Recently I went into a copy and shipping center to get my passport photos taken. There were two long lines of customers waiting to be helped by the two employees at the service counter, a few random customers wandering around looking frustrated and confused, and a short, grey-bearded old man rotating among them. Let’s call him “Walter.”
When it was my turn to get help from Walter, it became clear that he was frazzled, both by the temperamental printing technology, and the sudden rush of customers.
“I’m sorry, we’re short-staffed. All the managers from the region are off getting leadership training.” The way he said “leadership” implied that he was not a fan.
What Walter Didn’t Realize
He had no way of knowing that I work for Living As A Leader, a leadership training, coaching and consulting firm - and I am a fan. I was intrigued.
“I don’t know why corporate wastes a bunch of money so they can go off and do trust falls and play silly games. Did you know they take turns choosing silly hats and explaining why that hat fits their personality?” He rolled his eyes.
I empathized with his frustration and realized that he wasn’t really talking about leadership training; he was describing team building exercises.
I would like to draw a distinction between team building and team development.
The Pros and Cons of Team-Building Exercises
Team-building activities give participants a chance to bond, to think and solve problems in new and creative ways, to allow undiscovered talents and skills to come to the surface and even give attendees a creative outlet that may contrast the routine roles they perform at work.
These activities can take several forms: ropes and challenges courses, trust fall exercises or even something less formal such as an escape room or paintball outing.
I have even found an upcoming team building event online called “Team Ukulele.” (I must admit, that does sound fun).
Although they can provide many lasting memories and improve employee relationships, many people do not find these types of exercises to be enjoyable. For some participants, the activities can cause anxiety or humiliation for those who aren’t fit or comfortable with such experiences.
Author Kate Mercer, author of “A Buzz In the Building: How to Build and Lead a Brilliant Organization, writes that team-building exercises bring to mind "ghastly visions of kneeling on the floor playing bongo drums in a conference room or building Lego constructions against the clock in competition with other departments."
In a Forbes article titled “Four Reasons Why Team-Building Exercises Can Actually Damage Your Workplace,” contributor Andrew Cave writes “Some people actively fear the embarrassment and humiliation of these events.
For some, team-building activities actually drive a wedge between them and their colleagues and employer, rather than bringing them together and fostering engagement and team loyalty.”
If they don’t feel safe with these challenges, it’s also likely they don’t have the sense of psychological security necessary to face conflict, give and take feedback or speak up to voice their opinions and ideas with their team.
Team Development Versus Team-Building
As we consider development for leaders, there are a couple of ways in which leaders have an opportunity to grow and develop.
One way is related to their effectiveness as a leader of their teams. We call this leadership development. Another way is related to their effectiveness as a team. We call this leadership team development.
Leadership Team Development may, at times, include games and activities to help break the ice or reinforce learning, but a couple of key premises of the process is depth and pragmatism.
The aim of leadership team development is to equip team members with the skills and courage to really get at the essence of issues.
Most teams grapple with challenges related to trust and transparency. These things get in the way of productivity and progress. Specific issues that are tackled by a team relate to communication, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, conflict resolution, trust, respect and the sharing of feedback.
These issues are complex and require that team members develop an ability to be vulnerable with one another during the process.
Three Advantages of our Team Development Process for Strengthening Leadership Team Effectiveness
Creating sustainable improvement takes time.
Fostering the kind of vulnerability, trust and courage needed for a team to address and talk through unresolved conflicts, along with day-to-day frustrations caused by conflicting demands, requires months of intentional work.
Living As A Leader co-founder, Aleta Norris, explains that we can see a significant difference in a team during the first month of a team development process versus 12 to 18 months later.
”Early in the process, members of the team have a need to focus much of their energy on sharing their frustrations about others on the team.
12 to 18 months later, team members have a much greater appreciation for others on the team. By this point, many issues have been resolved, and agreements have been put into place.
We also see a higher degree of humility within individuals on the team.”
When we work in partnership with a team over time, rather than provide a one-time event, we are privileged to develop a trusted relationship and move them toward a sustainable situation.
2. Practical Communication Skills
There are several benefits of team-building events, such as boosting morale, creating new bonds and fostering creative new approaches to thinking through decisions and solving problems. One thing they fail to do is provide the communication tools to really get at the essence of issues.
Most leaders, and people in general, tend to be conflict-avoidant. This includes leaders at the most senior level.
For a leadership team to be effective, team members need to be equipped with a variety of pragmatic skills and approaches to get at tough issues. They have to be able to cut through their own fear in delivering feedback, as well as their own defensiveness in receiving it.
A mature team will have the ability to deliver and receive feedback in an honest, respectful manner.
This, of course, is just one aspect of communication.
3. Vulnerability and Trust
Lack of vulnerability and trust is prevalent on most leadership teams. These percolate just under the surface of team communication and silently prevent open, honest sharing of thoughts and opinions.
When a team is not able to be honest with each other, resentments and frustrations begin to build.
Where does this lack of vulnerability or lack of trust come from? Almost every human being is adversely affected by something in their past. Past experiences of shame or humiliation foster fear.
Fear will get in the way of the health of a team almost every time.
As we have worked with leadership teams over time, a variety of examples have emerged that will illustrate this point. Here are just a couple of them:
- One senior-level leader shared, “Early in my career, I threw out an idea and someone responded, ‘absolutely not, we’re going in this direction.’ I tend to be risk-averse by nature.
This was a bad moment. I felt inferior, insecure and unable to share from that point on.”
- Another senior-leader still struggles from being told by her father as a young girl that she is worthless. She has carried that with her for over 50 years. It affects her ability to speak up, and it affects her ability to receive feedback in the spirit the feedback provider most likely intends it to be delivered.
You see, if someone already feels inferior, they do not have the strength to accept your ‘criticism.’ Even if it isn’t meant as criticism, it will be received that way.
This type of shame affects how we interact with each other, how we receive feedback, and our willingness to contribute. An individual with stronger self-worth will receive feedback, yet the more broken we are, the more self-defensive we will be.
For a leadership team to be effective, these kinds of stories need to be shared. This is the vulnerability part.
A team has a greater likelihood for openness if they understand each other’s experiences and vulnerabilities. A team development process needs to create space for this kind of sharing.
A Team-Building Exercise That Fosters Lasting Trust
How can you build your team without having to climb, fall or pelt your bookkeeper with paint?
Earlier I mentioned the importance of depth and pragmatism. There are many issues team members need to delve into.
One of the exercises we incorporate into our process provides team members with the opportunity to talk about how they contribute to the team dysfunction, what the impact of their contribution is, and what their commitment will be moving forward.
Here are some examples:
1. Your contributions to the dysfunction
“I don’t speak up when I disagree.”
“I tend to underestimate the amount of time my team needs to complete a task and put undue pressure on them to meet unrealistic deadlines.”
“I hold grudges.”
2. The impact to the team
“The team doesn’t improve the way it could if I were to make beneficial contributions.”
“My team becomes overwhelmed and makes mistakes”
“Relationships remain strained.”
3. Your commitment moving forward
“I will contribute at least once per meeting.”
“I will look at past projects to determine what is a fair amount of time needed for completion.”
“I will talk with someone if I am upset with them.”
This is just one example of many. This exercise provides individuals with the opportunity to own their shortcomings as a member of the team.