Ten-minute read

The Definitive Guide to Team Building

Photographer Credit: Ashkan Forouzani
Written by
Rachel Wright
Published on
12 June 2023
TL;DR: Team building isn’t a ‘one and done.’ It’s the activities and interventions you use to build closer connections within your team that help you move as one unit at work. 

In this article we’re going to

  • Define how team building is different from team events
  • Go over the 6 red flags that tell you team building is needed
  • Lay out a data-driven approach to team building (with free tools)
  • Give you a way to frame team building so people want to do it
  • Provide a set of 3 team building sessions that untangle most problems

Get a coffee, mute the notifications, and let’s do this!

Hibachi with a side of Team Building

We tend to think of teams as one unit - which they can be. But if you look closer, you see that teams are really a network of relationships. And if just one of those relationships is off, it impacts the work of the entire team. Chances are you invest regularly in your relationships outside of work. For example, many of us have experienced the distance that can develop in a friendship when you don’t nurture it or how quickly a romantic relationship can head south if you don’t give it enough attention. Imagine if you told your significant other that you were moving your dates to once a quarter, with a budget of 55€ per person. It probably wouldn’t be long until you were back on Tinder, right? Yet this is the expectation we have of teams - that taking part in one team building event every three months is enough to transform us into one cohesive unit. But that’s not how relationships work. 

A contributing factor to this misguided view of team building is that it often gets lumped together with team events. While team building can happen on team events, it’s more nuanced. Here’s the difference: 

  • Team events are the fun activities that you do together with your team, usually outside the office. Getting lost in a den of arcade games, chartering a small boat, or exploring the ruins of a historic sanatorium are examples of team events (as well as being a shameless plug: you can find all of these on our website). Doing these kinds of things help team members build better rapport and get to know one another as people. In this respect, events can help you grow together as a team. However, they aren’t as effective when it comes to working on team issues or dysfunctions (more on those later). 
  • Team building refers to the activities you do to address specific issues or to build core strengths that help you and your team work better together. Personally, I like to think of team building like the training exercises pro athletes do: intentional, a bit of work, but also potentially fun. Let’s be honest, though: team building has a bad rap. The trust falls of the 80s took it down and The Office did a number on it. But it doesn’t have to be that way! And there are ways you can frame team building that will make your team more enthusiastic about taking part (more on that later, too).

The 6 Horsemen of Team Disconnection

When it comes to team building, there’s a temptation to think of it as ‘one and done.’ Instead, we should look at it as a dynamic series of activities and interventions we leverage to create closer connections between individuals who are working together towards one common goal.

Again, if we look at our other relationships we see it isn’t always the grand gestures that have the most impact. It’s the small things we do day in, day out that shape the relationship into something meaningful for both parties. On teams it’s no different - and the feeling of connection on a team is more important than you might think.

In their Great Attrition study, McKinsey found that belonging - or rather the lack of it - was one of the key contributors to employees quitting: among leavers, 51% they lacked a sense of belonging and 46% cited the desire to work with people who trust and care for each other as another reason to quit.

What does a lack of connection feel like, you ask? 

  • Poor communication: What this looks like at the office: delayed communication from leadership, when hybrid or remote employees are forgotten or left out, confusion amid change, the ‘grapevine’ effect. 
  • Negativity: What this sounds like at work: Sarcasm and cutting remarks, yelling, blaming others, a ‘why bother’ attitude, complaining. 
  • Lack of trust: What this looks like: a reluctance to take risks, defaulting to the way things have always been done, hoarding information, a sense that you need to ‘cover your a**,’  a high turnover rate.    
  • Lack of accountability: How to spot it: responsibilities are unclear, a lack of ownership when goals aren’t met, an unwillingness to set clear goals. 
  • Workload imbalance: How this manifests itself: one or two superstars are over-performing (and probably putting in long hours) while the rest of the team stands by. 
  • A fixation on past and current problems: What to watch for: instead of being future oriented, team members rehash what didn’t go well in the past and use this as an excuse not to try now. 

If you have a few years of professional experience under your belt, chances are you’ve encountered these signs of team dysfunction at some point. Most of us have. Starting out, they may cause a bit of friction and make it difficult to deliver great work. Left unattended, though, these problems can whip into toxic work culture that can leave a lasting impact on team members and drive attrition rates. 

Taking a Data-Driven Approach to Team Building 

Just like the happiest of couples or the best of friends, even the fiercest of teams have issues from time to time. Chances are you might recognize aspects of some of these dimensions in varying degrees in your team. But don’t take my word for it, check your data. Team pulse checks can be a great tool for taking a look under the hood so to speak and checking to see what’s going on. Your company doesn’t administer a team health check? No worries - these (free) team health activities from two of the world’s most innovative organizations are a great place to start:  

Chances are, the results of a team health check will reveal a couple dimensions to work on. And while you probably agree that addressing the issues will make your team more effective and work more enjoyable, the reality is that most workplaces move at a break-neck speed and time is hard to come by. 

Here’s what we propose: three sessions that you spread out over 3-4 weeks that get at the root of your team’s problem and help the team develop 3 core skills that will make you more effective. 

Effective Framing: Don’t tell me it’s Team Building 

Before you get started, there’s something we need to address: namely, team building sounds lame. If your team is already feeling disconnected, rolling up with team building is likely to elicit some eye rolls and resistance. That’s not a great place to start. Instead, after you’ve identified the problems holding you back, introduce the metaphor of a pro sports team. Everyone on your team has put in time and effort to acquire the knowledge and skills which have placed them in the room - not unlike professional athletes who put in the time at the gym and on amateur playing fields before they get paid to do what they love.

Great teams also have off-seasons. The ones that get back on track have the courage to face what’s holding them back and take action to improve their game. 

Right now your team has a choice: continue with the status quo that makes it harder for everyone to deliver their best work or open a playbook to switch things up for the better. 

So what’s it going to be? 

Your Playbook 

When you’re staring down a list of team health issues at the end of a session, there can be a temptation to want to tackle all the issues at the same time. Resist that. Instead, guide your team through three plays that will

  • Help you choose which problem to address first
  • Reveal the aspects of the problems that are within your control
  • Show how individual behaviors contribute to the problem
  • Align you on one solution and accountability mechanisms

Huddle in - it’s time to change the game.

Play 1: Circle of control

Time needed: 1 hour

At this point, the results of your team health activity have shed light on an issue that’s holding your team back. Your team members agree there’s a problem and that addressing it would improve work. This is big! The next step is to talk about the circle of control. If you’ve read Stephen Covey’s classic ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ you’ll know where this is headed. If not, here’s the scoop: each of us lives in a sphere with three concentric circles -

  • In the center is our Circle of Control: these are the things we have direct control over. For example, the quality of your work and the attitude you bring to interactions with others are both in your circle of control. 
  • Outside this is your Circle of Influence: These are the things you don’t directly control but which you can influence. At work, this could be how people brief new projects into your team, how often you receive feedback, and whether your stakeholders are happy with the quality of your work.  
  • The outermost ring is the Circle of Concern: These are the things that impact you but that you don’t have any influence on. Depending where you are in the organization, this could be the decisions made at the C-Level or market dynamics. 

Studies show that teams that act from their Circle of Control enjoy their work more and are more effective. According to Stephen Covey, there’s some magic in that: ‘Proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence. They work on the things they can do something about. The nature of their energy is positive, enlarging and magnifying, causing their Circle of Influence to increase.’

Reactive teams, on the other hand, focus on things in their Circle of Concern, which makes it feel like their Circles of Influence and Control are shrinking. When you’re in this position, you feel powerless. When a whole team feels this way, it’s a breeding ground for negativity. 

Let’s change that. 

As your first play, set aside 45 minutes for this activity on ‘Exploring Your Team’s Circle of Influence’ from to explore the problem from the circles. While it’s possible there are factors contributing to the issue that you can’t control, it’s likely that there are a few that your team can influence or control. Surfacing these areas helps you see where it makes sense to focus your efforts as a group and also provides a stronger sense of agency.  

Think the ‘Circle of Control’ will be new territory for your team? This two-pager from the Development Partnership in the UK gives a great overview of Stephen Covey’s concept and is a good pre-read for the session. 

Play 2: Tell me like it is

Time needed: 1 hour, plus time to collect feedback

While we often think of our roles at work as being different from the other roles we play in our lives, the truth is we bring the same self to each. Being aware of our weaknesses can help us avoid falling into the comfortable patterns that often contribute to dysfunctional group dynamics.

While this sounds like it should be easy, studies show that we often overestimate our levels of self-awareness: a five-year research study by the Harvard Business Review found that although 95% of people think they’re self-aware, only 10 to 15% actually are.

Why is this important? Aside from contributing to individual career success and effective leadership, studies from Korn Ferry indicate that a high level of self-awareness is also correlated with high performance in the workplace. That said, an important part of addressing the issues that arise in teams is for each team member to become more aware of how they individually contribute to the situation. 

How to go about it? After having defined the part of the issue that is in your team’s circle of control, the next step is to introduce the idea that everyone in the team is contributing to the issue - either intentionally or unintentionally. To be able to address the issue effectively, it’s important to increase the individual levels of self-awareness within the team. For this, the Johari window activity is a great place to start. The activity here from Fearless Culture takes about 45 minutes and illustrates the concept of a ‘blind spot.’  

As the activity demonstrates, gathering feedback from others is a great way to better understand your blind spots. After you complete the activity as a team, give everyone two pieces of homework: 

  • To take 30 minutes and reflect on the role they individually play when it comes to the issue the team is having. 
  • To gather three pieces of feedback from other team members or stakeholders that can help them gain more awareness. 

Depending on the feedback culture in your organization, it may be a good idea to define what good feedback looks like. The ‘SBI’ model is a good place to start: 

  • Situation: Ask the feedback provider to reference a concrete situation (e.g ‘at last week’s team meeting). 
  • Behavior: As objectively as possible, have the feedback provider describe the behavior they witnessed (e.g ‘I heard you interrupt a more junior team member) 
  • Impact: The feedback provider then describes the impact they observed (e.g ‘the junior team member didn’t say anything for the rest of the meeting.’)

For a deeper dive into the SBI model, check out the article here from the Center of Creative Leadership. 

Give your team two weeks to complete the assignment and then come back for the last session. 

Play 3: Action-setting & Accountability

Time needed: 1 hour

By the time you roll into your third play, the problem you’re trying to solve as a team is coming more into focus. Following the reflection and the feedback session, you might already have defined actions you can take which will change the situation for the better. Your third play is all about creating an action plan that you as a team can commit to. If you’re the leader, resist the urge to actively shape the action plan. Instead, give your team the space to architect it for themselves. The active role they play in shaping the solution will increase the level of commitment they feel towards carrying it out.

Start the session with a few open questions that invite your team to reflect on the feedback they gathered and prime them to consider that changing their own behavior may be part of the solution to your team’s problem. Here are a few: 

  • What did you think of the feedback gathering exercise? 
  • Did any of the feedback you received make you think of the issue differently? 
  • To which extent do you think our behaviors contribute to the issue? 

Remember: we want to invite connection, not place blame. Keep the conversation open and constructive; never force anyone to share. 

After, refer back to the problem you explored during your Circle of Control session (Play 1). Write the issue down on top of a large piece of paper (or use a Miro board if you’re doing this activity remotely). Underneath the title, write three bullet points: 

  • What we’re solving for: Take 10 minutes and in 1-2 sentences, describe what the ideal scenario would look like
  • Possible solutions: Take 15 minutes to brainstorm possible solutions. As you go, define whether the solutions are in your circle of control, influence, or concern. Encourage your team to reflect on the feedback they gathered and consider which behaviors might also need to change. 
  • Our Favorite solution: From your list of possible solutions, pick 1 which you think could be the most impactful. Looking at the solution you’ve chosen, openly discuss with your team: 

                       What are the actions required? 

                        How can we make the actions required easy? 

                        How will we measure whether this solution is effective? 

                        How will we reward ourselves for sticking to the plan? 

The last one is important: it’s been shown that celebrating your success as a team leads to more of it. In part, this is because solving a problem requires change and change is hard. Research from the Columbia Business School chalks this up to three reasons:

  1. Our brains are wired for laziness.
  2. Our brains’ capacity is limited. 
  3. Our brains don’t like change.  

Rewards might include a team pizza party or, for especially hairy problems, a special team event. Choose something that feels motivating for you as a group. Once you have it, print a picture of it and refer back to the reward when things get tough. 

Lastly, decide on a mechanism to keep you accountable - both as a team and individually. Will you check in during your team JF? Will you have a central board to track how you’re showing up individually? Is there someone outside your team who can be an accountability partner? Choose one that feels right for your team but make sure you have a plan in place. 

Create connection - and a more enjoyable work experience 

If you’ve come to the end and this all feels daunting, consider this: the average person spends one-third of their life at work. Working on creating closer, more authentic connections with your team directly impacts the experience you have at the office - whether that be online or in person. The good news is that this playbook gets easier the more you use it and also helps to build habits on the team that will make you more effective - both individually and as a unit. 

These include:

  • Acting within your circle of control and building your circle of influence
  • Seeking out feedback and becoming more aware of how we individually create the circumstances we’re in 
  • Holding ourselves and one another accountable because we believe we’re capable of great things  

Your team has the potential to produce great work together. A few targeted training sessions may be all it takes to make this quarter your season.