Team Building Isn’t An Activity

Team Building Isn't An Activity

Start typing the phrase “team building…” into any search engine and the auto-populate feature will spring to action with a dozen of different varieties of the phrase “team building activities.” Your search results will yield dozes of millions of webpages offering team building activities, virtual team building activities, offsite team building activities, quick team building activities, and so many more.

But all of these articles, and much of our own thinking, rests on an assumption that was really never tested—and when it finally was it was debunked.

Team building is not an activity.

I know this might be hard to receive. You’ve been to team building activities, afterall. You’ve been made to scale the ropes course or figure out how to lay down beams and cross an imaginary river. You’ve done the trivia games and social hours on Zoom. Those were referred to as team building activities. And yes, they were activities.

But if we’re being honest, they weren’t really that effective at team building. Were they?

The research suggests that the effectiveness of team-building activities is all over the board. What’s effective for one team is ineffective for another. But amidst all the variance and noise is a subtle suggestion in the data: that what matters is how similar to real world work the activity is. Without similarity to the tasks a team faces, there’s no real way to apply any lessons learned and no triggers for new behavior once the team goes back to work.

Said better: team building isn’t an activity, it’s a habit.

And unless the chosen activity changes a team’s habits, it probably wasn’t worth the effort. Moreover, perhaps it would have been better to focus on team habit building in the first place. So, in this article, we’ll outline three habits leaders can start to build that will better build the team as well.

Provide Structure and Clarity

The first team building habit for leaders to develop is to provide structure and clarity regularly. Structure and clarity means helping everyone on the team know what it expected of them, but also what is expected of everyone else on the team. It means each team member knows the others’ knowledge, skills, abilities, assignments, and deadlines. They know what they’re supposed to deliver and how to help if needed.

One of the fastest ways to build structure and clarity on a team is to start a regular huddle. A huddle is a simple way that teams circle together and give each other a status update. It could be an in-person or virtual meeting, but it could also be an email template, form, or a channel on the team’s chat tool. In a huddle, each team member updates the others by answering a few quick questions like: what did I just complete? What am I focused on next? What is blocking my progress? (Those questions are adapted from the “scrum” in agile teams; you’re welcome to steal them or adapt and make them your own.) Over time, the huddle teaches the team to “work out loud” so everyone knows what everyone is doing and this creates greater opportunities for collaboration.

Find Unstructured Time

The second team building habit for leaders is to find unstructured time. We’ve all experienced unstructured time at work. It’s those small talk hallway chats, or the larger conversations in the break room or sharing a meal with a few members of the team. Unstructured time is the time when a team is together with no plan and talking about nonwork issues. That might sound like something really ineffective—like a waste of time—but it’s the unstructured time when people build bonds on a team. When people feel free to talk about their lives outside of work, they end up finding “uncommon commonalities” with the people they work with. Uncommon commonalities are things they have in common with each other, that few else on the team or company have. Uncommon commonalities are the beginnings of bonds that build teams.

The easiest way to find unstructured time that can bond your team together no matter where they are is before meetings. Whether your meetings are in-person or held virtually, make it a point to tell the team you’ll be there a few minutes before start time in case anyone is running early and just wants to chat. Over time, more and more members of the team will develop the habit of being early so that they can socialize with their team members and connect over uncommon commonalities.

Discuss Purpose Often

The final team building habit for leaders is to discuss purpose often. We know from mountains of research that purpose in the job is a powerful motivator—and that a large enough purpose can bond a team together. But we also know that most employees are not experiencing a big enough sense of purpose in their work. It may be easy for a lot of managers to dismiss purpose because, not every company can be a disruptive innovator or an international for-benefit company. But every person in every job can experience some level of purpose by understanding how their role fits into the larger organization or who specifically is helped by their work.

The most potent way leaders help their teams experience purpose is by capturing the stories that help that understanding. This could be by collecting stories of customers who are helped by the work the team does, or it could be by connecting the team with internal customers—people inside the organization who benefit from the work of the team. It doesn’t take much to get people to feel purpose; it takes a small conversation held often.

Perhaps the best part of each of these habits, is that they don’t cost much to start building. In fact, it doesn’t cost anything but short amounts of time. Huddles and unstructured time can be quick habits added onto the regular work week. And purpose is something that can be shared daily in just a few minutes. But these habits add up quickly. And the leaders who build these habits will start building a team that can do its best work ever.





About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

2 thoughts on “Team Building Isn’t An Activity”

  1. I love the way you present this and 100% agree with the habit vs. activity description. Also agree with the benefits of huddles although the Zoom/Teams/virtual (COVID) world has decreased their effectiveness a little in my organization. Thanks for a great article!

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