Why Is Teambuilding So Popular?

Historical Evolution of Teams

Teambuilding is a popular organizational management tool that emerged after the era of Taylor’s scientific management in response to increasing market pressures and growing sophistication of products and manufacturing techniques. Taylor advocated division of labor and applying the scientific method in order to optimize production processes and manual labor practices. His dedication for precision and the minimization of waste in production facilities ledto his formulation of several work principles that aim to increase profitability and simultaneously reduce worker fatigue and increase employee incomes. Furthermore, Taylor’s principles laid the groundwork for later quality management theories but his philosophies also created a basis for modern teamwork and teambuilding approaches. For example, Taylor favored employee involvement, worker empowerment, and intimate communication and cooperation between management and workers at a time when almost all factories where run in a purely authoritarian command-and-control style.

In the mid-1900s organizations were pressured by the emergence of a global market and the development of knowledge workers who resented and did not require close control. Taylor’s methods also required a large amount of preparation work by the planning department which dramatically increases the overhead costs. New organizations needed to be more responsive to internal and external constraints and in many cases the situation had turned around since Taylor’s time—workers were now more qualified than management to make decisions that relate to their work. Taylor worked with low-wage immigrants who were not educated and had trouble finding work. By the late 1900s, the tables had turned and organizations needed to compete for highly qualified personnel, who were more competent than the organization’s management at doing a particular job and hence free to choose their employer and place of work. Naturally, the authoritarian factory ideology of “command-and-control” was not only ineffective financially to deploy, it was also turning experienced workforce away from the organization.

The emergence of teams as specialized organizational units was, hence, no coincidence and teams soon replaced hierarchical structures because in some settings teams were much more efficient. Teams, however, have not replaced hierarchical structures but instead augmented hierarchies where teams seemed more feasible. One of the main reasons why Taylor’s planning strategy is difficult, yet not impossible, to apply today is that because of the work complexity faced today, situations may seem unique and hard to standardize. Planning ahead for each and every exception or occurrence of a problem is impractical for many types of work. Teams, on the other hand, provide a way to balance planning with self-direction. But what exactly are teams and what are their idiosyncrasies that make them so successful?

Benefits of Teams

In a vivid example, Gustafson and Kleiner (1994) compare a high-performance team to a volleyball team to illustrate the strengths and mechanics of a team in contrast to a hierarchical structure. In a volleyball team, each player has a zone of responsibility but is also responsible for assisting neighboring players as the need arises. Because the volleyball sport requires rapid movements and decisions, there would be no time to consult with a manager or a coach before making a move. In addition, each move within the team’s section of the court can be forwarded to another player and hence ‘reworked’ as necessary. The players can execute an attack strategy via the interactions and positioning within the team’s area in response to observing the opposite team’s player arrangement. Another excellent comparison between organizational teams and volleyball is that each player rotates through all positions and hence understands the potential challenges and opportunities at each position in the court.

Just-in-time and responsive communication is key in most team sports and the volleyball example illustrates this necessity in teams very well. When the ball approaches, it needs to be clear to all players how the team will respond and the communication between team members needs to be open, quick, and unambiguous in order for the team to succeed. Similar to volleyball teams, organizational high-performance teams are supposed to self-direct their resources and adapt to each new situation as it arises with minimal or no supervision at all. Thus, the main benefit of using teams is their higher efficiency. Team members lead themselves, each other, and allocate resources with their own authority. External planning and supervision are minimized and all resources are utilized to a higher degree. The absence of formal procedures and hierarchies within teams allows team members to make their own decisions quicker and most of the time the team is better qualified to make better decisions than management, given that the team has superior technical expertise.

Team Structure and Processes

Teams go through a life cycle spanning five stages (Bubshait, & Farooq, 1999). Forming occurs at the beginning when a group is initially formed and each team member seeks approval and acceptance from the group. Storming is the subsequent stage in which the team members seek to narrow down the problems that the group needs to solve (Bubshait, & Farooq, 1999). Then, during the norming stage, the team agrees on a goal and the plan to achieve that goal. During the performing stage the team members collaborate and implement the work with minimal or no supervision. Finally, the mourning stage describes the time when the work has been completed and the team members depart. As the team progresses from forming to later stages the leader’s influence is strong but then gradually power is handed over to the team (Chen, Chen, & Tsao, 2009). By the time the team reaches the performing stage, the leader’s role has progressively changed to that of the facilitator.

A more analytical explanation of why teams are beneficial to organization and how teams achieve higher levels of productivity is given by Yeh, Smith, Jennings, and Castro (2006). The authors theorized that a team functions mainly in three dimensions. The team goal dimension encompasses purpose, values, mission, and vision. The team roles dimension describes the activities involved when team members decide on their respective responsibilities. The generalized roles include shapers, implementers, team workers, resource investigators, coordinators, and specialists. In addition to the other dimensions, the team evolution dimension describes the team’s formation, development, and renewal processes.

Requirements for Developing Teams in Organizations

In organizations, the limitations of teams in practice emerge when there is a lack of meeting the requirements and mastering the challenges involved with teams. Organizations who fail to provide their teams with adequate structure and resources are unlikely to succeed.


Whether teams are structured to be manager-lead or self-managing, there is a definite need to establish accountability for high performance (Chen, Chen, & Tsao, 2009). Team members need to have a clear understanding of their own personal responsibilities but need to also cooperate with other team members in order to meet the team’s objectives. Naturally, being constantly confronted with new problems and unforeseen circumstances involves risks that each members of the team needs to take; hence, part of establishing accountability involves that those who take on higher risks for the team need to be compensated for their higher exposure to risk (Bender & Septelka, 2002).


Communication is probably the most important discipline a team and its host organization needs to master. Conflicts, misunderstandings, and defects often occur as a result of lack of communication or miscommunication that can be avoided; however, effective communication also requires advanced social, conversational, and language skills from the workforce. Management, therefore, needs to select talented team members with sufficient communication skills when forming a team and offer continuous training to advance the skills of the organization’s workforce (Gustafson & Kleiner, 1994).

Good communication is also required for rapid conflict resolution (Bubshait & Farooq, 1999). Often conflicts at the workplace are rooted in misunderstandings and conflicts of interest. When left unnoticed, conflicts can severely impact the team’s unity and reduce the team’s productivity; hence, team members need to possess conflict resolution and avoidance skills. In addition, management should include a leader in each team who can act as the mediator to prevent conflicts.

Open communication channels are another crucial requirement for teams to function (Chen, Chen, & Tsao, 2009). Communication channels need to be provided to the team in all directions, such as to top management, to other teams in the organization, customers, and other stakeholders. Furthermore, group members need to be able to listen and encourage free expression of ideas and criticism for the group to be effective (Johnson, Reed, Lawrence, & Onken, 2007). Free talk is a very important aspect because team members will question their own level of empowerment if they are not allowed to voice their opinions without fearing retaliation from others, including executive management (Rushmer, 1997).

Change Management

Since many teams are formed as needed and have a short lifespan, individuals find themselves in a constant state of transition. The degree to which individuals can cope with constant change depends on their personal skills but also on the management styles in the organization (Currie, 1994). Group dynamics, motivation, group problem solving and decision making, and conflict handling are all skills that the organization needs to plan and provide training for. Some organizations may need a cultural change, especially if the organization is based on a traditional hierarchy.

Goals, Perspectives, and Focus

Team members, teams, and the entire organization needs to have clear goals with a clear prioritization of goals (Gustafson, & Kleiner, 1994). Setting focused tasks ensures the team remains on track, while a focused future communicates the long-term organizational goals all members of the workforce. In addition, having clear, prioritized goals makes decisions easier when goals and demands appear to be in conflict to one another.

Defining and deciding on clear objectives is usually performed during the initial forming stage of teams and begins with simple ideas (Bubshait, Farooq, 1999). At this point, teams need to avoid controversy and need to listen to each other without criticism in order to define the team’s purpose. In dynamic environments, the team may reiterate through this stage as the team changes course from assignment to assignment (Yeh, Smith, Jennings, & Castro, 2006).


The acquisition and cultivation of superior talent is another key ingredient for a successful team (Gustafson & Kleiner, 1994). At the beginning of the 1900s, Frederick Taylor would have been amused by the idea of a self-directed team since at that time factory owners where struggling to get their workforce to complete simple routine tasks. Today’s workplace is far more complex and challenging than the typical 1900s factory. Our fast-paced world, globalized markets, and complex technologies require a talented workforce that continuously educates itself. To the most part this talent needs to be nurtured by the organization but knowledge workers also need to acquire new skills using their private resources (Rushmer, 1997). Taylor’s challenge in the early 1900s was to increase productivity by giving employees incentives to follow his recommendations and work smarter. Today’s managers who want to set up successful teams need to find ways to attract talent, provide team members with the resources and structure they need, and find appropriate incentives to retain knowledge workers for the long-term.

Collaborative Culture

Especially in traditional organizations there is a risk of team failure because of the hierarchical design of command-and-control organizations (Rushmer, 1997). In hierarchical organizations, each worker tends to be isolated and interactions are minimized in order to maximize the time the worker can focus on his/her task. Teambuilding, however, requires a collaborative mindset, where workers help one another and yet have their own shared responsibilities (Currie, 1994).

The higher levels of interactions and employee-to-employee interactions require higher employee involvement, mutual trust, and a personal need for achievement (Bubshait & Farooq, 1999). In order for employees to cooperate, they clearly need to understand the group’s mission but the team also needs to be judged on its overall performance. This, in turn, requires team members to perform well and go beyond their respective responsibilities to help other colleagues when necessary. Ideally, a group should periodically monitor and assess its team health and address areas where collaboration may be improved (Bender & Septelka, 2002).

Problems with Team Structures

Trust is one of the major prerequisites for successful teamwork (Adams, 2009). Without trust, the team may suffer from political behavior and limited employee involvement. When creating a new team, trust should be the main focus of management in the initial stages of the team development (Bender & Septelka, 2002).

McDonald and Keys (1996) identified a series of common teambuilding pitfalls. First, when there is a mismatch of skills and personalities in the team, the group suffers from unnecessary conflicts that could have been avoided by rearranging the team. Second, management tends to be impatient and often does not allow enough time for the team to develop rapport and trust (Chen, Chen, & Tsao, 2009). Third, sometimes workers are deceived into believing they are a team, when in fact only their personal performance is evaluated. Fourth, management often fails to define a clear objective for the group. Without team objectives the team has no way of knowing whether it is working efficiently or how to improve its performance. Fifth, if employees are not empowered and given sufficient authority to make decisions, the team will suffer from powerlessness and quickly lose its determination. Sixth, if communication within the organization is inhibited then the group is likely to experience conflicts. Lastly, competitiveness and antagonism between team associates thwarts teamwork and impedes collaboration in the long-term (McDonald & Keys, 1996).

The Effect of Poor Executive Communication on Teambuilding

It is wrong to assume that employees will not open up and express their true opinions when upper management is present—in fact, the opposite is true (Gustafson & Kleiner, 1994). The absence of executive management, such as the chief executive officer, is a major cause of team failure (Boss, 2000). If a senior manager with sufficient decision power is not present or part of the group, team members may feel powerless already at the initiation phase of the team. A common concern is that team members feel powerless. The team needs to be certain that it will be given the resources and authority to complete their objectives; otherwise, it may be unlikely to receive each worker’s commitment.

Inappropriate communication styles may also constitute poor communication. Roth (2002) suggested that top-down communication, as practiced in traditional hierarchies, appears to be detrimental to teamwork. Teamwork requires a rather flat organization with open communication channels, both lateral and vertical, with strong employee involvement and empowerment. Managers who do not want to let go of power will obstruct the development of the collaborative culture required for successful teamwork. Bender and Septelka (2002) found that team interaction with management is absolutely necessary for the team’s success. Threats, judgments, and politics are likely to demoralize the team (2002).

In regards to teamwork, executive communication needs to comprise several skills. Executives need to be proficient in conflict resolution, collaboration, group problem solving, team goal setting, and team planning (Bubshait & Farooq, 1999). Teams generally require the assistance of executive managers in order to acquire resources and to resolve conflicts that may arise between teams or departments of the organization. Moreover, executives need to work with the team to prevent conflicts within the team when teammates disagree (Boss, 2000). The employee’s trust depends strongly on how fairly the executive handles the conflict. An improper executive communication style can hence destroy trust within the team and between the team and the organization very abruptly.

In order for the executive to facilitate team performance, it is also necessary to guide the teams with a certain leadership style. Leadership style refers to the way executives act, that is how they approach another individual and how direct or indirect the interaction takes place (Gabrielsson, Darling, & Seristö, 2009). The interactive dimension of leadership styles describes how often and intensive gestures, facial expressions, small talk, and friendliness are shown in the behavior of the person. The assertiveness dimension describes how quickly an individual moves and speaks, and how confronting and risk-oriented he/she is. The low and high extremes of both dimensions combined result in four quadrants and four different, generic leadership styles.

The analyzer leadership style is characterized by logical, serious, thorough, precise, and critical behavior. The director is typically an independent, pragmatic, determined, efficient, and objective person. On the more responsive side, the connector is a cooperative, loyal, supportive, diplomatic, and respectful individual, whereas the creator is an imaginative, friendly, spontaneous, and enthusiastic leader (Gabrielsson, Darling, & Seristö, 2009). Because each of these leadership styles has its own weaknesses as well, successful leaders need to adapt their style appropriately to match the constellation of the team.

Since communication preferences generally depend on the leadership style, poor executive communication may result from the application of an improper leadership style. For instance, a process-oriented analyzer prefers to communicate in terms of facts and figures, while a creator tends to be innovative, creative, and spontaneous. Executives need to adapt their leadership style to one that is compatible between leader and team, in order to avoid stress and frustration among team members.


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