Getting your Staff to Get Along

 3 common teambuilding approaches – and why they don’t work

“I can accept it when one of my employees makes a mistake. What I don’t have patience for is when my employees don’t play well with one another.” This was a client, a business owner with 45 employees, who explained, “When there’s a problem with a customer, employees focus more on blaming other departments and covering their own backsides than stepping-up to help each other to resolve the problem. We need a stronger commitment to teamwork.”

Over the many years that I’ve helped teams to strengthen trust with their customers and co-workers, I’ve discovered that typical approaches to enhancing teamwork not only don’t work – they’re actually counterproductive. Here are three common approaches to strengthening teamwork, and why you should take a different approach to building stronger bonds within your team.

1. Forced socializing

Employers often assume that staff will build stronger bonds by getting to know each other better socially. So once or twice a year they host a company picnic or seasonal dinner. These events may be great for social butterflies, but they’re agony for introverts. Ironically, we might assume that people who appear to be socially at ease must be extroverts. Surprisingly, if you were to ask these same people how they would describe themselves, significant numbers would say they are introverts. Maybe you’re one of them. If so, you’ve probably learned how to appear socially comfortable at large gatherings although in reality you find them awkward. At a forced social event like a company-wide dinner, people tend to sit with workplace friends (so they don’t have to work so hard at small talk). Meanwhile, shy ones will be wondering how soon they can leave without being rude.

Unless you enforce a seating plan at the company Christmas party (which everyone would resent) cliques will be reinforced. Some people will feel excluded since they’re not at the cool table. If there’s alcohol, some may overindulge to reduce their anxiety; leading to other problems. Typically, these events aren’t cheap. If your real goal is to reward employees (as opposed to building teamwork), ask everyone if they’d prefer to either a) have a pizza lunch brought in several times a year (with no alcohol) or b) have one fancy sit-down dinner in December. I guarantee pizza will win. Managers are wise to think of company supplied meals as the perks they are – but not as team builders.

2. Obstacle courses

A more novel approach to enhancing teamwork is to take the staff off-site for a “team building event”, such as an obstacle course, paint-ball battleground, or fire-walk. The theory is that since people will be making group-decisions under pressure, there will be lessons in group dynamics and overcoming obstacles. The reality is for some people these lessons are more than offset by the shame and resentment they feel because they lack physical prowess, or because they appear to be overly timid. Unless your business actually requires your staff to walk on hot coals at their jobs, the whole exercise will have no bearing on whether the sales department blames the service department when customers have a complaint. I suggest you skip these types of activities; not only saving money, but also the risk and liability of staff being injured.

3. Sensitivity Training

There are a plethora of courses to train employees on how to be more inclusive and more aware of how their words and actions may inadvertently offend others. These are indeed worthwhile; particularly where you’ve had incidents of workplace bullying or harassment. What these courses won’t do however, is get to the core of why certain employees don’t understand that their coworkers are in fact their (internal) customers; and treat them as such.

The solution – focus on the real goal

On a men’s pro hockey team, imagine the potential that exists among teammates for rivalries and conflicts. These gifted athletes have learned from boyhood that they are (physically at least) superior. They are wealthy, admired, and naturally want to be the team’s shining star. When they play on opposite teams, a single offhand remark can literally lead to fisticuffs. Yet when they play on the same team, these individuals set their differences (and their potentially massive egos) aside, because they all share a common purpose – to win games.

Similarly in your workplace, when employees are so focused on achieving their goal – delighting internal and external customers – they no longer have time to be distracted by minor interpersonal issues. As they say in Texas, a dog on the hunt doesn’t know it has fleas.

Trying to enhance teamwork is like trying to fall asleep. You can’t (and shouldn’t) force it. Teamwork is not a goal – it is a bi-product of your organization creating a culture that is obsessed with delighting customers. You end up with devoted customers and reduced conflicts. That means increased financial security and ultimately, better returns for everyone including employees. The bonus of cultivating a customer-focused culture is employees won’t have the time or attention to bother with the proverbial fleas of interpersonal pettiness. The bottom line is this – managers achieve a more motivated and cooperative workforce when they focus less on teamwork itself, and more on delighting customers and coworkers.

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