When I started working in the field of management consultancy and training in the early nineties, teambuilding was peaking, and it is still popular today. While the specific objectives of team building events can differ, most aim to build trust among team members, encourage communication and increase collaboration. Events can vary from having dinner together to intense sessions aimed at exploring group dynamics. I am a fan of the lighter versions, but there may be good reasons to rethink the more intense forms of teambuilding. One is that some of its potential side effects could harm your company culture; another is that there might be a better way to improve collaboration between people in today's organizations.
According to Adam Waytz, a psychologist at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, increasing empathy* towards people in your teams can limit your capacity to empathize with people outside your immediate circles. This happens because as humans, we seem to have a limited supply of empathy; when our bonds with those whom we consider to be insiders become stronger, our desire to connect with outsiders becomes weaker. This feels counterintuitive, as we tend to believe that love breeds love and you can't have enough of it. Apparently this does not apply to bonding with team members. Research done by Epley and Waytz, from the same university, confirmed that the proximity of a friend increased people's willingness to dehumanize outsiders. Obviously the context of this research project was quite different and the findings rather extreme, but it does make sense that being socially connected to our close others creates a disconnection from more distant others. We only have to look at what often happens during soccer games...
To put it more mildly, bonding with one’s team members can create some distance from non-team members, a phenomenon that can become stronger if teams are competing for resources or your particular team is struggling to gain a foothold on the corporate map. This could lead to neglecting opportunities for constructive collaboration across teams.
Yet, collaboration among people within and outside one's team and organization is crucial in today's world! The knowledge-based, 21st-century organization depends on what Amy Edmondson calls teaming: a 'fluid network of interconnected individuals working in temporary teams on improvements, problem solving, and innovation'. We are a long way past the time when clear lines could be drawn between functional teams and project teams (and which usually needed teambuilding as well!). In today's organizations, the boundaries between teams – in terms of time, space and membership – are much more fluid and subject to rapid change. Sometimes a group of co-workers might, on the surface, still look like a classical team, because they share the same 'boss', work in the same department and have their offices close to each other on the same floor. But these groups often do not function as a team in the classical sense. For instance, they lack one of the key features of a team: working towards the same objectives. It is by no means uncommon that professionals who report to the same manager may contribute to the organization's overall goals in completely different ways, without any need to collaborate.
And so, instead of investing in supporting teams to navigate through their various stages of team development, it might be better to focus on the behaviours that contribute to the success of teaming. Edmondson mentions four key behaviours: Speaking Up, Collaboration, Experimentation and Reflection. Obviously, one could debate this specific set of behaviours, but Edmondson does at least bring an interesting perspective to the table: the idea that the well-known and often-used competence working in teams might no longer be sufficient to describe what professionals working in all kinds of team configurations need to be good at in today's organizations. Investing in improving everyone's teaming competences – instead of focusing on groups of people that currently happen to be a team – might mean time and money better spent.
* Waytz does not define empathy more specifically, but his use of the term comes closest to empathic concern, see also my former blog on this topic.
By: Carine Metselaar