Team Building Doesn’t Build Teams

Weekend retreats and touchy-feely exercises may do more to foster animosity than build teams. Instead, take some lessons from a winning volleyball coach.  

It's time someone finally said it: Most of what passes for teambuilding these days doesn't really build teams.

So why do American companies spend millions of dollars annually to make their employees go through ineffective teambuilding motions -- pushing them to walk around in blindfolds, navigate rope courses, and sit cross-legged on the floor with a pad of paper and a pack of crayons illustrating their "life paths" with their left hands? (See "The Antidote to Corporate Retreats")

Three reasons: While it's generally recognized that a great team will beat a mediocre team 99 times out of 100, little hard thinking goes on at most companies about how effective teams are actually built. Employees usually don't complain about silly teambuilding efforts, whether out of apathy or for fear of being labeled "anti-team." Finally, most teambuilding practitioners are well-meaning, sincere people whom no one wants to offend.

So if conventional teambuilding activities are largely off the mark, how does one build a great team?

My answer to this dilemma was shaped early in life. In college, I played a supporting role on a volleyball team that won the first Division I NCAA National Championship in our university's history. That 1978 championship team was made up of people who weren't the most physically-gifted athletes in the nation -- but before my eyes they merged into a force that was far greater than the sum of the players' individual abilities.
Nearly 40 years later, what I learned that season about the essence of teamwork remains one of the most important lessons of my life. Great teams -- whether composed of athletes, businesspeople, fire fighters, military commandos, or what have you -- have four essential characteristics:

  1. An intense, shared passion to achieve a specific goal. One of the most memorable hallmarks of my 1978 team was the level of intensity which the players brought to every practice and game. The atmosphere was charged with an emotional commitment that caused members of the team to constantly push each other to give everything in service of the goal.

    Far too often, a company thinks it has a teambuilding problem when what it really has is a goal problem. If you want to build a great team, make sure its members share a determined passion to accomplish something. How do you get that kind of commitment? By involving everyone in the development of the goal. Without it, all the Outward Bound trips and Kumbaya singing sessions in the world aren't going to make a bit of difference to team performance.
  2. A shared strategy to achieving the goal. It's not enough to get a bunch of people together who care deeply about reaching a goal. They need to have a strategy for attaining it. In previous columns, I have said that the best teambuilding tool ever is a good strategy that everyone buys into.

    The coach of my 1978 volleyball team laid out a detailed strategy for winning that the players bought into, mind, body, and soul. A part of the strategy was to overcome any disadvantage we had in terms of raw physical talent with a commitment to superior conditioning and training. The coach told us, "We're going to simply outwork the other guys." And he meant it -- for the next two months, the team endured a conditioning regimen so grueling that it was the talk of the campus.

    If your team isn't functioning as well as you would like, you may actually have a strategy problem. I find that when a company clarifies its goals and involves a broad cross-section of members in crafting a strategy, often its team begins to function better together. What I have learned is that if you want to increase teamwork, don't focus on the team, focus the team on the task (see "A Better Scheme for Strategic Planning")
  3. An unwavering belief in the intentions and abilities of fellow teammates. Yes, trust and respect are key. But ironically, often the best way to increase levels of trust and respect on a team is to get them focused on the goal and the strategy. That's because, if done correctly, the process of developing a strategy gets people saying what they really think. And when people say what they really think and are held accountable, trust and respect usually follow. Don't impose an atmosphere of false politeness.

    There was plenty of conflict on my 1978 team -- I even remember helping to break up a fistfight between team members on one bus trip. When people are giving their all to something, tempers tend to flare. But what struck me about the team members was the atmosphere of respect that prevailed whenever they were on the court. All of the great business teams I have observed share that same quality.
  4. A great coach. There's no getting around it, great teams usually have great coaches -- though some of the best coaches I have met in the business world operate without hierarchical authority. Marv Dunphy, the coach of my 1978 championship team, still coaches volleyball at that same university today. He has a 426-162 win-loss record -- the best in the nation for the sport -- and has gone on to win three more NCAA championships. Dunphy has also coached a U.S. team to a World Cup Championship, a World Championship, and an Olympic gold medal.

The advice I would give to anyone seeking to build a great team: Learn how to be a great coach. I have often thought that aspiring business leaders would be a lot better off if they spent less time reading management literature, and more time hanging out with people like Dunphy. The great college coaches may know more about teambuilding than anyone else in the world --after all, their leadership and teambuilding skills are measured in real time, in front of real crowds. And they start from scratch with a new team every year.