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AHU Coach’s Corner – Guest Column: Should we keep spending money on team building?

 

cvdThis is Part of 1 of this guest column series from Carlos Valdes-Dapena.

Most corporate team building is a waste of time and money.

I say this based on my 25-plus years of research and practice in the field of team effectiveness. Seventeen of those years were with Mars Inc., a family-owned $35 billion global business with a commitment to collaboration.

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Many companies, when they decide to invest in team building, decide to do offsite events like bowling nights or ropes courses. Sometimes these events get really elaborate. One sales and marketing executive I know told me how he was flown to London with 20 of his colleagues, put up in a pricey hotel, and then trained to do the haka, a traditional war dance, by a group of Maori tribe members from New Zealand. This exercise was supposed to build relationships and bolster team spirit, and, by extension, improve collaboration. Instead, it fostered embarrassment and cynicism. Months later, the failing division was sold off.

Mars was not immune to the conventional wisdom. Before making the commitment to study collaboration intensively, we also did things like this. Once, we spent thousands of dollars to hire an orchestra to spend an hour with a group of senior leaders at an offsite retreat and help them work together in harmony. It was a nice metaphor and an interesting experience. It did nothing, though, to change how that group of leaders worked together.

Events like these may get people to feel closer for a little while; shared emotions can bond people. Those bonds, though, do not hold up under the day-to-day pressures of an organization focused on delivering results.

In 2011, senior HR leaders at Mars decided that we would study our global workforce and try to crack the code of how to maximize team effectiveness. The resulting research, which I led, revealed that most of what we — and others — thought about team building was wrong. Most important, we learned that quality collaboration does not begin with relationships and trust; it starts with a focus on individual motivation.

Our research drew on data from 125 teams. It included questionnaires and interviews with hundreds of team members. We asked, among other things, how clear people were about the teams’ priorities, what their own and others’ objectives were, and what they felt most confident about and most worried about. If there was one dominant theme from the interviews, it is summarized in this remarkable sentiment: “I really like and value my teammates. And I know we should collaborate more. We just don’t.”

The questionnaires revealed that team members felt the most clarity about their individual objectives and felt a strong sense of ownership for the work they were accountable for. To further investigate, we turned to another source and analyzed several years of data from Mars’s 360-degree leadership surveys. The two top strengths identified in those surveys were “action orientation” and “results focus.” The picture was getting clearer: Mars was full of people who loved to get busy on tasks and responsibilities that had their names next to them. It was work they could do exceedingly well, producing results without collaborating. On top of that, they were being affirmed for those results by their bosses and the performance rating system.

It occurred to us that their failure to collaborate was, ironically, a function of their excelling at the jobs they were hired to do and of management reinforcing that excellence. Collaboration, on the other hand, was an idealized but vague goal with no concrete terms or rules. What’s more, collaboration was perceived as messy. It diluted accountability and offered few tangible rewards.

Carlos Valdes-Dapena is managing principal and founder of Corporate Collaboration Resources, LLC, an organization and group effectiveness consulting firm. More information can be found at www.carlosvdapena.com.

(Nov. 7, 2019)