As teams grow in complexity, becoming more diverse, dynamic, and dispersed, organizations are searching for ways to improve their performance.
Research over the past 15 years has found that a successful team needs a clear direction, strong structure, supportive environment, and shared mindset (Haas & Mortensen, 2016).
These four enabling conditions are the foundations of great teamwork and reduce two common problems: a lack of information and us versus them thinking.
This article introduces team-building exercises that can improve and encourage collaboration, communication, and cohesion, and ultimately optimize team success.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based tools will help you and those you work with build better social skills and better connect with others.
This Article Contains:
- The Role of Team-Building Exercises in the Workplace
- Team-Building Exercises for Work: 3 Examples
- 3 Activities for Fostering Communication and Trust
- 3 Icebreakers for Fostering Culture
- 5 Online Team Building Ideas
- 8 Ideas for Youths and Students
- PositivePsychology.com’s Resources
- A Take-Home Message
The Role of Team-Building Exercises in the Workplace
Modern teams that are digital, often remote, and solving complicated problems need cohesion. While they face many challenges, several essential conditions ensure successful group collaboration and clear group identity (Haas & Mortensen, 2016).
Managers can be more successful by focusing on:
- Compelling direction
Team members need to be engaged and energized, with explicit goals.
- Strong structure
The team needs the right number and mix of members, great processes, and positive dynamics.
- Supportive context
Good performance needs to be rewarded and appropriate technical and educational support in place.
- Shared mindset
The above three are all essential, but real success requires something extra. A team needs to foster a common identity and understanding.
How can team building help?
Regularly bringing teams together can build bridges, “creating shared experiences and common reference points and stories” (Haas & Mortensen, 2016).
The potential for project success can be improved significantly through transformational leadership (inspiring and encouraging staff to create positive change through innovation) and team building. Such group interventions can offer a “mediating role between transformational leadership and project success” (Aga, Noorderhaven, & Vallejo, 2016).
The idea of such collective activities is not new; the benefits of team building have broadly been accepted for at least the last 40 years.
While a 1999 review paper was unable to find evidence for the link between group interventions and team performance, it recognized that factors such as team size might be crucial to success (Salas, Rozell, Mullen, & Driskell, 1999).
A 2009 review extended the research, confirming that team building positively affects “goal setting, interpersonal relations, problem-solving, and role clarification.” While team size does indeed affect task outcome (surprisingly, larger teams gained the most), team building consistently benefits team functioning and increases team and member success (Klein et al., 2009).
Team building provides some of the essential skills, training, and resources needed to work together effectively and cohesively. To be most fruitful, it should be part of ongoing development (individual, team, and organizational) and at the heart of the organization’s culture.
What are the needs of the team?
Before embarking on designing and running team-building exercises, it is essential to understand the needs of the group.
- Are members of the group resisting change?
- Are there conflicts and divisions that need to be addressed?
- Are individual egos putting the team’s success at risk?
- Is poor communication (inside or beyond the team) an issue?
- Is group morale poor?
- Is the team established? Does everyone already know each other well?
The answers provide a focus for the exercises and ensure that activities are appropriate and targeted to the problems, needs, or development opportunities.
What are the goals of team building?
Goals for team building must be tailored to the team while maintaining awareness of the overall organizational objectives.
Typically, they include the following:
- Opportunity for the team to get to know one another better
- Improving cohesion of virtual teams (they may have never met)
- Uniting toward a common goal or shared vision
- Understanding the strengths of team members
- Fostering strong team skills
- Boosting team performance
- Inducting new employees
- Becoming an employer of choice
- Teaching key skills
Successful team building can have many positive outcomes. Improved communication can enhance productivity and remove the risk of misunderstandings, delays, and wasted effort. Perhaps most importantly, a flagging, tired, and unmotivated collection of individuals can become a directed team with a clear focus on what is needed.
What roles make up a team-building session?
While there are many ways of running team-building events, there is a set of roles that are common to most exercises, such as (Anthony, 2017):
Often, one team member will be designated as the leader either by the team itself or the organizer of the event.
The team leader will manage the group while encouraging functioning as a team.
It can be useful to track what has happened and the agreements reached, to later refresh the group’s memory of the days’ events.
Some activities will have strict timings. The timekeeper ensures that the sub-tasks and goals are completed on schedule.
While the aim of team building is cohesion, disputes can arise. The mediator may need to take team members aside and discuss and mediate any disputes.
Note that not all of the above roles are appropriate for every event. Such formal positions may be discouraged if team building too closely resembles the day-to-day working environment.
For an extensive list of team-building exercises and games, see Herman Otten’s (2020) book 101 Team Building Exercises: To Improve Cooperation and Communication.
Team-Building Exercises for Work: 3 Examples
One-off or regular team-building exercises can be effective at improving patterns of team interaction and are strongly linked to project success (Pollack & Matous, 2019).
Stepping Forward Exercise
The Stepping Forward Exercise can be the perfect way to begin or end a team-building day and understand the needs of all in attendance.
Once the exercise is complete, the team-building day can start, taking into account the needs of all in attendance.
If used at the end of the day, ask each person whether the day met their expectations. Their responses can shape future training or generate appropriate follow-ups and information that may help.
Alternatively, the exercise can be modified to form part of a project session to draw out new ideas and share everyone’s thoughts within the team.
Human Typewriter Exercise
Breaking down barriers and having fun in a team setting can be hugely beneficial for creating a team that works well together and is resilient to change and challenge.
The Human Typewriter Exercise is a fun way of involving all the team equally in a joint activity while working toward a common goal – in this case, typing a message.
The exercise has no formal purpose other than to create a little fun, break the ice, and attempt to communicate in a very different way.
Creating Shapes Exercise
Most meetings and training sessions involve sitting in one place for longer than is comfortable. Before and during a session, it can be useful to get people moving to change the social dynamics and stimulate new interactions.
The Creating Shapes Exercise gets people out of their chairs and moving and interacting in very different ways.
After all, members need to understand that a team can achieve more in less time when working well as a cohesive unit through understanding one another’s needs.
3 Activities for Fostering Communication and Trust
“Ultimately, the evolution of how self-organizing teams evolve into high-performance teams depends on mutual respect and trust of the members of the team,” says author and former director of the world bank, Steve Denning (Hakanen & Soudunsaari, 2012).
Team building can help build trust and improve communication within a team.
Blindfold Guiding Exercise
Building trust requires a degree of vulnerability.
For the Blindfold Guiding Exercise, divide the team into pairs and assign one the role of the blindfolded walker with the other as a guide.
The guide, while walking behind the walker, guides the walker around the room using only spoken instructions, such as turn to the right, step to the left, and keep moving forward, to avoid obstacles.
The exercise is an excellent icebreaker, building trust while practicing communication skills.
Trust Fall Exercise
Creating an element of personal risk (albeit minimal) can help build trust and break down barriers within a group.
The Trust Fall Exercise requires no materials and is easy to explain; though it may be useful to demonstrate in front of the group to gain trust in the activity.
The group is split into pairs; one will be the catcher, and the other will be the person who will fall.
The catcher stands half an arm’s length behind the person who will fall. They position one leg slightly in front of the other, in a strong, stable position, ready to catch.
The person in front closes their eyes. Arms are either folded or down by their sides. They gradually lean back until they over-balance and fall into the arms of their partner standing behind them.
Through repetition, confidence can be gained in the pair and can be carried over to the rest of the day.
Getting to Know One Another Exercise
Communication is essential for building relationships, team rapport, and good team performance.
The Getting to Know One Another Exercise can help build understanding, leading to more openness when sharing information.
The team forms into pairs and shares a story of a blunder. Their partner and ultimately the rest of the group are asked to remember and repeat the story.
This is an excellent team-building exercise to get to know one another better and practice active listening.
3 Icebreakers for Fostering Culture
A unit can be most effective when it has a clear and recognizable culture.
Games can be one of the best ways to break down barriers and build common approaches to solving problems (Depping, Mandryk, Johanson, Bowey, & Thomson, 2016).
Making Eye Contact Exercise
Openness can create a positive, delivery-focused culture where issues can be discussed without fear and risks shared.
Good communication is a great place to start and can be encouraged through nonverbal behavior such as making eye contact. After all, looking someone in the eye is important for showing both vulnerability and confidence.
Try out the Making Eye Contact Exercise for a great way to begin a day of training or break-outs during focused work sessions.
Back Writing Exercise
A work culture that encourages open and positive feedback fosters growth by supporting the open discussion of opportunities and concerns.
The Back Writing Exercise offers a safe, light-hearted approach to sharing feedback. It is an ideal activity when teams are looking to enhance communication and collaborate more effectively in a positive way.
This is a useful exercise for people to gain insight into how the group sees them and offers an opportunity to provide light-hearted feedback when there are different levels of the management structure present.
True and False Exercise
Telling stories can be a great way to break down barriers, especially when we use our imagination to make things seem a little more interesting.
The True and False Exercise involves each participant telling two true stories and a fictional third. The listeners are then asked to judge what is false and true.
Variations include having two fake stories and one real one, or one long story that starts true and the listeners guess when it starts to become fake.
If time is limited or it needs to be quick to energize the group, it can be performed with two real and one fake personality traits.
5 Online Team-Building Ideas
According to researchers Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen (2016), “digital dependence often impedes information exchange.” But when you have a remote workforce where face-to-face interaction is not an option, how do you create a team identity?
Online team building can be crucial to removing barriers and improving cooperation and communication.
So, what team-building ideas work well remotely?
Several of the team-building exercises already described do not require face-to-face contact nor physical movement and can easily be modified for online interaction using tools such as Zoom or Skype.
- The Getting to Know One Another Exercise can easily be moved online by asking team members to share their blunder stories with their partner on a one-to-one call before joining the group video call.
- The True and False Exercise is an excellent fit for a video call. Each speaker can prepare several stories, and people can vote on their truthfulness by either shouting out or using a group chat function.
Team-building online exercises can also take a much more informal format and potentially be run in the evening, including family members if appropriate.
- Food suppliers are available that deliver ingredients and instructions for making meals such as Italian pizzas, Mexican, or Indian food. It can be fun to get on a group video call and share the act of making food at the same time – along with the mishaps.
- Similar online activities are available for making drinks, either cocktails or mocktails.
- Online quizzes can be a favorite and may involve leagues running throughout the year.
8 Ideas for Youths and Students
Many of the above team-building exercises work well with younger age groups where it is especially important to get children out of their seats and moving.
The following exercises work well first thing or post-lunch to generate some energy:
- Human Typewriter Exercise
- Creating Shapes Exercise
- Blindfold Guiding Exercise
- Trust Fall Exercise
- Back Writing Exercise (can be modified to replace celebrities with cartoon characters)
Children, especially younger ones, love art, especially when messy.
- Making shared pieces of art, such as castles, dinosaurs, and dragons, can bring a group of children together to get to know one another and have fun.
Other games work for any age group of children or youths.
- The Balloon Train involves each pair getting a balloon from one side of a room to another and back. They must balance the balloon between them without using their hands. If it falls, they must start again. If they succeed, they pass it on to the next pair.
- Treasure hunts are always popular and can take many forms. They can be performed in various locations, either using maps or following a set of clues.
We have many useful tools for team building, strengthening communication, and creating understanding within teams. Here are two more to try out:
- GROW With Your Team uses the GROW framework to help groups set collective goals and brainstorm a plan for moving forward.
- Silent Connections is an activity to help teams improve their non-verbal communication.
- Capitalizing Positive Emotions With Active-Constructive Responding can help teams foster adaptive communication by encouraging them to share positive events with one another and reacting appropriately.
- If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, this collection contains 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
A Take-Home Message
Working in teams brings many challenges, not least differences in personalities, expectations, goals, approaches, and styles.
Team cohesion, along with incomplete and incorrect information, is often either at the root of many of the problems or at least a contributory factor, making working together more challenging (Haas & Mortensen, 2016).
To perform at their best, teams need to be energized and clear in what they are working toward. And these goals must be challenging yet achievable; the team should be stretched, but not to the point of being disheartened.
A clear direction, strong structure, the right support, and a shared mindset are all essential (Haas & Mortensen, 2016). But the team needs to be aware of these components and feel that they are crucial to what they do.
Consistent, high-quality team building leads to improved communication, greater mutual understanding, and even increased team effort (Pollack & Matous, 2019).
Try out some of the team-building exercises in group sessions with clients or coworkers. They may lead to a great connection and closeness and a clearer sense of team identity.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free.
- Aga, D. A., Noorderhaven, N., & Vallejo, B. (2016). Transformational leadership and project success: The mediating role of team-building. International Journal of Project Management, 34(5), 806–818.
- Anthony, L. (2017). Effective communication & conflict resolution. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved December 12, 2020, from https://smallbusiness.chron.com/effective-communication-conflict-resolution-3163.html
- Depping, A. E., Mandryk, R. L., Johanson, C., Bowey, J. T., & Thomson, S. C. (2016). Trust Me. Proceedings of the 2016 Annual Symposium on Computer–Human Interaction in Play.
- Haas, M., & Mortensen, M. (2016, June). The secrets of great teamwork. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved December 13, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2016/06/the-secrets-of-great-teamwork
- Hakanen, M., & Soudunsaari, A. (2012, June). Building trust in high-performing teams. Technology Innovation Management Review. Retrieved December 15, 2020, from https://timreview.ca/article/567
- Klein, C., DiazGranados, D., Salas, E., Le, H., Burke, C. S., Lyons, R., & Goodwin, G. F. (2009). Does team building work? Small Group Research, 40(2), 181–222.
- Otten, H. (2020). 101 team building exercises: To improve cooperation and communication [Kindle DX version].
- Pollack, J., & Matous, P. (2019). Testing the impact of targeted team building on project team communication using social network analysis. International Journal of Project Management, 37(3), 473–484.
- Salas, E., Rozell, D., Mullen, B., & Driskell, J. E. (1999). The effect of team building on performance. Small Group Research, 30(3), 309–329.