5 Things You Need for Team Building to Actually Work

5 Things You Need for Team Building to Actually Work

Summary Points:

  1. Team building means actually building team skills
  2. Creating psychological safety is necessary for effective team building
  3. Team building works when you use self-accountable communication
  4. Effective team building includes being specific with communication
  5. Making Team building a part of regular routine ensures it sticks

Help! My team building activities aren’t working!

Your team performs well some of the time, but sometimes they’re really struggling.

Or maybe you feel like you’re pulling your hair out because they won’t stop bitching about each other. You’re tired of playing referee and you wish they could just get along.

So – you’re considering team building activities.

Maybe a ropes course? Maybe a potluck will solve the problem. Or you want to do something fun culturally, so you promise to bring in bagels every Monday. Oh – I know – Myers Briggs. That will solve it, right?

If you’ve tried those things – I’m guessing they didn’t really work. Or maybe they worked temporarily and now you find yourself in the same place.

So, do you have to start replacing people? What are you supposed to do?

If it sounds like I’m a cynic, let me be clear – I am all for team building. I think it’s one of the most important investments people can make. And some of the best-intentioned leaders make investments that fall short

team building activities

I want to address some of the misunderstandings about team building so you can engage in team building that creates real differences that you can see, hear, and feel.

1. Team building means building team skills

One of the biggest misunderstandings that occur is that team building is just about spending time together. In some cases, this can help a lot, but in other cases, pushing people to spend time together just exacerbates their differences and discomfort in each other’s presence.


Effective teamwork requires actual skills – and this is good news! This means that when people struggle to get along, you don’t have to throw your hands up in exasperation and go “That’s just people, nothing that can be done about it!”


People can actually develop the knowledge and skills to communicate more effectively. They can learn tools and frameworks and practice applying them. Like any new skill, it will be a bit bumpy at first, and especially with practice and feedback, people can get better and better.


So if there is no skill-building happening during your team building, it is unlikely that you will see any real difference.

2. Create psychological safety for effective team building 

One of the skills that is important for you as a leader to have is creating psychological safety for your team.


Now – before you balk – you wouldn’t do that right? You’re fully bought into this idea – after all – Google’s research showed it was the most important predictor of team success. Anyway – hear me out.


Creating psychological safety means that people are more likely to be vulnerable. Let me give you some examples of vulnerability that are critical to effective team building.


  • Giving feedback
  • Receiving feedback
  • Taking responsibility for mistakes
  • Apologizing for treating somebody in a way they found disrespectful
  • Asking for help
  • Genuinely thanking somebody
  • Expressing appreciation to somebody
  • Admitting you don’t know something
  • Suggesting a brand-new idea
  • Anything creative


Do you want more? Is it clear how critical these behaviors are to effective teamwork?




team building misunderstanding


Some people think that psychological safety is about making sure that everybody is really nice and nobody says anything “bad” about anything.


That is a tragic mischaracterization.


In my opinion, the most important aspect of team building is open dialogue. Which means team members will be open with each other about what they do and don’t like.


“I fear that approach has pitfalls we haven’t thought through yet.”

“I don’t think you have the skills yet to execute a project of this size.”

“I think Sarah is a better fit for working with this client right now because her experience aligns.”

“There is something about this project plan that feels incomplete, and I haven’t figured out yet what it’s missing. I’d like to talk about it further to make sure we’re prepared.”

“John, the story in my head is that you are letting your fear of failure stop you from just getting started. I think you are ready to begin executing.”

“Maria, I’d like to request that you interrupt me less while I’m speaking. I notice I feel frustrated when it happens because the story in my head is you aren’t listening to me, and you don’t value my input.”


Again – I could keep going with examples here, but I hope you can see – for true team building to occur, teams have to talk about real things.

3. Team building works-

When you use self-accountable communication

Overall, self-accountable communication drives three things.


1 – It keeps communication flowing in an open manner as each person focuses on their own contributions, where they truly have control

2 – It builds trust as each person practices accountability

3 – It moves the group towards solutions and away from finger-pointing.


clear team communication


One of my clients took the practice of self-accountable communication to his team when a mistake cost them $200K. What would have normally been a very heated, dramatic, or dead-end conversation was incredibly productive. So productive, in fact, that when a leader on the team foresaw a potential problem 6 months later, instead of thinking “That’s not really my job” made it a point to step up and draw attention to what was happening.


Every leader wants to have a team of people who always look for how they can contribute to organizational success.

4. Effective team building includes being specific with communication

You know when you have a conversation with somebody, and you feel like you “got it all out” – but then you find the same pattern showing up the very next week?


This is often due to a failure to be specific enough in our communication.


For example, you’ll notice that there are specific requests in #2 above – being specific, clear and focusing on what you DO want (rather than complaining or pointing out just what we don’t like). This is far more likely to help you actually get what you want.

clear open communication on teamsIn addition to making specific requests, it is valuable to be specific with commitments. Wouldn’t it feel great to have somebody explicitly commit to their own growth and development for the benefit of the team?


At the end of each team building initiative, have each person make a specific, behavioral commitment that addresses how they can contribute more effectively to the team.


To make sure it is specific and behavioral – answer this: If I videotaped the team interacting, would I be able to see this behavior on video? If the answer is no, that means they are not focusing on a specific team-focused behavior.


Write them down and follow up with them regularly.

5. Team building becomes a part of regular routine

Find a way to keep the concepts and practices top of mind. Micro-learning is an increasingly popular form of learning on the job. Most people will forget 90% of what they learn in a matter of 30 days if there is no reinforcement. That’s why we created our membership site, Insider Edge – to put out new content every week – short, easy to digest videos, as well as challenges, to keep these practices top of mind.


Team building and modifying behavior are not just event-driven – they are journeys of personal growth and development.


Also, remember – there is probably a reason why these behaviors that your team is committing to have been hard for each person, so this is where growing self-awareness increases the likelihood that this person can continue to meet their commitment. Self-awareness puts you more in the driver’s seat when it comes to how you’re showing up.


Find a way to make it a regular part of the conversation. Dedicate 5 minutes to talk about the weekly content in the beginning of the weekly staff meeting. Dedicate a lunch hour for people who want to dive deeper into chatting about how to integrate the content from the week into their lives.

Team building that actually solves the problem

If you want to build in fun things like doing a ropes course, or activities that teach important lessons as metaphors – I completely support that!


Just make sure that you build skills, create psychological safety, use self-accountable communication, make specific commitments, and make team building a regular part of your routine.



team building routine

This is how team building can have a big true impact on the performance of the team and the organization.