Team Building? Or Team Busting?

I started drafting this post on Tuesday evening. Tomorrow morning the Ashes start. I’m absolutely certain that by the time you read this on Friday the match situation will be as follows:

England        500 all out

Australia      157-7

How can it be anything else? The England squad have been on a four day trip to Spain. They’ve been mountain-biking, played golf and met the new coach. The Aussies – seriously, what do they know – have warmed up for the cricket by… well, playing cricket.

There is, I suppose, the tiny possibility that it could go wrong. Sadly the ECB has a long history of pre-Ashes boot camps: they haven’t always gone according to the script…

2013/2014 Staffordshire. Kevin Pietersen described it as “a shambles” and the team lost the Ashes 5-0

2010/2011 Bavaria. Jimmy Anderson broke a rib and Graham Swann called it the “worst four days of my life.” But the team still won the series 3-1

2009 Flanders. Ravi Bopara lost his passport and Freddie Flintoff came off second best in a contest with the local beer. No matter: England won 2-1

So much for sport – in fact we’d better turn away from sport fairly quickly: right now hundreds of professional footballers are setting off on pre-season tours. Freddie’s problems will soon be eclipsed…

What about business? Team building exercises, bonding sessions and away days are endemic throughout the corporate world. I’ve spent a couple of days in a remarkably fine hotel and I’ve spent a couple of days in a tent – both in the belief that my team and I would ultimately perform better and the company’s bottom line would benefit.


But do team building exercises work? Do they really strengthen bonds and trust between colleagues and benefit the company?

A survey published in the Telegraph suggests that the answer is a resounding ‘no’ – that team building exercises leave people feeling awkward around colleagues and less than impressed by a company they feel has wasted time and money.

Instead of benefiting from events like bungee jumping or kart racing, the survey showed that employees simply wanted better, more open collaboration at work. And that ‘trust’ exercises – such as being blindfolded and led by colleagues – were derided as irrelevant and embarrassing.

“British companies are spending a huge amount of time and effort [and money] in building more effective teams,” said a Vodafone director. “The research confirms that people place more value on open, collaborative and flexible ways of working, rather than one-off exercises.”

So with those two days in the tent a – thankfully – distant memory, what do I think?

With the economy picking up team building will be back on the agenda: it seems to appear and disappear as the economy waxes and wanes. In my experience it’s one of the first things to go when the economy turns down. Ironically, that’s probably the time when getting the absolute maximum from your team is essential.

What works? Both Nestle and Diageo were committed to team building exercises and I’ve taken part in some fairly dramatic productions: but in my experience the ‘low-level’ team building, such as going out for a drink together or supporting a common charity, is just as effective as the ‘stage-managed’ events.

What I liked were specific events: if they were aimed at developing you as a leader they were fine. Ditto if they were developing the team. But when the messages were muddled the events always disappointed. “Well that was two days of your life you’re not going to get back,” as the politer participants put it…

If you’re thinking of organising an event for your team there are two more suggestions I’d make:

  • First of all, when the team come back, take action. Do not say, “Oh well, Paul, you’ve spent three days in the Brecon Beacons with the SAS, now could you just go back to normal?” If Paul’s learnt one thing in the Brecon Beacons it’s almost certainly that he wants a new ‘normal’ – so don’t disappoint him.
  • Secondly, make sure the basics are right back at the office. Remember the results of the Telegraph survey: what your team really value are open systems in the office that allow them to work effectively, not spend their time dealing with red tape and procedure.

Long before you go anywhere near a mountain you need the right atmosphere and culture at work. You need to make sure your team have the skills, training and tools they need to do the job, and a culture in which they can grow.

That’s down to you as leaders – and if there’s one thing I don’t worry about, it’s the quality of leadership round the TAB York boardroom tables. If only I could say the same about the Ashes…

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