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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: "Ah, what are we here for?"

August 4, 2009
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Over the years team building has acquired the reputation of being a very “soft, touchy-feely” process. It’s seen as a way to make employees feel good, but not necessarily a way to have much effect on the business — except through the much hoped for satisfaction- productivity connection (“a happy worker is a productive worker”). So, if and when your business is running well, it couldn’t hurt to get your employees to like each other and feel good about working together – why not?

A lot of team building is still going on in organizations. Consider the still popular “ropes courses” — familiar jargon for “outdoor experiential learning.” Employees face structured physical challenges together with the intent that such experiences build trust and confidence, both in self and in others.

The team that undergoes such challenges and handles them well has hopefully learned a set of skills and attitudes, and positive interpersonal dynamics that translate fairly directly to trust, mutual support, and higher productivity in the workplace.

The trouble with teams

“Psychological” team building can be fun, even enlightening and empowering, and can potentially do real good. But the “problems” with most work teams are more fundamental than the need to simply get along better.

In the early 1990s, a book, “The Wisdom of Teams,” was published. It posited that teams exist to accomplish work, not to “feel teamy.” Often problems with underperforming teams stem from a lack of clarity about what we are there for, and how we are supposed to get it done (whatever “it” is). There’s not much you can do to make teams productive, and really not much you can even do to make them fun, in the absence of a sense of mission (what are we here for?), roles (who does what?), and measures (how do we “keep score”?).

OK, the team’s mastered rope climbing, now what?

Devil is in the details

My own experience with team building, which began years before the publication of “The Wisdom of Teams,” is consistent with the message of the book. While I don’t doubt in the least that there are some real team problems that stem from purely interpersonal issues, I think that many — even most — team problems have simpler and more basic roots. By far the more common problems are lack of clarity in vision and direction, lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities, lack of clarity about measuring success, and lack of clarity about how we will resolve disagreements, etc.

I never plunge into a “trust game” without some actual needs assessment first. And my questions are aimed first at the kinds of operational/functional questions outlined above — what does this team exist to do? What is its purpose? Who is responsible for what? How do we “keep score, communicate and resolve issues?

First tackle the hard stuff

I find that once those technical operational issues are clarified, teams are much better positioned to then talk constructively about any “soft” issues they may have. And that is almost always worth doing. But unless and until we know why we are there, what we are supposed to be doing, and how to know whether we are winning, all the team-personality profiling in the world is not going to make much difference.

I will often supplement such technical clarification with some of the personality profiling, and interpersonal dynamics work. I do this for several reasons.

One is that a team that understands how it will work together and why is often now “ready” for the next level, the interpersonal-skills based fine tuning of more classical team building.

A second reason is that clients often really, really want it. Maybe a big boss has been to a leadership workshop, taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the DISC profile, and is convinced that we need to understand ourselves and each other better.

A third reason is that it gives the team a comfortable language for grappling with their differences and disagreements.

A fourth reason is that team members often discover that there are many more similarities among them than they would have imagined.

But the team-dynamics focus is beneficial only to the extent that the team knows whether they are playing hoops or hockey, and individual members know whether they are centers or goalies. Teams exist to achieve objectives, not just to “be a team”. Good team building starts there!

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