In particular, the prevalence of remote work has made team bonding far more difficult. Yet, just because you’re conducting most of your team meetings over Zoom calls doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy a rich company culture with a highly engaged workforce.
Also, you don’t need to break your budget with elaborate work retreats to build an effective team, but you do need to squeeze the most out of quick team building activities – even for your remote employees.
In this special report, 17 Team Building Activities, we’ll show you how to do that.
17 Team Building Activities provides teamwork examples, exercises and tips for developing winning teams. Specifically, you’ll discover tips for creative thinking, improving your communication skills, developing problem-solving skills, working with large groups and small groups, and taking part in fun team-building games (like Taking the Marshmallow Challenge).
There are also relevant examples of how to build trust with the rest of the team (such as Mayo Clinic’s team collaboration secrets), simple steps to master creative team building, and change management training principles.
Let 17 Team Building Ideas take your leadership skills to the next level. Go from being a manager who simply oversees staff to a true leader who molds employees into winning teams.
Sometimes it’s not clear how cross-team projects should play out. These corporate team-building guidelines will help you learn how to conduct engaging, productive meetings.
1. Set up some basic parameters: Come up with common goals for the next meeting, including what role each team member will play and what type of discussion will play out (e.g., brainstorming vs. goal setting). Be sure to include any earlier agreements.
2. Use these framing questions to help set your goals. First, ask:
3. At the next meeting, ask:
4. Make assignments and tap the energy of the group.
Adapted from Quiet Leadership, David Rock, Collins.
Well-supported teams consistently receive the information, training and rewards they need to keep chugging along without running into any roadblocks. Here are four prescriptions you need to coach your team more effectively:
1. Don’t skimp on guidance. Employees are remarkably adept at developing self-correcting strategies, not to mention workarounds for obstacles. They’ll be much more effective, though, if you’re in there asking what they need while providing skilled coaching.
2. Get help if coaching isn’t in your skill set. You need to model the attitude you want your team to adopt, but an expert coach can jump in to help you if the processes for running large-scale projects aren’t clear or if you see conflict emerging within or between your teams.
3. Timing is important. In other words, you need to be cognizant of the stages of a project or product launch when you provide coaching. The beginning is a good time to explain purpose and processes. Use natural break points—such as thirds or halfway through—to help everybody take stock, make adjustments and solve problems. Debrief at the end of the launch, and run a postmortem later, especially if things go astray.
4. Watch for coaching aptitude among your team members. Any one of them may have the main coaching talent in your group. Draw on it, develop it and reinforce it. Resist the impulse to feel threatened and squelch it. After all, the more talented coaches you have on your team, the better.
— Adapted from Senior Leadership Teams, Ruth Wageman, Debra A. Nunes, James A. Burruss, J. Richard Hackman, Harvard Business School Press.
People who don’t understand strategy and the big picture can end up working hard on the wrong things, making poor decisions or even quitting out of frustration.
Do your people “get it”? To find out, use this team building exercise to test their ability to discuss the big picture.
For example, ask each person the same five questions about strategy to see if their answers line up with yours:
Who are the customers or customer segments we serve, listed in order of priority?
What are the services we provide now, and which ones, if any, need to change as we implement our current strategy?
What is our value proposition, how does it set us apart, and how does it give us an edge in the marketplace?
Which environmental trends/issues (such as market, economic, societal, political or environmental) are essential to our strategy?
What are three things your division is doing (and/or doing differently) to support the strategy?
Each question targets the intent behind the strategy. There are both right and wrong answers, and they change as the strategy changes.
Good people could be working really hard on the wrong thing if their understanding of these questions is off base. Your job, as a leader, is to ensure that everyone in your reporting structure knows the correct answers.
— Adapted from The Executive Guide to High-Impact Talent Management, Steve Trautman.
Do you encourage your team to take risks? The very idea is enough to make many CEOs shudder.
Why is that?
It’s because you shoulder the responsibility of keeping employee performance high for the entire organization, which may make you risk averse.
After all, even acknowledging the existence of risk requires you to admit that you don’t have all the answersand that tends to not sit well with most CEOs self-image as a fearless, confident team leader.
Doug Stern, CEO of United Media, follows an explicit process anytime he faces a new, risky project, such as selling some of his company’s assets. He uses the same tactics to help his team evaluate risks and build their confidence about confronting the unknown:
He asks the team to imagine every bad scenario, even the most unlikely — what he calls the “darkest nightmares.”
He gives everyone a chance to describe those scenarios in detail, and then everyone gets to “peer into the darkness” together.
The team collectively devises a detailed plan in response to each nightmare.
After fears are exposed and dealt with, the team has a protocol in place for every “nightmare” scenario.
Bottom line: CEOs who hone their skills at engaging with risk – who learn to acknowledge the fear and overcome that emotion – can also help others summon their courage and unleash tremendous potential.
— Adapted from “How centered leaders achieve extraordinary results,” Joanna Barsh, Josephine Mogelof and Caroline Webb, McKinsey Quarterly.
Do you want to kickstart your team’s momentum to prepare them for their next goals? Here are 10 steps blogger Terry Starbucker recommends to do just that:
1. Don’t dive in — yet. First, pause and reflect on the year gone by. Learn from the setbacks and savor the wins, and then talk them over with your team.
2. Analyze your blueprint. Review your plans and projects. Visualize the full picture, then describe it to yourself.
3. Size up your team. Ask yourself: Is everybody committed to the plan? Do we have unresolved issues? Do we need to reshuffle tasks or jobs? Are new hires being onboarded properly?
4. Express the goals. Call upon your team to help you articulate your ultimate goal, and then brainstorm three to five ways to get there.
5. Raise the bar. Self-competition is very healthy, so do some research to discover how you can outdo your previous year’s performance.
6. Read your own fine print. In Starbucker’s parlance, the “fine print” is the flip side of your strengths. While it’s good to be a “hard charger,” it’s ill-advised to charge right over your people or customers. Keeping your weaknesses in check is a core component of being an effective leader.
7. Get out your “virtual Q-tip.” Sit quietly without a smartphone or other distraction and take in what’s happening. Not only that, but truly listen to what your employees have to say during your next team meeting. After that, recreate this “active listening work environment” every time you’re with one or more members of your team.
8. Set an “accountability meter.” This isn’t a fancy alarm that goes off whenever you achieve your ultimate goal. Instead, it’s the expectation gauge for every person on the team. Your accountability meter should include how you expect the rest of the group to behave during the workday.
9. Give frequent feedback. Key your feedback to your accountability meter and correct course immediately.
10. Remain patient, calm and open to ideas. Your people and your customers are looking to you to set the standard as their leader, which means you need to be the modern embodiment of ‘Cool Hand Luke.'
With 18 minutes, 20 sticks of spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string and one marshmallow, Tom Wujec believes he can tell you how innovative any team is.
Here’s how to conduct his fun game:
After giving a four-member team the list of supplies mentioned above, Wujec asks them to build the tallest free-standing structure they can. The only rule: The marshmallow needs to be on top.
“I believe the Marshmallow Challenge is among the fastest and most powerful techniques for improving a team’s capacity to generate fresh ideas, build rapport and incorporate prototyping — all of which lie at the heart of effective innovation,” says Wujec, who is a Fellow at Autodesk, the leading 2D and 3D technology firm.
He has used this team building exercise with CEOs, business-school students and kindergartners. And he has learned some surprising lessons about the nature of collaboration.
1. “Ta-da!” can quickly turn to “Uh-oh.” Most people begin by orienting themselves to the task, he says. They talk about what their structure will look like, sketch it out and jockey for a leadership position in the group.
Wujec says, “They spend most of their time assembling the structure, then just as they’re running out of time, they gingerly put a marshmallow on top. They stand back and admire their work — ‘Ta-da!’” Then the entire structure collapses under the weight of the marshmallow.
2. Rapid prototyping is the name of the game. Recent graduates of kindergarten tend to perform best in the Marshmallow Challenge. They produce the tallest and most interesting structures.
Why? No one spends any time trying to be CEO of Spaghetti Inc.
Kindergartners, unlike other groups, start with the idea of the marshmallow and work backward, building multiple prototypes along the way. Kids get instant feedback with each version about what works and what doesn’t — in other words, they use an iterative process—so they don’t end up with a collapsed structure at the last moment.
3. CEOs perform best with an executive admin on the team. Why? Admins facilitate and manage the process. Facilitation skills plus specialized skills equal success.
Ultimately, says Wujec, the Marshmallow Challenge helps people find hidden assumptions, build a common language and learn how to manage the marshmallow.
— Adapted from MarshmallowChallenge.com.
Nothing right is going to happen for your team if the basic structure isn’t right.
Here are some guidelines:
1. Look for signs that it’s too big. The larger the team, the slower it moves. Consider a smaller team or a tiny executive committee.
2. Dispense with tactical trivia. Toss everything except important work that requires collaboration.
3. Enforce healthy norms. Four universal ones: everybody is as committed as the leader; every issue is on the table; everybody’s voice is heard; and what you say and do when you’re with the team is the same thing you say and do outside the team.
4. Have your team review its structure. Revisit size and tasks, including how you’re utilizing your remote team.
— Adapted from Senior Leadership Teams, Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James Burruss, J. Richard Hackman, Harvard Business School Press.
Whether a group is planning a conference or working on a shared budget, the more cooperative the group is, the more likely it can rise above a challenge. It helps a leader to understand, then, why some groups cooperate more than others.
In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, two professors find that a “consistent contributor” makes all the difference.
“The consistent contributor looks for the collective good first and personal good second,” explains Keith Murnighan, a professor of risk management at the Kellogg School of Management.
The contributor initiates cooperation, leading others to follow suit.
“In a larger group, if someone consistently acts as a friend, it’s easier for others to act as friends and everyone benefits,” says Murnighan. “In a budget meeting, for example, each person wants the most for his or her division or department. One person asks, ‘What’s in the best interest of the organization?’ The marketing department head sees that R&D is on the brink of a major breakthrough and says, ‘We can make do with what we had last year, so let’s contribute all of the increase to R&D.’ ”
Bottom line: Encourage consistent contributors on your team—or add one: yourself.
— Adapted from “Consistent Contributors,” Kellogg Insight.
1. ‘FedEx Days’: Forget carrot-and-stick motivators
To get better results, companies don’t need better managers, says Daniel Pink, author of Drive. They need more radical autonomy among employees.
The old carrot-and-stick approach is failing, he says. It’s for work that most Americans aren’t doing anymore.
“It’s good for simple, routine, rule-based tasks, like turning a screw the same way,” he says. “But there’s 50 years of science that says it’s ineffective at creative, complex work.
Example: Atlassian, an Australian software company, holds something called “FedEx Days” once a quarter, on a Thursday afternoon.
On that day, leadership says to software developers, go work on whatever you want, with whomever you want. On Friday afternoon, show the rest of the company what you’ve done.
The initiative is called “FedEx Days” because team members have to deliver something overnight.
In one day, employees have come up with scores of ideas for new products, fixes to existing products, and other improvements within the firm.
The approach is radical, says Pink. Leadership is saying to a capable team, “Let me get out of your way because you’re a talented human being.”
“What we want more than anything else is engagement,” he says.
— Adapted from “On Leadership: Poisonous carrots, blunt sticks,” The Washington Post.
2. Mayo Clinic's success secret: team collaboration
After a diagnosis, patients at the Mayo Clinic meet with a team of specialists who help them understand what’s happening so they can decide about treatment together, says president and CEO Denis Cortese.
This kind of teamwork is the stock-in-trade of Cortese, who won last year’s top leadership award from the National Center for Healthcare Leadership.
Asked why health care so often lacks the team collaboration that makes Mayo famous, Cortese traces the problem to medical schools, where he says students aren’t trained to work in teams. Each student takes exams alone, and even in clinical practice, most rewards relate to things you do as an individual, such as specialized procedures and reading X-rays.
What’s more, he says, “doctors are going into sub-, sub-, sub-specialties where it is easier to build all-in knowledge in that area where they operate alone. But it is difficult to take care of patients with five different conditions. That requires teams.”
Can you mimic the Mayo teams on behalf of your customers? A conference call up front to plan out services? A whole team descending on your customer’s problem like pit stop mechanics rushing up to refresh a racecar?
— Adapted from “Dr. Denis Cortese Talks About Mayo Clinic’s Culture of Collaboration as the Foundation for Patient-Centered Healthcare,” Modern Healthcare.
3. Team-building activities after the pandemic - huddle time and bounce time
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 forever changed how many organizations operate virtually overnight.
While businesses were scrambling to adapt to remote work, lots of little things were lost in the fray.
For instance, Zoom meetings became the new norm, which seemed like a suitable replacement for in-person meetings at first, until researchers dug a little deeper.
Leslie Perlow, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, conducted research that uncovered all the crucial workplace interactions that were lost during the early stages of the pandemic.
A concerning lack of employee engagement during virtual meetings.
“Just because you went to the meeting doesn’t mean you know what happened,” Parlow says. “The more senior people assume the more junior people understood the meeting just because they were there.”
In particular, Perlow uncovered that virtual meetings were lacking ‘huddle time’ (quick post-meeting conversations where coworkers process and break down what happened) and ‘bounce time’ (random brainstorming sessions that occur within meetings).
Short, unscheduled debriefs after meetings proved to be more than just downtime, they’re a vital part of how employees process information with one another.
As such, employers should encourage remote teams to have an informal ‘debrief’ session once the meeting ends instead of instantly signing off.
Also, the research found that using instant-messaging apps like Slack helped compensate for the lack of spontaneous brainstorming sessions during meetings.
— Adapted from the Harvard Business School website.
A study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior points out that companies investing in knowledge-transfer software aren’t seeing much improvement in their information flow. One reason: Employees simply won’t share what they know.
“A lot of companies have jumped on the bandwagon of knowledge sharing” by investing heavily in software, says one of the authors. “It was a case of, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ But they didn’t come.”
Unlike knowledge hoarding, knowledge hiding is when someone intentionally conceals information from a colleague — perhaps out of distrust, or to undermine the other person.
Authors of the study say that people tend to hide knowledge in one of three ways:
Playing dumb. Employees pretend not to have the requested information.
Being evasive. Employees provide incorrect information or falsely promise to give a complete answer later.
Rationalized hiding. An employee might say, “I’m not allowed to provide that information” or blame someone else for their inability to share.
Keep information flowing in your corridors and among your teams with these tactics:
Building a culture of trust is key in encouraging employees to share what they know.
— Adapted from “When Knowledge Sharing Turns to Knowledge Hiding,” strategy+business.
If you’re a leader who has a prima donna on your team (one who produces great results but alienates everyone), what should you do? It’s simple. Bite the bullet and fire that person.
Here are three reasons why you should:
1. You’ll get more from the rest of your team. Prima donnas are productivity and morale killers. When they’re playing their game, everyone around them is miserable and resentful, likely spending most of their energy griping about the prima donna.
Take the diva (or divo, as the case may be) out of the picture and everyone else gets on with the work. As a leader, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised by how much more creative the rest of your team is when they get to breathe some of the oxygen the prima donna was sucking out of the room.
2. You’ll send the right message. While it feels a little strange to quote Karl Marx, curing a prima donna situation is one in which the good of the many outweighs the good of the few. By getting rid of the prima donna, you send the message that the health and welfare of the team is more important than the ego of any individual.
Most people are motivated by being a part of something that’s bigger than themselves. You can’t create the conditions for that to happen when one person is demanding the spotlight. Don't let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch.
3. You’ll save yourself headaches. As tough as it can be to let go of someone who is getting results at a critical time, you’ve got to do it and look at it as an investment in the long-term success of your team.
It’s like removing a Band-Aid from your arm. You know the Band-Aid will pull some hairs out when you remove it. You can just rip it off or peel it slowly. Either way, it’s going to hurt. You might as well rip it off and get it over with. The same is true of firing someone who’s established a history of being a long-term source of heartburn and headaches. Get it over with.
One thing that binds the Zappos team together is an openness with numbers. It shares vital signs not just on the team level, but across the entire company.
What are the tenets of a team culture that values such broadcasts? Speak to the masses. Craft and communicate metrics in a language everyone can understand. Make deadlines and accountability visible.
At the online shoe company, for example, a finance class teaches every employee to read a balance sheet.
“Last year, a lot of people in the company wondered how we did a billion dollars in revenue but didn’t turn a big profit,” says Loren Becker, a supervisor of training at Zappos. “So we showed everyone that about half of our money went to buying the goods we sold, a quarter went to rent and salaries, a quarter went to advertising and other expenses. Pretty soon there’s not a lot left over of that billion.”
That communication about financials has fostered teamwork in cutting costs.
Becker hears people saying things like, “Maybe we can do without these pens.”
“We’ve become a lot more cost conscious because of our openness,” she says.
Lesson: Broadcast deadlines, goals, responsibilities and progress for everyone to see. Help team members be more aware of each group’s objectives.
— Adapted from “The Orange Revolution,” Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton.
You’ve laid out how you’re going to hold the team accountable, and they all understand what’s expected of them. You’ve planted responsibility squarely in their laps. But you’re not totally home free.
There’s one more piece of the puzzle left: responding to change.
Few teams remain static over time. As an organization matures, so does a group’s mission. Objectives can and often do change midstream.
This can occur when:
Change can prove especially disruptive if it deflates or defeats the team’s performance to date.
Teammates who were held accountable for producing results may now complain: “It was all for nothing,” “We don’t want to start from scratch” or “This new setup just isn’t fair—the goals aren’t realistic.”
Managing a team’s disenchantment will test your leadership skills.
Unless you take the easy way out and disband the group, you’ll need to achieve three quick goals:
Convince the team that the changes will ultimately benefit them and/or the organization.
Urge the team to work with you to revise its mission.
Settle on a new set of accountabilities so that all the members know how they’ll be measured from this point forward.
The key to managing change is not to over facilitate. Events can unfold rapidly and unpredictably. Trying to control the team’s actions or rushing to reassure the group when you’re still unsure what will happen next can backfire.
A wiser strategy is to unclog the lines of communication. Alert the team as to what the changes will mean to its purpose and goals. Promptly inform everyone of new developments.
Tip: One benefit of weathering change is that you buy some time to establish a new yardstick to measure the team’s performance. Don’t rush to impose a detailed list of accountabilities. Evaluate team members on their flexibility and overall attitude as much as on their actual work product.
Next time you're tasked with coming up with a good “bonding” activity for your team, take a cue from today’s event planners.
The best events tie in somehow to a company’s core values and have a philanthropic element.
A few examples:
Tip: Whatever you choose, watch the clock. Longer than two hours, and participants tire of almost anything
You probably know that a diverse group is likely to yield the most creative work. But you may not realize just how diverse a team should be, particularly if it needs to come up with new, innovative ideas.
“Diversity guarantees the best project result and usually some layer of innovation,” says Gary Curtis, a managing director at the technology consulting firm Accenture.
Your team needs diversity in three areas:
1. Job function: “You need people who can see things differently and not get trapped in their own disciplinary assumptions,” says Robert I. Sutton, a Stanford University engineering professor. “People from different disciplines will have different points of view.”
2. Age: Younger employees, or “millennials,” for example, come to the workplace with “a whole different life experience, especially with regard to technology in their personal lives,” Curtis says.
3. Gender: “A team of all men is generally going to work in a hierarchical way. If it’s a big team, men are more comfortable taking their part of the problem and going off and solving it,” Curtis says. In comparison, a team of women tend to work in a more communal way.
— Adapted from “Building a new-age workforce,” Julia King, Computerworld.
Liven up your workplace with one of these morale-boosting team events:
Collaboration works—until it starts to resemble groupthink. That’s when healthy dissent evaporates, self-defeating tendencies surge and negative emotions corrode the group’s work.
Make sure your team is working more like the Manhattan Project and less like Enron: Three ideas:
1. Model constructive dissent. Play devil’s advocate and disagree with a unanimous decision. Benefit: You’ll encourage a reluctant but wise person to speak up.
2. Have a brainstorming group write ideas on unattributed Post-it notes. Why? No one knows whether an idea came from top brass or a low-level player, so people back ideas with merit regardless of source.
3. Encourage team members to do self-affirmations. Research by behavioral scientist Tanya Menon shows that simply listing one’s own personal skills and accomplishments before meeting with a group enhances one’s ability to let colleagues shine.
— Adapted from “When Groups Don’t Think,” Jake Mohan, Utne Reader.
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