Team building activities

Why are team building activities important for a company, which one should you choose and most importantly how to create a safe space to conduct them properly?

Team building activities

Many organizations use team building activities to improve collaboration between teams. “The idea is to have employees do sports together, build a raft or play a pub quiz,” says trainer Anique van Eijk at Effectory. “During that activity, they are automatically working on improving their cooperation. And because a team building event is fun, it automatically leads to better group dynamics and more trust. Unfortunately, this idea does always achieve the desired outcome. It takes more than a relaxing company day trip or a challenging team building activity for a team to be well attuned to each other.”

What is team building?

Team building is when you focus on improving team dynamics. This is done by getting to know each other better, clarifying your expectations of each other, talking about any festering conflicts and resolving them on the basis of shared values in a safe atmosphere.

The importance of team building

Van Eijk helps teams improve their team dynamics. This often happens as a result of an employee survey, which shows, for example, that the team has some work to do on leadership, trust, cooperation or communication.

What is the importance of team building activities for work? Van Eijk: “Team building should ideally be a daily process. You don’t necessarily have to go skiing or play volleyball. No matter how fun these activities are, they don’t always help you improve group dynamics. Conflicts lurk in many teams. They need to be brought out into the open before the team can develop in maturity. If the atmosphere is not safe enough to allow conflicts to come to the surface naturally, focused team sessions are needed to overcome and resolve underlying problems.” A coach or trainer who facilitates the discussion can help the team move on.

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Team building ice breakers

In focused team building sessions, it is important to create a safe atmosphere from the outset. This can be done with simple team building activities called team building ice breakers. Van Eijk: “For example, you can ask team members to compliment the person sitting next to them and thank them for something that’s gone well. Or you can make the atmosphere more personal by having everyone bring in a picture of them as a child and ask others what they notice about it. Another nice team building ice breaker is to have team members bring in an object, photo or song that means a lot to them.”

A good team building ice breaker is always connected to the team building goal you want to achieve. Van Eijk: “Let’s say an employee survey reveals that it is difficult for the team to take action. You could start with a movement exercise.” You can also use ice breakers to celebrate success and generate energy. “Suppose a team is doing really well. During the ice breaker, you could ask, ‘What’s going well? What are you proud of? How can we build on that even further?’”

Indoor team building activities

Indoor team building activities are an accessible way to work on team dynamics. With team building activities in the office, it is important for the space to meet some requirements. Van Eijk: “There should be at least enough room to set the tables and chairs aside. It is difficult to talk about trust when everyone is sitting at a table. It’s better to sit in a circle.” To prevent all team building activities taking place indoors, you can also ask the team to do some exercises while taking a walk on the street. “During a twenty- or thirty-minute walk, you can ask them to discuss one or more questions.”

Outdoor team building activities

Many organizations prefer outdoor team building activities. Van Eijk: “An outdoor environment can certainly help to step out of the work atmosphere. Going somewhere else, finding an informal setting and wearing casual clothing often makes it easier for people to talk about feelings and interpersonal relationships.  If you organize business team building activities outdoors, this can automatically make it much easier to have a real conversation. Just taking the time when the weather’s nice to have lunch together at a nice outdoor restaurant can have a positive effect. That’s not enough for a productive team building session, however. Everyone has a fun work outing, but then just goes back to business as usual.”

Exercises to create a safe atmosphere

Sometimes it is necessary to work on team building in a focused team building session. It is important to make these sessions as safe as possible to ensure that they are successful. There are exercises you can use to achieve this. Van Eijk: “The trainer can get the team building session going with a kind of check-in question for everyone to answer. ‘How are you feeling? What’s something you’re feeling positive about today, and something negative?’” It’s important, for this exercise, to agree that people cannot respond to each other. “People can share something, get something off their chest, but they can’t respond to each other. That alone can be a step towards a greater feeling of safety.” The facilitator has to set an example during these kinds of exercises. Van Eijk: “If your answer is, ‘A positive thing is that I baked a delicious apple pie yesterday and my negative thing is that there are so many flies in my house this summer,’ you won’t get very far. You really have to open up about yourself, even as a facilitator.”

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Opening up about yourself

Van Eijk: “For example, I gave a training session last year when my nephew had just been born. My sister had FaceTimed me at 5.30 that morning. She was holding the baby in her arms. At the beginning of the session, I told the team, ‘I’m a little emotional and off my game today, because I became an aunt for the first time this morning. I’ve really had to pull myself together. I will do my best today to keep my head in the game.’ Then everyone congratulated me. After that, other people were less reserved about talking about themselves. After all, everyone understands how amazing it is to become a father, grandmother or uncle. For example, when it was his turn, one person said, ‘I am the proud grandfather of four grandchildren. They mean everything to me.’”

Showing vulnerability

This example shows that others will also become more honest when the facilitator really tells them how they are doing. “Because I expressed my vulnerability and set a precedent, other people were quicker to do the same. If I hadn’t said anything, I might have started overcompensating or have come across as disorganized. My openness allowed me to be a new aunt and a human. I also felt that everyone accepted and appreciated my openness. That made it easier for me to do my job well.”

Confrontational exercises

Even once a safe atmosphere has been created, teams often still find it difficult to bring up festering conflicts during team building sessions. A coach, trainer or facilitator can then consciously choose to delve a bit deeper. Van Eijk: “For example, they might ask the team what they want to say goodbye to. Or who they need to talk things over with. It can also be a bit lighter: ‘How do you feel about this conversation?’ With the right check-in question, you set the tone for the degree of depth you want to achieve.”

The four stages of group formation

New teams go through a number of stages towards team maturity. Van Eijk: “These stages are described in Tuckman’s stages of group formation, for example.” According to this model, teams begin with a ‘forming’ stage during which team members still need to get to know each other. “There’s still no group feeling. At this stage, everyone is mainly watching the leader. Because there isn’t much trust yet, team members usually behave in a way that avoids conflict.”

In order to become an effective team, teams then have to go through a ‘storming’ stage, where conflicts are discussed. If all goes well, this then leads to agreements on working together and underlying standards and values (‘norming’ stage). As team members become more attuned to each other, these agreements slowly turn into unwritten rules. Because collaboration in this ‘performing’ stage is more or less automatic, the team can perform at its best. “The team has now really become a well-oiled machine.”

Making it easier to discuss conflicts

Not all teams go through all stages. Van Eijk: “When new team members are afraid to discuss rising conflicts, for example, they cannot openly talk about their expectations of each other.” In addition, teams can also regress in terms of team maturity, for example, when unwritten rules of conduct are violated. “This requires a new ‘storming’ stage. You have to identify the reason that trust has been lost. The underlying trust issues must be brought to the surface, including the feelings associated with them. The volcano has to erupt. Only then can the air be cleared and trust be regained.”

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