On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

Five team development traps you must avoid

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

There is ample evidence that well-designed, properly implemented team development efforts such as team training and team building can be very successful. And yet they often fail.

When I conduct a team development effort, the goal is typically to boost the performance and long-term viability of the team. But several traps can keep that from happening.  Beware sign

How did I discover these traps? I’d like to report that it was always the result of keen foresight, but in some instances I simply stumbled into the trap. If you conduct team development interventions, here are five traps you’ll want to avoid (trust me, they are no fun!) 

1. Wrong level. When an individual or a pair of team members is the problem, an intervention that involves the entire team is likely to fail (and will often annoy everyone on the team!)

So trap number one is conducting a team intervention when what is needed is an individual intervention or perhaps one that involves a couple of team members.

Example: “Michael and Robert are fighting with one another regularly and it’s affecting the team. We need to call a team meeting to work through this.”

The solution must fit the need. I would say that 50% of the time when I’m approached with what sounds like a team problem, I discover that a team-level intervention is not the best solution. Often, the leader is the problem, in which case coaching or replacing the leader may be appropriate. But conducting a team intervention to turnaround a struggling leader is a recipe for disaster.

Sometimes one team member is the real source of the problem. In one case, I was asked to conduct a team building session in a professional services firm. After asking a few questions of the leader, I discovered that the real issue was that one team member consistently acted like a jerk. He also was a big “rainmaker” (revenue generator) for the firm and no one was willing to confront him or hold him responsible. Just imagine what that team building session would have been like had I agreed to proceed.

If the real problem lies with the team leader, a single team member, or a pair of team members, or if it is a larger organizational problem, I can’t conduct team building simply because they are unaware of or unwilling to confront the real problem. My mantra is: the solution must address the need.

2. The magic wand. This trap occurs when sponsors, team leaders, or team members have unrealistic expectations about what the team intervention can accomplish.

Example: “For the last three quarters we’ve missed our numbers and we’ve had a steady turnover of team members. We’ve tried everything. Can you come in next Thursday and conduct a team building session to turn us around? I’m getting a lot of pressure to hit our numbers this quarter.”

When I received this request my inside voice (the one that never speaks aloud, just in my head) said, “Really? I’m good, but not that good.” If I proceed with the expectation that a one-day team building session will turn around three quarters of bad performance and on-going retention problems “in a single bound,” then I’m setting up both them and me for failure.

Unfortunately, whether through desperation or naiveté, some leaders want to believe that there is a team building magic wand. When expectations are unrealistic, it is up to me to help them recalibrate their expectations, agree to a better solution (perhaps a series of actions), or convince them not to proceed.

3. Fill the slot. Sometimes, a team development request is driven by an open time slot, rather than a real need or clear expectation for success. I call this trap, “fill the slot.”

Example: “Our team is meeting next week. Our agenda is fairly full, but we have an opening from around 1:15 to about 2:00 to run a good team exercise. Please pull together something useful for us.”

When the solution is driven by a time slot, then I’m a hammer looking for a nail. At best I’ll be perceived as a person who can fill up time. At worst I’ll be seen as a person who wastes their time. In either case, the probability that I’ll be doing something that improves the team and helps the business is pretty slim.

A key question here is what do we hope to accomplish as a result of the team session? When I know that, I am in a better position to assess whether it can be accomplished in an hour, a day, or longer. Or perhaps I should just learn to make balloon animals?

4. Fun, fun, fun. When the primary driver behind a team development effort is ensuring that everyone on the team has fun, but there is a deeper expectation that performance will also improve, I sense a trap.

Example: “Scott, can you help us set up a fun team building session? Maybe it could be something outdoors or some type of fun competition. You know this team has been struggling, so I think a fun activity will bring them together and improve their performance.”

I may sound like a curmudgeon at times, but let the record show...I like to have fun. I try to arrange fun experiences for my own team. For example, just last week we raced go-karts (please don’t tell our attorney!). The trap isn’t having fun; the trap is expecting meaningful, sustainable improvements in teamwork and performance simply by staging a fun event. I’m sure that a fun team event, at some time, has produced meaningful results. But I’m not aware of research which suggests that you should expect that outcome.

So please, have fun with your teams. If the expectation is to have fun, and the activity is designed to have fun, then you’ve succeeded. Just don’t expect purely “fun” team activities to address underlying problems with collaboration, cohesion, communication, lack of planning, role ambiguity, unclear vision, etc.

5. All talk and no action (planning). The fifth trap is conducting a team intervention and failing to establish clear action plans and responsibilities for carrying out those plans.

Example: “We had a great team session last week. Those were some great conversations we had.” “So what did you agree to do? Who is going to do what?” “Hmm, I’m not exactly sure, but we did talk about some really important issues. Hopefully we can address those going forward.”

When does team building translate into improvements? After the session. During the session I can engage the group, stimulate their thinking, increase their awareness and even enhance their enthusiasm but if no changes occur as a result of the session, then I’ve been unsuccessful. If I leave the session and everyone is excited but no tangible agreements or plans have been captured, I’m falling into trap number 5. So now, regardless of the intervention, I ensure that I leave ample time for the team to agree to and capture a specific set of actions and to establish who will do what by when. And last but not least, I clarify when and how we’ll assess progress.

 If you’ve worked with teams, I suspect you’ve seen these traps before – perhaps even more than one at a time. They arise quite often, so the key is to be alert for them and take actions to avoid them. I’ll leave you with this stew of traps:

“I’d like you to help one of our teams. The leader is not really prepared to be a good team leader yet, so I was hoping you could facilitate a team building session. If their weekly updates don’t run too long, they should have an opening during their meeting next Wednesday, so why don’t you pull together a 45-minute, fun activity for them so they can really start to turn their team around!”

So, are you interested in this assignment?


# Sally Williams 2013-05-29 18:21
Absolutely not! RED flags all over the place. If the leader is not a team player, it is likely that he/she is the problem and until the problem is dealt with, no manner of "fun" activities will help the situation.
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# Scott 2013-05-29 22:07

I concur. I wouldn't want to take on this one either. In part because of lack of leader readiness (i.e., wrong level intervention), in part because of the limited time allotted (i.e., fill the slot), and in part because a fun activity is unlikely to turn this team around. And yet sometimes those of us who work with teams get requests that sound all too similar to this.

When a request like this comes along, we need to recognize the situation and find the right way to re-frame the problem and the potential solution with our customer.
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# Pat 2013-06-04 12:10
Nothing can start here until work is done with the Team Leader. Either he needs to be prepared to be a good Team Leader, or someone needs to come to the realization that he doesn't have what it takes, at least for this particular team leadership position.
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# Scott 2013-06-04 12:33

Agreed! In this case, the solution needs to start with the team leader -- either working to develop the leader or making a change. Otherwise we just end up with a frustrated leader, a frustrated team, and no improvements.
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# Jenn 2013-07-08 13:24
Perhaps one should start by investigating whether the statement "the leader is not really prepared to be a good team leader yet" is accurate or not. It is always possible that the person who mentioned that has the wrong impression, so the evaluation of leadership and team processes/outco mes may be the first step prior to assuming the leader is truly not a good team leader yet.
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# Scott 2013-07-08 17:37

Thanks for the observation-- we can't always accept the description of the situation as factual.

I think it's appropriate to question the underlying assumptions. But I also don't want to dismiss the perceptions that the "sponsor" has of this team leader. From at least one important stakeholder's perspective, the team leader is struggling.

In any case, I doubt that I can do much to help improve a team (whether the leader is the main problem or not) by conducting a fun 45 minute exercise. I'd definitely want to learn more before committing to a team building solution in this case.
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