What is Team Building, Really?

by Peter B. Grazier

(Published March 1, 1999)

"Oh, no. Are we really going to talk about that stuff...
I have real work to do!"

Have you ever heard someone say this when you even mention team building? It’s even the brunt of TV humor. An episode of "The X-Files" started with Mulder and Skully in their car driving to a team building session, with the implication that there are much more important things to be done.

Maybe so. But something has certainly ignited the business world’s appreciation for this concept that has been around so long. Even with this interest we seem to get it wrong a lot, so I thought it might be interesting to once again look at organizational team building in light of today’s realities.

Give me a "T" !

I think most people associate team building with the trivial, rah rah aspects of teams in competition. Our models, unfortunately, seem to be drawn from the sports world. I think about this as we struggle to understand the concept, then realize we have all been programmed to think this way.

For example, our early childhood experiences were dominated by school and play. In school, we were in a structured world whose reward system favored individual accomplishment. When a teacher asked a question, it was the person whose hand went up first who usually responded. You certainly didn’t see two or three students clustering to develop the best answer. When we took tests, we knew we were competing against the other students for the best scores.

When recess time came, we moved our activities out onto the playground where we frequently chose up teams to play ball or some other activity. On these teams we learned that we had to cooperate with others to succeed.

And so we moved through our school system learning that the way to succeed in the classroom (or "the real world") was to do it ourselves in an ongoing competition against others. On the playground, the system favored teaming.

A few years ago, in response to an inquiry about why they were implementing team concepts, the Assistant Superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School System stated that "In the business world when people get together and work on a project, it’s called `teamwork.’ In schools, the way we’re teaching today, it’s called ‘cheating’."

So it is my strong belief that many of the problems we see in workplace teams are directly related to our early programming that teaming is for play and not really meant for real work. Workers, including senior managers, subconsciously write it off as some exercise to make everyone feel good. And so we struggle.

Business World Reinforces Competition

When we move from school to the world of work we enter another system. Historically this has also been a system in stark contrast to teaming and working together. Concepts such as performance evaluations, merit raises, forced rankings, reward processes (especially promotions), aggressive supplier policies, and combative union relations have tended to reinforce, once again,
competition and individual accomplishment.

When we ask people to "work together" and simultaneously place them in a competitive system, the resulting psychic dissonance creates inaction rather than action. If these same people are then assigned to a new work team and told to operate as a team, there will be little energy to move forward. The contradiction between what is being asked of them and the real operating behavior of the organization creates a certain apathy, and ultimately eroding, of the team process.

In our May 1998 issue of EI Network I railed against Jon Katzenbach’s new book  Teams At the Top because he essentially condoned the non-team behavior of top executives.1 This behavior is part of the problem when attempting to implement team concepts within an organization. People look upward for signals of behavior and, not seeing anything resembling teamwork, conclude that operating this way is not in their best interest.

And so we continue to struggle with team concepts and again wonder why.

So What is Team Building?

Much of the problem of making teams successful in the workplace stems from our past perceptions of what teams are, and a complete ignorance of the powerful principles that underlay them.

Teams are really just a formal way to actualize collaboration. Collaboration is at the heart of successful decision making, but somehow this fact alludes us. It is the point that, incredibly, Katzenbach missed in his book mentioned above.

Teaming isn’t something we do because it creates harmonious work groups, or is neat to do. It is a way to formalize the power of collaboration among individuals. It is a way to blend the talents, skills, and inherent creativity of diverse people. It is a way to use this collaboration so that the work group leverages its skills, time, and resources for their own benefit and that of the organization.

Let’s look at the word "collaboration" for a moment. At its core is co-labor, or working together toward some meaningful end. It is people combining their collective knowledge so that the sum total of the collaboration is greater than what could have been achieved individually.

One who understands the power of collaboration seldom makes a unilateral decision willingly. This person knows instinctively that any decision they make will be improved in some way by the thoughts of another.

To test this, simply think of some decision you need to make, then ask someone for their thoughts. If you want to really expand the possibilities, get several people together and ask them to discuss the issue. Then take notes. When you are alone, look at your notes and see how many new facts and ideas have been added.

I think my awakening to this came years ago when I was asked to lead some new problem solving groups in my company. These groups were given some of the most difficult problems the organization faced. They were problems whose solutions had alluded both management and the hired experts for several years.

We assembled these teams, comprised of "ordinary" people from the workforce, and began to dissect the issues and brainstorm solutions. Solutions always emerged. A phrase I came to use a lot to describe these solutions was "brilliant simplicity." I was always surprised, at least at first, by how people with diverse knowledge, talents, and skills were able to combine these qualities to arrive at a place that was greater than any of them could have individually.

Although I was observing this phenomenon almost daily in my work, it took almost four years before my own decision making process became more naturally collaborative. As I have looked back on my own transition I have gained a greater awareness and appreciation of the difficulty of changing ourselves, let alone others. My prior conditioning prepared me for a world of individual accomplishment and competition, and so I never acquired collaborative skills. It took a series of significant emotional events (i.e., collaborative workplace breakthroughs) to have me seriously reconsider how to contemplate, explore, and make decisions differently. All of this relates to our acceptance or rejection of team building.

So what is team building? Team building is a process of awareness building. It’s helping people to understand that they are greater collectively than individually. It is an understanding that all of our decisions will be better when some degree of collaboration is applied. It is bringing people to a place where there is an honest appreciation of each other’s essence...where they come from...where they’ve been. Because in this appreciation is the driver for collaboration.

I tell people that some of my greatest breakthroughs in thinking have been given to me by the people pushing the brooms on third shift. One’s place in the organization, I learned, has little to do with mental capacity. Team building is helping everyone to understand this.

It is my strong belief that once this appreciation is realized, there will be little need for team building courses. People will seek out others willingly, knowing instinctively that what they get will be valuable. Perhaps if more senior executives understood this, we would see more collaborative, or team, behavior at the top.

Some will say this is an overly simplistic discussion of team building, that there is much more to the subject. There is. There are so many factors that affect our ability to work closely together, many of which have been discussed in these pages.

But shifting our perceptions of others may be the greatest inducement to building real teamwork. If I truly value your knowledge, skills, and abilities, I will seek out your opinion. If I don’t, I won’t.

But first we will have to overcome our prior training and conditioning, move out of our ego states, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Asking for help and advice in the American culture is seen more as a sign of weakness than a collaborative skill. When we can shift this paradigm, we will see a more natural and authentic use of collaboration and its primary outlet, teams and teamwork. EIN