Two words that have the power to elicit a collective groan from your staff members.
While some find team-building exercises thrilling, others shrink from the thought of this mandatory fun/torture. Games could interfere with pressing work, and they seem trivial and a waste of time. For your personnel, these activities may make them vulnerable and feel silly.
As a manager, what do you do, and why would you subject your employees to these wearisome activities? Why should you spend so much money, time, and resources on such activities?
In this article, we provide a research-based explanation of the importance of team building and the advantages it can provide. After reading, you will understand the psychology of team building and be able to compile a bulletproof team-building plan that will help your team be most effective.
Read on to learn the science of team building and why it is so critical for effective teams. You will also learn about a few easy-to-use team-building exercises for your next team-building event.
If asked what quality best prepares a student for real life, many employers will respond with “teamwork” (Ekimova & Kokurin, 2015).
Teamwork skills can be described as attitudes and behaviors necessary for an individual to be an effective team member and achieve common objectives or promote positive change (de Prada Creo et al., 2021).
In search of related studies, Schmutz et al. (2019) found that teamwork across an organization is part of a powerful process of improving patient care.
Through an analysis of 1,390 medically related teams from 31 different studies, teamwork was found to have positively affected clinical performance. The researchers assert that these findings demonstrate the importance of maintaining and improving teamwork to benefit health care patients.
The Importance of Team Building for Managers
“It is critical to have teamwork-supportive organizational conditions and environments where psychological safety can flourish and be a mechanism to resolve conflicts, ensure safety, mitigate errors, learn, and improve performance.”
Salas et al., 2018, p. 593
Team building is necessary not only for members, but also for managers.
Managers have the opportunity to set precedence.
The role of a manager is to oversee the work of others. To accomplish this, a manager must be as much a team player as the supervised employees.
Haas and Mortensen (2016) assert that team members’ behavior styles or personalities do not equate to effective collaboration; it is a compelling direction, a strong structure, and a supportive context that matter. Consequently,
“Managers can achieve big returns if they understand what those factors are and focus on getting them right.”
Haas and Mortensen, 2016, para. 3
A manager is a driving force behind a team, and if a manager is tasked with keeping the workplace organized and efficient, that work begins with the manager.
Further, because teamwork skills are not a topic seemingly related to the actual job task, especially in the medical setting, team members may hesitate to work on these critical skills (Aarnio et al., 2010).
Therefore, it is the manager’s duty to motivate team members to learn teamwork skills. This can be accomplished through modeling. Compiling and implementing an effective team-building strategy is also going to be critical for the manager of a team. More on this topic later.
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Despite the entertainment and fun some teamwork exercises provide, they inconspicuously deliver important teamwork skills.
Team development can be better understood using two models: Cog’s Ladder and Tuckman’s Stages. It will be important to consider these two theories as you develop your comprehensive team-building plan.
Cog’s Ladder is a five-stage model that groups must use to meet goals (Staggers et al., 2008). This theoretical framework helps to show how groups can be changed through group development (Dixon, 2000).
The stages are as follows:
The polite phase
The “Why are we here?” phase
The power phase
The cooperation phase
The esprit de corps phase
Also, a five-step model, Tuckman’s Stages depict stages teams must pass through to achieve objectives (Staggers et al., 2008).
Tuckman (1965) summarizes the group stages as follows:
Managers and team leaders can use these blueprints to understand the process teams need to develop clearly. The keyword is “process.” Teamwork will not occur instantaneously. That is where our exercises will come in.
The theories behind these two models can be used to plan team-building exercises. For instance, both theoretical frameworks note the importance of a strong foundation.
Stages 1 and 2 from Cog’s Ladder align with Tuckman’s forming stage (Staggers et al., 2008). Ideally, this is when teams get to know each other and better understand the group’s goal. Collaboration activities that involve familiarizing team members with each other and building relationships will be beneficial during these stages.
In the power stage of Cog’s Ladder and storming stage from Tuckman, team members experience confrontation and possible conflict. It will be critical to perform vulnerability, role clarity, and culture team-building exercises to prepare for this stage and mitigate friction when solving problems.
Your team should feel comfortable sharing their solutions and constructively debating ideas. Resolving conflict will be an essential skill for solving problems and maintaining professionalism.
Then the magic happens. In the cooperation and performing phases, the intended work is completed. To help facilitate your staff members in this stage, you will want to employ activities that involve team effectiveness or a positive attitude.
The final stages of Cog’s Ladder and Tuckman’s Stages, the esprit de corps and adjourning stages, may not be reached by all teams and are indicated by high group morale and loyalty (Staggers et al., 2008).
During this last phase, your team will benefit from any team building; however, the feedback activities will be particularly helpful. The feedback activities will help managers determine which parts of the process were most influential for team building.
The Benefits of Psychological Trust Exercises
Exercises like a trust fall can seem jovial, but can they provide actual benefits for a team? You bet.
Trust is a vital aspect, as it is an important predictor of behavior in a team (Breuer et al., 2020). The willingness to be vulnerable and take risks is key when sharing information and being part of a team.
Let’s look at the model of organization trust by Mayer et al. (1995). This framework blends research from multiple disciplines and discerns trust from similar constructs such as cooperation and confidence.
Source: Mayer et al., 1995, p. 715
This model extends a definition of trust and a model of its antecedents and results. The model evaluates the characteristics of the trustor, the trustee, and the role of risk.
Trust will be particularly important in the middle stages of Cog’s Ladder and Tuckman’s stages. The team members must feel that they are in a safe enough place to share their ideas. We will get to our trust exercises in just a bit.
8 Team Building Activities to Help Improve:
Communication is critical for building relationships, rapport, and good team performance. Good communication is needed for effective collaboration, and this exercise will help your team to become better communicators and collaborators.
Given a set amount of time, groups are tasked with building the tallest free-standing structure using the following materials: uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows. Not only is this activity entertaining, but it will also help determine your team’s effectiveness.
As the manager, this activity will shed light on which team members are willing to step up and which are hanging back, and can indicate your future leaders.
Collaboration requires two proficiencies: the ability to collaborate with internal members and the ability to collaborate with external entities (Bene & McNeilly, 2020). This will be an effective exercise to determine if your groups can use both.
Using this activity specifically, do group members communicate with each other to build the highest tower? Do you have some group members who also seek new ideas from outside sources?
Although seemingly simple, collaboration is quite complex. It requires empathy, negotiation, consensus building, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and mediation between group members with different backgrounds, values, cultures, and perspectives (Bene & McNeilly, 2020).
Collaboration activities are ideal at the initial formation of the group, as well as throughout the group’s time together, to sustain collaborative effectiveness.
Building trust requires a degree of vulnerability and an element of personal risk, even if it is minimal. Try the following activity to encourage team members to become vulnerable, take risks, and grow.
For the Blindfold Guiding Exercise, the team is divided into pairs and assigned the roles of blindfolded walker and guide.
While walking behind the walker, the guide guides the walker around the room using only spoken instructions, such as turning to the right, stepping to the left, and moving forward to avoid obstacles.
As we discussed, trust is a critical element for team building. Further, it is an essential element for effective collaboration as it is positively correlated to team-related attitudes, information processing, and team performance (Breuer et al., 2020).
This exercise aims to carry trust to the workplace and apply it to the relationship. Further, it acts as an excellent icebreaker and a fun way to build trust while practicing communication skills.
To have a team that works well together, having a little fun and breaking down barriers will be advantageous. Additionally, real-life challenges are often urgent and must be considered thoughtfully and logically.
Team-building activities are particularly effective when they help create this same sense of urgency.
Getting to Know One Another
The Getting to Know One Another Exercise can help build understanding, which leads to more openness when sharing information, thus enhancing a team’s effectiveness.
The team forms into pairs and shares a story of a blunder. Their partner and the rest of the group are asked to remember and repeat the story. This is an effective team-building exercise to get to know one another personally and practice active listening.
It is imperative to create personal relationships for an effective group. Mousa et al. (2020) conducted research concerning workplace happiness. Using questionnaires from Egyptian hospitals, one of their findings was that managers could raise workplace happiness by creating personal relationships with physicians.
Using this premise, managers will want to get to know their staff members, and staff members are encouraged to get to know each other to form and sustain a solid team.
Feedback is important and can help a team improve upon current practices. Sometimes team members may be unwilling to share the information necessary for constructive criticism. This activity may help.
The Stepping Forward Exercise may be an ideal way to start or finish a team-building day and understand the needs of all attending. Once the exercise is complete, the team-building day can begin, considering 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.
You may also find this activity beneficial to gain employee feedback after an ordinary workday and company training. This designated time allows individuals to safely share new ideas and thoughts with the team.
Openness to new ideas and feedback is one of the three main characteristics of humble leadership, which has positively impacted project success (Ali et al., 2021).
Humble leadership is a style team leaders should strive for. It involves not only being open to feedback, but implementing the feedback as well. When group members see their feedback in action, they will be more willing to share suggestions to help move the group forward.
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
This is the premise when we consider groups. Group dynamics are the innerworkings of a group of individuals or the processes the group experiences. This term was first used by Kurt Lewin who used group dynamics to describe the interactions, attitudes, and behaviors between people who are working together (Martins, 2022).
Having effective group dynamics allows the team to work together effectively. To strengthen your team’s dynamics, you may consider the following activity.
Frequent movement may not be part of the company training or regular workday for many. During a long stretch of training or a typical workday, it can be useful to get people moving to stimulate new interactions and change the social dynamics.
The Creating Shapes Exercise gets people out of their chairs and moving and interacting differently. With this activity, participants will learn that a team can be more productive when working well as a cohesive unit through understanding one another’s needs.
In an organization or any team unit, if there is a lack of understanding of the roles and responsibilities of team members, there is a potential for inefficiencies and conflict. Try the following exercises to eliminate confusion.
Role Expectation Matrix
Instead of creating job responsibilities, it may be helpful for your team to create a role expectation matrix. To create the Role Expectation Matrix, participants create a 2×2 matrix with everyone’s roles along the X and Y axes.
The matrix is then designed to show the expectations from one role to another. For example, “What should a manager expect from a designer?” and “What can a designer expect from a project manager?”
This activity aims to clarify and eliminate friction concerning expectations for specific positions within a company.
Role expectations must be transparent. Role clarity is an element of ethical leadership, which is conversely related to passive leadership (Vullinghs et al., 2020).
When team members are aware of their expectations and the expectations of their teammates, there is little ambiguity between the roles, leaving less space for potential conflict. Role clarity and consistency create an environment of trust (Newman & Ford, 2021).
A positive attitude can mean the difference between loathing and loving what you do daily. Practicing gratitude has countless benefits and may help encourage a positive attitude in your team. The following exercises can also improve appreciation in your team.
Back Writing Exercise
This activity requires participants to circulate the room and have a piece of paper taped or pinned to their backs. The leader asks participants to write something on a team member’s back using a specific prompt (one skill this person has, a famous look-alike of this person). At the end of the activity, participants share the results.
Positive social interactions are an important contributing factor in psychological wellbeing (Narain et al., 2020), and this activity encourages such practice. People enjoy hearing compliments, and it feels good to give them.
Take this activity further to include corrective feedback if team members know each other well and feel safe enough to do so.
A unit can be most effective with a clear and recognizable culture; however, there could be countless other subcultures within a culture. Games can be one of the best ways to break down barriers and build common problem-solving approaches (Depping et al., 2016).
May 21st is World Day for Cultural Diversity and an excellent opportunity for team members to showcase their heritage. If you have a diverse team willing to share their various cultures, perhaps try making a fun team-building event out of it.
Participants could bring a dish from their culture and share a short informational session that includes fun customs and traditions. Presenters could share their music or dance with the group.
After employees share their personal culture, consider taking some time to discuss the company culture. The company culture “defines the values and beliefs of an organization as to how its members work with each other” (Newman & Ford, 2021, p. 4).
A strong culture will help the team succeed, and an effective leader is aware of this phenomenon.
Compiling an Effective Team Building Strategy
As we know, a team is a group of people within an organization. Well, what then is a group?
A group of people can be described as individuals who recognize themselves as a social entity that interacts with each of its members, are psychologically aware of each of its members, and perceive themselves as a group (Davenport, 2009).
It goes without saying that this social entity will benefit from the team-building exercises discussed here; however, how do you determine which activities are best for your organization?
Compiling an effective team-building strategy will require knowing your team and their specific needs. Do you have a new team recently formed? Perhaps try some of the collaboration exercises. Do you have a diverse team with members from various regions of the world? Does your organization have difficulty communicating? After determining your team’s needs, you may use exercises that address culture or group dynamics.
Next, it is important to remember that team building is a process. Group cohesion is not likely to be created in a day and must be ongoing (Team building: Introduction, n.d.).
When creating your plan, you will want to consider Cog’s Ladder and Tuckman’s Strategies.
Bonus: 4 Online Team Building Exercises Using Zoom
Virtual teams, or teams that rely on technology and are not collocated, experience similar challenges to in-person teams, such as project coordination, building relationships, and teamwork (Srivastava, 2020). Overcoming these challenges may be difficult — if you are not creative.
Here are our top four suggestions to build camaraderie using video conferencing.
Similar to in-person getting-to-know-you activities, participants are asked a question, and everyone needs to respond.
For example, each person could be asked to state their role within the company and their favorite vacation.
These responses could be shared in the chat, or participants can take turns turning on their microphones and video to share with the group. Teambuilding.com has a fun question generator you could use.
2. I Spy
This original game can help foster team members’ communication, visual skills, and enjoyment.
Players should scan participants and their backgrounds. Take note of something interesting and make it into an “I spy” statement, such as “I spy someone with a plant in the background.”
Players will have fun searching for the item. More examples of the game and others like it can be found in Team Culture’s YouTube video.
5 Zoom, virtual, or team building activities - MissionGrowth
3. Closing statement
In his YouTube video, Chad Littlefield asserts that team building is accomplished over time and emphasizes the importance of embedding activities within the actual meeting.
One strategy he employs is inviting team members to answer a closing sentence before signing off. The team leader should create an intentional check-out question.
As an example, ask your team, “What is something you would like to do more of this week?” For more ideas, check out his YouTube video.
5 Online virtual team building activities for zoom - Chad Littlefield
4. Team Class
From ukulele customization to hypnosis, there are many team-bonding events on Team Class. Team Class is an agency that provides traditional team-bonding exercises in a virtual environment.
Perhaps a workshop, class, tasting, or virtual escape room may interest your coworkers. All materials are sent to participants’ residences where they can enjoy the class, show, and camaraderie all from the comfort of their homes.
A Take-Home Message
We rely on teams in every aspect of our lives, from the medical field to the battlefield. Teams need to be not only cohesive, but effective.
Working together may not come naturally to team members or even some teams. Many teams require development, and that is OK. We must also remember that teams will require ongoing team-building opportunities to be effective.
A team made up of even the best of the best will not be prosperous if team members cannot work together.
Teamwork is a critical skill not often focused on in adulthood. Businesses and organizations can strengthen their teams through team building. This article also taught us the importance of team building among managers.
We hope these exercises, with the science behind them, inspire you to create the best team building-plan you can. Are there any exercises you suggest for creating a strong team? We look forward to hearing them below.
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About the author
Tiffany Sauber Millacci, Ph.D., is an educator for both university students and elementary-aged students. She is a continuous learner who seeks facts through research and enjoys sharing her learning through her writing.