Whether it is trust exercises in the school hall, paintballing on an Inset day or drinks out on a Saturday night, pre-planned team-building exercises are the go-to for many schools.
Research has been used to support the view that they are beneficial: the idea that building a raft in the rain and then falling off it into the local pond is a great way to build bonds between colleagues.
However, the problem is that most of the research around the effectiveness of team-building exercises stems from the 1950s and 1960s and since then the world of work has changed significantly.
Today, many workplace experts and academics are sceptical about organised team-building events. Here’s why:
1. There is actually little evidence they work
“Personal social ties among team members are extremely important for trust, team cohesion and more. However, most team exercises aren't very good at building real, meaningful friendships,” says Professor Alex "Sandy" Pentland, who directs MIT's Human Dynamics Laboratory. “Those take time and have to be built on a sharing of real, mutual value.”
“Familiarity breeds familiarity – it’s a sort of social lubricant,” says Carlos Valdes-Dapena, founder of Corporate Collaboration Resources, who has published a book titled Lessons from Mars: how one global company cracked the code on high-performance collaboration and teamwork. “If we have to work together, we have to get along to a certain extent, but what you won’t see is people collaborating any more or any more effectively just because they went out and had a pint together after some bowling.”
2. They do not actually address any existing issues in the staffroom...
Liz Ryan, CEO and founder of Human Workplace, a publishing and consulting firm whose mission is to “reinvent work for people”, says: “The problem with team-building is that it ignores the root cause of whatever problem you are trying to solve through the use of team-building exercises. The root cause of your ‘teamwork problem’ is likely to be a lack of trust between the higher levels of your organisation and the lower levels. It’s cruel and pointless to drag your employees into a room and make them do team-building exercises together with the expectation that you will solve the underlying lack of trust issues – without addressing those issues.”
3. … and they do not result in a needed change of leadership culture
“You cannot force people to work as a team,” says Ryan. “If the environment were healthier than it is, you would have no time for team-building exercises and you wouldn’t need them. People naturally work as a team when they trust their managers to stand up for them and treat them like the professionals they are. An effective, productive team is the natural outgrowth of an open, healthy work environment where employees feel safe telling the truth about difficult subjects. If trust is missing from your organisation, you will not get the teamwork you seek no matter how many team-building events you put on.”
4. It is much better to just talk to each other when you work on a project together
“It goes beyond trust-building exercises and it goes beyond relationships,” says Valdes-Dapena. “It’s really very simple. If you ground the focus of the teamwork in the actual work itself, you're going to get a more rational approach to where you collaborate and where you choose not to.
“You would say, ‘Look, we’re doing project XYZ together, so let’s talk about who you are as a human being and your preferences and styles and who I am and how do we think those ways of being will have an impact on our work together. And then let’s anchor it in this very tangible deliverable that we’re both accountable for’. In that context, that’s really, really powerful."
5. If you really, really want to run a team-building day, then you had better have a workplace psychologist come along with you
“Whatever you do [in terms of team-building exercises], you need to make sure you have a workplace psychologist around to help you with it, because when you team-build, the things you do are mostly experiential, but if you don't focus in on the roles people play when they are doing these exercises and then translate that back into the work environment – i.e., the school – then it’s going to be useless,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester.
Simon Creasey is a freelance writer
This is an edited version of an article in the 16 November edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.