs were in place,” Leonard and Freeman write. Unfortunately, a series of handbooks on teambuilding introduced the “touchie-feelie” approach that was fun but “much less effective in accomplishing significant personal or team transformations.” Sound familiar? Not if you listen to most teambuilding consultants.

The authors write, “many participants experienced teambuilding as enjoyable, enlightening, and useful in improving intragroup relations but much less effective in accomplishing significant personal or team transformations… Line management considered these programs to be mostly irrelevant because they used so-called touchie-feelie exercises that were perceived as merely fun and games.” The journal article includes a Dilbert cartoon in which Dilbert asks, while cutting out paper dolls blindfolded, “Are you sure we’ll cry and hug?” Facilitator Dogbert replies, “Actually, hugging is iffy.”

Organizational development (OD) experts recognized the limitations of the touchie-feelie approach, which grew out of 1960s “encounter groups,” and noted a disconnect between teambuilders and managers. The former focused on relationships and how people were working together, such as their norms and decision-making processes. Managers “were more interested in setting goals and priorities and analyzing or allocating the way work was performed,” Leonard and Freedman write. I’ll note that these priorities do not have to be mutually exclusive; in fact, high-performance teams usually invest time in both.

The sense that people will play nice if they are taught to, ignoring the realities of competition and power struggles in the working world, came under challenge, a good thing. But corporate culture harmed teamwork in ways that seem depressingly current. Read these quotes about the 1970s from the article and tell me how much has changed:

  • “The typical organization… was hierarchically organized, with firm boundaries between functional silos and a compensation policy that rewarded individual rather than team performance.”
  • “Excited teambuilders frequently turned despondent” upon seeing positive team changes “evaporate within weeks (sometime days or hours) of the return of participants to their work units.”
  • “Furthermore, the typical reward systems provided incentives for individual rather than team-oriented behavior and contributions. Employees and managers did what was inspected and measured…”
  • “Many managers gave lip service to teamwork but were reluctant to walk the talk.”

Deep down, people were and are afraid of teamwork because they “‘think it will render them anonymous, invisible…'”

Leonard and Freedman assert that the economic realities of the 1980s turned things around. The U.S. was in the worst recession prior to the recent one, plus inflation was high, while former enemies Germany and Japan became economic powerhouses. Businesses responded by changing their basic models, eliminating lifelong employment expectations, and reducing layers of middle of management. “The span of control for most managers reached levels that ruled out the old command and control style of management,” the article says. “Without the guarantee of employment, management needed to develop new approaches to motivate and empower employees.”

Team approaches became more common, including “self-managing production teams,” cross-functional teams, and the quality circles of Total Quality Management. (As the article notes, TQM started in America, was ignored, and came to favor here only after Japan used it in that country’s spectacular postwar rebirth.) Silo-busting, team-focused organizations became more typical and switched to team-based pay and rewards.

As the old personnel departments morphed into “human resources” and added OD to their responsibilities, some teambuilders came to realize they had to be more strategic in their approach, Leonard and Freedman write. Researchers “called for more consultation with teams in the process of doing their work” and stressed the need to do team development within the context of company goals and issues. How sad it is that 25 years later, some HR managers still resist this idea (see Caldwell 2004 below) and HR and training groups have to continue to sponsor workshops on “strategic alignment.”

Frankly, any top manager would be foolhardy to support efforts that don’t feed the company’s goals. That means, in turn, HR and training folks are foolish to push such efforts without creating measures that show alignment.

In the 1990s, the authors write, team-based structures became more commonplace in part because IT companies adopted them. “Owing to the spectacular success of these corporations in the global marketplace, organizations of all varieties—from low tech smokestack industries to governmental agencies and educational institutions—enthusiastically embraced team-based structures in efforts to improve productivity and quality,” they report.

However, almost all of the books on teamwork were based on the experiences of their authors as team developers, not on hard science about what works and what doesn’t. Even the book I most often recommend as a starting point for those interested in teams (other than my own, of course), was based primarily on its authors’ work at consulting firm McKinsey and analysis of Gulf War logistics operations (The Wisdom of Teams, 1994.) Solid research on teamwork had dropped by the wayside. Most university researchers even gave up membership in the National Training Laboratory. This parallels my constant griping that many consultants seem out of touch with the science, which I’ll repeat shortly.

Leonard and Freedman’s journal article was published in 2000, so we can see if their advice for the “future” was heeded in the succeeding years, as quoted below (italics added).

“1. Don’t oversimplify the process.”

Leonard and Freedman recognize the need for easily understood concepts, but say teambuilders must know and address the complexity of group dynamics. Too often consultants try to make team development seem easy, and it simply isn’t. An example is the overuse of the “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing” model first proposed in 1965. Unfortunately, this is still quoted as gospel by too many presenters and teambuilders. It was never claimed to be anything more than a proposal. Subsequent research has shown that teams can be in various phases at once and the curve through them is rarely smooth. Also, with proper development the “Storming” phase is not inevitable. It is too simple, and simply not accurate.

“2. Start studying teams as they exist and function in real-life contexts today.”

This, I’m happy to say, has become more prevalent in research over the past decade. For example, research on business project teams in automotive and railway companies has influenced my work. A study in a large bank showed that good teamwork was more important to branch performance than diversity training.

“3. Practitioners need to revive their historically active partnership with researchers.”

Amen. The biggest barrier to my marketing efforts for TeamTrainers were the myths that continue to be spread by many in the teambuilding industry who don’t take the time to learn the science. On the research side, however, too many studies are still simply “correlational,” as Leonard and Freedman lament. That is, they merely describe high-performance teams at a given point of time or rely on participants’ recollections instead of using more sophisticated methods to detail what caused that high performance. A lot of my recommendations are built on likely results based on the science combined with my real-world experiences in multiple organizations. I’d rather they were all based on studies that compared monetized performance of similar teams at Point A to performance of the same teams at Point B (and C) with just one change in the way those teams were operated. Then we’d know much better whether that change worked and was the difference.

“4. The research and theory regarding teams needs to move beyond the linear, homeostatic view of organizational systems.”

In other words, much of the research has viewed organizations as progressing in a straightforward way that works toward internal balance. Have you ever worked in one of those? I’m sorry to say there has not yet begun to be enough research into how the corporate culture limits team performance, or how teams react to and cause changes in the corporate environment, or the role of decisions by some upper managers. My definition of a high-performance team says that the team performs as well as it can given its environment. The classic example is when a company declares itself “team-based” but continues to give raises and bonuses based on individual performance. Said company should not be surprised when people then put their own agendas ahead of the team’s.

“5. Finally, researchers and practitioners need to have a better appreciation for the history of research and theory regarding teams.”

That’s part of the reason for this longer-than-normal topic. Much of what we think is new is not, and much of what we need to know is known. If you’re a manager and want better teamwork, it’s just a matter of learning what really works and applying it. If you don’t want it, then you are wasting your company’s money and causing yourself and others unnecessary pain. Have the courage to admit team leadership is not your thing and find a position that will be healthier for you and the team.


  • Leonard, H. S., and A. Freedman (2000), “From scientific management through fun and games to high performing teams: A historical perspective on consulting to team-based organizations,” Consulting Psychology Journal 52(1):3.
  • Caldwell, R. (2004), “Rhetoric, Facts and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Exploring Practitioners’ Perceptions of Progress in Implementing HRM,” Industrial Relations Journal 35(3):196.

Scientists’ Review Raises Problems with Teambuilding

Two of the most respected researchers at the nexus of psychology and management wrote in a 2006 research review, “while it is true that there is much we psychologists do not yet know about team effectiveness, there is much that we do.” The challenge, they said, is sifting through the literature to find out the team traits that matter and that you can impact as a leader. Steve Kozlowski is a professor of organizational psychology, and Daniel Ilgen a professor of psychology and management, at Michigan State Univ. I was excited to learn these two had reviewed a bunch of studies to draw conclusions about the state of the science. I was less excited to learn it was around 70 pages in a large-format journal, but it confirmed information discussed in this hypertext while also providing some reasons to question popular teambuilding services.

First let’s review what they say we do and don’t know about team traits, using scientific terms I’ll put in italics. They wrote there is strong scientific support for the idea that “shared mental models are associated with team effectiveness.” These refer to the joint understanding team members have about equipment and tools, the team’s task, “appropriate or effective processes,” and “what individual members know and believe …” This is one reason helping the team create its own procedures is part of my teambuilding method.

I’ve written about group cohesion, but didn’t realize the concept has been around since at least 1950. Teams whose members are committed to the task and each other tend to behave in ways that enhance performance and efficiency. Less clear is the direct connection to measurable performance, the professors wrote. The difference may seem subtle, but it matters because behaviors are mostly under members’ control. The results of those behaviors are not, because outcomes can be affected by outside forces. More importantly, we don’t know which comes first. Does cohesion create good performance? Or does good performance create cohesion? Despite the loads of advice in the blogosphere about how to make people feel connected, there is little objective evidence about what you can do to create cohesion, or whether you should try.

I’ve talked about group efficacy, a team’s belief it can attain a specific task, and group potency, the team’s belief in its general ability. Kozlowski and Ilgen said these are related to performance, but like cohesion, we don’t know what leads to them. Based on research into how an individual develops self-efficacy, other researchers have suggested “teams that are exposed to difficult challenges they can master, that have opportunities to observe effective and ineffective teams, and that are persuaded that they can persist and succeed are more likely to develop team efficacy…” the professors reported.

You don’t need me or any scientists to tell you that team member moods can be contagious. Teams with a generally good shared emotional state appear to have less absenteeism and conflict, while bad states make people less likely to help their colleagues, Kozlowski and Ilgen wrote. Unfortunately, again, there is little research on how to cause better group-wide emotional states.

The professors have something to say to those who claim conflict is a good thing: “At the current time… recommendations to promote conflict of any sort would seem to be premature.” That’s an understatement. I was in the “conflict is good” camp in the early days of TeamTrainers, but based on a landmark 2003 study they mention and my experience with teams, I jumped off the bandwagon. For that study, two researchers ran statistical tests on 30 studies published since 1994. Both task conflict and personal or “relationship” conflict—not just the latter—hurt team performance. Both types also hurt worker satisfaction, though relationship conflict was worse. Conflict generally had a stronger effect on teams doing nonroutine work like projects, versus those whose work was fairly routine like factory production work. This may be because of time pressures or because the decisions made were more complex.

Those researchers noted there may be circumstances where task conflict is helpful, but only if team members are very open and trusting with each other. Their bottom-line conclusion: “it seems safe to stop assuming… task conflict improves team performance.”

Kozlowski and Ilgen concur. “In general, we suggest that team members should possess interpersonal skills to build trust and to minimize and manage conflict—both task and interpersonal—when they arise,” these experts said.

Although team performance is often treated as a result, a noun, Kozlowski and Ilgen took the position it’s a verb. “What teams do—their actions to strive toward goals, resolve task demands, coordinate effort, and adapt to the unexpected—constitute team performance.” The key components are coordination, cooperation, and communication, they said. A critical factor in supporting the Three Cs is team members’ skills for working together and for managing their work. Fortunately, initial studies show these can be developed through training.

As discussed later on this page, not all work groups should be teams. “A basic prescription of team design is not to form teams if the task can be accomplished by individuals operating independently—a prescription often violated in practice….” Kozlowski and Ilgen wrote. You waste time, money, and worker goodwill when you try to force teambuilding where it isn’t warranted.

In fact, Kozlowski and Ilgen addressed a number of gripes I have with the teambuilding industry, writing that:

  • Despite consultant claims to the contrary, no one has come up with a good model for selecting members for a team, “particularly when one considers the many different demographic, ability, personality, cultural, and other characteristics that may be important to team composition…”
  • There is little objective proof the computerized tools for supporting teamwork work, and “these tools tend to get designed without a clear understanding of their implications for team processes, behavior, and effectiveness.”
  • Most research has been either inconclusive or shown no support for spending money on standard teambuilding activities as opposed to in-depth team training. “Given the inconsistent findings for teambuilding in prior work, we advise caution…” Kozlowski and Ilgen said.
  • Like the performance claims often made for those activities, the usual criteria used to measure leader effectiveness is followers’ perceptions rather than hard data such as productivity or cost measures.
  • They wrote that “most leadership theories and research do not explicitly focus on team settings; the theories tend to be presented as more generally applicable across people, settings, and levels.” The skills needed to lead an enterprise, team, and individual are overlapping but distinct sets.
  • Related to that, they added, “organizations need to develop team-centric policies and practices to support team processes. Instead, policies and practices are much more likely to focus on individual employees…”

The single biggest lesson of the study is “buyer beware.” Just because a teambuilding activity is popular doesn’t mean it works, or works for the reasons its sellers say it does. The actions proven to raise your team’s output or lower its costs and stress require time and self-discipline, not a one-day retreat.


  • De Dreu, C., and L. Weingart (03), “Task Versus Relationship Conflict, Team Performance, and Team Member Satisfaction: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Applied Psychology 88(4): 741
  • Kozlowski, S., and D. Ilgen (2006), “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Work Groups and Teams,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 7(3):77.

Teambuilding Finally Gets Scientific Support

Teambuilders don’t want to admit there is little objective evidence teambuilding works. Reports that it does come from people like me, and the people who pay people like me, all of whom have a vested interest in it working. Few teambuilders bother to create metrics proving a measurable change occurred, as I like to, and fewer customers are willing to pay for tracking those metrics. It has bothered me that I could not point to a study done by scientists with nothing to gain showing that team development impacts team performance. Then I came across a promising study title from 2009: “Does Teambuilding Work?”

An army of scientists from the Univ. of Central Florida and the U.S. Army Research Institute said in their article in Small Group Research that recent study results were mixed at best, with many studies showing no impact. So they searched for every study of teambuilding interventions that measured performance from a 47-year period. Their 2009 analysis of data from 103 studies conducted between 1950 and 2007 provided the strongest scientific evidence to date that teambuilding can have measurable, positive effects on team performance. There is, however, a major catch: These results depend on how you define “teambuilding.”

By looking at a larger number of studies and data, the team says it was “beginning to find some positive empirical support for the effectiveness of these commonly applied team-development strategies.” The researchers specifically looked at activities “typically done in settings that do not approximate the actual performance environment.” In other words, they are not practicing their job skills together. These activities range from “outdoor experiential activities” to “group process discussions.”

The researchers ended up with 60 correlations between the different variables they looked at, including the goal of the each study and the size of the team. Teambuilding had the weakest impact, if any, on how the team thought (“cognition”). It had moderate effects on how people felt about their teams, as the researchers expected, but the research team was surprised to see an equally strong effect in improving processes. However, the authors point out, you can improve a process without improving the outcome or performance of the process. Indeed, the link between teambuilding and performance was not as strong as it was for process, but it was positive. The researchers estimated the true correlations, after allowing for some statistical issues, to be 0.44 between teambuilding and both processes and feelings, 0.26 for performance, and 0.13 for cognition.

The goal of the teambuilding made a difference. Goal-setting and role-clarifying activities had the strongest impact, at an estimated 0.37 and 0.35 respectively, but the team also found positive results for interpersonal relations and problem-solving, at 0.26 and 0.24. Team size made a difference, with teams of 10 or more people gaining far greater benefit than smaller ones. The authors attribute this to larger teams having more problems and thus more room to improve. They suggest that managers pay attention to the specific problems their teams are facing, outcomes they desire, and team sizes in deciding whether to do teambuilding and what type.

To sum up, the researchers state that teams which had performed teambuilding activities also had better processes, and their members felt better about their teams. Performance was stronger, too, but the correlation was not as high. You can have better satisfaction and processes without having better measurable performance, obviously. Teambuilding had a weak impact on the team’s thinking processes (cognition). The overall impact of teambuilding was much stronger for teams with ten or more members, probably because they had more problems and thus more room for improvement.

Teambuilding aimed at setting team goals and clarifying roles was better than activities that tried to improve interpersonal relations or problem-solving. This is consistent with my observations, though I am biased. My approach focuses on goals and roles; teaches problem-solving only in context of solving the team’s actual task issues; and only targets interpersonal problems directly as a last resort. Fixing group dynamics eliminates most person-to-person issues while providing more bang for the team’s bucks.

All of that is good news for anyone trying to convince someone to do teambuilding. But don’t get too excited. There are many limitations to this encouraging study. As best I can tell after rereading the same paragraphs five times, it does not differentiate between the games- and ropes-courses method of teambuilding and approaches like mine that help team members agree on formal structures and processes. This disappointed me, since it won’t help prospects choose between these approaches.

The study does not prove that the teambuilding activities caused the positive outcomes. In theory, it could be that teams with high performance are more likely to do teambuilding, perhaps because their efficiency gives them more time for it. Or other factors might encourage both better team performance and more teambuilding, and thus be the root causes. Based on my experience, I think that is part of the story, but those factors are not enough to create high-performance teamwork.

Then there’s the problem of the “intervention effect,” the teamwork equivalent of the placebo effect in medicine. Drug studies can’t just compare people who took a drug with those who didn’t. They have to compare those who took the drug with, for example, people who took a pill that looked like the drug but was made of plain sugar (a “placebo”). Usually the people given placebos do better than those who took nothing. If the drug takers did no better than the placebo takers, it’s back to the lab for the drug maker. By the same token, there is some evidence that doing anything for a team makes the team perform better for a while, perhaps because the employees are happy just to be noticed. Have everybody stand on their heads for a minute and they might report higher morale (until they get back to work).

Nonetheless, all of you with managers or employees (or clients) who refuse to do teambuilding now have some solid ammunition from nearly 50 years of research. In my experience, resistors have experienced something like a team rafting trip that brought no lasting results back at work. Or they were forced to take personality tests that were inaccurate if not harmful. Teambuilding works, the UCF research team says. You simply have to choose the kinds that directly target the problems you are facing.

Source: Klein, C., et al. (09), “Does Teambuilding Work?” Small Group Research 40(2):181.

What is a “Team?” The Answer Matters to You

I was at a luncheon chatting with two workers for the State of North Carolina. After they found out about my scientific approach to teambuilding, they began asking some very specific questions. Clearly something was bothering them about their workplace. One of them said something like, “I keep hearing all this talk about teamwork, but I don’t see a ‘team.'” Both were irritated by the constant push for teamwork where they didn’t sense a need for it. I asked a couple of questions:

  • Do you have to interact with colleagues a lot to get your individual tasks done?
  • Does your “team” have people with different functions on it?

Their answer was “no” to both. Everyone on the team did the exact same thing. They occasionally asked advice of each other, but their individual projects were unique to the point where they really couldn’t help each other, and one member’s tasks did not feed into another’s.

“The reason you don’t see a ‘team’ is because you don’t have one,” I think I said. “And you’ll be glad to know you don’t need one.”

Researchers say there’s a difference between teams and what some call “work groups.” Scientists differ on the details, but here are some common team characteristics:

  • Small size, around five to 15 people.
  • High levels of cooperation required for members to complete their work.
  • A well-understood sense of purpose.
  • A sense of accountability to each other.
  • Formal agreements on team behaviors, procedures, and work processes.

The definition that is probably the most cited in the research literature is from The Wisdom of Teams: “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” Each of these things must be true for the group to be what I call a “true team,” but a basic team exists if the group is small, the jobs are somewhat interdependent, and the members have a common purpose.

Work groups are an appropriate form of organization in many settings. The classic example is a sales team, but other examples where work groups can be the best option are lawyers, accountants, financial advisers and real estate agents. Depending on a number of environmental factors, though, a formal team could be the right structure in those fields as well. The first step of my teambuilding program was to determine whether a team structure was appropriate for the client’s group. If not, teambuilding is a waste of time and money.

People-skills coach Kate Nasser was kind enough to ask for my comments on a post about self-sufficient team members on her always thought-provoking blog, Smart SenseAbilities. The excellent core question in her post was, “Do you prefer high performing self-sufficient team members even if they resist input and help from others?” She accurately pointed out several potential pitfalls to leaving that kind of person on the team. I started my comment with the point about work groups versus teams. If the person didn’t want to play on the team but added more value than his or her total costs (“including manager’s time”), I say find them an individual contributor (IC) position in the company. In hindsight, I should have asked a more fundamental question, “Is the ‘team’ really a team?” If instead it is just a work group of ICs, you simply have an individual performance problem that has nothing to do with teamwork. But if you have a team and the rogue will not improve their teamwork, get them off the bus, as the current jargon puts it. If your company is not structured for IC positions, that means firing them (after trying a formal performance improvement plan, of course). Especially in today’s market, it will not be hard to find someone with sufficient technical skills plus the teamwork orientation to add more value over time than the cost of the firing and hiring.

Some readers might be bothered by the idea of terminating a good technical performer just for lousy people skills. It’s a “sum is greater than the parts” argument. I have seen in the research and in my work that one rogue, no matter how good an IC they are, can pull down the performance of the rest of the team to the point where the rogue negates his or her individual value. Steve McConnell, author of Code Complete, often referred to as the software developer’s bible, wrote in another work that a “study of 31 software projects found that the greatest single contributor to overall productivity was team cohesiveness.” One rogue is sufficient to end cohesiveness, and other factors linked to team performance.

Meanwhile, please do yourself and me a favor. If your team is not really a team, stop calling it one. You’re not only losing credibility with the rest of the group, you’re making them skeptical about teamwork in general. People like me and Kate run into enough of that already, despite the overwhelming evidence that in the right situations true teams trump work groups every time.


  • Katzenbach, J., and D. Smith (1993), The Wisdom Of Teams. Harper Business: New York.
  • McConnell, S. (2004), Professional Software Development. Pearson Education: Boston.

Your “Team” Might Never Need Teambuilding

Related to the previous topic, another study provided more evidence that doing teambuilding could actually hurt a group’s performance. Any group will benefit from some attention to interpersonal skills, but if it doesn’t need to be a true “team,” it doesn’t need most of the teambuilding activities consultants try to sell.

I wrote these words in the Wake Forest Coffee Company, a coffee shop in a small town in North Carolina. The owner posted on a sign one of the best examples of a mission statement I have seen: “To encourage friendships for the betterment of our community through the crafting and consumption of delicious beverages.” It is a single short sentence, easily memorized, and actively applied. The owner told me every decision they made had to fit that mission. On a Saturday morning off a quiet main street, as I wrote there were 12 people in line waiting patiently, a sign of success.

Every business unit from the company level to your group needs a mission statement. But Wake Forest Coffee Company did not need teambuilding because it would never have a “team.” One barista was efficiently doing everything she could to accomplish the mission. An extra barista would have been helpful at that moment, but they would either split up tasks or take turns doing the entire job. The people who worked there did not depend on each other to get their jobs done. The staff’s tasks were not “interdependent,” a key factor in deciding whether a group is a true “team.”

Researchers from Texas A&M Univ., the Air Force Research Laboratory, and a communications systems firm say in a 2012 journal article their peers have been “remiss” in the attention paid this concept. So too have most managers.

The authors view “task work interdependence (i.e., ‘teamness’) in terms of (a) the extent to which and (b) the manner in which team members must exchange information and resources (i.e., work together) to successfully complete their tasks and jobs.” They explain “teamness” can be viewed “at the level of tasks (e.g., performing an appendectomy is more team based than is mowing a lawn) or at the level of jobs (e.g., commercial pilot is more team based than commercial truck driver).” This matters because analysis of task interdependence “can be used to design jobs, create selection systems, identify specific types of teams, choose training interventions, understand performance problems, and better measure specific aspects of performance.”

The researchers are trying to create a way to measure interdependence through a series of studies. The research setting for this one was pretty cool: combat scenarios in flight simulators involving “140 F-16 fighter pilots in 35 four-person teams.” Teams earned scores based on their success at protecting their home bases from attacking aircraft, plus the number of enemy aircraft downed versus their own losses. For the study, the pilots and nine instructors rated 35 tasks on:

  • “team relatedness”—“the extent to which working with members of the team is required for the optimal performance of your individual specified tasks…”
  • “team workflow”—“the paths by which work and/or information flows through the team in order to optimally perform your individual specified tasks…”

Workflow was illustrated by a graphic showing five levels, from “Not a team task/activity” through assembly line work to tasks where everybody cooperates with everybody intensely.

Team and instructor ratings were compared to each other, and the team ratings to their simulation scores. The important result for the researchers was that people could separate highly interdependent tasks from less-so ones, and also that relatedness and workflow ratings were linked but different. That is, the amount and type of interdependence can differ from task to task, but each contributes to a metric you could use to rate the need for teamwork.

The pilots and instructors differed from each other on the level of overall interdependence of two tasks, and on either relatedness or workflow of 13 tasks. In every case the pilots thought the task required more teamwork than the experts did. The authors mention that “this finding resulted in interesting discussions at the training site” as to why tasks trained as independent were perceived as interdependent. And here’s the kicker: the teams that differed the most with the instructors had the worst scores.

The authors offer no explanation, but I can guess. If individuals are (a) waiting on team members before they start tasks they could do by themselves, or (b) blaming problems in individual tasks on lack of cooperation that wasn’t really needed, overall team output will suffer. Managers may contribute to these problems by emphasizing teamwork where it isn’t needed, or demanding “better cooperation” without specifying the tasks in which it is needed. The authors say, “remedial and developmental interventions—such as teambuilding and process consultation—that are directed at team performance may be misplaced if the level of interdependence is so low that team performance resides primarily at the level of the individual and not at the team level.”

This study provides yet more evidence of an argument I have long made: Teambuilding is not needed by every group of workers. Training firms that sell these services without assessing the need are at best incompetent and at worst committing fraud. Don’t be a victim. Asses how and how often your team members interact to complete their jobs, and only get training specific to your group’s needs. Meanwhile, be careful when throwing around words like “team” and “cooperate.” Make sure they really apply to the situation, or you may make worse the issue you are trying to solve.

One way to do this is to go to the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*Net* site and click, “Find Occupations.” Find each of the jobs represented in your group. Read through the “Work Activities” section and see what percentage require cooperating with others. For example, under “Business Intelligence Analysts,” four out of 10 (40%) specify working with peers, and a fifth about planning work probably requires it. For “Historian” only 30% do, and for “Laborers,” only 20%. (I’m not counting working with the public or teaching, just activities involving peers.)

“Athletes and Sports Competitors,” a reasonable standard for a true team, are at 50%. The lower your jobs’ percentages, the less you need to focus on teambuilding.

Source: Arthur, W., et al. (2012), “Team Task Analysis: Differentiating Between Tasks Using Team Relatedness and Team Workflow as Metrics of Team Task Interdependence,” Human Factors 54(2):277.

Why Standard Teambuilding Does Not Work

When you are tempted or told to do some “teambuilding,” you have a stark choice:

  • Fix the issue that prompted the thought, or
  • Waste your time and money.

The scientific evidence is overwhelming that standard teambuilding does not work, and given how adults learn, could not work. The teambuilding industry is built on the quicksand of mass delusion among purveyors and buyers. By “teambuilding,” I am referring to occasional exercises, games, personality tests, drum circles, scavenger hunts, ropes courses, and so on. When I say it “does not work,” I mean the activity has no lasting positive impact on the team. In other words, standard teambuilding provides less return than you invest even if all you invest is time (i.e., you get zero or negative ROI).

Worse, when team members see managers resort to these activities rather than fixing the problems, that is seen as “lip service” or a “Band-Aid approach” and drives morale downward. I have found zero scientific studies showing that any of the actions I listed above provide a benefit. I can say this, first, of the 600 mostly scientific sources I’ve read, exactly one asserted support for teambuilding as defined above. That one was thoroughly debunked later in the same journal (per “The Shaky Foundation of Myers-Briggs”). Second, to double-check, I searched two databases of journal articles covering hundreds of journals and going back decades, one focused on psychology and the other on business articles. I used every relevant keyword I could think of: not just “teambuilding,” but ropes, games, exercises, and such. Zero journal articles showing this kind of teambuilding works turned up.

Of course, there are plenty of supporting claims in the popular business literature—the books and magazines you can pick up at any bookstore. You will also hear managers and consultants weave tales of successful teambuilding events. But these have to be taken with a grain of salt for several reasons. One, clearly, is self-interest: A company or consultant who earns money selling these things, and a manager talked into spending money on one, both have reasons to:

  • interpret team actions after the event as “changes,” positive ones at that;
  • assume those changes were due to the teambuilding;
  • assume the team members see them as positive (or that members asked directly are willing to speak honestly); and
  • assume the changes will last.

This doesn’t mean these managers are stupid or bad at what they do. Studies that put self-serving perceptions up against measurement by objective outsiders routinely show the perceiver is wrong. It’s a built-in human bias, which is why I double-checked my anti-teambuilding stance using the database review even though my opinion grew out of my in-depth literature review, not just personal experiences.

Success stories are “anecdotal evidence,” which has often been proven inaccurate when tested scientifically. Along with the other problems, even if teambuilding worked in one instance, that doesn’t mean it usually does. Give the worst hitter on a baseball team enough at-bats, and eventually they’ll get a hit. When a lottery winner says, “I just knew I was going to win,” no one asks how many of the non-winners thought the same thing… or how many times the winner thought they would win and didn’t… or whether the winner is unconsciously creating that memory based on prior weeks.

What I have never seen in one of these business stories about a teambuilding event are data from measurable goals or analysis to show the success was not due to other factors. If a sales team did a teambuilding event last month, and their sales went up this month, is that due to the teambuilding or the fact that the economy is picking up? At least sales teams have quantifiable performance measures. I have yet to see a team of software engineers create objectively measurable performance standards before a teambuilding event, then retest them immediately after and three months after (as scientific studies sometimes do) to see if there were lasting positive changes.

One reason stereotypical teambuilding does not work is it violates the most basic tenets of adult learning. A pioneer of the field, Malcolm Knowles, said adults require among other traits that the training be relevant and practical. Unless your team is a troupe of drummers, a drum circle is not going be relevant to their work. Lessons arising from a scavenger hunt are not practical because they are not easily recognized and applied when a similar issue arises at work.

Life experience provides other reasons teambuilding can’t work. Did you master golf or cooking after a single lesson? Do you want to fly with a pilot who has only played “Flight Simulator?” Of course not. Taking a team out for a “morale boosting” day of go-kart racing, when the next day you’re going to put them right back in the situation that is lowering their morale, simply defies logic. Even if you can remember the results of someone’s personality test during a conflict, that abstract knowledge isn’t easily translated into a specific situation. Much easier to apply is a list of agreed-upon behaviors with a safe enforcement method, plus a formal plan for what will be communicated and when. Why? Humans are not great at applying the abstract to the specific, but we learn and apply behavior-based rules every day.

The researcher-authors of the influential team development book The Wisdom of Teams wrote elsewhere, “Sending a bunch of men and women on an (outdoor) course to simulate teaming may be fun, but it doesn’t accomplish much” (Katzenbach & Smith 1993). Adult learning is enhanced by fun, and the teams I work with get plenty of laughs. But fun should not be the emphasis when you are trying to accomplish something serious. And if you don’t accomplish that something, don’t permanently solve the issue, you’re going to be killing a lot more fun at work over the course of a week than you can give them in an afternoon of Lego play.

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