Why team building doesn’t work in a recession

The consequences are usually redundancies and the associated pains of uncertainty, low morale and disenchanted staff that are over-worked and stressed.
When we are confronted with these discomforting and negative feelings, perhaps mixed with some guilt, it commonly leads to a knee-jerk reaction to “do something” to fix it. 
Typically that might take the form of some big rousing “team” event with an upbeat tone, or an off-site team building event to boost morale and get everyone working together properly.
But in my experience, when these kinds of activities are put in place under these circumstances, the impact is not entirely positive. 
These events tend to turn people off even more; they recognise cash is tight, and see some lavish event as hypocritical, particularly if the key issue of fewer people doing a similar amount of work is not tackled.
Team building events can also lead to resentment because they require taking time out and this exacerbates the overwork/stress situation.
So if big team building events are not the answer – what is?
It’s not that off-site teambuilding events are bad – they can be very powerful and deliver great results. However the timing needs to be right.
If you’re facing the above situation, a better tactic might be to start with a more practical approach to achieve improvements in the short term, rather than a large flashy team building exercise. This smaller more practical strategy can lay the foundations for more in-depth team building in the future – when the time is right. Practical activities include;
Acknowledge the situation and the overwork and stress etc and take responsibility for it. If showing empathy comes with difficulty – tackle your Emotional Intelligence first!
  • Organise focused sessions on specific problems related to work or to opportunities to improve productivity. Make sure these sessions are a maximum of 45 minutes each. Use an external facilitator if required – but if your line managers are not capable of leading the group – maybe you kept the wrong people…

  • Ensure clear actions come out of the session and make team members accountable for following up on the decisions taken. Make the actions simple; I worked with the mantra “5 minutes a day to make tomorrow better” for 3 months – and accepted the reality that some days it wouldn’t happen. 

  • Set a clear timescale. In my experience 100 days is a time frame that is long enough for significant improvement, but not so long that people think it’ll never happen. Prioritise actions that can be done within that timeframe. You can come back and revisit longer term actions later. The key is to get started and then keep taking steps towards that goal.

  • Create a powerful vision of what things could be like. Communicate this vision and help the rest of the team see it, and feel it too. People need hope and something positive to hang onto during the transition.

  • Review how it’s going and adjust. It’s important to get results and then build on these. As long as it’s done in an objective way and focused on facts, regular reviews of progress, including open discussion of blocks and new challenges, forms a key part of building a high performance culture.
This approach may be less flashy than some high-prestige, feel-good event, but taking these practical steps will not only help your people to feel less stressed and more engaged again, they’ll actually get you bottom line results as well. It’s not that team building events should be avoided – just that the timing needs to be right. 
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto, © DaveBolton, Image #5366886