Team Building and Other Leadership Band-Aids That Don’t Work

“I’d like to do a team-building session and get everyone together. We really need it.”

“Why? How do you know it’s time?”

“Morale is low, and our team needs some motivation.”

“Why is morale low? What information do you have about what’s causing it?”

“We reorganized and consolidated jobs recently, so people have taken on what feels like two or three jobs. And our new VP is pretty demanding, so there’s frustration about the reality of some of the changes. They need something positive.”

Does this story sound familiar? Team building won’t fix this problem and could even make it worse.

We’re enamored with the simple quick fix and then call it complete. After all, we took visible action. But did we really accomplish even part of what we set out to do?

Here are some favorite quick fixes that leaders rely on that, when used in the wrong way at the wrong time, can hurt more than they can help.

We’re enamored with the simple quick fix and then call it complete. After all, we took visible action. But did we really accomplish even part of what we set out to do?

Team Building to Solve Bigger Problems

Team building can be a great way to connect with new team members and build a sense of camaraderie. But the best team-building event won’t fix systemic issues, an organizational lack of clarity, or a difficult leader. In fact, in the above example, a team-building event may make an overworked team believe that the leader is out of touch at best.

Team building can be effective when:

  • A new team needs to build relationships.
  • A new leader needs to connect with the team in a more relaxed setting.
  • A virtual team that’s working well together needs face time to improve future collaboration.

Team building won’t have the necessary impact when:

  • There are systemic, organizational, or cultural changes needed that aren’t being addressed.
  • The issues that need to change are evident and team building will give the impression that you don’t understand.
  • There are no clearly defined goals — even if it’s just to have fun and get out of the office.

I usually recommend incorporating team building as part of a bigger purpose that ties to the work or a community cause. For example, work at Habitat for Humanity for a day. Or create a fun event that involves experiencing another industry, then translating that to your business. Build fun into a topic or issue with some purpose.

The best team-building event won’t fix systemic issues, an organizational lack of clarity, or a difficult leader. In fact, a team-building event may make an overworked team believe that the leader is out of touch at best.

Reorganization as the Main Event 

Reorganization is essential when the organizational structure and roles no longer align with the strategy and plans. But if you’re just creating new boxes and nothing else, it won’t fix a team with talent gaps or realize a major change in how you work.

A “reorg” is often the go-to action for many leaders because it creates a lot of activity and change. But will reorganization result in the kind of change the business needs?

We worked with a client with plans to completely change their business model. This fundamental change would require new skills, education, and a change in customer processes. When the leaders spoke about this significant change, they talked largely about the new organizational structure. It was tangible and executable, so top leaders gravitated to the new boxes. While a reorganization may have been completely necessary, how they worked and the talent needed to deliver the new business model weren’t equal parts of the leadership agenda. They needed to be.

Reorganization can be effective when:

Root Rectangle 0415

  • Major work processes have changed and the organization isn’t positioned to deliver.
  • Spans of control are too broad or too narrow.
  • Rapid growth or a new strategy is expected.
  • There’s a new business model or delivery model (e.g., decentralization, globalization, etc.).

Reorganization won’t have the necessary impact when:

  • Talent gaps aren’t addressed.
  • Educational needs aren’t part of the plan.
  • Cultural changes will override an organizational chart (e.g., a strong entrepreneurial culture with a strategy to centralize for efficiency).

Big Presentations That Rely More on Performance Than Participation 

There’s a new strategy, growth plan, or big change ahead. More communication and broad engagement are needed. What do we do? It must be time for a big presentation by top leaders to share and explain it.

Yes, you probably do need to do this.

The mistake is that we think that once this presentation is done, we’re done. A great meeting, presentation, or performance is the one-way sharing of information. It’s what happens after the meeting that matters most.

Have a plan for how managers and team leads can translate their role when affecting and translating this new strategy. Create working discussions for questions and issues. Those closest to the work can find these problems early if we let them. Incorporate more interactive conversations and problem-solving discussions than one-way share-outs so the accountability and ownership spreads and change is realized.

Big presentations can be effective when:

  • There’s significant change and a forum is needed to get everyone up to speed.
  • Leaders need to share directly with a broader group.
  • There’s a need for reinforcing key themes to multiple stakeholders simultaneously.
  • There’s a major business change or pervasive uncertainty that must be quickly addressed.

A great meeting, presentation, or performance is the one-way sharing of information. It’s what happens after the meeting that matters most.

Big presentations won’t have the necessary impact when:

  • Engagement and broad ownership are essential, unless this is addressed in the longer-term plan.
  • There are many questions or concerns, unless the format of the meeting and culture enable discussion or there are follow-up sessions to address more detail.
  • A change needs broad take-up across the organization.

As leaders, we all have our favorite quick fixes for the challenges and opportunities in front of us. We love the immediacy of a clear action plan that we can quickly mark off the list.

But let’s not pretend that issues years in the making can be fixed with one simple event. These remedies can work — but only when they’re used for the right reasons and as one small piece of a much bigger plan.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults and the author of the recently released Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life. She and her team advise clients such as PepsiCo, Microsoft, 7-Eleven, Accenture, Frito-Lay, McKesson and many others on creating positive change in their leaders and organizations. Previously, Johnson was a Senior Executive at Accenture and held numerous global leadership positions, including Global Leader for talent and careers and Chief People Officer for one of the largest divisions. Patti is an instructor on Leading Change for SMU Executive Education and an instructor for the Bush Institute Women’s initiative, a selective program that includes women from around the world. She has been featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fast Company, MONEY Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, Entrepreneur, Working Mother, and many more. She was selected as an ongoing expert contributor for SUCCESS Magazine.

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