Are team-building interventions worth it?

Around a third of our business, here at HALO Psychology, is helping managers build and develop their teams. Researching what does and doesn’t work is vital so that we can ensure we add value.

Which is why it was helpful to come across some research from the University of British Columbia, in Canada, which examined  the effectiveness of such interventions on teamwork behaviours and team performance. Desmond McEwan and colleagues set out to explore in-depth the different aspects of team development interventions starting from the point that,

“Bringing a group of highly-skilled individuals together is not sufficient for teams to be effective”

The research

A comprehensive literature search returned 16,849 studies. Following the application of inclusion criteria, such as only controlled studies, the team narrowed these down to 51 research articles to be included in the meta-analysis. These studies encompassed 72 unique interventions and almost 8,500 participants.

The researchers based their analysis on the idea that most teamwork models focus on behaviours that:

a) regulate a team’s performance (also known as ‘locomotion’); and

b) help keep the team together (also known as ‘maintenance’).

Behaviours typically related to regulation of team performance (locomotion) can be broken down into three stages:

Stage one: Before/in preparation of action

  1. Defining the team’s overall purpose/mission
  2. Setting team goals
  3. Developing action plans and strategies

Stage two: During action

  1. Team member communication
  2. Team member co-operation
  3. Team member co-ordination

Stage three: After completion

  1. Monitoring and assessing
  2. Conducting appraisals of performance
  3. Solving any problems/barriers to action
  4. Making innovative changes to strategy
  5. Reciprocal support

Behaviour typically associated with teamwork (maintaining the team) include:

  1. Interpersonal dynamics
  2. Management of interpersonal conflict between team members
  3. Social support for team members experiencing personal difficulties

Alongside these two behavioural paradigms, the researchers broke teamwork intervention strategies down into four categories, rather than treating interventions as one homogeneous group. The categories were:

  1. Education in a classroom-type setting
  2. Interactive workshop-style format
  3. Simulation training
  4. Reviews in-situ

The findings

All four methods were found to be effective for enhancing team performance.

Positive and significant medium-to-large sized effects were found for teamwork; and large effects on team performance. However, when outlier studies were removed, a medium sized effect was found for both teamwork and team performance.

Are some interventions better than others?

Classroom education was not found to be an effective way to improve teamwork as it is too passive. Those interventions which included experiential, more active ways of learning, were found to have a positive impact on teamwork. Examples include:

  • Workshop-style exercises
  • Watching and critiquing video vignettes together
  • Discussing, agreeing and setting teamwork related goals and action plans

What should interventions focus on?

In addition, the researchers found that interventions were more effective when the focus was on more than one dimension of teamwork. For example, if a team was exploring how they communicated with each other, a facilitator could include activities around goal-setting, giving feedback, developing learning strategies etc.

“Results suggest that training teams around social support and interpersonal conflict may be a useful way to enhance team performance”

The researchers also found that interventions had a significant effect on both teamwork behaviours and team performance when any dimension of teamwork was a focus. This makes sense as a team that has better relationships, trusts each other and has good communication is more likely to get on and deliver. Whereas a team in conflict is more likely to be distracted by that, rather than focusing on the job at hand.

Who benefits from team interventions?

The research found that teamwork interventions were effective across a number of different contexts including healthcare, aviation, military and academia.

They also found that interventions were helpful for both newly established teams and existing teams. However, there was a significantly larger effect for new teams when the focus was teamwork; and a significantly larger effect for existing teams when the focus was team performance. It’s important to note that there were more studies on new teams than existing teams.

Implications and ideas

The main limitation with this research is that the majority of studies included were conducted in laboratory settings. Therefore, there is a question mark over the applicability in real-world contexts. On the plus side, however, we can be confident that the findings in such studies are not down to self-report bias, as assessment has been done by third-party observers.

The researchers also note that there is some information missing across the 51 studies, such as the size of teams in organisations concerned; and the duration of interventions. There is also a question about the applicability of high-pressure contexts such as healthcare, aviation and military to teams in different types of organisation, such as technology or pharmaceutical.

Despite these limitations, this research offers a more nuanced look at the impact of team-building and team development interventions.

If you are a manager looking to run some kind of intervention for your team, here are three things for you to be a more intelligent consumer:

  1. Be clear what outcome you want to achieve from the intervention(s). Are you focusing on teamwork behaviours or team performance? A good facilitator will ask you this question. Giving some thought to this, in advance, will help focus your discussion a bit more with the facilitator.
  2. Think about how you’ll monitor and measure success, following the intervention, and at what intervals. For example, one of HALO’s clients had a big problem with conflict across their team. This was significantly impacting the team’s performance and reputation. The outcome the team manager wanted to achieve was for his team to be a first port of call for customers, rather than a team to be avoided (which was the then state of affairs). During the team intervention, one of the activities saw the team members develop some simple questions they would ask customers at fixed points following the intervention – one month, three months and six months – in order to track their progress.
  3. Be wary of getting lured by off-the-shelf, pre-designed interventions. Context is key in the design and delivery of an intervention. Ask your facilitator what information they’re going to gather ahead of the intervention in order to ensure a meaningful and relevant design. For example, are they going to interview or survey team members to get their perspective on how things are and how they want things to be?

If you are an HR or OD practitioner who regularly procures or delivers team interventions, here are three things for you to consider:

  1. Be careful not to confuse teamwork (maintenance) with team performance (locomotion), essentially treating them as one and the same thing. Understanding this can help you to dig a bit deeper when first discussing the focus and intended outcomes with the client. Sometimes a client says they want to sort out teamwork but actually, when you discuss it with them it transpires they actually want to focus on performance.
  2. Think about the context you’re operating in. This will then help you choose an appropriate level of intervention. For example, if you’re helping an established project team improve their performance then you might want to use in-situ reviews to observe how they achieve tasks across the project. Do they have clear goals? Do they take the time to learn once a major task has been completed?
  3. Ensure you’re monitoring and measuring impact. If you know that managers across your organisation are using team intervention facilitators, how do you know that is money well spent? If you are a facilitator, whether in-house or external, what data are you gathering to show that the intervention you designed and delivered has had a positive effect? This data can be helpful for deciding on future interventions, as well as helping you to understand what does and doesn’t work and why that might be the case.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

I also have a monthly newsletter which is a compilation of blog posts, helpful research, and reviews of books and podcasts – all aimed at helping managers and leaders become more confident in handling a range of workplace issues. You can subscribe here -> SUBSCRIBE

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