Effective team building 101

Effective team building

I could probably write 98 million words on effective team building, but I doubt anyone would read that. There are dozens of books — entire sections of bookstores — about effective team building and yet, somehow, a lot of teams are still complete garbage. If you read the conventional “thought leadership” on team-building, you’ll get a nicely deplorable slew of business buzzwords. Some of my favorites include:

  • Organic
  • Mission-driven
  • Passionate
  • Engaged
  • Charismatic leader
  • Transparency
  • Accountability
  • Etc.

Take that list. Print it out. Now go replace your toilet paper with it, because that’s essentially what it is. These are words we love to toss around when discussing work, but almost none of them actually happen. “Organic feedback?” Right. Or: “Let’s let managers hide behind the idea of once-per-year reviews in a world where people can order a cab in 20 seconds on their phone.” (Sidebar: many companies are now removing performance reviews, which is good, and replacing them with absolutely nothing — which is bad.)

“Passionate” usually means a revenue hound. “Transparency” usually means “Someone who knows the passwords to different things.” Accountability often means “yelling at someone and/or threatening their job.”

It’s hard to get to a place of effective team building this way. But maybe there is a better path out there. Let’s try!

The one psychological thing to understand about effective team building

Most companies force people to work in teams, then promote individuals. This is very flawed. I know it’s hard to promote 10 people on a team, but that should be the norm if the team hit targets and drove revenue. Promote all 10, not 2 of the 10. Most companies don’t think this way, and that leads to a lot of problems with effective team building.

In white-collar jobs, there are morons and drones — but there are a lot of competitive people. If those people realize any stellar project probably results in (at most) 2-3 promotions, they will angle for those promotions. That often leads to under-cutting other people on the team — or taking credit for their work, etc. — which is absolutely fatal to effective team building. There’s really no way to fix this psychology unless we start promoting teams as opposed to individuals, but that seems a long way off. Sidebar to all this: there is some research showing people don’t really want to collaborate that much at work.

What now?

Well, we have the buzzwords list above. Let’s try and avoid those. Here’s an article from Northwestern called “Five Strategies For Leading A High-Impact Team.” It was one of their top-ranked articles of 2016, so that’s cool. Premise seems nice. Wouldn’t we all like some high-impact teams?

There’s some good stuff in there, including the power of simplicity in business. (Don’t choke everything in process and spreadsheets.) They also talk about vulnerability and humility, which are very good traits — especially for the team leader. Problem: not a lot of people are capable of true humility at work, because work is so tied up with self-worth and relevance to a lot of first-world residents. Ah, well!

One interesting thing here is that “team-building is not a cocktail party.” What does that mean? It means do not invite everyone. I’d say this is a great piece of advice. Job roles are often so unclear and overlapping as it is, and then a bunch of ambiguous job roles get on a team together. No one is really sure who does what or why or where or who added them. Here’s a funny story about all that.


On most 10-person teams (easy number to use), I’d say usually 2-4 should be there. Another 2-4 were added for some political reason (some boss wanted a “stakeholder” on this project), and the final 2-4 have absolutely no reason to be there. We’ve all been on teams like this. The meetings are usually absolute hell, and no one prepares for them either. It’s just a meandering mess. It’s not effective team building in the least.

So how do we get to a place of effective team building?

Here’s the flow I’d use:

  • Define priority on project: Why is this happening, and why now? What is the end goal?
  • Figure out who absolutely needs to be involved: Logical.
  • Now figure out people who might be value-add to the project: Also logical.
  • Determine the cadence of this team: How often? How big a priority for members as opposed to other work?
  • Set deadlines and benchmarks: Most managers love this stage because they view “management” as “controlling deadlines.” That’s part of management but it’s by no means everything.
  • Off-load the BS: Create a Google Doc or spreadsheet where logistical updates are placed. Allow people to review that before meetings. Now meetings can be about real topics and value-add discussions as opposed to “Justin, tell me what you’ve done this past week.”
  • Do some social stuff: Encourage these team members to get to know each other beyond deliverables. That’s powerful.
  • Have gratitude time periods: Also powerful. Let team members call out someone else who did well.
  • Adjust deadlines and work as priorities shift: They always do.
  • Have clear targets for measurement: Is the goal 16 percent revenue growth? Then the team on that project needs to hit that, or else they technically failed. Failure is OK!
  • Incentivize: What happens to this team if they do what they are supposed to do?

There are other things I could discuss here, like C-Factor. (Or asking better questions.) Those things are all important, but … a lot of times teams are so hastily assembled and process/meetings are rushed into, I felt like a better play here was to walk through the steps.

What about managers and effective team building?

This is a huge hurdle. Managers often don’t know what their role should be in various contexts. They become micro-managers or KPI-chasers, and that completely screws up any notion of effective team building. Now you’ve got some animal barking at you about whatever else at 7pm when your kid is home sick, and all you want to do is punch this guy in the throat. You can’t, though — you have a mortgage. Ah, capitalism. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it like 1,893 more times: the failure rate for managerial hires is 82 percent. That is miserably bad. If you went to your CEO and said “Hey bud, we have a 82 percent failure rate in an aspect of the business,” he’d probably put a machete to your throat in six seconds or less. (The machete was under his desk, naitch.) He’d snarl: “Where? Who do I fire?” 

But we do have this problem, and we let it persist. Managers need to manage. I ain’t asking them to lead. I’m asking them to set priorities, communicate well, check in on deadlines, and ask people how they can be more helpful. It’s not rocket science. I don’t need you to be Churchill. I just need you to not act like a bully in a suit as we’re trying to get this project out the door. Understand? I don’t need you as an individual contributor either. Just manage. Move the trains and check the progress. That will get us to effective team building.

Ted Bauer