Why team building is not always effective

Team building is a quick and fuss-free way of keeping employees engaged, but is it always effective?

One learning and development executive shared in a networking session that her company’s technicians were less than engaged with their work and indifferent to taking up new challenges. This prompted a round of tips and suggestions on motivation, leadership and staff engagement. The next time we saw the executive, we were excited to hear if any of the suggestions were implemented.

The executive proudly shared that the company organised a full-day team building event at a local tourist destination that had employees play maze games and water sports. When asked whether any of the earlier suggestions were considered. She shook her head and replied that they were “risky to implement”, whereas team building was chosen as it was a quick way to get people to interact and bond.

Very often companies use team building interchangeably with group bonding and a remedy for all other work issues. The “feel-good” company event is seen as an answer to “smoothening out” relationship issues or prompting all-round cooperation and renewed work commitment amongst employees.

However, according to Bruce Tuckman, team building is not meant to be “pretty” – in fact, the second phase in his forming-storming-norming-performing group development model points to conflict resolution being crucial before any group can work productively. Hence, recognising that individuals need to work despite differences, dealing with aggressive or controlling behaviour, and fostering constructive collaborative behaviour, may mean setting up communications guidelines in the office – how to give feedback or where to channel grievances.

Deconstructing employee motivation is another huge convoluted area that involves understanding the intrinsic nature of rewards, goals, and aspirations of employees. In motivation theories such as the Expectancy (Vroom’s) Model, an employee’s increased effort and performance is dependent on the employee’s trust in the transparency an organisation, and how attractive performance rewards are.

Other motivation theories like Hackman and Oldham’s Job Characteristics Model and Herzberg's Motivator-Hygiene factor theory examines intrinsic motivation and job satisfaction relating to job design, job enrichment, and job motivation.

So, if management or HR wants to examine employee grouses, lack of interest or initiative, the direction is to “discover” and understand their people through surveys or focus group discussions. However, some managers see the discovery route akin to opening “a can of worms” – and dread that the discovery may lead to inadequacies or shortcomings in job design, company polices – even worse, overall company culture.

When it comes to whether to undertake the discovery method or not, one must consider the long-term consequences of not addressing employee issues. Surprisingly, solutions to employee grouses may not even cost the company a cent, and workable solutions are provided by employees themselves.

At a certain local theme park in Singapore that went out of operations many years ago, it faced an issue concerning the job title of its theme park employees in operations. Many of them were mature individuals with barely complete GCE ‘O’ Level qualifications. The senior employees felt they could not live up to the job title of “Guest Relations Officer” and would be compared by theme park guests as less trained and less qualified to workers in the bigger theme parks and the hotels.

The senior employees came up with an alternative job title – “Theme Park Coordinators” which they felt reflected more accurately the work they did around the park – they did various jobs like cashiering, cleaning, preparing packaged food and drinks, and leading short tours – all of which were general and not specialised. Because of that, they happily wore their name tags with the abbreviations of TPC confident that the theme park guests would not compare them to other service staff with specialised skills.

A company outing to foster good relationship amongst staff members is a wonderful gesture of an extrinsic reward. Digging into the inner psyche of employees may be more difficult, but it would mean a big difference between employee satisfaction, productivity, unnecessary turnover, and ultimately lower company profits.

Written by: Theresa Chin, Working Minds facilitator

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