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Does team building work?

Memory Nguwi

TEAMS are required when people need to work together towards a common goal. For teamwork to have any impact, the work must be interdependent. Organisations invest a lot of money in team building. The key question is; does it work? What is at the core of successful teams? What are the best methods for building teams?

In 2012 Google in its quest to understand how teams function embarked on a project code-named Project Aristotle. They based this project on results from what scientific research has found about teams. They studied all the factors that are normally considered when building teams; personality variables, demographic variables and the level of interaction and collaboration among team members. They looked at more than 180 teams within the organisation and how they worked. They collected an enormous amount of data about each of these teams and the results are revealing.

They discovered that at the top of high performing teams is what is called psychological safety. Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson (1999) says “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” In practice, my experience supports this definition.

I have observed people in group meetings for example where they “agree” with the leadership on issues being discussed but the moment they step out of the meeting they start raising issues with their colleagues about what was being proposed. You often hear words like “it does not work”, “it’s a waste of time” and other such statements.

Such statements indicate that the leadership does not tolerate divergent views especially those that do not support the leadership proposals. As a result, such people will not support whatever cause the leadership is trying to advance. They will support the cause when the leader is present but in private, they will be doing everything possible to discredit the proposals.

To foster psychological safety in a team you need to allow team members to voice their concerns on any issues without facing prospects for follow up censure. You must create an environment where team members can acknowledge their own mistakes without being punished for disclosing those mistakes.

The team leader and all team members must create an environment that allows individual team members to take ownership of issues. Blaming others or the environment is unlikely to create the psychological safety required for the team to function effectively.

There is a lot that can be done to create psychological safety that will make sure your teams succeed. Project Aristotle by Google pointed out that out of all the other important factors about working with a successful team, psychological safety was the most important of all of them. Before you embark on that team-building exercise, assess psychological safety and work on gaps identified before wasting money climbing mountains and other such activities aimed at building teams.

In the same study, Google identified other important factors but they are less influential than psychological safety. They discovered that the team needs to have dependable team members who will deliver on their promises for the team to be successful. If team members are not reliable and renege on their side of the agreed goals and targets the team will not succeed. This includes team members honouring their commitment to delivering high-quality work for the benefit of the team.

They also identified goal clarity as one of the drivers of successful teams. When the goals for the team are clear and each team member is clear on how they connect to the team goal the team succeed. In practice, teams are set up with goals that are imposed and not agreed and naturally, the team members do not take ownership of such goals.

The third factor was whether individuals feel that what they are working on is personally meaningful. The fourth driver of team success is whether team members believe that the work they are working on matters.

I have seen people working on tasks but asking why? What is the value? When such questions are being asked by team members you will have problems with the team achieving its goals.

To build a successful team you need to incorporate findings from scientific research. If you fail to heed what scientific research says you may be wasting your time and money embarking on team-building efforts. It is very possible that your team-building efforts can be structured in such a way that all the drivers of successful teams are incorporated in your team building program. I am sure for those who have attended team building sessions sometimes you come back to the office and you see no changes in how people are collaborating.
So why repeat the same unsuccessful ways for building teams.

In the coming week, we will focus on what are the other factors to consider before embarking on your team-building efforts. For example, the personality composition of your team matters. The current social network of your team matters. We will also share insights from research on what team building approaches work.

Nguwi is an occupational psychologist, data scientist, speaker and managing consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and HR consulting firm.
https://www.linkedin.com/in/memorynguwi/ Phone +263 24 248 1 946-48/ 2290 0276, cell number +263 772 356 361 or e-mail: mnguwi@ipcconsultants.com or visit ipcconsultants.com.

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