Is team building really a means of creating high performance teams?

About Mark de Rond and “Creatively managing the mess inside successful teams”

This blog post written in response to the essay Creatively managing the “mess inside” successful teams by by Mark de Rond from Cambridge Judge Business School, who has studied high performing teams for fifteen years.

Creatively managing the “mess inside” successful teams is a well researched and thoughtful article about team work and how high performing teams tick. In fact, it’s one of the best blog posts I have read in recent months.

The mess inside refers to tensions that plague some of the most successful teams. Teams must often weigh between competition and collaboration, between control and autonomy, between a high trust and vigilant work environment; which ultimately creates a cause of conflict.

He further writes “it should not surprise how dysfunctional and inefficient some of the teams seem from the inside while performing at their highest level.”

So should those dysfunctional relationships be suppressed or discussed for the sake of harmony? No, writes the author, although it’s tempting to believe they should be for a number of reasons:

  1. Personal conflict prohibits the employee’s focus and decreases motivation
  2. Personal conflict rises the level of anxiety which prevents people to think clearly
  3. People don’t want to be considered not to be a team player

The ultimate measurement of a team’s success is its results and not its harmony, argues the author. Harmony should be the consequence of team results and not the team’s objective.

In other words, harmony should be the lagging indicator and not the leading.

A culture of getting along and being nice to each other may prevent team members from challenging each other and from calling each other out for performance.

A study (by Richard Hackman) of 78 symphony orchestras came to the conclusion that the unhappy musicians outperformed the happy ones. Thus, happiness is a result of a successful act rather than a predisposition.


Grumpy musicians outperform the happy ones!

So if neither harmony nor a happy workforce is a guarantee of a successful team, what is the holy grail of team performance?

According to Dr. Mark de Rond, it’s mainly two factors:

  1. Create a circle of safety to encourage honest and open dialogue.
  2. Members of the team must exactly know what they do (I call it clarity) why they do it (I call it vision), and who they are doing it for( I call it values)?

The circle of safety (1) is in detail described in Simon Sinek’s book “Leaders eat last”.

Mr. de Rond mentions the Cambridge University Boat Crew as an example of a team who exactly knows what matters. The club has only one reason to exist: To beat the rival Oxford team.


Oxford boat team has only one objective! To beat their rival Cambridge.

Others, like Patrick Lencioni call it the thematic goal, a one and only goal that overshadows all other smaller goals in an organization. A goal that unifies every single employee from the factory floor to the top CEO.

The five dysfunction of a team. A must read for every executive!

The five dysfunction of a team. A must read for every executive!

Although the author does not re-invent the wheel with his conclusion, I agree with a large part to his argument.

Comfortably eating a sandwich, I enjoyed reading the post until I stumbled over de Ron’s last sentence:

“While active dislike among team members can impair performance, I’d argue that a singular focus on performance – on what we are here to do, and why – is likely to be more remedial than any amount spent on ever-crazier, and ever more popular, team building exercises.”

A piece of my sandwich got stuck in my epiglottis; I felt panicky, desperately trying to breath until a violent cough tossed a slice of salmon straight onto my desk. I stuttered an apology (to the salmon).

Such a great article and what a lame finish, I thought. I was consumed by a sudden flash of anger that soon turned into disappointment and then into amusement.

About team building bashers

Team building bashing has become more and more popular in recent years, no wonder by all the success of so many team building companies.

Most of the authors bash right in the title, and no-one more self-promoting than Martha Finney in “4 Reasons to Hate Team-Building Workshops”. Others, like the Telegraph, try to underline their arguments with facts (Team Building doesn’t improve work).

One of my all-time favorite is Why Team Building Doesn’t Work & How You CAN Build Your Team, by Hildy Gottlieb, herself an organizer of team building work-shops.

Yet undoubtedly, no-one bashes so subtle, so lighthearted and so almost unnoticed like de Rond in Creatively managing the ‘mess inside’ successful teams.

Most of the bashers are so called HR or leadership consultants, scholars or university professors. Some of them are team building organizers with the aim of attracting attention.

What they all have in common though, is assuming as an axiom that team building per se must be the solution to a complex behavioral problem in organisations (or that it’s advertised as such); and they desperately try to disprove it.

Their second misconception is that clients always consider team building as a solution, rather than as an assessment or as part of an overall HR strategy, or an occasion for praise, rewards and socializing.

But that’s not the only reason, of course. So why else, has team building bashing become so popular?

1. Anybody can call themselves a “team builder”.

From an adventure river rafting excursion to a team training work shop, anybody can call their events “team building”. It’s not a protected term and it’s open to be used by professionals as well as by charlatans.

Definition by wikipedia: Team building is the use of different types of team interventions that are aimed at enhancing social relations and clarifying team members’ roles, as well as solving task and interpersonal problems that affect team functioning.

From self-help gurus “I have climbed Mt. Everest”, to top consultants “I have written 15 books on team work”, to university lecturers “I am Dr. Team Building”, there are so many parties who want a piece of the pie of a multi-billion dollar industry.

2. We are not clear about our own objectives

Team building can be anything from a motivational seminar to an integral part of a solution to a complex organizational problem, which typically fall under two categories:

A. Team building work-shops that can be part of a solution. Those work-shops are generally conducted by professional trainers. They are customized in nature and are preceded by a needs assessment.  Team building work-shops are typically indoors in a more formal setting. They are more popular in America and Europe. They may involve rank and file staff or management only.

B. Team building events that that are conducted as part of a yearly company outing, a ceremony or an event. They provide an occasions to socialize and to have fun. The activities are light hearted and often humorous (bashers may call them “silly”). They are very popular in Asia where it’s part of the organizational culture for staff to interact on a social level. They may include indoor activities, but more often, they are conducted outdoors. They can be physical or adventurous in nature. They always involve the entire organization or the whole department.

One of my favorite team building event is the “Facilitated Drum Circle”, an interactive musical performance, which falls under the second category. Would I sell this event to a client who requests complex organizational change? Of course not, that would be like massaging your chest while having a stroke.

Facilitated drum circle. An exercise like motivational powerhouse.

Facilitated drum circle. An motivational powerhouse.

Or one of our most popular team training courses are “The five dysfunction work shop.” Would I sell this to an organization on an incentive trip who just wants to have fun? Of course not! That’s like amputating a leg while having a splinter in your toe.

The concept of team building as a serious training work-shop has undoubtedly become watered down in recent years. In many of our team building events I never talk about team member’s roles, even though I strongly suggest it prior to the work-shop. I often hear “It’s too serious”, or “we just want to have fun.” Or sometimes it just doesn’t fit in.

So could this phenomena be a consequence of a paradigm change? A change of client’s expectations? A shift from wanting hard solutions to having more fun? Or is it simply a matter of culture and geographical location?

The popularity of team-building bashers (most of them from the West) suggests the first. And I certainly can understand their frustrations.

At one occasion I was about to tear my hair. A few years ago I have done some HR consultancy for a F500 company gaining some insight of all their dysfunction and organizational problems. In a nutshell, it was the usual staff: Vision was lacking, no objectives in place, weak leadership, the entire palate.

Then I hear from the top management “Let’s do an Amazing Chase”, give the staff a chance to socialize I’m sure that will solve our problems. Of course, I nodded sarcastically (I should have stopped the relationships at that moment, unfortunately I wasn’t bold enough at that time).

So is team building really a mean of creating high performance teams?

I think you have already guessed the answer: “Yes, if it’s not the only means.”


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